Pherenike of Rhodes: The Ancient Greek Mom Who Risked All to Guarantee Her Son’s Olympic Glory


The determination of the Greek mother is, perhaps, best exemplified in the story of Pherenike, a proud ancient version of the modern-day soccer mom, who watched her children grow into strong athletes— all the way to Olympic glory.

As is well-known, married women weren’t allowed anywhere near the sacred rites of the Olympic Games in antiquity. These male-imposed rules didn’t stop Pherenike— who was born on the island of Rhodes into a family of accomplished male athletes.

Her dad Diagoras was a champion Olympic boxer in the 464 BC Games and her brothers were also boxing and Pankration champions.

Pherenike married Callianax— a boxing trainer— and bore two sons with him. Dad Callianax was a boxing trainer and started training his sons from a young age. Their one son, Peisirodos was training for the next Olympics when his dad— and trainer— died.

Pherenike was overcome with grief but wouldn’t let her son’s athletic career go down the drains.

Against all of the rules that barred women from participating in any way, shape or form during the Olympics, she became her son’s trainer and took him all the way to the 94th Olympiad of 404 BC where she donned a male trainer’s tunic and disguised her face to look more manly.

She risked her own life while doing this as women caught at or even near Olympia during the sacred rituals and athletic competitions, were thrown off the top of a hill and into a river to their deaths.

In his boxing match, Peisirodos did his family proud, and won Olympic laurels— the ancient equivalent to a Gold Medal. Pherenike was ecstatic and lost in the excitement of the moment, leapt into the ring to congratulate her son.

Because undergarments were not part of the ancient Greek wardrobe, this hasty maneuver revealed Pherenike’s true identity— and female genitalia— to everyone.

Pherenike was removed and taken before the Elean Nomophylakes— the guardians of the Olympian law— who would determine her fate and punish her to the well-known death by tossing over the hill and into the river. But the judges were lenient and simply ejected her from Olympia and told her to go home to Rhodes. They spared her life given her pedigree as a member of a prominent athletic family.

But Pherenike’s actions also brought about a policy change. From these Olympics on, all trainers, upon their arrival at the Olympic village and their registration with their athletes, had to raise their tunics and show their stuff— proving they were men.

Pherenike forever became known as “Callipatira”, a Greek version of “Mrs. Good Father”, for her determination that her son got the glory and recognition that she knew was owed them after years of training.