Pentathlon events, attic black figure hydria 6th century BC, British Museum


History of Olympia 


Ten miles inland from the Ionian sea in western Peloponnese and at the point where  Alpheios and Kladios rivers meet, lay the ancient sanctuary of Olympia and the site of the ancient Olympic Games. In the early days the site was belonging to the town of Pisa, but after 570 BC, Elis took the place.

The legend

The oldest Greek inhabitants of Elis were Achaeans from Thessaly, Arcadia, Aetolia, as well as, Boeotia and Attica.  Pausanias tell us, that the first king of Elis was Aethlios, who came from Thessaly with his people. His son, Endymion, according to the legend, had fifty daughters and three sons. Endymion was the first to proclaim a foot race in Olympia, between his three sons, Paeon, Epeios and Aetolos. Epeios won the race and the throne and the inhabitants named after him, Epeans, as Homer calls them. Paeon left after his defeat  and went to the territory after the river Axios, Oenomaos, from the metope of temple of Zeus at Olympia, 470-455 BC, Museum Olympia which took his name, Paeonia.
During the reign of Epeios, Oenomaos, the son of Alxion or Ares, according to the encomium of poets, was ruling at the territory of the nearby Pisa. Oenomaos had received from Delphi an oracle stating that when his daughter would marry, his life would be ended. So he proclaimed, that he would marry his daughter Hippodameia with the suitor that would defeat him in a chariot race, with a precondition that the suitor would carry his daughter in his chariot and he must defeat him. It was agreed, that if  the suitor will lose the race, he would be killed by Oenomaos. Oenomaos had killed thirteen suitors (or according to another account eighteen), when Pelops, the son of Tantalos from Lydia, came to challenge him. With the help of Myrtilos, a son of Hermes, who was the chariot driver of Oenomaos, Pelops defeated Oenomaos, who was killed during the race (or committed suicide ), married Hippodameia, became king of Pisa, annexed Olympia from the land of Epeans and restored the Games with great splendor and for that afterwards was honored as hero. 

Pelops and Hippodameia, Oenomaos and Myrtilos in the charriot race

Aetolos, who became king after Epeios, was forced to leave Peloponnese, because during the Olympian games killed with his chariot, Apis, the son of Jason of Arcadia. He went to Acheloos region and from him the area took its name, Aetolia.
After him, the land of Epeans ruled Eleios, the son of Eurykyda, one of the fifty daughters of Endymion. From his name, the territory and inhabitants took their new name, Eleans.
His son Augeas, who later became king, had so many cows and goats, that the ground could not be cultivated because of the dung of the animals. To solve the problem, he called Herakles and promised him a part of his land. When Herakles managed to clean the place by changing the flow of the river Menios, Augeas refused to give him his reward. Herakles then with the help of Argos, Thebes and Arcadia, invaded and conquered Elis, punished the Eleans and had in mind to invade their allies, Pisa and Pylos, but a Delphic oracle stopped him. Herakles gave the throne to the elder son of Augeas, Phyleus, in gratitude for his stand against his father's injustice. According to the tradition Herakles renewed the Games and build altars too.

Herakles fights his enemies

According to another legend the Herakleidae, who wanted to return to Peloponnese, were advised by Delphi, to find a guide with three eyes and go through a narrow pass. The Herakleidae then met an exiled nobleman from Aetolia, Oxylos, who had lost one of his eyes and was riding a mule and asked him to guide them to Peloponnese. Oxylos advised them to pass upon Peloponnese with ships and not to attempt to go across the Isthmus, with a land army. And so, he led them on the voyage from Naupaktos to Molycrium and in return of his guidance, it was agreed to give him the land of Elis.  
Oxylos cunningly led the Dorians through Arcadia, because he did not want them to see the fertile land of Elis, which was fully cultivated. Oxylos wanted to become king of Elis without battle, but the leader of Epeans Dius would not agree and proposed a contest between a man from each side. From Elis was chosen the archer, Degmenos and from the Aetolians, Pyraechmes, a slinger. Pyraechnes won and Oxylos became king of Elis. Oxylos assigned privileges to Dius, who was honored as a hero and allowed the Epeans to keep their lands, but at the same time brought Aetolian colonists and gave them a share to the land. Oxylos persuaded the inhabitants of the nearby villages to come and live inside the walls of Elis and thus he made larger the city and more prosperous. Under Oxylos, Elis increased its territory and  also renewed the games. During these times a lot of people from Pisa, Hollow Elis left their land to migrate to Epeiros. Among their colonies were Elateia, Pandosia and Bouchetion. 


During the reign of his son Laias, the games were abandoned for many years and they were renewed by Iphitos, a descendant of Oxylos, who was contemporary of Lykourgos of Sparta. Tradition tell us, that Iphitos visited Delphi and there he was persuaded to renew the Olympic games. Iphitos signed a treaty with Lykourgos, the king of Sparta and the king of Pisa, Kleosthenes, to proclaim Elis sanctuary of Zeus and introduced for the first time, the truce, during the period of the games. According to the sacred truce (ekechiria), everyone who was entering Elis ought to put down his arms and take them when he was leaving and mainly, every hostility between the Greek cities ought to stop for the period the games were held. This agreement was valid and respected for many centuries by the Greek states. For his achievement, a statue of Iphitos was erected in the temple of Zeus in Olympia, in which Hostility was crowning  the hero Iphitos. Aristoteles tell us about this treaty, which was written on a bronze discus and was kept in the temple of Hera. Iphitos also persuaded the inhabitants of Elis to sacrifice in honor of the hero Herakles, who was considered by them, as a former enemy. 
The Games were held at the sacred precinct of Altis (or the sacred grove of Zeus) from 776 BC to the end of 4th century BC. At first, they lasted only one day and there was one only event, the foot race, which was run at the length of the stadium. Soon afterwards many other events were added, the chariot racing, the discus throwing, the javelin, the long jump, boxing, wrestling and the pentathlon and the duration of the games became five days. The winners of the Games became instantly heroes and poets and musicians sang their strength and beauty and sculptors made their sculptures.
In the seventh century BC, Pisa, with the help of the powerful king of Argos Pheidon and the support from Messene and Arcadia, defeated Elis at various battles, taking under control the Games. But at the beginning of the sixth century BC, Elis became strong again, probably because of the death of Pheidon. 
In 580 BC, with the help of Sparta, the Eleans conquered Pisa and they regained back the sanctuary at Olympia and the Games. Eleans destroyed the cities of Pisa and their inhabitants went abroad. The ones who remained, they forced to pay yearly compensation. Elis with the help of Arcadians, conquered also a part of Triphylia. From the four territories which made now the country of Elis, only the inhabitants of Hollow Elis were citizens. The inhabitants of Pisa, Acroria and Triphylia only periodically managed to become citizens. These were the most prosperous times in the history of Elis. Their land was considered sacred and their inhabitants lived in prosperity and peace. As for the Games, they were enriched with the addition of new competitions.   
At the fifth century BC, during the Persian invasion, Elis under Kleombrotos sent an army to help in the fortification of Isthmos, but they did not take part in the battle of Salamis and in Plataea, their army arrived after the battle.
In the middle of the fifth century BC, Lepreo, a town in Triphylia which had good relations with the Eleans, asked for their help, in their war with Arcadians, promising to give half of their land. With the help of Elis, Lepreo defeated the Arcadians and it was also  agreed to give every year one talent in the sanctuary of Olympia.
Elis and Lepreo came to hostilities and Sparta, though had good relations with Elis, until that time, they took the part of Lepreo. 
In 435 BC, Eleans sent money and ships to help Corinthians against the Kerkyreans, at Epidamnos. Kerkyreans after the battle of Leukimne responded by burning the port of Kyllene.
In 433 BC, Eleans took part in the naval battle of Sybotta, with ten ships and from the tenth of the loot they build the stoa of Kerkyreans in the agora of Elis. During the Peloponnesian war, the Eleans took the side of Sparta and helped them with money, ships and army. 
In 431 BC, the Athenians with the Kerkyreans conquered the port of Pheias and plundered the sacred land of Elis. 
Around 422 BC, Lepreo refused to continue giving the one talent that had been agreed to pay in the sanctuary of Olympia and asked the help of Sparta. When Elis started to plunder their territory, Sparta took the side of Lepreo and put a garrison in the city for their protection. 
In 421 BC, in the Peloponnesian council Eleans, together with the Corinthians, Megarians and Boeotians, refused the treaty between Sparta and Athens and a little later Elis, Corinth and Argos went against Sparta. 
In 420 BC, Elis formed an alliance with Athens. At the same year in the period of the Olympic Games, Sparta tried to seize the stronghold of Pheirkos and Elis punished them with a big fine, but the Spartans refused to pay and Elis excluded them from the Games. 
In 418 BC, Eleans, Argians and Mantineans fought the Spartans in Arcadia and Phleious and seized Orchomenos (in Peloponnese), but when Eleans proposed to attack Lepreo, her allies refused. After this, the Eleans withdrew from the alliance for a short time. 
After the successful war of Sparta against Athens, the Spartans took vengeance for the many insults which had suffered from the Eleans. Spartans were excluded from the festival, their king Ages was forbidden to sacrifice and Elis with Argos and Mantinea fought against them.    
In 401 BC, Spartans under Ages invaded Elis, after they refused to free the cities around their territory. They conquered and looted part of Elis, which luckily was saved from a powerful earthquake. Spartans took the earthquake as a bad omen and withdrew. The same year, Ages and his allies, Boeotians, Corinthians and Athenians, invaded and conquered the whole state of Elis, except the city. Eleans were forced to capitulate by accepting hard terms. They lost Acroria, Triphylia and Lepreo and many other cities, in fact they kept only the sanctuary of Olympia in the east part of Pisatis and Hollow Elis. They also agreed to bring down the walls of their Acropolis and their ports, Pheias and Kyllene, and to give to Sparta their war fleet.      
Until 371 BC, the date that Sparta lost the battle in Leuktra, Elis remained a small and weak city state. With a weak Sparta, Elis managed to regain some of the cities, which had lost some thirty years ago, among them the Pisatis, Triphylia and Acroria. When Agesilaos in 370 BC, marched against Mantinea, Elis came to their help. They also took part in the expedition of Epameinondas against Sparta and their cavalry suffered heavy loses, near Amykles. When Epameinondas invaded Peloponnese for a second time, Elis took part in the attack against Sikyon.
In 365 BC, in the third invasion of Epameinondas, Elis helped Thebes. The same year Elis came to hostility with Arcadians, who invaded Acroria and conquered the cities and the sanctuary of Olympia. With the help of democrats, Arcadians invaded the city of Elis but they were forced to withdraw when the Spartans conquered the Arcadian city of Kromnos, in 364 BC. When Arcadians freed Kromnos, they invaded again Elis and fortified Olympia. From the loot of the sanctuary, they issued gold coins. In 364 BC and during the Olympic festival, Eleans and their ally Achaeans attacked the Arcadians and Argians at Olympia and they were winning the battle, but unfortunately the leader of the select three hundred, Stratolas, was killed and were forced to withdraw. Arcadians also forced to withdraw from Olympia and in 363 BC they made treaty with Eleans, giving back the cities except Lepreo and Lasion. Both cities erected a bronze statue of Zeus at Olympia.
In 362 BC, Elis fought in Mantinea with the alliance of Athenians and Lakedaemonians, against Thebes.    
During the fourth century many changes took place in the political system of Elis. In 334 BC, the oligarchs overthrown the democrats and sought the friendship of Philip of Macedon. They took part in the expedition of Philip against Sparta, but after the death of Philip, Elis tried to get rid from the Macedonian rule. 
In 331 BC, Eleans, Spartans, Arcadians and Achaeans revolted against Antipatros and tried to capitulate Megalopolis, the main center of Macedonian rule. After they defeated by Antipatros, Elis was punished to pay a fine of 120 talents to Megalopolis. 
In 313 BC, Antigonos sent to Elis Telesphoros, to protect her from Kassander. When Antigonos also sent his nephew Ptolemaeos to Peloponnese, then Telesphoros tried to posses Elis for himself. He took from the treasury of Olympia fifty talents, organized an army of mercenaries and fortified the Acropolis. Later, when he learned that Ptolemaeos was marching against him, he left Elis, went to Kyllene and was forced to return the money to Olympia.  
From 308 to 281 BC, Elis was under the Macedonian hegemony of Kassander, Demetrios Poliorketes and Antigonos Gonatas
In 271 BC, the ruthless tyrant Aristodemos ruled Elis for six months. He exterminated his political opposition and stole their properties. A noble woman, Megisto, opposed his tyranny and when Aristodemos searched to find and kill her son, she brought him forward telling him that she prefers to see him dying than to be a slave. Eleans conspired and killed Aristodemos and they erected a statue at Olympia to Kylon, the man who assassinated him. 
During the Chraemonidio war, 267-262 BC, Elis and Sparta fought against Antigonos Gonatas, but they lost the war. In 245 BC, Elis fought the Arcadians and Achaeans and conquered many cities among them Lasion, Phsophis and possibly Lepreo.   
Aratos, the leader of Achaean League, invaded Elis, but he was forced to turn back, when he learned that king Kleomenes of Sparta was coming, to help the Eleans.  Elis changed many times its political position. In 220 BC, Eleans chose to go with Aetolians against Sparta. In 219 BC, they looted Achaia and Arcadia, but Achaeans with the help of Macedon, defeated Elis in Stymphalos and took possession of the cities Lasion and Phsophis. A lot of looting and destruction took place in Elis, who lost many cities.  
In 218 BC, Philip the fifth invaded Elis and in 217 BC, Eleans were forced to make truce. In 212 BC, Eleans and Romans fought against the Macedonians and Achaeans. 
During the Macedonian war, 200-197 BC, Eleans again made alliance with Romans, but they were disappointed when Romans gave Triphylia and Heraea to the Achaeans. 
In 191 BC, Eleans joined the Achaean League and the convention of the league in 189 BC took place in Elis. Elis had always good relations with the Romans and when Mummios conquered Peloponnese in 146 BC, he did not loot Elis, but instead he offered twenty one gold plated shields in the temple of Zeus for his victory. 
In 87 BC, Syllas plundered Olympia in order to wage war against Mithridates, but after the successful outcome of the war, gave half of the land of Thebes to the Eleans. In sort Olympia and the rest of Elis benefited from the Romans and in the second century AD, Elis prospered.
In 267 AD, the Goths plundered Olympia as well as other cities of Greece. 
In 393 AD, the Games were abolished by Theodosios I. It was probably the year, that the cryselephantine statue of Zeus was transfered to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in the great fire of Lauseion, at 476 AD.
In 395 AD, Elis was plundered again by king Alarichos of Bisigoths.
In 467 AD, the vandals caused great destruction in Elis.
During the sixth century AD, a big earthquake destroyed what had remained and the rivers of Alpheios and Kladios covered up with mud the ruins, which they came up to light in the nineteenth century AD.


Up Back Next Top Home Index Search Email


2000 - 2015 Ellen Papakyriakou/Anagnostou. All rights reserved.