Pisa and Elis

Olympia was a sanctuary, not a city or village where people lived. All hellanodikai, umpires, priests, etc. came from outside Olympia. Two places claimed control over the sanctuary: Pisa and Elis.

Pisa was a little town just east of Olympia. The inhabitants of Pisa claimed to be the original organizers of the Olympic games. In 752 BC, their king Kleosthenes is said to have introduced the olive crown and in 748, they organized the games with the help of the tyrant of Argos. According to the Olympic chronicle of Eusebius, Pisa controlled the games from 660 until 572 BC. Afterwards Pisa was incorporated in the region Elis. In poetry, the name Pisa is often used as a synonym for Olympia.

Elis is the region covering the whole north-west of the Peloponnesos. Pausanias wrote two books about it, which are an important sourc on Olympia. The capital of this region was also called Elis, and was located about forty kilometers north-west of Olympia. Elis was considerably larger than Pisa and was therefore better capable of organizing the games. The Eleans organized the games continuously from 568 BC on, except for those of 364 BC.

In 364 BC the Arcadians had conquered part of Elis. Because the Arcadians had no experience with organizing games, they asked the Piseans for help. During these games - while the pentathletes were competing in the fifth contest - the Eleans attacked Olympia. They fought in the sacred domain itself! The Arcadians got the upper hand, but a few months later they concluded peace with the Eleans and gave them Olympia back.

Which of the two places originally organized the games, is difficult to say. About the treaty that laid down the sacred truce in 776 BC, three different stories are told. Pausanias saw in the temple of Hera a disc that commemorated the treaty, with only the name of the Elean king Iphitos on it. Plutarch writes about a treaty between Iphitos and the Spartan law-giver Lykourgos, and Phlegon of Tralleis names Kleosthenes of Pisa as the third man. These authors all wrote in the second century AD. The disc from the temple of Hera reflects the claim of the Eleans, the presence of the Spartan Lykourgos reflects the dominance of the Spartans in the Peloponnesos from the seventh century onwards and the version with Kleosthenes was probably told in Pisa. But these stories teach us nothing about the actual situation in the early eighth century BC.

© KU Leuven, 2012