Is-Olympic and iso-Pythian games

In the Hellenistic and Roman period, many new games were instituted in the whole Greek world, reaching from Tunesia to Afghanistan, from the Balkan to Southern Egypt. To make these games prestigious from the beginning, so that many athletes would travel to the city, the games were created after the model of those of the periodos. In particular the Olympics – for its athletic contests – and the Pythia – for the musical contests – were a popular model. These new games were, therefore, called is-Olympic of iso-Pythian (Gr. ‘isos’ : ‘equal to’). They had the same program and the same age-categories and prizes as their model.

The invention of this is-Olympic status can be ascribed to king Ptolemy II. In 279 BC, he instituted the Ptolemaia, games to honour his deceased father Ptolemy I. With these games, Ptolemy II wanted to make of Alexandria a sports center equal to Olympia or Delphi. The only way to make the Ptolemaia as attractive for the athletes as the Olympics, was to ensure that victors received equal rewards in their home town. To advocate this, the king sent ambassadors to the whole Greek world. Many Greek cities acknowledged the is-Olympic status of the Ptolemaia. This was a political triumph for Ptolemy II.

Many organizers of new games would follow the example of the king. In the Roman period, the emperor granted the status of the games. The ‘is(os)-‘ was now often left behind and the games were just called Olympic, Pythian, Capitolian, ... As a consequence of this, the Greeks had to start calling the original Olympic games the ‘Olympic games of Pisa’, to distinguish them from other Olympic games in the rest of the Greek world.


© KU Leuven, 2012