of the Olympic Games in antiquity was an occasion for citizens of scattered
Greek city-states to assemble. At the Games they discussed important political
issues, celebrated common military victories and even formed political and
But the Games were not only a forum in which to discuss political events;
they were also the cause of political conflict.
Control of the Sanctuary and the Games brought with it prestige, economic
advantages and, most importantly, political influence. As early as the
7th century BC we hear of disputes over the control of the Sanctuary of
Zeus at Olympia between the city of Elis (30 miles to the north) and the
small neighboring town of Pisa.
In 668 BC, according to Pausanias (a 2nd century AD Greek traveler), the
powerful tyrant of Argos (named Pheidon) was asked by the town of Pisa to
capture the Sanctuary of Zeus from the city-state of Elis. Pheidon, with
his army of well-trained hoplites
(armed soldiers), marched across the Peloponnesos, secured the Sanctuary
for the town of Pisa, and personally presided over the conduct of the games.
But Pisa's control of the Sanctuary was brief: by the next year Elis had
The Olympic Truce was instituted by the city-state of Elis to protect
against military incursions which interrupted the Games. Every four years,
special heralds from Elis were sent out to all corners of the Greek world
to announce the approaching Olympic festival and games. Along with this
news, they would announce the Olympic Truce, which protected athletes, visitors,
spectators and official embassies who came to the festival from becoming
involved in local conflicts.
above to crown the victorious chariot team, while below are shield,
greaves, cuirass, and helmet. Silver dekadrachm
of Syracuse, by the artist Euainetos, early 4th century BC.
Perhaps the most notable example of a military incident occuring during
the ancient Olympic Games was in 364 BC. In that year, Elis had again
lost control of the Sanctuary of Zeus to the neighboring town of Pisa which
was directing the festival and the Olympic Games. Elis chose precisely this
time to attack the Sanctuary of Zeus. Xenophon, a contemporary 4th century
historian, gives us a firsthand account of the situation:
The horse race had been completed, as
well as the events of the pentathlon
which were held in the dromos.
The finalists of the pentathlon who had qualified for the wrestling event
were competing in the space between the dromos
and the altar... The attacking Eleans pursued the allied enemy... The allied
forces fought from the roofs of the porticos... while the Eleans defended
themselves from ground level. --Hellenica
What followed was a day-long battle involving thousands of soldiers.
Although Elis eventually regained control of the sancturary, the Olympic
Games of 364 BC lost their legitimacy as far as the Eleans were concerned
since the Sanctuary had been in the hands of the Pisans during the festival.
Later, political tyrants of the 7th and 6th centuries BC attempted to
achieve influence by more peaceful means. They participated in the athletic
and equestrian contests of the Olympic Games and dedicated conspicuously
lavish offerings to Olympian Zeus at the site of the games.
Any violation of the Olympic Truce was punishable by a substantial
fine to Olympian Zeus. The 5th century historian Thucydides gives
us details of such an instance:
In 420 BC the Spartans engaged in a military
maneuver in the territory of Elis during the Truce, using 1000 hoplites.
As a result, and according to law, the Spartans were fined 200 drachmai
a total of 200,000 drachmai. The Spartans refused to pay the penalty,
claiming that their maneuver had been completed before the Olympic
Truce was officially announced. As a result, the Spartans' participation
in the Olympic Games that year was prohibited.