Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part I: Twelve Olympian Essays – Essay 1: Hēraklēs, Mount Olympus, and the Olympia of the Olympics

2022.06.20 | By Gregory Nagy

0. I proceed to Essay 1, even though the Introduction to this book has been left hanging. I stopped short after I commented on that haunting image of an Amazon rounding the arc of her bounding leap, between life and death—an image that evokes thoughts of suspension, not of conclusion. I proceed here to Essay 1 with that same stop-motion picture kept firmly in mind, since I plan to re-engage with my analysis of female athleticism in Essay 12, where I will follow up by looking at historical evidence for seasonally recurring athletic competitions for women only. Essay 12 will thus address the basic fact that my overall study of heroes as models for athletes will need to continue tracking female-centered as well as male-centered modelings of athleticism. For now, however, here in Essay 1, as also in the other essays leading up to Essay 12, I narrow the focus by concentrating on male-centered models for athletes. And the ultimate such model is the hypermasculine hero Hēraklēs. In Essay 1, I start by highlighting two sets of myths about him. In one set, we will see a myth about Mount Olympus, where we learn that this near-celestial mountain was the site where Hēraklēs was personally immortalized—after having suffered a death so painful as to be near-unimaginable. The picture I show as my leading illustration for Essay 1 here is a daring attempt, against all odds, to engage with the near unimaginability of the hero’s death. The death is depicted in the lower register of the picture, followed, in the upper register, by a “happy ending” where Hēraklēs is now heading for an afterdeath immortalization at the heights of Mount Olympus—an experience traditionally known as the hero’s apotheosis. The meaning of this Greek-derived term can best be rendered as ‘transformation into a god [theós]’. The myth about the hero’s death and subsequent apotheosis is fully narrated in the “Universal History” of Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the first century BCE, and I have paraphrased his narration (4.38.1-4.39.3) in my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (H24H 1§§46–47), with commentary. As for the other set of myths that I will highlight here in Essay 1, they center on the seasonally recurring festival of the Olympics at a site called Olympia. These myths, as we will see, tell how Hēraklēs himself was involved in the actual foundation of the athletic competitions that took place at this festival.


“The death of Hercules” (ca. 1730). After Cornelius Bloemaert (1603–1692) and Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1596–1675); print by Bernard Picart (1673–1733). Image via the British Museum.


“The death of Hercules” (1634). Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. I begin with a fundamental question: can we connect the name Olympus, referring to the near-celestial mountain where Hēraklēs the hero experienced his apotheosis, with the name Olympia, referring to the place where the ancient festival of the Olympics was traditionally celebrated every four years?

§2. Aiming for a unified answer to this question, I divide my essay into three sections. In Section A, I will collect seven facts about Mount Olympus, and then, in Section B, I will argue that these facts, taken together, show that there was a genuine connectedness between the name of this mountain and the name of the site where the seasonally recurring festival of the Olympics took place, Olympia. Finally, in Section C, I will comment on the history of political struggles that took place over the control of Olympia and the Olympics.

§3. In my making of seven points, numbered from B§1 to B§7, which match the seven facts of Section A, numbered from A§1 to A§7, the matchings of Section B with Section A will proceed in reverse order: I will be working my way backward: the points I make in Section B§§1 2 3 4 5 6 7 will match the facts I collected in Section A§§7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

Olympus. Image via Flickr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Section A: seven facts about Olympus

A§1. Here is the best-known fact that is relevant to my question. The fact is, Homeric poetry pictures Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods. The god Zeus lives there, as we read in the Iliad and Odyssey—and so does his divine wife, Hērā, along with the other Olympian divinities.

A§2. But where is ‘there’? Where is Olympus, actually? This question brings me to a second well-known fact, which also concerns Mount Olympus. The fact is, this mountain is located in a region that is known today as Macedonia, in northern Greece. On a clear day, if you look across the Thermaic Gulf from the Macedonian city of Thessaloniki as your point of outlook, you can actually see Mount Olympus looming from afar over the western horizon. The site of the mountain was known as Macedonia, as we know from the reportage of the geographer Strabo, who lived in the overlapping first centuries BCE/CE. Mount Olympus is in Macedonia, according to Strabo (10.3.17 C471). Likewise earlier, in the middle of the second century BCE, the location of Olympus was understood to be Macedonia, as we see from the testimony of Aristarchus of Samothrace (as reported for example in the scholia for Iliad 8.19), who was at that time the director of the Library of Alexandria and who had earned the reputation of being the most accomplished editor of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.

A§3. Mention of Aristarchus brings me to a third fact that is relevant to my overall question about Olympus, and this fact has to do with Aristarchus himself. For him, Mount Olympus in Macedonia was not only the abode of the Olympian gods. As we read in a book by Francesca Schironi (2018:323–329), Aristarchus was convinced that his poet Homer thought of this Macedonian Olympus as the only possible abode of these gods. To put it negatively, Aristarchus thought that the existing references in the Homeric textual tradition to ouranos or ‘sky’ as the real abode of the gods must be post-Homeric. As Aristarchus would have said it, references to the sky as the heavenly home of the gods must have come from poets who are neōteroi, that is, ‘newer’ than Homer.

A§4. As we read further in the book by Schironi (2018:323–329), Aristarchus has in this case stretched too far the textual evidence of Homeric poetry, since we can find occasional passages in both the Iliad and the Odyssey where the abode of the Olympian gods is pictured as the sky, not as a mountain. But the fact remains that Aristarchus did indeed think that such a picturing is post-Homeric. And that fact, which has been the third of relevant facts I have dealt with so far, can now be linked with a fourth fact that I will introduce here. The fact is, an analysis of Homeric formulas referring to the abode of the gods in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey shows that the picturing of this abode as a mountain is relatively older than the picturing of a heavenly home that hovers on high in the pure sky above (on this point, I cite the work of Sale 1984). So, even if Aristarchus had overextended his interpretation by arguing that the sky as a divine abode is a post-Homeric construct, he was at least partly correct in preferring the mountain over the sky as the older way of visualizing poetically the place where gods live. I should add that, in the post-Homeric era of classical Greek poetry, as we see for example at verse 1655 of the Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (comments in H24H 18§42), the abode of the gods is visualized more generally as the pure sky, not more specifically as a mountain.

A§5. All this is not to say that Zeus, as the primary divine resident of Mount Olympus, was not a sky god. He was always a sky god, but his celestial essence was linked more with physical picturings of high points that reach up from earth to sky and less with abstract picturings of the highest imaginable point in the sky. And here we have the fifth of the relevant facts that I have collected so far concerning Mount Olympus. The fact is, Zeus is a sky god precisely by way of his connectivity with a mountain named Olympus. I have pointed out this fact in other work as well, where I concentrated on the physicality of Zeus as a sky god (Nagy 2016.05.12), and I quote here from that work (§2) just one example, taken from Homeric poetry. In this Homeric example, a defeat of the Trojans in a battle-scene is being compared to a violent rainstorm sent by Zeus from his abode high above on Mount Olympus (Iliad 16.364–366):

|364 Ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἀπ’ Οὐλύμπου νέφος ἔρχεται οὐρανὸν εἴσω |365 αἰθέρος ἐκ δίης, ὅτε τε Ζεὺς λαίλαπα τείνῃ, |366 ὣς τῶν ἐκ νηῶν γένετο ἰαχή τε φόβος τε.

|364 Just as when, down from Mount Olympus, a cloud [nephos] comes upon the sky [ouranos], |365 following an earlier moment of bright [diē] air [aithēr], and when Zeus stretches [over the sky] a violent-rainstorm [lailaps], |366 so also was there a clamorous routing of them [= the Trojans], driven away from the ships [of the Achaeans].

A§6. In the light of such specific mental associations of Mount Olympus with Zeus in his generic role as a sky god, our thinking may now run the risk of getting clouded over—as we go on to consider a troubling new question. What happens every time it rains? When rain happens anywhere in our world, surely we do not expect Zeus himself, as a single sky god, to generate that rain from his abode on high on Mount Olympus, which in our minds has been firmly anchored in a region known as Macedonia. The question can be clarified, however, by way of considering at this point yet another relevant fact that I have collected—the sixth one. And this sixth fact is not nearly as well-known as the previous five facts we have already considered. Here it is. The fact is, the very idea of Mount Olympus had taken shape in a different kind of world—a world sometimes described by archaeologists today as the Mycenaean Empire—and the political macrocosm of such a world consisted of a far-reaching network of kingdoms, each one of which could potentially have a Mount Olympus of its very own. What I have just described here as a sixth relevant fact—that there were many mountains named Olympus in the world of the Mycenaean Empire—is documented in a book by Martin P. Nilsson, The Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology. Published in 1932, this book was based on the author’s Sather Classical Lectures, delivered in 1930/1 at the University of California, Berkeley.

A§7. Here I will add a seventh relevant fact, which is directly connected to the sixth. In her introduction to a paperback re-edition of Nilsson’s The Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology, published forty years after the original appearance of the book (1972), my sorely missed friend and colleague Emily Vermeule (1972:xiii) highlighted something special about the Sather Lectures of Nilsson: “A few years ago,” she noted, “it was said [by Sterling Dow 1965:22] that, if one lecture of the more than four hundred Sather Lectures delivered [up to that point in 1965] had to be chosen as the most valuable, it might be Nilsson’s last [of four], entitled ‘Olympus’.” As Vermeule (again, 1972:xiii) acutely observes about that lecture, which became Chapter 4 in Nilsson’s Mycenaean Origins (1932:221–251), it “explores the nature of the kingdom of the gods as Homer sang of it,” and the model for such a “kingdom of the gods” —as Vermeule goes on to say in the course of summarizing the thesis of Nilsson—can be viewed as “the real kingdoms of the Mycenaean age.” This formulation, stemming from Nilsson and reinforced by Vermeule, encapsulates what I now present as the seventh of the seven facts I have collected concerning the name of Mount Olympus. The fact is, for each different kingdom that had its own version of Olympus in the far-reaching world of the Mycenaean Empire, there would be a matching kingdom of divinities presiding over such a mountain.

Section B: seven points connecting with seven facts

B§1. So, the first point I make matches the seventh fact I collected in Section A, as summarized at A§7. Yes, I take it as a proven fact that “the kingdom of the gods” on Mount Olympus as described in Homeric narrative must have been modeled on “the real kingdoms of the Mycenaean age,” dating back to the second millennium BCE. The proof is amply documented by Martin Nilsson in Chapter 4 of his book (1932) and effectively backed up by Emily Vermeule in her introduction (1972:xiii). But now I go on to highlight Vermeule’s use of the plural in referring to “the real kingdoms of the Mycenaean age” (again, 1972:xiii). This use is in line with the emphasis placed by Nilsson on the nature of the Mycenaean Empire as a loose confederation of kingdoms that was dominated though not fully controlled by one supreme kingdom, at Mycenae. And I would emphasize that such modeling can be viewed as a two-way street, since the kingship of Zeus at Mount Olympus can be seen, in terms of Homeric mythmaking, as an ideological model for the kingship of Agamemnon at Mycenae, as described in the poetry of the Homeric Iliad.

B§2. Given that the Mycenaean Empire consisted of many kingdoms, it follows that each one of these kingdoms could have its own local version of Mount Olympus, dominated by a local version of Zeus the sky god. And the fact is, as I already anticipated in A§6, the world of the Mycenaeans had many mountains named Olympus. In Nilsson’s Chapter 4 on Olympus, he lists some of the examples that have survived into the historical period of Greek civilization (1932:235–236):

B§2.1. A mountain called Lykaion in Arcadia was also called Olympus, as we read in Pausanias (8.38.2).

B§2.2. A site named Pisa was situated between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. This piece of reportage comes from the geographer Strabo (8.3.31 C356), who simply reports, without citing his ancient source.

B§2.3. In various regions throughout Asia Minor and beyond, there were mountains named Olympus: among these regions, Nilsson lists Lydia, Mysia, Bithynia, Galatia, Lycia, Cyprus.

B§2.4. In the Greek-speaking world extending into the present, there are mountains named Olympus to be found on the islands of Euboea and Skyros, also on the mainland of Attica, near Laurion. Nilsson, in listing these locations (1932:236), does not happen to mention yet another Olympus, a large mountain located on the island of Lesbos/Lesvos. This Olympus happens to be my personal favorite, and I have visited it two times already in my lifetime, thanks to the encouragement of my friend and colleague Nikolaos Panou, who is helping me investigate further the antiquity of the name that attaches to this mountain (most relevant is the analysis of Matzouranis 1949:36). On the basis of the investigation so far, it appears that the name of this mountain in Lesbos goes as far back as the second millennium BCE—so, it would date back to the Mycenaean era. Moreover, besides the large mountain Olympus/Olimpos (῎Ολυμπος), there are also two smaller peaks named Elimpos (῎Eλυμπος) on the island of Lesbos, near the towns of Basilikà and Vatoùssa (again, Matzouranis 1949:36).

Olympus in Lesbos. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

B§2.5. As I noted in my comments at A§6, Mount Olympus can be visualized generically as the mountain of the local sky god. Such a mentality is still preserved today, though of course without any direct links to Zeus, in the island of Aegina. Nowadays, the old mountain of Zeus is called simply ‘the Mountain’ by the local population of the island. In what follows, I epitomize what I wrote about this mountain in another work (Nagy 2016.05.12 §§10–11).

B§2.5.1. The divine action of Zeus the sky god as a maker of rain is ‘good’ not only in a personalized way, as when he harms the unrighteous and thus helps the righteous (I showed a Homeric example at A§5 above). The rain made by Zeus can be good also in a less personalized and more naturalistic way, since the rain that Zeus makes will sustain the livelihood of mortals by giving them water, as we see in the case of a localized myth about Zeus as worshipped in the Greek island-state of Aegina. According to Aeginetan mythology, there was once a massive drought that brought to a stop all plantlife in the known Greek-speaking world. Relief from the drought was made possible by the hero Aiakos, native son of the island of Aegina. The parents of Aiakos were Zeus himself and a nymph named Aegina (Αἴγινα), who can be viewed as the Mother Earth of the island. Aiakos prayed to his divine father, whose abode was situated on the highest mountain of Aegina, named after Zeus Panhellēnios, to make rain again for humanity. Zeus then made rain, and Aiakos commemorated the success of his prayer by setting up a sacred space on top of this mountain where Zeus had his abode. (The most revealing sources of the myth can be found in Pausanias 2.30.4 in the context of 2.29.6–8; another source is Isocrates 9.14–15.)

B§2.5.2. The sacred space of Aiakos on top of the mountain named after Zeus Panhellēnios was connected, in Aeginetan myth and ritual, with a fresh-water spring or fountain house built in the city of Aegina. This spring was supplied by the waters of a spring that flowed down from the mountain of Zeus Panhellēnios through an underground aqueduct that extended all the way to the city center. In this instance, the aqueduct was a product of the combined forces of “nature” and “culture.” That is, the natural pathways created over time by the course of the waters flowing down from the mountainous interior were enhanced by way of excavating artificial underground conduits to produce a continuum for the flow. (Nagy 2011:74. On the archaeological background, I cite Privitera 1988:65–67; also Fearn 2007:102–105.)

B§2.5.3. Theophrastus, who lived in the fourth century BCE and who became the successor of Aristotle as leader of the Peripatetics, once made a most revealing observation about this mountain. We find it in a fragment of his works (Theophrastus F 6.24). He says that if you see a nephelē ‘cloud’ hanging over the mountain of Zeus Panhellēnios on the island of Aegina, it is a sure sign of impending rain. I must add: if you visit Aegina today, you will see this most prominent mountain looming in the center of the southern part of the island, and the local population has given it a commandingly generic name: it is simply tò Oros, ‘the Mountain’. This generic naming of the mountain is a survival, I argue, of localized ancient versions of what became the Panhellenic Olympus of Homeric poetry. What Theophrastus said in the ancient world about the mountain of Zeus in Aegina holds true to this day: even now, the appearance of clouds gathering above Mount Oros on this island is understood to be, once again, as ever before, a sure sign of impending rain.

B§3. As I noted in my comments at A§5 an earlier visualization of the gods’ abode as a mountain named Olympus was giving way, even in the evolving medium of Homeric poetry, to a later visualization of Mount Olympus as synonymous or at least near-synonymous with the sky itself. I see here a gradual erosion of an earlier Mycenaean model, since the synonymity or even near-synonymity of Olympus with the sky would eventually lead, in newer times, to the political and cultural emergence of one and only one Olympus, as distinct from the many instantiations of mountains that had the same prestigious name of Olympus in the older and more diverse world of the Mycenaean Empire. After the collapse of this empire near the end of the second millennium BCE, what evolves in the centuries that follow is the eventual idea of a single Olympus, matching the singular absoluteness of the sky. That single Olympus ultimately became the Mount Olympus of Macedonia, emerging as the winner-take-all. Meanwhile, the many other mountains that had inherited the same proud old name were being relegated to an inferior status, becoming mere local curiosities that could ultimately be of interest only to antiquarians of the future.

B§4. At this point I return my comments, at A§4, on the thinking of Aristarchus, who became for the ancients the world’s leading expert in the study of Homeric poetry. As I noted in my comments there, this expert thought that Mount Olympus in Macedonia was for Homer the only possible abode of Zeus and his fellow Olympian divinities. I see an irony here. On the one hand, Aristarchus is arguing for a mountain as the definitive abode for these gods: so, he is following a Mycenaean model—without knowing it. On the other hand, Aristarchus is simultaneously following a post-Mycenaean model by thinking of Mount Olympus in Macedonia as the specific location for this abode. It is relevant to repeat here what I already noted in my comments at A§3: the emergence of Mount Olympus in Macedonia as the classical landmark for visualizing the abode of Zeus and his divine family can be correlated with the emergence of an increasingly sky-centered post-Mycenaean view of this abode in the medium of Homeric poetry.

B§5. We now need to consider the ownership, as it were, of Homeric poetry as an evolving medium that eventuated into the sixth century BCE, as I argue in my book Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010|2009). Or, to say it even more narrowly, we need to consider the shareholders who were involved in the ownership of Homeric poetry in the sixth century. There are complications to be noted here, from the very start. And the biggest of these complications is the historical fact, which I noted at A§3, that the Mount Olympus of Homeric poetry as analyzed by Aristarchus is located in Macedonia. But now we must confront another historical fact: the location of Mount Olympus, viewed by Aristarchus as a landmark belonging to the territory of Macedonia, was viewed differently in earlier times. In the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Mount Olympus was considered to be a landmark that belonged to the territory of Thessaly—or, to say it more accurately, to the territory dominated by the dynasts of Thessaly. And these Thessalian dynasts were also shareholders, as we will see, in the ownership of Homeric poetry.

B§6. In order to reconstruct the role of the Thessalians in the ownership of Mount Olympus in Macedonia, we need to go back to sources that predate Strabo in the first century BCE/CE and Aristarchus in the second century BCE. Both of those authorities, as we saw at A§2, were already thinking of Macedonia as the site of Mount Olympus. But if we consult other sources, we can reconstruct an earlier state of affairs.

B6.1. As we read in the History of Herodotus (7.128), who lived in the fifth century BCE and who was reporting on historical events that date back to the sixth as well as the fifth century BCE, Mount Olympus was in that era considered to be a landmark that belonged to the dynasts of Thessaly, not to the Macedonians. And these same Thessalians, as we learn from still other sources, were at the same time also shareholders in the ownership of Homeric poetry. The major shareholders in this case, however, were not these dynasts of Thessaly but rather the Peisistratidai, dynasts of the city of Athens during most of the second half of the sixth century BCE.

B§6.2. In my book Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010, at II§§47–48 in the online version of 2009), I noted an ongoing alliance, highlighted by Herodotus (5.63.3), between the dynasts of Thessaly and the Peisistratidai of Athens, and I argued that the politics of this alliance can be connected with the poetics of references made in Homeric poetry to the Thessalian identity of the hero Achilles (Nagy II§49 in the online version of 2009). But now, for the first time, I argue further that the politics of this same alliance can also be connected with the poetics of privileging Mount Olympus, which was a landmark for territory controlled by the dynasts of Thessaly, as the definitive abode of Zeus. Such poetics, after all, also privileged the territory of Thessaly itself as the homeland of Achilles, the premier hero of Homeric poetry.

B§7. Here I come back full-circle to the first of the seven facts I collected in Section A, as formulated in A§1. As I noted there, the fact is that Homeric poetry pictures Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods, and that the god Zeus lives there, as we read in the Iliad and Odyssey. But now, by continuing to connect the dots, as it were, I can add a further formulation by tracing the evolution of Homeric poetry forward in time, toward the second half of the sixth century BCE. At that time, an alliance between the dynasts of Thessaly and the Peisistratidai, who were then the dynasts of Athens, led to two levels of “ownership,” as it were: while the dynasts of Athens “owned” Homeric poetry, the dynasts of Thessaly could at the same time “own” the mountain that was celebrated as the abode of the gods in that poetry.

B§7.1. A visible sign of such “co-ownership” in Homeric poetry is the narrative in Odyssey 11.305–320 about two young Giants named Otos and Ephialtes (308) who try to overthrow the gods by piling on top of the mountain named Olympus another mountain, named Ossa, and, on top of that mountain, another mountain named Pelion (315–316). By piling these three mountains on top of each other, they reckoned, they could reach the ouranos ‘sky’ (316)—and thus capture it for themselves. Curiously, this act of aggression against the gods abiding in the sky is described at an earlier point in this same text as an attack against the gods who abide on Mount Olympus (310). We see at work here an interaction between a later post-Mycenaean model that pictures the divine abode as the sky and an earlier Mycenaean model that pictures this same abode as a mountain. The Giants fail, of course, and the futility of their attempt to reach the abode of the gods in the sky is even actualized in this story by the very idea that it takes three of the highest mountains, piled one on top of the other, to reach the sky.

B§7.2. Highest mountains where? In the Homeric text at Odyssey 11.305–320, it is no coincidence that the mountains that are named there—Olympus, Ossa, and Pelion—were all three of them seen as landmarks belonging to territory controlled by the dynasts of Thessaly in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The whole region of Thessaly itself, bounded on its east side by the coastline of the Aegean Sea, was shielded from access along that coastline by these three mountains Olympus and Ossa and Pelion, one next to the other, from north to south. And here it is relevant for me to recall what is said by Herodotus (7.128), cited back at B§6.1. As we saw there, Herodotus thinks of Thessaly as the actual location of Mount Olympus. But there is more to it. As Herodotus also says (again, 7.128), Mount Olympus is to be paired with Mount Ossa. The mountain ranges of Olympus and Ossa are split by a narrow pass, through which the river Peneus (Pēneiós) flows into the sea, from west to east. In describing the routes contemplated by Xerxes, ruler of the Persian Empire, in that monarch’s plan to invade mainland Greece with his enormous army and navy, Herodotus (yet again, 7.128) describes this narrow pass as a gateway for entering the territory of Thessaly.

B§7.3. The fact that Mount Olympus is thus paired with Mount Ossa, is relevant, I argue, to another fact. It has to do with another pairing, which I highlighted earlier at B§2.2 while summarizing Chapter 4 of Nilsson (1932). The pairing involved a site named Pisa, reportedly the political center of a region named Pisatis. According to the reportage of the geographer Strabo (8.3.31 C356), as we saw, Pisa was situated between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. On the basis of this piece of information reported by Strabo, I will now argue that Pisa had once upon a time controlled Olympia and the Olympics

Section C: on the history of political struggles over the control of Olympia and the Olympics

C§1. I return to a point I made in B§2, that there had existed in the past many mountains named Olympus in many regions of the Greek-speaking world. As I will now argue, one of these local instantiations of ‘Mount Olympus’ was actually situated in the environs of Olympia. My argument will be based on a piece of information that I have just now cited again at B§7.3 from Strabo (8.3.31 C356), who speaks of a site named Pisa that was reportedly located between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. What Strabo says here about Pisa, as I will argue, is most relevant to the history—and the prehistory—of Olympia and the Olympics. As I will also argue, there was once a time when the state of Pisa could and did claim control over Olympia and the Olympics. Just now, I referred to Pisa as a “state,” but I will need to qualify such a reference at a later point, when I reach C§6.

C§2. But there was also an opposing claim made by a rival “state,” Elis. And, once again, I will need to qualify later, at C§6, what I mean by referring to Elis as a “state.” For the moment, however, I will simply concentrate on the content of the alternative claim of Elis as opposed to Pisa. According to this rival claim, as shaped especially by Hippias of Elis, who lived in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE, control of Olympia and the Olympics had always legitimately belonged to the state of Elis, not to the state of Pisa, and this control would have been in-place ever since the very first year when the festival of the Olympics was reportedly celebrated, which would have been 776 BCE—if we convert the chronological calculations of Hippias into our own system of dating. Although the relevant writings of Hippias have not survived, the arguments he made on the basis of lore favoring the claim of Elis ultimately won out, as we will see, in the writings of later ancient authors about the rival claims of Elis and Pisa.

C§2.1 Today we have access to a vast number of academic publications dealing with these rival claims, which can be linked with the complicated history of ancient attempts at documenting and listing chronologically the victors in the various athletic competitions of the Olympics starting from 776 BCE. Among these publications, I single out the detailed analysis of Paul Christesen (2007), who conscientiously reviews the essentials of ongoing research and who also, most perceptively, traces forward in time the reconstructions modeled by Hippias, which were followed for many centuries by a lengthy succession of later ancient sources. The most prominent of these later sources was Aristotle in the fourth century BCE, whose efforts at dating the earliest Olympiads correspond closely to the dating by Hippias (Christesen 2007:68, 170–173).

C§2.2. If we take into consideration all the relevant ancient sources, it becomes obvious, I think, that Hippias had systematically skewed his reconstructions of Olympic victories in favor of his homeland, Elis (I thus agree with the overall argumentation of Christesen 2007). Such favoritism is especially evident when Hippias is viewing older phases of the Olympics, whereas his reconstruction of newer phases becomes progressively less partial and relatively more accurate in the face of historical realia; eventually, the traditions of reconstructing Olympic victories became more accurate in the context of evolving historiographical and chronographical traditions, so that, ultimately, it even became a hallowed convention to date historical events in general by counting backward in time, all the way back to 776 BCE, and by calculating how many recurrences of “Olympiads” had taken place every four years since the year when the festival of the Olympics supposedly began (for background, I cite again Christesen 2007).

C§3. Given, then, the claim of Hippias, that Elis was the only legitimate custodian of the Olympics ever since the founding of that festival, supposedly in 776 BCE, and given that this claim became the prevailing narrative of world history, how can I argue, as I do, that Pisa had once upon time controlled Olympia?

C§3.1. I first need to evaluate two facts that I see emerging from the lengthy and complicated history—also prehistory—of Pisa and Elis. One fact is that there really did exist a rivalry between Pisa and Elis over possession of Olympia and over control of the Olympics. Although there is considerable disagreement among experts today about the chronology, there is general agreement about the rivalry itself—which occasionally escalated into military conflicts. And the second fact is that this rivalry between Pisa and Elis, in the context of such military conflicts, led ultimately to a permanent outcome: to put it simply, Elis in the end won decisively and Pisa lost completely.

C§3.2. Relevant to these two facts, as I have formulated them, is the Olympiad year 104, that is, 364 BCE, when Pisa, allied with the Arcadians in a joint military operation, managed to defeat Elis and to seize control of the Olympics for that year. This historical event is mentioned prominently in three ancient sources, dating respectively from the fourth century BCE, the first century BCE, and the second century CE: they are Xenophon (Hellenica 7.4.28–35), Diodorus (15.78.1-3), and Pausanias (6.22.2–4).

C§3.3. Among these sources, I focus on the perspective of Pausanias, even though he was farthest removed in time from the relevant events. As far as Pausanias was concerned, living half a millennium after the events of 364 BCE, Elis had always been in control of the Olympics ever since that year. To put it another way: from the perspective of Pausanias, Elis had never again lost control of the Olympics after 364 BCE. And I must add here another relevant piece of information that we find in the reportage of Pausanias (again, 6.22.2–4): Pisa, he notes in passing, was eventually destroyed by Elis (6.22.4). Pausanias here does not go on to say how or even when such a destruction happened, and I can understand why, from the perspective of world history as viewed in his era. Looking backward in time, Pausanias and his contemporaries or near-contemporaries would find no pressing need to say explicitly that the fortunes of Pisa as a rival of Elis must have deteriorated dramatically during the many centuries that followed the very last recorded episode when Elis lost control of the Olympics.

C§3.4 As far as Pausanias was concerned, Elis was the only legitimate custodian of Olympia and the Olympics ever since the equivalent of 776 BCE. Following the chronology of Olympic victors as reconstructed by Hippias and as supplemented by later sources, Pausanias lists various Olympiad years—including 364 BCE—that mark points in time when Elis lost or almost lost control of the Olympics. I repeat here the list, but, unlike Pausanias, I will start with the latest of the Olympiad years reported by him and proceed from there to the earliest. Here, then, are the Olympiad years in question, as reported by Pausanias at 6.22.2–4:

Olympiad 104 = 364 BCE: Pisa, in alliance with the Arcadians, seized from Elis its control of the Olympics; never again, says Pausanias at 6.22.4, did Elis lose control.

[Olympiad 48 = 588 BCE: Damophon of Pisa, son of Pantaleon, almost succeeded but failed in seizing control of the Olympics. Damophon is described at 6.22.4 as king of Pisa, like his father, who is described as king at 6.22.2. Sometime after Olympiad 48, Pyrrhos of Pisa, brother of Damophon and son of Pantaleon, raised an army and waged war, in alliance with neighboring states, against Elis; he and his allies were defeated, and the allied states were destroyed. Pausanias does not say when the destruction(s) happened.]

Olympiad 34 = 644 BCE: Pantaleon, described at 6.22.2 as the basileus ‘king’ of Pisa, seized control of Olympia and the Olympics, by way of his army

Olympiad 8 = 748 BCE: Pheidon, described at 6.22.2 as ‘tyrant’of Argos, seized control of Olympia (so that Pisa, ally of Argos, now took control of the Olympics)

C§3.5. Other ancient sources give other versions of the events listed by Pausanias, and the differences in the versions cannot be perfectly reconciled with each other, as we see from the analysis of Mait Kõiv (2013:319), who cites in this context a judicious comment made by Hans-Joachim Gehrke (2010:17–18) about Greek history in general: as Gehrke observes, we find no single “history” but many “histories.”

C§3.6. About the “histories,” let us say, of the Olympics, especially with reference to the conflicts between Elis and Pisa over the control of this festival, I rely especially on the in-depth analysis, with bibliography, by Kõiv (2013:320–325), who tracks a wide variety of relevant sources besides Pausanias 6.22.2–4 (also relevant: Pausanias 5.3.5–5.4.6). Prominent examples of such sources are Xenophon, dating from the fourth century BCE, and Strabo, dating from the first centuries BCE/CE. Of particular interest is a report by Xenophon, Hellenica 3.2.31, about events that took place around 400 BCE, when Elis was being dominated by Sparta: at that time, Agis, king of Sparta, almost decided to take away from the people of Elis their control of the Olympics, since he found persuasive the various arguments made by representatives of Pisa in claiming that their people, not the people of Elis, had been the earliest custodians of the Olympics at Olympia. To quote the interpretation of Kõiv (2013:355, with extensive bibliography): “This passage leaves no doubt that, according to Xenophon, the Pisatans claimed an ancient right for possessing Olympia, and that Agis accepted the legality of their claims although having no interest [in] exploiting them.” As for Strabo, his relevant narratives can be divided into three passages based on various different versions of the transmitted history: 8.3.1–3 C336–337, 8.3.30–32 C353–355, and 8.3.33 C357–358. The third of Strabo’s versions is derived, he himself says, from Ephorus, at FGH 70 F 115, dated to the fourth century BCE.

C§3.7. I highlight here a significant divergence we see in one particular part of Strabo’s overall narrative when we compare it with the later narrative of Pausanias. Strabo at 8.3.30 C355 gives a date that differs radically from the date given by Pausanias for the time when Pheidon of Argos, allied with Pisa, seized Olympia and the Olympics, but the dating by Pausanias has been effectively defended: I cite especially the relevant argumentation of Paul Christesen (2007:115–117), who also surveys in general the confusions arising from attempts by ancient chronographers to synchronize the datings of the Olympics with datings of the First and the Second Messenian Wars. More important for my purposes here, however, is something else that Strabo says in this same context, 8.3.30 C355: he thinks that Pisa, subjugated by Elis for some unspecified number of years, had won control over the Olympics for the first time only after achieving independence from subjugation—that is, only in the context of an alliance with Pheidon of Argos. According to this scenario, then, Elis would have always controlled the Olympics, and Pisa would have taken control only during whatever period of time it was when the people of Pisa were free from subjugation by Elis. According to Christesen (2007:112–122), such a line of thinking only goes to show the relative lack of information available to Hippias of Elis and his successors about the early history of the Olympics.

C§3.8. For evidence that is more reliable for purposes of dating the era when Pisa lost control of Olympia and the Olympics, I turn to a different passage. This passage too comes from Strabo. but, this time, he is reporting here about a period in history that is centuries later than the era of the early Olympiads. As we will see, what Strabo reports about this period will be most relevant to the dating of a takeover by Elis. But his report starts with a historical fact about Elis that seems at first to be irrelevant to the dating of such a takeover. According to Strabo, 8.3.2 C336–337, there was a new political structure taking shape in Elis at a relatively later phase in its history, that is, only after 479 BCE—or, to say it in Strabo’s terms, only after the time when the invasion of the European part of the Greek-speaking world by the army and navy of the Persian Empire had already been repelled by the allied forces of Athens, Sparta, and other Greek city-states. Taking note of a new political structure for Elis at this later time in its history, Strabo here at 8.3.2 C336–337 uses the word sunoikismós, a term that generally refers to a process of state-formation where a confederation of separate districts is transformed into a unified pólis, that is, into a ‘city’ or ‘city-state’. This observation of Strabo, writing in the first centuries BCE/CE, is validated by his near-contemporary, Diodorus, writing at a slightly earlier time, in the first century BCE. Diodorus at 11.54.1 makes the same essential observation about the new political structure of Elis that took shape in the era of Greek history that followed 479 BCE, and he actually uses the same term sunoikismós in referring to this transformation of Elis into a city-state. In this same context, Diodorus even dates the precise time of transformation at 471 BCE—by way of a Roman system of dating.

C§3.9. And here I arrive at a most decisive piece of textual evidence about the history of the Olympics. In the same two ancient sources where we see the essential observation, just noted, about the transformation of Elis into a city-state—in Strabo 8.3.2 C336–337 and in Diodorus 11.54.1—it is also observed that this transformation of Elis was connected to another major development that took place at the same time: both sources go on to report that Elis, now a city-state, annexed as its own territory two other territories that were located farther to the south. One of these two territories was Pisatis—that is how our sources call the territory of Pisa—while the other, they report, was Triphylia. In the case of Triphylia, however, I think that this territory had once been part of Pisatis—but then the state of Elis redefined it and gave it a new name, Triphylia.

C§3.10. Here, in any case, is evidence for arguing that Pisa lost control of the Olympics only in the fifth century BCE—at the same time when Elis annexed Pisa. And once Pisa was subjugated by way of being annexed into a new city-state that called itself Elis, Pisa now became merely a new part of a new whole. The new whole was Elis. Meanwhile, Elis could now claim ownership not only of its own new part, Pisa, but also the old part of Pisa that was Olympia. And another part of Pisa that could now be claimed by Elis was a redefined territory that was now renamed as Triphylia.

C§3.11. What later ancient sources like Diodorus and Strabo say about Triphylia is relevant to our understanding of Pisatis—and even of Elis. According to these sources, Triphylia was a region located to the south of the river Alpheus (Alpheiós), and further to the south of Triphylia was the region known as Messenia. As for Pisatis, in terms of its redefinition after annexation, it was a region located to the north of the river Alpheus—so, north of Triphylia. This redefined region called Pisatis was located to the south of the old region called Elis or Koilē Ēlis, the meaning of which conveyed the idea of a ‘valley’, and all these regions were dominated by the consolidated city-state of the new Elis, located within the ‘valley’ that was Koilē Ēlis. A famous landmark of the city that now simply called itself Elis, as we read in Strabo, 8.3.2 C337, was the river Peneus (Pēneiós) that flowed through it. But I concentrate here on another famous landmark of this city of Elis, that is, its acropolis. As we are about to see, the acropolis of the city of Elis is relevant to our consideration of Triphylia—and of Pisatis—as territories annexed by Elis in the early fifth century. Our ancient source here is Pausanias, 6.22.8–6.26.3. Surveying the landmarks he saw when he visited the city of Elis, he makes special mention of this city’s acropolis, 6.26.3, on top of which was located a temple of Athena, inside which was a statue of the goddess, reportedly fashioned by Pheidias.

C§3.12. What Pausanias mentions here about the acropolis of the city of Elis is relevant to a most telling detail that we learn about the region that he knows as Triphylia. The detail comes from a far earlier source, Herodotus, who was writing in the late fifth century BCE, only decades after the actual annexation of the region called Triphylia by the newly-reorganized city-state of Elis. We read in Herodotus, 4.148.4, that there had existed six póleis or ‘cities’—that is what he calls them—in Triphylia at the time of its annexation by Elis in the early fifth century: these ‘cities’ were Lepreon, Makistos, Phrixai, Pyrgos, Epion, Noudion (in the text of Herodotus, the forms are given in the accusative case: Λέπρεον, Μάκιστον, Φρίξας, Πύργον, Ἔπιον, Νούδιον). Herodotus goes on to say that the foundation of these póleis ‘cities’ can be traced back to the Minyans, who claimed a genealogy stemming from the heroic age—and who had emigrated from Thessaly to Triphylia. But Herodotus, I must emphasize, does not refer to this region of six póleis in terms of a region called Triphylia, which, as I argue, was most likely a relatively recent nomenclature created by Elis at the time when it undertook its initiative of widespread annexations. In any case, we know from later sources that these póleis or ‘cities’, as Herodotus calls them, were located in the same region that later sources do in fact identify as Triphylia. That said, I now come to a detail—a most telling detail, as I described it earlier—about these póleis or ‘cities’. We read in Herodotus (again, 4.148.4) that most of these cities were demolished by Elis ‘within the period of my own lifetime’ (ἐπ’ ἐμέο). So, by the later part of fifth century BCE, there would be hardly any traces of some of these demolished cities. Many centuries after Herodotus, however, we do have a record of a visit to one such demolished site, and the visitor was Pausanias, in the second century CE. What Pausanias reports, as we will see, is relevant in general to the pattern of annexations initiated by Elis in the early fifth century BCE.

C§3.13. As we read in the reportage of Pausanias, 6.21.6, the demolished city that he visited in the region called Triphylia was Phrixa. Herodotus at 4.148.4 had referred to the name of this city in its plural form, Phrixai, but Pausanias uses the singular form, Phrixa. I will analyze in Part II Essay 2 the differences in meaning between the plural and the singular forms here, but for now I simply need to focus on what Pausanias himself says about Phrixa. The only significant landmark of this city in ruins, he says, was the acropolis, also in ruins, on top of which was a temple of the goddess Athena, also in ruins; but the local population, he adds, would still worship their goddess at an altar that had reportedly stood outside the temple before it was demolished. I note with the greatest interest the word used by Pausanias here (again, 6.21.6) in referring to the acropolis: he equates it with a pólis ‘city’—this even though the only part of the city that was now worth noting was the acropolis as a visually commanding pinnacle in the landscape. We see a comparable usage of the word pólis in what is said by Pausanias (1.26.6) about the acropolis of Athens, which, he notes, used to be called simply the pólis of Athens; he dates this nomenclature back to prehistoric times—before Athens became a city-state comprised of dêmoi, which Classicists translate as ‘demes’—and which were political sub-units that together constituted a unified Athenian state. In prehistoric times, however, as Pausanias also notes (again, 1.26.6), the dêmoi were ‘districts’, only loosely interconnected, within an overall region that was only loosely connected to the acropolis of Athens, and such ‘districts’ once had their own localized and hence diverse ways of worshipping the goddess Athena, who possessed the acropolis; such divine possession, I should add, would be formalized in the name of an earthly succession of kings residing on the acropolis. I will analyze in Part II Essay 2 the Mycenaean heritage of such an older use of the word dêmos in the sense of ‘district’, but for now I simply highlight its connectivity with the older use of the word pólis in the sense of ‘acropolis’.

C§3.14. What Pausanias at 6.21.6 says he saw in ruins when he visited the acropolis of the old city of Phrixa was the equivalent of what he says he saw not in ruins but very much intact: this was later, at 6.26.3, when he visited the acropolis of the new city of Elis. I see an irony here, since Elis had been responsible for demolishing, many years before, the old city of Phrixa. As we saw from the reportage of Pausanias at 6.26.3, Elis in his time had its own acropolis and its own temple of Athena, just as Phrixa in the distant past had its own acropolis and its own temple of Athena. So, the new status of Elis as a pólis in the sense of a ‘city’ was modeled on the old status of a site like Phrixa, where the very idea of a pólis is derived from the idea of an acropolis. Also relevant here is the reportage of Strabo (8.3.2 C336–337) and of Diodorus (11.54.1) about the new political structure of Elis in the early fifth century BCE. As we have seen, both these sources describe that structure as a result of sunoikismós, a term that I defined as a process where a confederation of separate districts is transformed into a unified pólis in the sense of a ‘city’ or a ‘city-state’. But the very idea of sunoikismós, like the idea of a pólis, can be derived from the idea of an acropolis. Turning back here to the comment of Pausanias at 1.26.6 about the earlier meaning of pólis as an acropolis, I find that his formulation of an evolution in the meaning of the word dêmoi is really an apt working definition of the term sunoikismós, especially as used by Strabo. Here is the way I would paraphrase this evolution in the meaning of dêmoi: an earlier and more general sense, ‘districts connected to an acropolis’, evolves into a later and more specific sense, ‘demes constituting a city’. And there is actually a passage in Strabo (8.3.2 C336) where he uses the word dêmoi in the general sense of ‘districts’, not in the specific sense of ‘demes’, while referring to the constituent parts of Elis as it evolved into a city-state.

C§3.15. My analysis of terminology referring to the history Elis has led me to conclude, then, that the word pólis in the sense of ‘city-state’ was applicable to this place only after the early fifth century BCE.

C§4. But what about Pisa? Here I return to a passage that I cited from the start, at C§1. That passage is from Strabo, 8.3.31 C356. On the basis of an ancient source that he unfortunately does not name, Strabo mentions in this passage a tradition according to which Pisa was situated between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa. Although Strabo here does not indicate his source, he does in fact indicate that this source refers explicitly to Pisa as a pólis. And he even adds, in this same passage, that the ancient Greek poet Stesichorus, who is conventionally dated to the seventh/sixth centuries BCE, actually referred to Pisa as a pólis. In the edition of Stesichorus by David Campbell (1991), the reference by Strabo at 8.3.31 C356 to this usage of Stesichorus is printed as “fragment” 263, although there is no trace of the poet’s own text. But I think it is possible that the lost text of Stesichorus was in fact the source for the reference made by Strabo to the location of Pisa between Olympus and Ossa. In the same passage of Strabo, he is formulating a theory of his about the meaning of pólis in the sense of a ‘region controlled by a pólis’, and it is in that context that he cites the usage of Stesichorus. Strabo needs this theory to explain a problem: why, in his time, can he find no city named Pisa in the region named Pisatis? In terms of my analysis at C§3.1–15, however, the problem faced by Strabo could be solved if the reference to Pisa as a pólis in the songs of Stesichorus could be interpreted to mean not ‘city’ but ‘acropolis’ or ‘citadel’. Given the grim record of Elis in demolishing landmarks that had once belonged to territories that it was annexing in the wake of its aggressive new policies starting in the fifth century BCE, I would consider the fate of Phrixa in Triphylia to be a possible point of comparison for imagining the fate of an acropolis of Pisa in Pisatis. The difference would be that there were still traces of the ruins of both the city and the acropolis at Phrixa, but there may have been no traces left of either city or acropolis in the case of Pisa, once it was destroyed by Elis. I find here the testimony of Pausanias most relevant. At 6.22.4, as we saw, Pausanias says that Elis ultimately destroyed Pisa. But now I add what he says in the same context, earlier at 6.22.1–2: here Pausanias speaks of a khōríon ‘place’ covered by vineyards and showing no trace of any wall of any building. Then, continuing at 6.22.2, he says this about the place he has just described: ‘at which place Pisa was settled/founded [oikeîsthai]’ (ἔνθα ἡ Πίσα ᾠκεῖτο). Continuing further at 6.22.2, Pausanias adds explicitly, still in the same context: ‘they say that the city [pólis] had as its settler/founder [oikistḗs] Pisos son of Perieres son of Aiolos’ (οἰκιστὴν μὲν δὴ γενέσθαι τῇ πόλει Πίσον τὸν Περιήρους φασὶ τοῦ Αἰόλου). In this case, I doubt that Pausanias was even searching for an acropolis of Pisa: he knew, I think, that the city of Pisa had been destroyed without a trace. And the only acropolis he could identify nearby was the acropolis of the nearby city of Phrixa: in that case, the city and the acropolis were in ruins, yes, but there still survived at least a semblance of a city. Not so in the case of Pisa. And when I say that the acropolis of Pisa must have been close to the acropolis of Phrixa, I need only point out that the khōrā ‘place” where Phrixa is located by Pausanias at 6.21.5 is said to be near the river Alpheus (Alpheiós), on the other side of which, he adds, is the territory of Pisatis.

C§5. In another context, Pausanias at 5.10.2 refers to a war between Pisa and Elis where Pisa was defeated and lost control of Olympia and the Olympics. I will have more to say in Part II Essay 1 about this reference made by Pausanias, which I will connect with what I have already said here in Part I Essay 1 about the annexation of Pisa by Elis in the early fifth century BCE. But I must emphasize that this disaster befalling Pisa, as reported by Pausanias at 5.10.2, is different from the other disaster that he reports at 6.22.4, where he refers to the total destruction of Pisa by Elis. The two disasters for Pisa took place at different times: whereas Elis took away from Pisa its control over Olympia and the Olympics in the early fifth century BCE, the destruction of Pisa took place only later, some time after 364 BCE—as I indicated at C§3.3. Having made this distinction, however, I still find it most interesting that Pausanias has omitted any explicit mention of the differences in time between the loss of Olympia by Pisa and the final destruction of Pisa. I find that such an omission by Pausanias fits the historical realities of his own era, the second century CE, by which time Elis had been in control of Olympia and the Olympics for about half a millennium, as we have already seen. And the narrative about the winning of control by Elis—which centers on the defeat of Pisa and on its loss of Olympia to Elis—is all in favor of the winner of long-term control: the winner takes all, as it were. There is something else here, however, that has I think also been omitted in the reportage of Pausanias. As I will argue in Part II Essay 1, the defeat of Pisa by Elis may have been in some ways gradual. That said, though, I still leave room for thinking that even a gradual victory of Elis over Pisa did involve some episodic events of total destruction—especially when it comes to visible signs of power, such as a citadel, that is, an acropolis. I would not be surprised if an old citadel of the state of Pisa would have been ostentatiously destroyed without a trace, whether earlier or later, by the rival state of Elis. In that case, it would also be understandable why we are left in the dark when we read Strabo’s reference to a source claiming that Pisa was located between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. We would be understandably in the dark about such a location if the buildings on top of a citadel of Pisa had been destroyed without a trace. And we could be left forever in the dark unless—or, I hope against hope, until—ruins of a citadel are found. But there is another problem here: in the area surrounding Olympia, there are all too many miniature mountains that could look like Olympus and Ossa. So, only a hoped-for finding of ruins located between two miniature mountains could lead to certainty about the precise location of an acropolis that could once have functioned as the center of power for Pisa.

C§6. So far, I have studied how it was that Elis replaced Pisa as the state that controlled Olympia and the Olympics. And there has been, all along, a central problem involved in such a study, and it already came up from the start, at C§1 and C§2, where I had referred to both Pisa and Elis as “states” while noting that I will need to qualify such references. Now I am ready to formulate the needed qualification: referring to either Pisa or Elis as a “state” is workable only from the standpoint of an early era when a pólis is still seen as an acropolis from where a ruler rules a region. From the standpoint of a later era, however, such a mode of reference breaks down: whereas Elis is now a pólis that became a “city-state,” Pisa is destined to lose altogether its status as a “state.”

C§7. Now I turn to analyzing the prehistory of Pisa and Elis by attempting to reconstruct forward in time such a prehistory. So, my starting-point for reconstruction surely cannot be the Olympic year 364 BCE, since I will be reconstructing forward in time, not backward, and we already know that the very existence of Pisa will be doomed sometime after that year. And my starting-point will not be the era of Hippias of Elis, who lived in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Nor will it even be the era that Hippias reconstructed as the beginning of the ancient Olympics, starting with 776 BCE. Rather, my starting-point has to be the mythologized age of heroes—an era that takes us much farther back in time than the starting-point mythologized by Hippias, 776 BCE.

C§8. I argue that there are traces of traditions, grounded in Pisa, that date the actual founding of the Olympics not to 776 BCE, as posited Hippias of Elis, but all the way back to the heroic age of Hēraklēs. A vital piece of textual evidence backing up this argument comes from the songs of Pindar, a most influential poet dated to the first half of the fifth century BCE. The song, one of Pindar’s “victory odes” celebrating the successes of competitors in athletic events, is Olympian 10, which was commissioned to honor a boy who won top prize in the boys-level competitions in boxing at the Olympics of 476 BCE in Olympia. But the  song is crafted in such a way as to celebrate, ostensibly, not only an athletic victory in the present but also a military victory in the heroic past—a victory won by Hēraklēs in a war he waged against a king named Augeias (latinized as Augeas). And, as it becomes clear in the narrative of Pindar’s Olympian 10, this military victory of Hēraklēs led to the primal event of his actually founding the festival of the Olympics. Further, in the compressed narrative of lines 44–45 in Olympian 10, where we read the name of the place that was meant to be the political center for this act of foundation, that name is Pisa. According to Pindar’s narrative, it was this place, Pisa, that Hēraklēs and his fellow warriors chose as their headquarters in undertaking the project of organizing the festival, which included, as we read at lines 44–45, the delimiting of the sacred ground for the athletic competitions that would take place, from now on, at Olympia. So here, at long last, we may begin to see a connection between the hero Hēraklēs, highlighted in Pindar’s song as the mythological founder of the Olympics at Olympia, and the myth about his immortalization, which takes place on Mount Olympus. But now I prefer to say “on a Mount Olympus,” leaving room for a mountain that would be local to the territory of Pisa. I will have more to say later, in Part I Essay 9, about the mythologized role of Hēraklēs as founder of the Olympics and about its connectedness with traditions about Pisa. And I will also have more to say, in Part II Essays 1 and 2, about Pindar’s Olympian 10. For now, however, I will merely add that I agree with Paul Christesen (2005:343–344), who argues, like me, that there are traces of traditions grounded in Pisa that point to an early period when Olympia and the Olympics were controlled by Pisa, not by Elis, and that some of these traces are reflected in Pindar’s Olympian 10.

C§9. In texts stemming from the fifth century BCE, it can be said in general, Olympia was still being linked primarily with Pisa and only secondarily with Elis. Not only in Olympian 10 but also in other Olympian odes of Pindar, Zeus as lord of Olympia is linked with Pisa in particular (Olympian 13.24–29), which is a place described as belonging to Zeus (Olympian 2.3, 6.5). Also, the wording of Pindar links the idea that Pisa belongs to Zeus with the idea that Hēraklēs, son of Zeus, was the founder of the festival of the Olympics (Olympian 2.3). This is not to say, granted, that Pindar’s songs do not recognize the historical fact that Elis eventually replaced Pisa in controlling Olympia and the Olympics. In Pindar’s Olympian 1.75–85, for example, where the hero Pelops is “quoted” as speaking to the god Poseidon, Pelops says ἐς Ἆλιν ‘to Elis’ at line 78—though what his words clearly mean here is ‘to Olympia’. Another example comes from Pindar’s Olympian 9, lines 6–7, where Olympia is described as ‘the holy pinnacle [akrōtḗrion] belonging to Elis’ (σεμνόν … ἀκρωτήριον Ἄλιδος). In the case of even this second example, though, I see an implicit reference to Pisa—besides the explicit reference to Elis. I think that the reference to Olympia as anakrōtḗrion ‘pinnacle’ evokes the image of an acropolis—comparable to the pinnacle of Phrixa that we saw being described by Pausanias (6.21.6). As I noted earlier, at C§4, this acropolis of Phrixa is itself comparable to an acropolis of Pisa—if we credit the tradition reported by Strabo (8.3.31 C356) about the location of Pisa. Also relevant here, I think, is what we read in the scholia for Pindar (as edited by Drachmann 1903). I start with a scholion for Pindar’s Olympian 9 (at 12a), where it is said that the holy akrōtḗrion ‘pinnacle’ that belongs to Elis is actually Pisa. I concede, though, that the testimony of the scholia can also point in an opposite direction, since we read in a scholion for Pindar’s Olympian 1 (at 179a) that the word akrōtḗrion can refer to the Kronion or ‘Hill of Kronos’ at Olympia. But I have my doubts here, since this word is not actually attested in Olympian 1, and, in any case, the Hill of Kronos did not function as an acropolis for Olympia. By contrast, in support of the alternative information that I cited from the scholion for Pindar’s Olympian 9 (at 12a), I now cite further information from the scholia for Pindar’s Olympian 10 (at 51a and at 55b), where we read that the distance separating Olympia from Pisa was three stadium-lengths (at 55c, an alternative number is given: six). To be contrasted is the distance of nearly three-hundred stadium-lengths separating Olympia from Elis—according to the calculation of Strabo, 8.3.30 C353. Strabo must have in mind here not the region of Elis but the actual city, as already organized in the early fifth century BCE; if so, then Olympia was roughly 60 kilometers distant from this city of Elis. By contrast, I see some confusion between region and city in the wording of a scholion for Pindar’s Olympian 1 (at 28c), where it is said, unhelpfully, that the khōría or ‘regions’ of Pisa and Elis were fifty stadium-lengths distant from each other. Finally, I append here a piece of useful information about the acropolis of Phrixa: here is what we read in Stephanus of Byzantium 672.12 under the heading ‘Phrixa’: ‘a city [pólis]… Phrixa is situated 30 stadium-lengths away from Olympia’ (Φρίξα,> πόλις … “ἡ δὲ Φρίξα κεῖται μὲν τῆς Ὀλυμπίας ἀπέχουσα στάδια λ’). That said, I will save further remarks about stadium-lengths until Part I Essay 12, where I have more to say about the Greek word stadion, translated loosely here as ‘stadium’.

C§10. I have by now reached a point where my exercise in connecting the dots, as it were, has finally led from Olympus all the way to Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics—in terms of a Mount Olympus located not in the region once controlled by the dynasts of Thessaly but in a region once controlled by the dynasts of Pisa. Here I quote, for the first time, what is actually said about the location of Pisa in the text of Strabo, 8.3.31 C356:

Τὴν δὲ πόλιν ἱδρυμένην ἐφ’ ὕψους δεικνύουσι μεταξὺ δυοῖν ὀροῖν, Ὄσσης καὶ Ὀλύμπου, ὁμωνύμων τοῖς ἐν Θετταλίᾳ.

‘And they point out [about Pisa] that the pólis [of Pisa] was founded on top of an elevation [húpsos] situated between a pair of two mountains, Ossa and Olympus, which had the same names as those [mountains] situated in Thessaly.’

And now, also for the first time, I quote a relevant passage from a scholion for Pindar’s Olmypian 10 (at 28b):

περὶ δὲ τῆς Πίσης, ὅτι τόπος ἐν Ἤλιδι ὑπὸ ὑψηλῶν ὄχθων περιεχόμενος, Πολέμων φησίν.

‘Concerning Pisa:  that it is a place, in [the territory of] Elis, which is surrounded by high elevations—as Polemon says.’

The source named in the text of the Pindaric scholion is Polemon of Ilion, who is traditionally dated to the third and second centuries BCE. This text as I quoted it has also been printed as Fragment 19 of Polemon in Volume II of Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (Paris 1848), p. 121. The striking similarity of Strabo’s report about Pisa was already noted by the editor of FHG, Karl Müller, who printed on the same page (p. 121), next to Fragment 19 of Polemon, the relevant text of Strabo 8.3.31 C356. As we can see from the traditional dating of Polemon, he lived in an era that postdated the time when Pisa and its territories were annexed by Elis, and that is why he seems to have thought—at least, in terms of what is reported in the scholion—that Pisa was a city located within territory belonging to Elis, not to Pisa. But Polemon seems to predate the time when the city of Pisa was demolished by Elis—unless he was commenting on the city’s ruins. There is not enough context given by the scholion for us to be certain. What is a near-certainty, though, is that Polemon thought of Pisa as a city—or, at least, as an acropolis of a city. Such thinking would match what Strabo on his part says about Pisa: he too would be thinking of a city or an acropolis—not a region—when he refers to the location of Pisa between two mountains. But I offer no further comment, for now, on the eclipsing of Pisa by Elis. For now it is enough for me to pursue my argument that the sacred site known as Olympia used to be under the control of Pisa before it came under the control of Elis.

C§11. In the context of my reconstructing here a bygone era when Pisa had dominated Olympia, site of the Olympics, I have saved for last a most telling piece of textual evidence, again stemming from the fifth century BCE. This time, the source is not Pindar but Herodotus, who was composing his History in the late fifth century BCE.. And what Herodotus says will back up my argument that Pisa, as a site linked with its own Mount Olympus, was also linked with the Olympian gods. As we read in Herodotus (2.7), this historian ostentatiously connects the Temple of Zeus in Olympia with Pisa, not with Elis, as he measures the distance extending from the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the center of Athens all the way to a landmark that he describes this way: ‘[on the way to] Pisa and the Temple of Zeus Olympios’ (ἔς τε Πῖσαν καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν νηὸν τοῦ Διὸς τοῦ Ὀλυμπίου); that distance, by the reckoning of Herodotus, was 1,500 Olympic stadium-lengths minus 150.

C§12. This Altar of the Twelve Gods, which was founded by the Peisistratidai, dynasts of Athens, was linked with the corresponding idea of the twelve Olympian gods. That idea was taking shape in Homeric poetry as we can see it evolving under the sponsorship of these same dynasts. The abode of these Olympian gods, as we saw already at A§1, was Mount Olympus, and the god Zeus lives there, as we read in the Iliad and Odyssey. Also living there, on and off, are other Olympian gods, including Hērā, wife of Zeus, and the canonical number for all these gods, Zeus included, is twelve. So, the Altar of the Twelve Gods, as founded by the dynasts of Athens in the sixth century BCE, connects all these twelve Olympians, not just Zeus, to the Olympia of the Olympics. And the worship of these twelve Olympians in Olympia was established, as the words of Pindar declare in Olympian 10 (line 49), by Hēraklēs himself when he founded the Olympics.


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