The celebration 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 military alliances.
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, 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 regained control.
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.
Winged Nike flies 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. University of Pennsylvania Museum Object ID 29-126-41.
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.