Ancient Elis – A Rich & Long History
Ancient Elis, the largest city and capital of the homonymous city-state, was built on the north banks of the Peneus River, between the mountainous part of Elis (Akroreia) and its coastal lowlands (Elis Koile).
The site was inhabited almost continuously from the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic (130/120,000) until the end of the Early Byzantine period in the 7th century CE, when the city was abandoned.
Aetolos Oxylos is considered the city’s mythical founder (12th-11th centuries BCE). Legend has it that he took advantage of the Dorian invasion to subordinate the area’s early inhabitants and founded the first settlement.
The city thrived in the early historical period (11th – 10th centuries BCE), during the late Archaic and early Classical periods (6th and 5th centuries BCE), and in the Early Roman period (2nd century BCE – early 3rd century CE).
Large numbers of flint tools from surface layers suggest that the site was inhabited since the Palaeolithic times. Habitation concentrated primarily in the area of the later theatre at the end of the Neolithic, and on the Acropolis during the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE.
The Mycenaean period saw the development of several settlements, whose cemeteries lie close to the limits of the later city. Several graves in the later city’s agora date from the end of the Mycenaean period (mid-12th century BCE).
The graves at the theatre and neighbouring east cemetery date to the early historical period, the so-called Dark Ages (11-10th centuries BCE). The corresponding settlements were probably located nearby.
The Geometric finds, which indicate the possible existence of two small temples, are limited, and there is even less evidence for the 7th-century BCE. By contrast, the 6th century BCE was a period of development witnessed by the findings from temples and public buildings.
Democracy in Ancient Elis
The introduction of democracy, the city’s establishment as capital of the homonymous city-state, and its merger with the surrounding small settlements in 471 BCE were landmarks in the history of Ancient Elis.
During the Peloponnesian War, the city’s long-lived alliance with Sparta came to an end with devastating consequences for Elis. King Agis of Lacedaemon marched against Elis in 399 BCE.
King Philip II of Macedon supported the establishment of oligarchy and abolished democracy in 343 BCE, and Telesphoros conquered the city in 313 BCE.
Aided by Roman troops, the city guard repelled an attack by King Philip V of Macedon in 209 BCE, and in 191 BCE, Elis joined the Achaian League.
In 146 BCE, it was conquered by the Romans and became part of the Roman province of Achaia; it came under the full authority of the Roman Empire as part of the Provincia Macedoniae in the early 1st century BCE.
Ancient Elis thrived in the Early Roman period and enjoyed numerous privileges because of its role in the organization of the Olympic Games. It was greatly influenced by Roman civilization and developed a multi-cultural identity due to the various ethnic groups, particularly Romans, living there.
The barbarian invasions of Late Antiquity did not spare Elis. The city was raided by the Heruli in 267 CE, the Visigoths in 395 CE, and the Vandals in 467 CE, before it was destroyed by two earthquakes in the 6th century CE.
Life continued in Ancient Elis but was abandoned towards the end of the 7th century. Sporadic habitation among the ruins of the ancient city occurred in later centuries.
Elis was the birthplace of several important figures of the ancient world, including Iphitus, who established the first Olympic Games (9th or 8th century BCE), the sophist Hippias (5th century BCE), and the sceptic Pyrron (365-275 BCE).