1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elis (district)

ELIS, or Eleia, an ancient district of southern Greece, bounded on the N. by Achaea, E. by Arcadia, S. by Messenia, and W. by the Ionian Sea. The local form of the name was Valis, or Valeia, and its meaning, in all probability, “the lowland.” In its physical constitution Elis is practically one with Achaea and Arcadia; its mountains are mere offshoots of the Arcadian highlands, and its principal rivers are fed by Arcadian springs. From Erymanthus in the north, Skollis (now known as Mavri and Santameri in different parts of its length) stretches toward the west, and Pholoe along the eastern frontier; in the south a prolongation of Mount Lycaeon bore in ancient times the names of Minthe and Lapithus, which have given place respectively to Alvena and to Kaiapha and Smerna. These mountains are well clothed with vegetation, and present a soft and pleasing appearance in contrast to the picturesque wildness of the parent ranges. They gradually sink towards the west and die off into what was one of the richest alluvial tracts in the Peloponnesus. Except where it is broken by the rocky promontories of Chelonatas (now Chlemutzi) and Ichthys (now Katakolo), the coast lies low, with stretches of sand in the north and lagoons and marshes towards the south. During the summer months communication with the sea being established by means of canals, these lagoons yield a rich harvest of fish to the inhabitants, who at the same time, however, are almost driven from the coast by the swarms of gnats. The district for administrative purposes forms part of the nome of Elis and Achaea (see Greece).

Elis was divided into three districts—Hollow or Lowland Elis (ἡ κοίλη Ἦλις), Pisatis, or the territory of Pisa, and Triphylia, or the country of the three tribes. (1) Hollow Elis, the largest and most northern of the three, was watered by the Peneus and its tributary the Ladon, whose united stream forms the modern Gastouni. It included not only the champaign country originally designated by its name, but also the mountainous region of Acrorea, occupied by the offshoots of Erymanthus. Besides the capital city of Elis, it contained Cyllene, an Arcadian settlement on the sea-coast, whose inhabitants worshipped Hermes under the phallic symbol; Pylus, at the junction of the Peneus and the Ladon, which, like so many other places of the same name, claimed to be the city of Nestor, and the fortified frontier town of Lasion, the ruins of which are still visible at Kuti, near the village of Kumani. The district was famous in antiquity for its cattle and horses; and its byssus, supposed to have been introduced by the Phoenicians, was inferior only to that of Palestine. (2) Pisatis extended south from Hollow Elis to the right bank of the Alpheus, and was divided into eight departments called after as many towns. Of these Salmone, Heraclea, Cicysion, Dyspontium and Harpina are known—the last being the reputed burial-place of Marmax, the suitor of Hippodamia. From the time of the early investigators it has been disputed whether Pisa, which gave its name to the district, has ever been a city, or was only a fountain or a hill. By far the most important spot in Pisatis was the scene of the great Olympic games, on the northern bank of the Alpheus (see Olympia). (3) Triphylia stretches south from the Alpheus to the Neda, which forms the boundary towards Messenia. Of the nine towns mentioned by Polybius, only two attained to any considerable influence—Lepreum and Macistus, which gave the names of Lepreatis and Macistia to the southern and northern halves of Triphylia. The former was the seat of a strongly independent population, and continued to take every opportunity of resisting the supremacy of the Eleans. In the time of Pausanias it was in a very decadent condition, and possessed only a poor brick-built temple of Demeter; but considerable remains of its outer walls are still in existence near the village of Strovitzi, on a part of the Minthe range.

The original inhabitants of Elis were called Caucones and Paroreatae. They are mentioned for the first time in Greek history under the title of Epeians, as setting out for the Trojan War, and they are described by Homer as living in a state of constant hostility with their neighbours the Pylians. At the close of the 11th century B.C. the Dorians invaded the Peloponnesus, and Elis fell to the share of Oxylus and the Aetolians. These people, amalgamating with the Epeians, formed a powerful kingdom in the north of Elis. After this many changes took place in the political distribution of the country, till at length it came to acknowledge only three tribes, each independent of the others. These tribes were the Epeians, Minyae and Eleans. Before the end of the 8th century B.C., however, the Eleans had vanquished both their rivals, and established their supremacy over the whole country. Among the other advantages which they thus gained was the right of celebrating the Olympic games, which had formerly been the prerogative of the Pisatans. The attempts which this people made to recover their lost privilege, during a period of nearly two hundred years, ended at length in the total destruction of their city by the Eleans. From the time of this event (572 B.C.) till the Peloponnesian War, the peace of Elis remained undisturbed. In that great contest Elis sided at first with Sparta; but that power, jealous of the increasing prosperity of its ally, availed itself of the first pretext to pick a quarrel. At the battle of Mantinea (418 B.C.) the Eleans fought against the Spartans, who, as soon as the war came to a close, took vengeance upon them by depriving them of Triphylia and the towns of the Acrorea. The Eleans made no attempt to re-establish their authority over these places, till the star of Thebes rose in the ascendant after the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.). It is not unlikely that they would have effected their purpose had not the Arcadian confederacy come to the assistance of the Triphylians. In 366 B.C. hostilities broke out between them, and though the Eleans were at first successful, they were soon overpowered, and their capital very nearly fell into the hands of the enemy. Unable to make head against their opponents, they applied for assistance to the Spartans, who invaded Arcadia, and forced the Arcadians to recall their troops from Elis. The general result of this war was the restoration of their territory to the Eleans, who were also again invested with the right of holding the Olympic games. During the Macedonian supremacy in Greece they sided with the victors, but refused to fight against their countrymen. After the death of Alexander they renounced the Macedonian alliance. At a subsequent period they joined the Aetolian League, but persistently refused to identify themselves with the Achaeans. When the whole of Greece fell under the Roman yoke, the sanctity of Olympia secured for the Eleans a certain amount of indulgence. The games still continued to attract to the country large numbers of strangers, until they were finally put down by Theodosius in 394, two years previous to the utter destruction of the country by the Gothic invasion under Alaric. In later times Elis fell successively into the hands of the Franks and the Venetians, under whose rule it recovered to some extent its ancient prosperity. By the latter people the province of Belvedere on the Peneus was called, in consequence of its fertility, “the milch cow of the Morea.”