Olympia was occupied and thriving as far back as Mycenaean times. The era of the Olympic games began in 776 BC and the games were overseen by the Eleans (though Pisa also laid claim to this right). The games were held regularly for over a thousand years and the Olympic Truce, which forbade any Greek warfare during the time of the games, was strictly observed and enforced. The most notable exception was an invasion of the Pisans in which a battle took place at Olympia in front of the spectators of the games. Elis, however, managed to maintain its control of Olympia and the prestige of the games increased.

After the age of Hadrian, Olympia and its games began to fade from their glory, but were still held until 393 AD, when Theodosius prohibited all pagan festivals. Thirty years later, Theodosius II ordered the temples to be destroyed and burned and a Christian basilica was established there as well as fortifications against the Vandals. Earthquakes and a landslide from Mt. Kronos, combined with the flooding of the Kladeos, turned the failing Olympia into a wasteland.