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The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games Paperback – June 8, 2004


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Ancient History Books
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Combining a wealth of vivid details with a knack for narrative pacing and subtle humor, Perrottet (Pagan Holiday) renders a striking portrayal of the Greek Olympics and their role in the ancient world. While our modern games certainly pay homage to the Greek festival that was held uninterrupted for more than 1,200 years, the book's title refers to the most pronounced difference between the two: Ancient athletes competed in the nude, adorned only with olive oil. While Perrottet also outlines events ranging from the merciless chariot races to the pankration—a sort of early predecessor of ultimate fighting in which strangulation was seen as the surest means of attaining victory—he also puts the games in their heavy religious context and gives readers a strong sense of what they were like from a spectator's point of view. That they were cramped, hot and dizzyingly unsanitary apparently did little to dissuade throngs of people from the often treacherous journey to Olympia to catch glimpses of their heroes. And their experiences provided by Perrottet are what separate this book from staid history. His goal, he writes at the outset, is "to create the ancient games in their sprawling, human entirety," so readers are treated not only to a thorough picture of the games' proceedings but also to glimpses of the shameless bacchanalia, numerous (and often lascivious) entertainments and even corruption that accompanied them. It's an entertaining, edifying account that puts a human face on one of humanity's most remarkable spectacles.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

This lively account of the classical Olympics portrays them as "the Woodstock of antiquity," and claims that the Games, while taken seriously, were also where Greeks gathered for a five-day debauch. A prostitute could earn a year's wages in the course of the tournament, Thessalonian peddlers sold love potions made from horse's sweat and minced lizard, and pentathletes competed to the accompaniment of flutes, perhaps the ancient equivalent of stadium rock. The festival offered beauty pageants and Homer-recitation contests, numerologists and fire-swallowers, and such culinary delicacies as roasted sow's womb. Athletic events also fuelled a thriving pickup scene: a message etched into the wall of a stadium at Nemea reads, "Look up Moschos in Philippi—he's cute."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (June 8, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081296991X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812969917
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #220,795 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

The need for perpetual motion has always been Tony Perrottet's most obvious personality disorder. While studying history at Sydney University, the Australian-born Perrottet regularly disappeared hitch-hiking through the Outback, sailing the coast of Sumatra or traveling through rural India (enjoying a brief and inglorious career as a film extra in Rajasthan). After graduation, he moved to South America to work as a "roving correspondent," where he covered the Shining Path war in Peru, drug running in Colombia and several military rebellions in Argentina. A brief visit to Manhattan fifteen years ago convinced him that New York was the ideal place for a rootless wanderer to be based. From his current home in the East Village of Manhattan, he has continued to commute to Iceland, Tierra del Fuego, Wyoming, Tasmania and Zanzibar, while contributing to international publications including the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Slate, Esquire, Outside and the London Sunday Times.

Perrottet is the author of five books - a collection of travel stories, Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers (1997); Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (2002); The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Greek Games (2004); Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (2008); and The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe (2011, Broadway Books). His travel stories have been widely anthologized and have been selected four times for the Best American Travel Writing series. He is also a regular television guest on the History Channel, where he has spoken about everything from the Crusades to the birth of disco.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By gary walker on June 30, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderful book for the summer, a surprisingly exciting page-turner that anyone can take to the beach. As both a history lover and avid gym fan, I particularly enjoyed the chapters on 'ancient Greek gymnasium culture;' there is even information on the work-out techniques they used to use! (An early form of aerobics was popular, as many exercises were done to flute music...) The book is packed with wonderful anecdotes from the pagan festival, plucked from Pausanias, Herodotus, Plato, Sophocles and other top authors from the past. It's fun to know that the ancient Games were rowdy, drunken and filled with corruption and shady dealings -- although since they competed naked, athletes would have had trouble providing corporate sponsorships for the latest olive oil merchant. It's a wonderful way to digest excellently-researched history within an amusing (often hilarious) authorial style.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Larry Adams on June 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
A friend asked me to help him find this book in a bookstore. He had heard about it on National Public Radio. The bookstore had 8 copies buried in the Greek history section. They would probably sell more of this book if they stocked it in their sports section, especially with the Olympics coming up in a few weeks.
I didn't express any interest in the book during the search and I didn't skim through the book or read the back cover. Later I discovered that my friend bought several copies. I was surprised when he insisted on giving one to me, but I'm glad he did.
It's a fast, fun, entertaining book. The author starts out with an overview of the subject. In the later chapters, he goes into more vivid detail about each of the games, the rules, the locations, the cultural events, the customs, the hardships, the prices, and the celebrations. He has details about the contestants, the trainers, the judges, the spectators, the local citizens, the royalty, and the gods.
I especially liked all the stories about bribery and corruption and the Greek traditions of justice.
Each chapter has interesting ink sketches to characterize the stories. (The image of Zeus on page 132 should be flipped horizontally to properly show Zeus holding the scepter in his right hand.)
I annoyed my friend by finishing the book before he did (which is rare), and told him a lot of the storylines at our next dinner.
Then I went back to the bookstore to buy some copies for some of my friends and the local library. The facts in this book are alive and more interesting than what you'll hear on TV this summer when the 2004 Olympic Games are broadcast.
Tony Perrottet made many references to the Greek literature that he based his book on. It encourages me to reread these classics that I haven't picked up since high school and college and enjoy them again.
Good work, Tony!
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By "constanttraveler" on June 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
I heard the author interviewed on NPR radio recently, and was intrigued. This book is much more than just about the Olympics -- it recreates the whole pagan world, in all its strangeness and human detail (which makes sense, as sports was only one part of that great festival -- there were literary events, artistic events, and plenty of boozing -- maybe that explains why there's more about sex in the book than athletics!). It's ideal for anyone interested in ancient history -- the past really springs to life from its pages!
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful By M. Eichenlaub on August 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
When I picked up this book (thankfully from the library), I thought that, like any decent non-fiction book, a book about the Ancient Olympics would probably be written by someone who knew what he was talking about. Nope. This guy is not a classical scholar. His "primary sources" are all translations. Further, he began studying the Ancient Olympics explicitly for the purpose of writing this book, which means he does not have a broad background of knowledge.

The book is essentially a very long list of regurgitated facts about the games. While the facts themselves are interesting, the writer is not. He didn't have enough to say to fill up an entire book, so he repeats many of the facts throughout the text. His style of presentation is completely unispired and a little disorganized. Further, there are obvious errors. The most glaring exmaple is the discussion of the javelin throw. Perrottet wrote, "Ancient authors claimed that throws of over 90 meters/270 feet were possible, about half the length of the Stadium and far beyond the modern record of 60 meters." (110) Remember that old game from "Highlights" magazine, "What's Wrong With This Picture?". Let's play. First - no source given on the measurement. Second - elsewhere in the text the author claims the Greeks didn't much care about measurements, throws were generally not measured, and ancient measurements should not be given much worth. Third - 90 meters is not 270 feet!. 90 meters is about 295 feet. The 270 figure is not even close. If he said "over 90 meters/300 feet" I would buy that as about right, but the 270 feet figure is simply inexcusable. Fourth - the modern javelin record is not 60 meters . That's two egregious factual errors in the same sentence. The modern javelin world record is 98.48 meters.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By marianne purvis on July 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
Everything you wanted to know about the sex lives of the ancient Greeks but were afraid to ask... This is a wonderfully researched, very well written book about the classical Greek athletic culture, filled with snippets that will be great around dinner tables during the Olympics -- the naked pankration must have been quite dangerous for the naked males, while the erotic potential of the all-women wrestling matches at Sparta brought droves of Greeks from all around. I learned a huge amount about the pagan world -- certainly more than just sports (althought the Greeks would never have said 'just sports...' Anyone watching the modern 'Greco-Roman' wrestling, javelin, discus, etc etc will have their fill -- I just loved the stuff about food, wine, prostitution -- the women charged different rates depending on the sexual position, esp if it involved more physical effort on their part... go ancient heteras...!)
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