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The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games Paperback – June 8, 2004
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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 pankrationa sort of early predecessor of ultimate fighting in which strangulation was seen as the surest means of attaining victoryhe 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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Well, I guess that's not a complete picture. This fascinating portrayal of "the REAL Olympics" shows a lot more of the very human nature of those Ancient Greeks. It's going too far to call the Olympics a five-day debauch, but there was that aspect to it. A lot of olive oil was massaged into young athletic bodies, and a lot of wine was guzzled by the spectators, almost all of whom had to stand in the blazing sun (without hats --- it was a rule), frequently falling victim to sunstroke or heat exhaustion while the superb professional athletes raked up all the gold and all the glory. When night fell, and more wine had been guzzled, there was sex aplenty for sale at Olympia, beautiful women and handsome young men both plying their trades. Your hotel? Why, that was a blanket on the grass. Your restaurant? Cart vendors. Your latrine? Well, that would be the dried-up river bed over yonder... Shower facilities and baths? Are you kidding?
The 40,000 spectators arrived smelling pretty ripe, and that smell continued growing riper. Add in the fumes from a zillion cook-fires, plus that river bed over yonder...
But who cared? This was the OLYMPICS!! The games here had a run of about 1200 years.
The remedy for hangover? Make sure you upchuck everything before going to bed! (Would that work??!)
In sum, this is a very entertaining portrait of the Ancient Greeks when they weren't posing for marble statues --- it's much more a portrait of the Ancient Greeks we find on ancient drinking cups. And the portrait of professional athletes of staggering wealth being cheered on by people who had a whole lot less wealth --- why, it may even remind some of modern times.
With THE NAKED GAMES, author Tony Perrottet repeats what he previously did with Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, i.e. take the reader back to the good old days. In this volume, Tony describes, based on relatively meager and scattered historical sources, what it was like to attend, either as a spectator or an athlete, the original Greek Olympic Games, which were uninterruptedly staged every four years from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D. That's 1,170 years, a performance run that Broadway productions can only fantasize about. Some rocks don't live that long.
My pre-existing knowledge of the Greek games and Olympia being, well, nil, the only errors apparent to me were in an artist's re-creation of the forty-foot high statue of Zeus within his Olympia temple. The drawing of the idol is wildly out of proportion, based on measurements provided in the historical record, to the human figures alongside. Moreover, Tony's text places a scepter in his right hand and a winged statue of Victory in his left while, in the drawing, it's just the opposite. Didn't anyone proof-read?
The volume contains thirty-one illustrations, most of which show the contestants' activities as depicted on drinking cups, amphorae, and water jars of the period. Not surprisingly, pretty much all of the subjects are buck naked, which is how they competed and which is consistent with the book's title. I wish I'd had the sunscreen concession.
There's also a drawing of what the Sanctuary of Olympia complex may have looked like around 150 B.C. based on extant ruins and archeological evidence. There is, however, no placement of Olympia on a map; it was rather isolated from the rest of Greece. I had to look it up on-line.
Finally, there's a scene from the film Ben Hur (1959) that shows the title character racing his 4-horse chariot. Perrottet maintains that the film's race sequence, and action sequences like it in other movies, accurately portrays the chaotic and violent nature of the event as it was staged at the Greek games. Really? I didn't realize Charleton Heston was that old.
As a work of popular history, THE NAKED GAMES is almost certainly not the most learned or comprehensive work on the subject. But for anyone with a casual interest in a wide range of topics, this book, assuming Perrottet is reporting the facts with reasonable accuracy, is a congenial and instructive diversion.
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