The True Story of the Ancient Games

By Tony Perrottet. Random House. 214 pp. Paperback, $12.95 The ancient Greek Olympic games, according to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, presented Western man with what we are now pleased to call a metaphor for human existence. Life is struggle and strife. Out in the dusty arena, all is desire, practice, noise, hope, exertion, sweat, agony -- and at the end of the day stand few winners and many, many losers. Athletes got to prove their mettle, and victory meant certain fame. But what was in it for those in the stands? Why would so many people travel vast, arduous distances to witness repeated renditions of human frustration? To see the winners crowned with laurel, some say; to sympathize with and celebrate the human condition, say others. But mostly they flocked to them, the old philosopher said, because the games were "an unforgettable spectacle," the ultimate amusement. The games were, in a word -- and in all senses of the word -- vulgar.

So we might also say of war, that other proving ground for manhood. Yet an ongoing athletic gathering posed a splendid way for young men to test their physical prowess, and even to gain immortality of a sort, without hacking off limbs. As we might expect of this hardy people, they played as hard as they fought. The reigning images of classical Greek culture for us now may include the philosopher and poet, warrior and statesman, but the ancient Greeks were also like the rest of us, which is another way of saying that they were frivolous as well as profound.

Just in time for the modern Olympic games to return to Greece this summer for the first time in more than a century, Tony Perrottet offers up a diverting primer on the Olympics of the ancient kind. For while the modern games still bear the marks of their ancestry, the old and the new Olympics should not be confused. The title points to the first and most obvious difference. Athletes in the original events at Olympia, "the focus of the greatest recurring festival in Western history," performed largely gymnos -- in the nude, an ancient practice unlikely to be revived. (From gymnos comes the word "gymnasium.") The ancient Olympic games, which began in 776 B.C. and were little interrupted for 12 centuries, came tightly -- and for us, inexplicably -- entwined with Greek religion. Hercules, a demigod, was said to have blocked off the paces of the runners' track. "Greece is full of wonderful sights and stories," wrote Pausanias in the second century A.D., "but nowhere is the aura of divinity so powerful as during . . . the Olympic Games." And the original games could also be, as Perrottet reveals, revoltingly bloody.

The ancient games at Olympia lasted five days and followed a ritual much like a cultic liturgy. The first day saw the swearing in of athletes, trainers and judges, after which athletes would make sacrifices to the gods and, if they wished, seek advice from oracles. Later in the day, attendees could wander the Sacred Grove of Zeus to view paintings and statues; poets recited; philosophers philosophized. The second day brought the equestrian events, followed by the pentathlon, that medley of running, jumping, throwing the discus and javelin, and wrestling, all topped off by choral singing and banquets for those who had won the day. The next three days were much the same, an exuberant mix of races, wrestling, boxing, sacrifices, banquets and victory processions.

All this, the stuff of Olympic myth, we could learn elsewhere. But Perrottet is keen to turn over a few dirty rocks and expose them. The legend should not be whitewashed. He refutes any view that the games were somehow freer from the lust for lucre than their modern, brazenly commercial counterparts. Nor were the games, contrary to the stubbornly repeated legend, guarantees of truce from the Mediterranean world's interminable wars.

We're treated to some peculiarly amusing bits. Spectators found themselves spectacularly uncomfortable. Accommodations went only to the rich, and probably not to all of them. Hygiene was unknown, to put it delicately (and let's leave it at that). Mostly on account of the crowds and filth, not everyone fancied the games, despite their popularity. So bad were the conditions that a disobedient slave was once threatened with a trip to Olympia. And eroticism was everywhere. "Not for nothing," Perrottet tells us, "does our word chaos derive from the ancient Greek; with its lack of sanitation or facilities, the Olympic festival was the Woodstock of antiquity." No wonder the Christians shut the games down in the fourth century A.D.

Perrottet has done his homework. The Naked Olympics is not a work of scholarship as commonly understood, studded with extensive footnoting, though it's well researched; his sources are as solid as sources come. It's also well written, which might not have been true of a more conventional study. It could have been much longer, but it didn't need to be. Perhaps no book of the season will show us so briefly and entertainingly just how complete is our inheritance from the Greeks, vulgarity and all. *

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin" and director of the Dow Journalism program at Hillsdale College.