The Literary Olympics

At the 440 B.C. Olympic Games, a hot young author made the scene—Herodotus!

Soon the Olympics were choking in words. By the first century A.D., a pagan superstar named Apollonius of Tyana sent an advance guard to the Games to generate some buzz. Crowds thronged his readings, but Apollonius was disgusted at having to share the limelight with novices and hacks. He gave one "literary puppy" a tongue-lashing for daring to debut inferior work—a poem on the divine power of Zeus. ("You are embarking on a subject that transcends the power of mortals," he railed petulantly.)

Today, as the world media are saturated by images from the Athens Olympics, it's hard for authors not to feel a little sentimental for the ancient Games, where literary skill was revered even by the rank-and-file sports fan, and as admired as physical excellence. (Imagine the Super Bowl featuring halftime readings by Toni Morrison, or British soccer fans chanting the verse of Ted Hughes.)

On a more sober note, Greek history has shown that playing to the Olympic crowd could be a double-edged sword. Herodotus's reputation later suffered for his brazen pandering to sports fans: When Thucydides published his own brilliant history around 420 B.C., he proclaimed that it was not a "prize lecture for immediate applause"—a clear dig at the maestro, who (it was thought) had tailored his work for short attention spans.

And the "short-cut to glory" was even more fickle for other authors who hit the big time by reading at Olympia. The author Lucian, who was writing in the second century A.D., cites the stunning success of Hippias the sophist, Prodicus of Ceos, Anaximenes of Chios, Polus of Acragas, and "scores of others"—none of whose surviving works, sadly, are on any "must read" lists today, even among the dustiest scholars of ancient Greek lit.

Of course, if anyone knew that fame was ephemeral and that history was a crapshoot, it was Herodotus, who had visited the deserts of Egypt and seen the crumbling pyramids by the Nile, sand-blown relics of an empire far more magnificent than anything the Greeks had created. Immortality, he must have recognized, was a bit much to hope for; but a touch of notoriety in this life was something within his grasp. And if an author could affect the fate of his labors—if he believed in his work, after years of private toil—well, why not swallow your natural modesty, overcome stage fright, and get out there in the literary Olympics, to shill for all you're worth? If Herodotus were around today, I have no doubt he would be angling for celebrity blurbs, hosting a book launch, setting up his own website, and dreaming of a cameo—Zeus willing!—on Good Morning America.

Tony Perrottet is the author of Pagan Holiday and The Naked Olympics (Random House).

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