The Literary Olympics


Sports fans are feeling pretty righteous these days. With the Olympics kicking off in Athens, the connection to the ancient Greeks has made every Bud-swilling couch potato feel somehow related to the Apollonian ideal. But we pallid, bespectacled book lovers shouldn’t miss out on all the nostalgia. The world has forgotten that literary “happenings” were once an essential ingredient of all ancient athletic festivals; for those well-rounded Greek crowds, the 90-pound-weakling writers could be as compelling an attraction as the beefcake that paraded stark naked around the stadium. In fact, we should thank the first Olympics for several crucial breakthroughs in the Western literary tradition—including the pioneering act of self-promotion by a celebrity-hungry author.

In 440 B.C., a struggling young prose stylist named Herodotus wanted to publicize his newly composed account of the Persian Wars (it was the first work of written history—an experimental literary project if there ever was one). Rather than embark on a multi-city book tour—an expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous venture, dodging pirates and storms around the Aegean—the budding writer came up with a brilliant PR stroke. Why not premiere his work at the hallowed Olympic Games, when the entire social register of Greeks were gathered in one spot?

According to the admiring author Lucian, when the festival had begun—it usually attracted some 40,000 spectators to the remote sanctuary of Olympia—Herodotus waited for a decent crowd to gather in the cavernous Temple of Zeus, then proceeded to recite his golden prose. The audience was utterly transfixed; word raced around the Olympic venue that a hot young author was on the scene. Not only did hundreds of Greek celebrities vie to hear Herodotus read in the five days of the sports festival, but they carried his name after the games to the far corners of the ancient world. “By this time he was much better known than the Olympic victors themselves,” notes Lucian enviously—which is saying quite a lot, since athletic champions were revered as virtual demigods by the Greeks, a cross between NFL players and rock stars.

Debuting at the Olympics, it turned out, was antiquity’s equivalent of appearing on Oprah.

Writers today can only stand in awe at Herodotus’s genius for public relations. He should be remembered as the Father of Self-Promotion as well as of History—making an intellectual leap on a par with Pythagoras’s theorems of trigonometry or Plato’s separation of the body and the soul. While modern PR methods have been refined by technology, the basic dynamics for unknown authors making a dent in the so-called literary marketplace have remained fairly constant. In fact, as modern writers are expected to shoulder ever more of the grunt work of the book trade—doing everything, it sometimes seems, but turning the actual printing presses themselves—it can feel as if the conditions of ancient publishing are being subtly mirrored, reverting to the time when lonely scribes like Herodotus were obliged to copy and hawk their own papyri.

Recently, as I’ve been shilling my volume of history around the traps like a Thessalian oil merchant on a street corner, I’ve tried to draw inspiration from Herodotus’s shining example. Whenever I feel exhausted, depressed, or mildly degraded, I picture him nervously clearing his throat in the Temple of Zeus. I’ve decided that shameless self-promotion is an honorable tradition dating back to the dawn of Western civilization.

That Herodotus’s literary innovation occurred at a sporting event should not surprise us. For the ancient Greeks, literature and athletics always went hand in hand, and a well-proportioned, aesthetically pleasing body was considered inseparable from a refined and elevated mind. Young boys were educated at the gymnasium, learning their letters along with their wrestling techniques, and poetry competitions were a part of almost all classical sports festivals. Apollo’s games at Delphi, for example, included events in verse recital, choral dancing, and lyre playing. At the top-ranking Olympic Games, dedicated to Zeus, artistic events were not on the official schedule, but they were integral to the experience—especially in the raucous “fringe” festival, where hordes camped out in the fields of the rural Peloponnese, drinking wine and cavorting in the company of sport-loving intellectuals, artists, and brilliant courtesans known as hetaerai. (The chaotic, unsanitary conditions of the five-day bacchanal evoked a badly planned rock concert.)

As we can see from the classical sources, these ancient Greek sports fans were anything but philistines. They had excellent taste in literature—as did the athletes themselves. Illustrious poets like Pindar were commissioned to write victory odes, which were sung at the great banquets of Olympic champions, while the bronze victory statues erected for every victor were trailblazing masterpieces of Western art. Even Plato was known to have attended the Games (he was an avid wrestling fan, while Sophocles loved handball). In short, the Greek sports crowd was the perfect demographic for a literary premiere—rather like a tanked-up audience at SummerStage today.

In the centuries to follow Herodotus’s star turn, cohorts of aspiring Greek authors would follow the maestro’s lead, premiering their work at the Games as “the short-cut to glory” (in Lucian’s words). If they couldn’t grab the main venue of the Temple of Zeus, they would set up their own makeshift booths, pontificating to the gathered crowds, while nearby vendors peddled their books at the going rate of one drachma per scroll. Every genre had its day: Philosophers read brilliant new treatises, poets their polished pearls, orators their formal rhetorical speeches (a beloved literary form in antiquity whose appeal is lost to us now). Professional anecdote tellers, forebears of the late Spalding Gray, trotted out their offerings. And the crowds were as volatile as amazon.com reviewers today. The talented were hailed with cries of Euge!—Bravo!—and shot to success. But when a tyrant named Dionysus of Syracuse hired actors to recite his poetry in 330 B.C. and it proved to be doggerel, the enraged audience roughed him up and sacked his tent.

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).