The best books on the classical world to accompany the 2021 Olympics

Why am I passionate about this?

As a historian, journalist, and travel writer, Tony Perrottet has made a career out of bringing the past to vivid life. Born in Australia, he started writing as a foreign correspondent in South America, where he covered guerrilla wars in Peru, drug running in Colombia, and military rebellions in Argentina. He continues to commute to Athens, Iceland, Tierra del Fuego, and Havana, while contributing to the Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, amongst others. He has written six books on subjects ranging from classical tourism to the Pope's "pornographic bathroom" in the Vatican, and most recently, ¡Cuba Libre!, an anecdotal account of the Cuban Revolution. His travel stories have been selected seven times for the Best American Travel Writing series, and he is a regular guest on the History Channel, where he has spoken about everything from the Crusades to the birth of disco.


I wrote...

The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

By Tony Perrottet,

Book cover of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

What is my book about?

While researching a book on ancient Roman tourists, Pagan Holiday, I discovered that the classical Olympic Games were history's longest-running festival, held without fail, every four years for nearly twelve centuries. It's an astonishing record given that the modern Olympics have been canceled three times due to wars since they were restarted in Athens in 1896, and the 2021 Tokyo Games were delayed a year due to the Covid pandemic. I also realized that the ancient Greek Olympics were chaotic and sprawling events -- the Woodstock of Antiquity -- where 40,000 sports fans crowded in wretched conditions, punished by searing summer heat, plagues of flies, endless dust, and dehydration. But they were also unforgettable spectacles, combining sports with religious rituals, cultural tourism, political grandstanding, and a level of debauchery that impressed Emperor Nero when he competed in the chariot race.

In The Naked Olympics, I set out to recreate what it might really have been like to visit the festival as a competitor, a sports fan, or an official, using firsthand reports and obscure sources, including an actual Handbook for a Sports Coach used by the ancient Greeks. My aim was to peel away the layers of myth that cloud our vision of the classical world to understand the experience itself, including the round-the-clock bacchanal inside the tents of the Olympic Village, the all-male nude workouts under the statue of Eros (all athletes went naked in the Greek world), and history's first corruption scandals involving competitors. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Tony Perrottet Why did I love this book?

This is a thoroughly readable introduction to the strange and marvelous daily life of the Athenians, a compendium of intriguing details about their drinking habits, banquet behavior, and complex attitudes to homosexuality and prostitution. (One great poem cited by Eubulus describes a wine-fueled symposium: “the fourth libation belongs to Hubris; the fifth to Shouting; the Sixth to Revel; the seventh to Black Eyes; the eighth to Summonses; the Ninth to Bile; and the tenth to Madness.”)

By James Davidson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Courtesans and Fishcakes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliantly entertaining and innovative history of the ancient Athenians' consuming passions for food, wine and sex.

Sex, shopping and fish-madness, Athenian style.

This fascinating book reveals that the ancient Athenians were supreme hedonists. Their society was driven by an insatiable lust for culinary delights - especially fish - fine wine and pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, great fortunes were squandered and politicians' careers ruined through ritual drinking at the symposium, or the wooing of highly-coveted, costly prostitutes.

James Davidson brings an incisive eye and an urbane wit to this refreshingly accessible and different history of the people who invented…


Book cover of The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece

Tony Perrottet Why did I love this book?

Of the over 1,000 independent city-states that made up the Hellenic world -- and competed in the Olympic Games -- Sparta is today the most notorious and influential (after Athens). This book provides a wonderful insight into its extraordinary culture, where Spartan males were brought up in a strict, even ruthless regime of military training, discipline, and self-sacrifice for the communal good -- but where women were given unexpected freedom and power.

By Paul Cartledge,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Spartans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Spartan legend has inspired and captivated subsequent generations with evidence of its legacy found in both the Roman and British Empires. The Spartans are our ancestors, every bit as much as the Athenians. But while Athens promoted democracy, individualism, culture and society, their great rivals Sparta embodied militarism, totalitarianism, segregation and brutal repression. As ruthless as they were self-sacrificing, their devastatingly successful war rituals made the Spartans the ultimate fighting force, epitomized by Thermopylae. While slave masters to the Helots for over three centuries, Spartan women, such as Helen of Troy, were free to indulge in education, dance and…


Book cover of Iliad

Tony Perrottet Why did I love this book?

Some of the most evocative descriptions of ancient Greek athletics -- or indeed, athletics in any era -- appear in this founding text of Western literature. A sports meet held in the plain before besieged Troy is organized by Achilles in honor of the fallen Patroclus, featuring wildly exciting chariot races, wrestling, foot races, discus throwing, and archery. I personally prefer Stanley Lombardo's translation, which has a directness and vitality that brings the text to life. In a boxing match, for example, a certain Epeius fells his opponent Euryalus with just one punch, an uppercut: "His friends  Dragged him through the crowd with feet trailing, Spitting out clots of blood, head hanging to one side."

By Homer, Stanley Lombardo (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Iliad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Gripping. . . . Lombardo's achievement is all the more striking when you consider the difficulties of his task. . . . [He] manages to be respectful of Homer's dire spirit while providing on nearly every page some wonderfully fresh refashioning of his Greek. The result is a vivid and disarmingly hardbitten reworking of a great classic." -Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review


Book cover of The Nazi Olympics

Tony Perrottet Why did I love this book?

A juicy account of the most dubious of the modern Olympics, held as a propaganda event in Hitler's Berlin in 1936. For classical history buffs, the most intriguing element is how the Nazis purloined certain "ancient Greek" legacies for their own purposes -- creating the pseudo-tradition of the Olympic torch being carried from Greece, for example, which remains popular to this day. (And of course, it was all captured and glorified by the director Leni Riefenstahl in her film Olympia).

By Richard D. Mandell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nazi Olympics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Nazi Olympics is the unsurpassed expose of one of the most bizarre festivals in sport history. Not only does it provide incisive portraits of such key figures as Adolf Hitler, Jesse Owens, Leni Riefenstahl, Helen Stephens, Kee Chung Sohn, and Avery Brundage, it also vividly conveys the entire dazzling charade that reinforced and mobilized the hysterical patriotism of the German masses.


Book cover of The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

Tony Perrottet Why did I love this book?

The Eastern tradition of "sports" is entirely different from the Western (indeed, many practitioners of martial arts in the East don't regard them as competitive sports at all, but disciplines where one competes, in a sense, with oneself). I wrote a piece on the history of karate for Smithsonian Magazine, since it is making its debut in Tokyo in August, and found this book (despite its dry and academic title) to be a fascinating introduction to the surprising growth of Japanese martial arts around the world.

By Raúl Sánchez García,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first long-term historical-sociological analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts.

Uses the theoretical framework of figurational sociology and draws on rich empirical data.

A new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation.

Considers the neglected role of women in martial arts.

You might also like...

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

This book is a deep dive into jazz's history, impact, and future. It discusses jazz's social, cultural, and political influence and reveals areas where jazz has had an impact we may not even realize.Its influences on hip hop, the connection to…

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
Critics comment:
"This new book by Sammy Stein is a highly individual take on…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in martial arts, Athens, and Germany?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about martial arts, Athens, and Germany.

Martial Arts Explore 30 books about martial arts
Athens Explore 51 books about Athens
Germany Explore 481 books about Germany