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

The Books I Picked & Why

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

By James Davidson

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Why 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.”)


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

By Paul Cartledge

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

Why 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.


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Iliad

By Homer, Stanley Lombardo

Iliad

Why 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."


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The Nazi Olympics

By Richard D. Mandell

The Nazi Olympics

Why 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).


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The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

By Raúl Sánchez García

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts

Why 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.


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