Chapter 2. Banquet, Symposium, Library

Every reader of Athenaeus, from the very first lines of his work, experiences a perverted Ariadne’s thread: by following it, one does not come out of the labyrinth; rather, one progressively penetrates it, one gets lost in its details, losing sight of the overall plan, the architect’s project, the structure and purpose of the work. Besides, such is the temptation of every reader of Athenaeus: to stop on the way, on an island of local coherence, whether that is the cabbage, Theophrastus, or the leek, without embarking on that long journey that is the reading of the work in its continuity and integrity. Let us then leave the vegetable gardens of the Greeks to adopt the point of view of Sirius on the labyrinth.
Here we are dealing with learned individuals at a banquet (deipnon), assembled at table, that is, on the occasion of festive meals. The sumposion, exclusively devoted to drinking, follows the banquet, but the title, Deipnosophists, significantly puts the accent on the time of the meal, not on that of the consumption of the wine. At the macro-structural level, Athenaeus’ work is presented as the account of a series of conversations held within a scholarly and learned circle meeting in the house of Larensius, a rich Roman patron. Those conversations are distributed so as to adapt to the subdivision of the work in books and to the temporal sequence of the dinner and of the symposium. They accompany and comment on the parade of dishes, followed by the consumption of wine and the pursuits (entertainments?) that are traditionally associated with the symposium.
The symposium is at the same time a social ritual and a literary genre, that have their roots in Greek classical culture, and the fact of referring to one and the other, in Rome, at the time of the Empire’s greatest splendor, at the end of the second century of our era, is already significant in itself.
Thus a double argument is in play. On the one hand, Athenaeus’ text can be inserted within a literary tradition rendered illustrious, in particular, by Plato’s Symposium, by that of Xenophon, by Plutarch’s Symposiacs and his Banquet of the Seven Sages, by Lucian’s Symposium, or The Lapiths, or by the episode of the banquet of Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon. [1] The Deipnosophists are inscribed in that tradition, and at the same time assert their originality, and introduce a new form within an already well-attested literary typology. Moreover, they present a critical reflection within and on the tradition to which they belong, either in the form of literary mimesis (for example in the play with the model represented by Plato’s Symposium), or in the form of explicit discussions. Still, the text of Athenaeus also maintains a relation of homology with the progress of the banquet-symposium itself. That progress constitutes the principle of composition and structuring of the work, in the form of a chronological sequence that leads from the beginning to the end, from the entrées to the sumposion, passing through all the courses, all the objects, and all the bits of entertainment that were successively displayed at such meetings. Banquet and symposium are at the same time the argument of Athenaeus’ text and its structural principle, the one that regulates the unfolding of the text and the succession of subjects that are brought up in the conversation of the guests. [2]
Indeed, those banquet and symposium conversations do not deal with anything but banquets and symposia. This includes not only those experienced first hand by the guests staged by Athenaeus, but also banquets and symposia in general, insofar as they were social practices constitutive of private or civic life in archaic and classical Greece, or, also, of the munificence of Hellenistic monarchs.
Athenaeus’ project would therefore have been to carry to its fulfillment the anthropological and archaeological reconstruction of a social practice that was constitutive of the Greek world, through the reconstruction of a universe of gestures, words, objects, dishes, and flavors, all of which would have been lost if not preserved in the books of Greek authors. His project is an anthropological reconstruction because Athenaeus’ intention is to reconstruct the norms, customs, and ethical categories that circumscribed for the Greeks the practice of eating and drinking together, under the eyes of others, within a social and political space, by submitting to the prescriptions of ritualized conviviality.
The Deipnosophists is thus a text on a banquet and on a symposium in which banquets and symposia are discussed. A double project becomes manifest. First, to reconstruct, with the help of literary testimonies and historical evidence, a universe of extinct practices and of lost knowledge. Mimesis is at the core of this attempt at cultural anamnēsis: the guests of this “dinner” in Rome, staged by a Greek of Egyptian origin, immerse themselves in a cultural universe that belongs to the past, bears the mark of the Greek tradition and identity, and is codified by works of major importance in Greek literature.
Second, the project consists in the exploration of a universe of language, through examination of the relationship between words and things, since it is a question of recounting in Greek, at the time of the Roman Empire, the course of a banquet and a symposium, of naming the objects and the customs, the dishes, and their flavors. But how, and why, should one delegate these tasks to the guests of a banquet? How can one impose upon a banquet a conversation designed to explore all of its material, social, and cultural aspects? Or, to put it in a single question: how can one drink and eat while discussing drinks and food?
The reflection of Athenaeus’ guests on their social practice and on the literary models that make up their background manifests itself at several levels. The Deipnosophists is a book on the ritual of the symposium, and provides an assortment of factual information on the dishes, the objects, the practices, and the social norms linked to this form of conviviality. But the mass of information gathered is filtered through the sieve of the library. From the beginning of the work, the delicious banquets offered by Larensius are accompanied by a hyperbolic library of ancient Greek texts, a library that exceeds in extent the most famous book collections of antiquity, even that of Aristotle, of Alexandria, and of the kings of Pergamon (1.3a–b). For Athenaeus, the library represents a field for archaeological excavation, a field for anthropological observation. The anthropologist, here, travels not only through space, but also through time: a single periēgēsis transports him to every region of the Hellenized or barbarian world as well as towards the remote past, the time of Homeric heroes, a time whose language and customs must be reconstructed in an erudite game from a distance, from the present. The observer’s informers are not natives, but written texts. Yet those books are not lifeless testimonies, and respond in a lively and interactive manner to the questions asked of them. Those questions are formulated and solved thanks to a set of intellectual techniques that allow heuristic crossings from book to book, and within each text, between literary genres, registers of speech and knowledge, between periods, in order to extract from them words and facts and to make them interact with one another. Setting and solving intellectual problems, citing and reciting, challenging each other’s erudition, mobilizing the cultural memory and competence of the man of letters, should all be included among the learned entertainments of the symposium. Athenaeus made these activities the dynamic principle of his text.
Thus Athenaeus’ characters take a reflective look at their symposium, and at the practice of the symposium in general, but also at their library, where the memory of the Greek symposium lies codified, and at the intellectual techniques that allow one to exploit its deposits of information. They become anthropologists of a culture threatened by oblivion, by the degeneration that affects books, words, objects, customs. Athenaeus’ text can indeed be read as a sort of Noah’s Ark, wherein a great scholar tries to save all that it is still possible to save, and to entrust its legacy to the long river of history. It is a rescue operation that preserves for us the memory of hundreds of authors and thousands of works which in many cases, without Athenaeus, would have been totally unknown to us. [3]
The Deipnosophists lend themselves to several levels of interpretation, depending on whether one is looking for factual information or literary testimonia, or whether one is interested in the ways in which this information is called into play, or whether one turns one’s attention to the interactive dimension that ensures the unfolding of the work: interaction between the guests, between objects, between books, and between the quotations extracted from them. The highest level of interpretation concentrates on the work itself in its totality, on its structure and on the way it functions, and it is towards that global reflection that I would now like to lead the contemporary reader of Athenaeus.


[ back ] 1. On the history of the genre, see Martin 1931:270–80; Dupont 1977; Relihan 1992.
[ back ] 2. See the very suggestive presentation offered by Lukinovich 1990.
[ back ] 3. The numbers are those given by Charles Burton Gulick, editor and translator of Athenaeus in the Loeb Classical Library; they should be compared to those of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, according to which Athenaeus cites 1250 authors, gives the titles of more than a thousand theatrical works and cites 10,000 verses.