Chapter 16. The Web of Athenaeus: The Art of Weaving Links

“Every time we meet, my friend Timocrates, you repeatedly ask me what was said at the meetings of the deipnosophists, thinking that we discover new things...” That is the opening to Book 6 (222a). In Book 14, Athenaeus once again mentions the ever new speeches that took place within Larensius’ circles (613c–d), and at the beginning of Book 15, turning to his listener, he mentions the extreme difficulty of his task, which consists in “recalling all the things that were said so often in these banquets, attended with such zeal, not only because of the diversity, but also because of the similarity of the discoveries made there time and again” (665a).
What were the novelties discovered in those meetings? [1] Surely it was neither the latest gossip about Roman high society, nor the court rumors. The formulation is paradoxical: indeed, what novelty can ever come out of the conversations of lovers of ancient Greek books, which perpetuate the rite of the Attic sumposion? And what does Athenaeus mean when he mentions the poikilia and the homoiotēs, the diversity and the similarity, of the speeches held at the domus of Larensius?
The library (that of Larensius; that of Athenaeus; that which every deipnosophist bears imprinted in his memory) seems to me to be the key to this paradox. From that space that is shared, mastered, and mapped by the catalogues and the erudition of the Hellenistic era, the rule of the game is to produce the kainon, to bring out something new and original from this intellectual and linguistic space of identity, and to reawaken those deposits of words and knowledge by way of paradoxical paths and unexpected explanations. The order of the library, the subdivisions of Callimachus’ Pinakes, the topography of literary genres and fields of knowledge, the attribution of authors to those genres and fields, but also to a geographical space and a period, the bibliographical metadata that enable the identification of books by cross-checking the criteria (title, number of books, incipit): all this contributes to structuring a mental space that may have imitated the compartments of material libraries. However, the Deipnosophists is not the map of that space, and Athenaeus did not choose, like a new Callimachus, to write the well-ordered catalogue of Larensius’ library. For him, as for his characters, the most important thing consists in passing through that space, in travelling inside it, in the tracing of itineraries that are both personal and part of a social game at the same time.
A project of that sort presupposed two conditions. The first is the construction of a complex, multidimensional space, where it is possible to move on several levels, horizontally and vertically, between the primary and the secondary literature, between literary genres, between books, and between extracts and words. If we admit that bibliographic competence and grammatical culture provided each of those scholars with a mental satellite navigation system that allowed him to move into all recesses of the library without ever losing sight of his own position within a coherent general framework, then the library could be deconstructed, apportioned into separate units, into fragments, into words. Second condition: that fragmented library is a space of travel, where the only imperative consists in never stopping and in multiplying the connections, in tracing an itinerary that connects the largest possible number of textual elements, which makes it possible to take the longest route to the destination, if possible, between poles that are extremely far from each other.
From that perspective, rather than the account of a banquet, Athenaeus’ work should be the story of a fascinating round of a party game. The rule could be formulated as follows: it is suggested to—or imposed upon—each player to localize a specific spot in the library (an author, a text), for example in the form of a question by Ulpian, a question in its turn related to one of the dishes or one of the incidents of the banquet, or even with a word pronounced by the previous player. The player must then locate his starting point (that is the meaning of Ulpian’s question: “Where can it be found?”) and, from that point, connect between them the highest possible number of other textual points. The quotations are like pawns with which the player marks the point of his itinerary as it progresses within the library. [2] If the novice players were asked to do simple things, like quoting the names of the heads of the Achaeans or the Trojans, or of the cities of Europe or Asia (10.457e–f), the expert players, which is what Athenaeus’ characters are, look for sophisticated challenges, and suggest complicated research subjects (zētēseis) to each other, sometimes forbidding recourse to the most obvious sources (as noted, Myrtilus asks Ulpian to avoid using a source known to everyone: 15.676e–f). It could be said that a good subject is one that allows the longest transversal route. Which raises the question, for the players as for the author and the reader, of where to put an end to the game, which in turn raises the possibility that it may never be complete. If the starting point is set, where does one stop, and how?
The games seem to have two inescapable rules. The first consists in the fact that the concatenation of quotations or of words must be governed by the principle of relevance. Admittedly, this principle is interpreted broadly and allows an open choice of associative strategies: by analogy, bibliographic source, theme or keywords, antithesis, mutual rectification, the successive addition of clarifications, alphabetical order, and so forth. [3] One example among others: the discussion concerning the musical instrument called sambukē leads into the mention of war machines, since one of them bears the same name (14.633f–634a). Some words can thus be semantic crossroads, allowing for the channeling of the conversation in various directions. From that point of view, it is important to master the quotations that can reveal themselves to be relevant to several subjects, since they make these sorts of thematic bifurcations possible (3.107b). The virtuosity of Athenaeus’ characters consists in relating independent words or fragments of texts to one another, and in establishing in this way the largest possible number of stages between a start and end point, before passing the ball to the next player. The main goal lies perhaps less in the quotations that are produced (any well-trained slave was capable of that), than in the intellectual process that connects them. The second rule consists in the fact that those routes have to remain within the library, that is within the space of what is said, what can be said, what is attested. In this game, nothing is said without the production of witnesses or guarantors. The bibliographic reference has the value of an authenticator, and it is indispensible for the game to be valid. Included in the rule of the game: one can cite an author either because one has read him in person, or on the basis of a previous quotation taken up by a lexicographer or a compiler—a small concession that enables a considerable increase of the repertory of relevant quotations.
This game is also the compositional principle of the work of Athenaeus himself. The text of the Deipnosophists could be considered as the chronohistory of those navigations, of that game. Athenaeus collects those fragments of itinerary one after another, the sum of which actually makes possible a complete tour of the library. This, then, is what the originality of his project consists in: in having attempted to pin down the flow, the connections made by memory, those continuous movements and those mental associations; in having made of the mobility and dynamics the compositional principle of a text, which has prevented an immense collection of reading notes from sinking into chaos.
Let us give one example among a thousand others: “Heliodorus says that Antiochus Epiphanes, whom Polybius refers to as Epimanes because of his conduct, had the water of the fountain of Antioch mixed with wine: this is what the Phrygian Midas had done, says Theopompus […]. According to Bion, the spring is common to the Maedes and to the Paeonians, and it is called Inna. Staphylus says that Melampus was the first to mix wine with water. Pleistonicus claims that water is also better for the digestion than wine” (2.45c). In a few lines seven authors are cited, and a single thread links water and wine; the whole seasoned with parentheses (Polybius interrupts Heliodorus), with geographical clarifications (Bion on the fountain), with a parallel (Theopompus), with a reference to the tradition of inventions and medical literature.
Some itineraries can run through a given author in a sequence of quotations: Poseidonius (4.151e ff.; 6.246c–d), Theopompus (6.166d–167a) or Demetrius of Scepsis (4.173f–174a). Others can take their cue from an analogy with the preceding statement: the treatment given by Cynulcus to the feast of the Phagēsia inspires Plutarch to take up the feast of the Lagunophoria in Alexandria, kata to homoion (7.276a). Still others proceed by concentric movements or by measuring distance radially from a single word. Or they have recourse to the disagreement of sources concerning a given question: the vine was invented in Olympia, claims Theopompus. Hellanicus says it was in an Egyptian city. Dio the Academic adds that this is the cause of the the Egyptians’ love of wine and drinking. And Aristotle adds that drunks fall on their face... (1.34a–b).
So, to return to the dialogue between Athenaeus and Timocrates, where does the “novelty” of the subjects treated in the conversations of the deipnosophists lie? Admitting that each of their meetings traced a new itinerary within the library, based on the playful and interactive pattern that we imagine, the result could then be the account of a new trip every time, with stops, points of view, unexpected meetings, within a cultural space nevertheless well-provided with points of reference. A travel account that, for example, made it possible to revisit Strabo’s Geography, perhaps by means of a secondary source, so as to extract from it information on the city of Saxitania, famous for its salted fish (3.121a). [4] Or to show how even an author of primary importance like Polybius can bring, to those who know how to read him, an interesting contribution to the moral, material, and political archaeology of the culture of the symposium. [5] The Deipnosophists that we read today is but one configuration among other possible ones for the same subject, but also, possibly, for other subjects (what results would Athenaeus’ “method” yield if applied to subjects like art, the gods, animals, war, the city...?).
The contemporary category of hypertext can help us understand the status of Athenaeus’ text, and the nature and purpose of the intellectual operations that produced it. Hypertext can be defined as a writing technique and as a reading technique at the same time. Both rely on itineraries, within one or several texts, that do not respect the linearity and continuity of writing, but establish links between spatially disjointed fragments or units of meaning. The links can be predefined by the author—the possibility of choice for the user is in this case limited—or they can be established by the reader himself, as a function of, for example, a specific intellectual project, or of a search for information. The best example of a hypertext is a standard webpage, on the present-day internet, where a certain number of connections can guide the reader to other pages, in a sort of arborescence of the document, or even to an infinite number of other documents, physically independent, but such that they can be put in relation with each other through the common thread of a keyword, a common theme, or of various degrees of logical or narrative presupposition. [6]
Of course, today the Deipnosophists is presented as a continuous and linear text, at least on a formal level. Yet the work in its complexity corresponds to a hypertextual trip through the space of the library, since the game of the deipnosophists consists in connecting between them hundreds of independent words and fragments of texts, in juxtaposing them and putting them in series, in passing from one to another. If that practice is the equivalent of an oral mnemotechnical performance, it is also the foundation of the discursive form chosen by Athenaeus, a complex redistribution of reading notes that follow the series of courses and of pastimes of a banquet. One could object that fixed in this way in a sequence of fifteen books, the text no longer presents the dynamic mobility that is constitutive of hypertext. However, all the indicators of anaphoric and cataphoric references that link together separate parts of the work testify that the reader was invited to navigate upstream and downstream, to break the linearity of his path. Besides, Athenaeus provides a hypertext for the reader, or, more exactly, a chronohistory of his navigations, with all the textual places he has passed through successively within the library. Finally, one can wonder whether the work in itself required a linear reading or, on the contrary, favored ad hoc and discontinuous consultation, depending on, for instance, some particular thematic curiosity, or on the need to collect materials for a writing project.


[ back ] 1. See also Braund 2000b:18.
[ back ] 2. The process of quotation is defined as a “path”: 4.164d: hexēs katadramontos. Elsewhere it is also possible to note the presence of the vocabulary of digression: parexēben (10.429f).
[ back ] 3. On the importance of analogy and digression as factors in the articulation of the quotations in the Deipnosophists, see Pelling 2000. See also the discussion in Anderson 1974:2181ff: “Athenaeus exhibits an almost Ovidian ingenuity in managing the transitions.”
[ back ] 4. It would be interesting to develop the parallel between the figures of the cooks, both in the quotations from comedy and when they speak during the course of the banquet, and the deipnosophists. Indeed, both have the task of producing “novelty” with respect to their predecessors: 9.405d.
[ back ] 5. On this question I am entirely in line with F. Walbank, “Athenaeus and Polybius,” in Athenaeus and his World, 161–69, who shows how Athenaeus is not interested in the central theme of Polybius’ work (the conquest of the oikoumenē by the Romans), and that instead, his quotations are the result of an original eklogē conducted directly on the text in search of materials relevant to his project.
[ back ] 6. In the perspective of the history of the book and of writing practices, I believe the best introduction to these questions to be Bolter 1991.