Chapter 3. “Athenaeus is the Father of this Book”

What was Athenaeus’ project? Why did he not stop at the stage of compilation, which would have allowed him to possess a collection of excerpts from a wide range of books, or to write a monograph on the pleasures of the table, perhaps even a glossary of the rare words of culinary art? To what end did he build up this mirrored set-up, where the banquet and the symposium diffract into a kaleidoscope of words and information, into a conversation of diners and drinkers exploring the literary memory and cultural knowledge that are specific to banquets and symposia? Why those multiple levels of interpretation? And what do these reveal of Athenaeus’ working methods, of his background, of his goals, of the intended recipients of his work, if any?
And first of all: who was Athenaeus? “Athenaeus is the father of this book”: these are the opening words of Book 1, in the abbreviated version of the Epitome. The title preserved in Marcianus A further specifies that Athenaeus was a native of Naucratis. We know little more about the man than what his work tells us explicitly or allows us to extrapolate.
Athenaeus was a native of Naucratis, a Greek city in Egypt located on the Canopic branch of the Nile, to the East of Alexandria. [1] Founded by Milesian settlers around 620 BC, Naucratis had special status from the reign of Amasi onwards (6th century BC): it was the oldest Greek city founded in Egypt, and it was given its own laws. It is in the region of Naucratis that Plato’s Phaedrus places the god Theuth, the inventor of calculus, of astronomy, of the game of dice, and of writing. [2]
It was one of the Greek cities of Lagid Egypt, together with Alexandria and Ptolemais. With the foundation of Alexandria, however, it lost its commercial supremacy. Under the Lagids, Naucratis contributed to the cultural growth of Alexandria with a certain number of scholars (the historians Philistus and Charon), with authors of Aegyptiaka like Lyceas and Dinon, [3] or with the poet Timodemus. [4] In the third century BC, Apollonius of Rhodes had written a Foundation of Naucratis, [5] thus rooting the city in the cultural space of Hellenism. Besides, Athenaeus has preserved a fragment of that text, which he attributes to Apollonius of Rhodes “or of Naucratis” (7.283d–e), [6] a sign of the fact that it was important for a Greek city to claim as its own the authors who were born on its soil.
In the imperial period the city was an important center of sophistic culture, whose representatives occasionally emigrated to Athens: that was the case for Proclus of Naucratis, the master of Philostratus. Proclus owned a private library which he shared with his disciples. [7] Among the other sophists who were natives of Naucratis, one should mention, for the second half of the second century AD, Apollonius and Ptolemy, but also Pollux, the author of a Lexikon, who was perhaps the model of Lucian’s Master of Rhetoric; he came to Rome, where among his disciples there was the young Commodus.
Athenaeus is certainly representative of that intellectual environment. A contemporary of Pollux, he shared his interest for lexicography; like Pollux, Athenaeus too came to Rome, and in Rome he remained, contrary to Pollux who, thanks to the protection of Commodus, went to teach rhetoric in Athens. Athenaeus does not seem to have gained familiarity with the imperial family; instead, he entered the circle of a rich Roman of equestrian rank, Larensius, the host of the banquets and symposia staged in the Deipnosophists. We are thus in the middle of a patronage relationship that associates a well-known character of Roman society to a primarily Greek intellectual circle, within which, however, there is also no lack of Roman patronyms. In this way, the Deipnosophists reflects a social reality in which Rome appears as a pole of attraction for men of letters and sophists of Greek origin. In the second half of the second century AD, Appian of Alexandria offers another example of a scholar of Greek origin attracted by Rome as a place to seek a career. Indeed, those immigrant Greeks put themselves under the protection of cultured Romans who were as rich and as powerful as possible: Appian benefitted from the friendship of Fronto, who obtained for him the position of procurator from the emperor Antoninus Pius. [8] As for Athenaeus, he dedicated his work to Larensius, a Roman so generous and cultured that he offered lavish feasts to a circle of Greek and Roman men of letters.
We know little more of the personal itinerary of Athenaeus than what is implicit in his text. One cannot but be struck by the significant link that unites his “Athenian” name to his Egyptian origin, but also to a work that is manifestly rooted in the heart of the capital of the Roman empire. That triangle marks the limits of the Deipnosophists’ cultural space, between Atticism, which re-incarnates a past ideal of language and culture, the Egyptian pole, where through metonymy Naucratis conjures up Alexandria, its library and its immense project of cultural reactivation, and finally Rome, the new center of the world and a center of power where the synthesis, or at least its writing into history can take place. All we learn from Athenaeus is that he had left Egypt a long time ago (7.312a); despite that, Egypt nevertheless represents an emotional and intellectual horizon that underlies the work as a whole.
That emotional horizon manifests itself in the diffuse presence of Egypt in the work, of Hellenistic Egypt rather than the traditional Egypt of the pyramids, the sources of the Nile and the other mirabilia (thaumata) dear to Herodotus. [9] Athenaeus shows his attachment to his fatherland when he recalls “my Naucratites” (3.73a). In the same way, he remembers that “in my own Naucratis they call hepsētoi the small fish that remain imprisoned in the canals when the Nile withdraws from the plain” (7.301c). And when a guest explains in detail the list of wine cups, it is noted that in Naucratis, “the home of our fellow diner Athenaeus,” there are several types of cup. This introduces a parenthesis in which one is reminded that many potters were active in Naucratis and that for that reason the gate located in the vicinity of their workshops was called Keramikē (11.480d–e). The same local roots probably explain the mention of Naucratis in relation to various subjects addressed in the course of the conversation, be it public banquets on the occasion of religious feasts (4.149d–150a), famous prostitutes (13.596b–d), or the art of flower crowns, concerning which Athenaeus mentions his reading of the work of Polycharmus of Naucratis, On Aphrodite (15.675f–676c), the latter being a goddess that was particularly dear to the Naukratites (ibid.). In the course of a long treatise addressed to Timocrates, Athenaeus also evokes “my Alexandrians” (12.541a), which shows the metonymic link between the two cities.
As for the intellectual horizon, there is indeed a strong continuity between the vast cultural project linked to the Library of Alexandria—the gathering of the cultural and literary heritage, along with the classification and quasi-cartographic distribution of the fields of knowledge and of the books themselves—and the work of Athenaeus. Alexandria, its library, its erudite techniques and its college of authoritative scholars are very present in the Deipnosophists. Both in the library and in Athenaeus’ text, one can observe the same intellectual requirements: to inventory, reactivate, classify, enumerate, categorize. Between what was achieved in Alexandria or Pergamon by many generations of scholars and grammarians, and what Athenaeus accomplished in his work, there is thus an undeniable relation of homology, but also of derivation, mimesis, and condensation: the Deipnosophists is a condensed library, a Library of Alexandria reduced to the dimensions of a book.
The presence of Athenaeus, however, cannot be reduced to that Egyptian horizon whose summoning suggests a form of emotional and patriotic attachment characteristic of the period. Athenaeus stages himself in his text, at two different levels. In the first instance as one of the diners at the banquets and symposia, where he appears neither as the most talkative, nor as the most sparkling; he maintains his position as a man of letters, and incidentally one learns that he was also the author of a work called On the Kings of Syria (5.211a) and a treatise on The Fishes, a comedy by Archippus (7.329b–c). Athenaeus belongs in the first person to the library that he browses and explores, and it is not given that his production was limited to those two titles. What’s more, one could highlight how those two works, necessarily earlier than the Deipnosophists, prefigure the latter’s favorite themes, whether that is the lust of oriental monarchs, the consumption of fish, or comic texts. [10]
Secondly, Athenaeus stages himself as the narrator of those banquets for the benefit of Timocrates, a friend who did not take part in them. This type of embedded account is inspired by the architecture of Plato’s Phaedo and his Symposium. It thus inserts the work within the complex dialectics of memory, orality, and writing. Athenaeus recounts to Timocrates, as he remembers them, the progress of the banquet and the content of the conversations of the guests. The guests themselves draw from their memory the recollections of reading: countless quotations taken from books and put into play and into action in the live speech of conversation. There is, therefore, a container-dialogue, that between Athenaeus and Timocrates, and a content-dialogue, that of the deipnosophists, but it is the writing that fixates them both and substitutes the temporality of reading, with the rhythm of the subdivision into books, with that of hearing, which was itself divided into several sections. [11]


[ back ] 1. On the foundation of Naucratis see Boardman 1980:117–34 and Moeller 2000.
[ back ] 2. Plato, Phaedrus 274C.
[ back ] 3. See Fraser 1972:1.511 and 3.736ff., nn. 134–36. Athenaeus cites Lyceas (4.150b; 13.560e and 14.616d).
[ back ] 4. Fraser 1972:1.582.
[ back ] 5. Fraser 1972:1.632.
[ back ] 6. See Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 15.23.30
[ back ] 7. Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 2.21. It is significant that Philostratus does not mention Athenaeus among the famous sophists of Naucratis.
[ back ] 8. See Swain 1996:248–53; and on Fronto, Champlin 1980.
[ back ] 9. See Thompson 2000.
[ back ] 10. On those two works see the overviews by Braund 2000 and Wilkins 2000.
[ back ] 11. See for example 10.459b–c, where Athenaeus postpones to the following day, that is to say the following book, the account of the conversation on drinking wares.