Chapter 10. Serving the Dishes, Quoting the Texts: The Unfolding of the Banquet

One of the threads of Ariadne that allow a reader to circulate within that labyrinth is constituted by the very development of the banquet and the parade of dishes. Athenaeus took care to underline the most important points of reference, in the form of a comprehensive account that delineates the general framework of the guests’ conversations.
The guests take their places and lie down on the symposium couches as they please, without waiting to be given a place by the superintendent of the banquets, the onomaklētōr (2.47e). In his Symposiacs, Plutarch nevertheless called attention to the necessity of seeing to the careful placing of the guests, with the aim of ensuring the success of the conversation (1.2: “On whether the host must himself see to the seating of the guests, or on the contrary leave them the freedom to choose”; see also 5.5.678C). Athenaeus’ guests, however, form a much more homogeneous group than Plutarch’s; the latter’s success presupposed that contiguities were finely studied, with the aim of preserving the collective dynamics of the conversation, ensuring, for example, that next to a scholar would be seated a person who wished to receive instruction (
The gathering of Larensius’ circle is put under the authority of a symposiarch (4.159e), the same Ulpian, who is also described as “superintendent (tamias) of banquets” (2.58b). [1] We have few indications on the place of the banquet as such, or on the furniture. The incessant parade of slaves and cooks, however, reminds us that we are in the house of a rich individual, whose munificence Athenaeus highlights several times.
One can presume that once they were lying on the couches, the guests were presented with a tablet (grammateidion ti) containing the dinner’s menu, with the dishes that the cook was getting ready to prepare. This usage is mentioned in general terms in the compendium of Book 1 (49d). That “tablet”, for us readers, is nothing other than Athenaeus’ work itself. And the menu, precisely, is the connecting thread of both the text and the meeting, the “programme” of the banquet and of the conversation.
First of all, Larensius’ guests take an apéritif (2.58b: propoma). As for the dinner, it opens with hors d’œuvres like salted fish (3.116a), but the dinner proper only begins in Book 4, as announced by Athenaeus (3.127d). Ulpian indicates its end: “Once we have finished eating (epei dedeipnamen),” dwelling on the specific verb form he used for the occasion, with great deployment of comic quotations (10.422e). At that point the symposium can begin: “The time has come for us to drink!” (10.423b–c); Ulpian gives the example, emptying his cup and proposing a toast (10.425f–426b). After his long typological list of wine-cups, which remains, in this respect, a passage of reference for modern archaeologists, and accompanied by applause, Plutarch makes a libation to the Muses and to their mother, Mnemosyne, Memory, and drinks to everyone’s health (11.503f). Larensius had taken care to enliven the symposium with various types of entertainment, like, for example, those jesters who then become a good subject of conversation to the guests (14.613c–d). What’s more, that fine connoisseur of Homer had not missed this occasion to bring rhapsodes who would recite his favorite poems (14.620b). Since wine revived the appetite, it was common also to serve a whole series of sweets and delicacies, which the ancients called “second table”, and which to the reader, who has been satiated for a while, look similar to a second meal (14.639b). The servants then bring crowns and perfumes (15.669c, 676e), which confer a certain lightness to the conversation of the last book, augmented by the fact that crowns and perfumes are accompanied by songs, the Attic skolia (693f). When Ulpian and Cynulcus have already gone, the symposium comes to a close with libations and with the singing of a paean.
The incidents that occur during the meal are rather rare, and have the function of introducing shifts in direction, or even real breaks, in the subjects of conversation. When the guests hear the sound of a hydraulic organ played in the vicinity, the conversation passes very naturally from sacrificial cuisine to that instrument, thanks to the intervention of the musician Alcides, incited by Ulpian to speak on the subject (4.174a–b). The sound of flutes, the noise of the cymbalum and the rumble of the drums, accompanied by songs, resonating throughout the city, mark the celebration of the feast of the Parilia, which commemorated the foundation of Rome every year on 21 April (8.361e–f).
The late arrival of the citharode Amoebeus during the symposium—the meal having finished for some time—is the occasion of a scene of comedy in the form of a sophisticated exchange of quotations with the cook Sophon: the citharode is invited to join the company, and having drunk a glass of wine he begins to sing while accompanying himself on the cither and earning everyone’s admiration (14.622d–623d). Shortly after, Masurius’ long digression on music ends on the low-pitched sound of an aulos, and the music-loving jurist concludes by quoting verses from Philetairus’ Man who Loved the Pipes: “Oh, Zeus, how nice it is to die to the sound of the pipes...” (14.633e). Towards the end, the sumposion is invaded by tumult (15.669b), but it does not turn into a kōmos of pleasure-seeking merrymakers as in Plato’s Symposium, where Alcibiades made his memorable entrance in quite the same way (212c–213a). Ulpian is the first to leave the party, having asked for two crowns and a torch (15.686b). A theatrical exit that bears the mark of nostalgia: his imminent death places the banquet at a time that is now past. Without Ulpian, Cynulcus would be less brilliant and Larensius’ circle would lose its symposiarch and entertainer. Thus all the other deipnosophists leave, asking the slave for a lantern as night has fallen in the meantime (15.699d); soon after, Cynulcus also leaves, after a last allusion to the beautiful Agathon of Plato’s Symposium (15.701b).
The ballet of servants bringing dishes gives rhythm to the progression of the banquet as to that of the conversation (6.224b, 262b). Sometimes it is the cook in person who enters the scene—a traditional resource of comedy—to show he is learned in sophistics, rhetoric, and his art: thus he appears to comment on his half-roasted, half-boiled pork (9.376c), or to announce and present an enigmatic dish, the mūma (14.658e). If it is true that the guests will reproach each other for their voracity, on the whole, table manners do not receive much attention. One should note, however, the vivid description of an Epicurean who throws himself on an eel, removes the flesh from its sides and reduces it to a bone, exclaiming: “Here is the Helen of banquets: I will be its Paris!” (7.298d). To the expert Cynulcus falls the task of attributing to him the prize for gluttony. The act of eating is treated with noteworthy discretion. Eating and speaking at the same time turns out to be problematic, and that problem, which refers to the conventions of the literary genre of the symposium, where dialogue only started once the meal was finished, constitutes one of the dialogue’s comic resources. In return, the deipnosophists drink and speak together during the symposium, and Cynulcus, in fact, is half asleep and in a state of drunkenness, a state which his companions take advantage of in order to rub him with perfume (15.685f, 686c).
It is opportune at this point to clarify an ambiguous point in Athenaeus’ text that has generated some perplexity in modern commentaries. If at the macro-structural level Athenaeus recounts the unfolding of a banquet and a symposium, from the apéritif to the final libation, in the detail of his account he refers without any doubt to several banquets, either to underline their general characteristics, or to bring to the fore a particular fact or event that occurs at a given moment. For example, on a winter day, pumpkin is served to the deipnosophists, who are amazed to find it is fresh (9.372b). Another time, a big fish is served in a vinegar-and-brine-based sauce (9.385b). The reader cannot help but note the multiple indices of this oscillation between one and many: temporal markers (“one day”, “often”, “every time”), [2] the alternate use of singular and plural (“our symposium”, “our symposia”). [3]
Athenaeus is sometimes even more explicit. After recalling the conversation on riddles, he interrupts his account to Timocrates, since in the meantime night has fallen, and puts off to the next day the account relating to the wine-cups (10.459b). [4] A similar interruption occurs in the course of the banquet itself: at the beginning of Book 11, the deipnosophists meet at the usual time (kath’hōran) and sit rather than lie before the conversation begins. Is it a different banquet, or simply a pause between deipnon and sumposion, a pause during which the guests had left their couches? In any case, Ulpian, the symposiarch, invites everyone to lie down without wasting any more time, to listen to Plutarch of Alexandria speak of the wine-cups (460a–b and 461e). In the same way, the meeting is interrupted at the end of Book 14, “because it is night now” (664f): it is unclear whether this refers to the symposium or to the dialogue between Athenaeus and Timocrates? In any case, the mention of that interruption brings Book 14 to an end.
Those multiple contextual and temporal markers have sometimes been seen as proof that the entire text of the Deipnosophists in its present state is a compendium of the original work; Athenaeus’ thirty books would, in that case, have been reduced to fifteen by a compiler who left some indications of how the work was previously organized. [5] The work that we read today, however, was evidently structured from the start in a total of fifteen books, as the beginning and the end of each of those testify. [6] On the basis of those indications we would prefer to draw two different conclusions. First of all, Larensius’ circle met regularly, perhaps at times that were agreed in advance (kath’hōran). The festivities of the table provided the frame for a social and intellectual activity that, in Rome, was known to everyone (1.2a: poluthrulētos). Secondly, Athenaeus attempts to synthesize important facts and discussions that took place in the course of the many meetings of their circle; for that reason, one can easily admit that extra memories (“one day”, pote) were inserted in the connecting thread that is the main banquet, which is even more a narrative structure than the faithful account of a given and unique event. The inconsistencies that strike us reveal a text that is in the making, a great enterprise that by its very nature was perhaps bound to remain unfinished, to go through perpetual processes of expansion and reworking.
Thus, in the ritualized stages of their development, the banquet and the sumposion offer a familiar connecting thread to help the reader move and orient himself in the labyrinth of words and quotations. Moreover, this connecting thread offers a point of reference to the reader, who can thus follow the distribution of topics within the fifteen books according to the development of a typical banquet. Before closing this section, I would like to underline the crucial role played by the service of the meal’s courses, which simultaneously circulates the meal’s dishes and the quotations that gloss them. It is the same verb, paratithesthai, that describes the presentation of the dishes and the quotation of the texts: a single act of exhibition for both. [7] And the pinakes—the trays—that go round abundantly in the course of the banquet and of the conversations that accompany it, carry not only the dishes of the meal, but also their names and the list of literary texts that mention them. The pinakes circulating among the guests resonate with Callimachus’ Pinakes, that monument of Alexandrian bibliography [8] . The unfolding of the banquet is thus the organizational principle of the text. The cooks and the servants, the scholars, ultimately fulfill the same task: to parade the dishes and the words, in an uninterrupted sequence, to everyone’s pleasure.


[ back ] 1. On the role of the symposiarch see Plutarch, Symposiacs 1.4.
[ back ] 2. See e.g. 8.331b–c; 9.385b; 402c: “often kid was served, prepared in various ways”; see also 14.616e, 617f; 15.665a–b.
[ back ] 3. See e.g. 1.2a: “meeting” (sunousia); 1.4b: Larensius’ “banquet” (deipnon); 15.665a: “these banquets”.
[ back ] 4. With Rodríguez-Noriega Guillén 2000:250–52, I understand this passage as a reference to the time of the frame narrative (Athenaeus recounting the banquets to Timocrates), which explains the use of the present, and not as referring to the time of the events described within that frame (that is, the banquet itself).
[ back ] 5. K. Mengis, in the footsteps of Kaibel, was one of the principal proponents of this thesis, going so far as to suggest the hypothesis that each of the thirty original books corresponded to a separate banquet, on the model of Plutarch’s Symposiacs: see Mengis 1920:4ff.
[ back ] 6. This has been demonstrated by Düring 1936. See also the discussions by Arnott 2000:42ff. and Rodríguez-Noriega Guillén 2000:244–55.
[ back ] 7. Paratithesthai in the sense of “to quote”; see e.g. 2.60d–e; 3.76a, 84c, 127b; 4.170e, 6.269e; 7.304b, 317a; 9.387d; 10.423f; 11.467e, 472e, 479c, 485d–f, 501e; 12.525e; 14.629a; 15.676d, 679b, 692f; in the sense of “serving dishes”: 1.7d, 8f, 9a; 2.59f, 69c,70f, 90b; 3.100d, 120c–d; 4.130f, 131a, 132a, 136c, etc.
[ back ] 8. Blum 1991.