The Web of Athenaeus

  Jacob, Christian. 2013. The Web of Athenaeus. Hellenic Studies Series 61. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 1. On the Art of Planting Cabbage

On opening the Deipnosophists randomly, the reader could chance upon the following passage (1.34c): “That the Egyptians like wine is also proven by the fact that only there as a custom during meals, before all foods, still today they serve boiled cabbage.” Curious, he will continue reading: “And many add cabbage seeds to the foods prepared against drunkenness. And in the vineyards where cabbages grow, the wine becomes less vigorous.”

There follow six quotations from comic poets, Alexis, Eubulus, Apollodorus of Carystus, Anaxandrides, Nicochares, and Amphis, all between two and four verses in length. One learns that boiled cabbage is an excellent antidote for the headache of the immoderate drinker; that the Ancients called cabbage raphanos, and not krambē; that cabbage, eaten in quantity, lightens the weight of one’s concerns and dissipates the cloud that weighs down like a shadow on one’s forehead (just like wine, one will reflect); and that nevertheless, in truth, against drunkenness there exists no better remedy than a sharp pain, and that cabbage is nothing in comparison.

This particular property of cabbage is further clarified through Theophrastus, the very authoritative peripatetic author of the Enquiry Into Plants, who teaches us that the vine cannot tolerate the smell of the cabbage. Thus closes the first book of the Deipnosophists, or at least the abbreviated version provided by the Epitome, since for this part of the work our only source is the summary of the lost original.

After this first contact with the work of Athenaeus, our reader could have the desire to read a further specimen. He will then by chance open Book 9 and fall on a catalogue of vegetables, and once again on cabbages (9.369e–f): “The cabbage. Eudemus of Athens, in his book On Vegetables, says that there are three sorts of cabbage, the so-called “maritime cabbage”, the smooth-leaf, and the celery-leaved; in flavor the “maritime” is considered superior. It grows in Eretria, Cumae, and Rhodes, and also in Cnidus and Ephesus. The smooth-leaf variety grows in all countries. The celery-leaved one takes its name from its curliness, for in this respect it resembles celery, as well as in its tendency towards compactness. Theophrastus writes thus: “Of the cabbage (as this is what I mean when I say raphanos), there are two sorts, one curly-leaved, the other wild.” Diphilus of Siphnos says: “The cabbage which grows in Cyme is very good and sweet, but in Alexandria, on the contrary, it is bitter. Seeds imported from Rhodes to Alexandria produce a cabbage which is sweet for the first year, but after that period they contract the bitterness of the soil.”

Further on one learns, through a quotation from Nicander’s Georgica, that the ancients called the cabbage a “prophet” and asserted that the vegetable had a sacred character. This is borne out, in this case, by the use of the oath formula “by the cabbage” (which functions like “by Zeus”) and is documented by four literary quotations. This type of oath, adds Athenaeus, is Ionian. The cabbage, on the other hand, was offered to Athenian parturient women, and served as an enrichment to their diet. After other quotations clarifying the nutritional status of cabbage, Athenaeus passes on to the chard, the carrot, the leek, etc. Our reader will limit himself, for the moment, to the cabbage, and will not be indoctrinated by the encyclopedic catalogue of the universe of vegetables in the cultural, literary and linguistic spheres of ancient Greece. If anything, he will ask himself one first question concerning the status of the text that he happens to have in his hands.

Where does its peculiarity come from? From its inexhaustible inventiveness? From its capacity to develop thematic strands from apparently trivial subjects? From the accumulation of quotations and information that little-by-little delineate the place of the cabbage in the literature, the language, and the social practices of Greece? What sort of space of knowledge, of discourse, of belief, or of cultural values is organized around the cabbage? How does Greek culture look when considered from the point of view of the cabbage?

The cabbage weaves a network of relations and analogies and invites one to pursue a set path from the vine to the celery, from Theophrastus to the comics (comedy writers), from drunkenness to sadness, from cooking recipes to popular medicine, from the religious oath to horticultural techniques, from Egypt to Sybaris, but also from Rhodes to Alexandria, from Ephesus to Eretria. The cabbage thus allows one to glide along texts, to establish connections between quotations, be they direct or indirect, and thus to construct a voice containing Greek knowledge on the cabbage, to a degree that one could answer any possible question regarding the typology, the properties, and the uses of this venerable vegetable.

But who, precisely, is the one curious about the cabbage? Athenaeus? The guests at his banquets? The ancient reader, whose expectations and curiosity are implied between the lines of the text? Or you, perhaps, readers of today, who may be specialists in ancient vegetables or in the history of food and cooking, and who would find in Athenaeus a source of fundamental importance on cabbages? What exactly is the type of knowledge that circulates in the fifteen books by Athenaeus? Is it some Noah’s Ark for knowledge that is dead, fossilized in the disorderly accumulation of quotations from books that for the most part are lost? Or is it still active, live knowledge, revealing cultural categories, shared knowledge and beliefs, ways of doing and ways of saying?

By bringing together comical quotations, learned botanists, historians, and authors of specialized monographs, Athenaeus conjures up a universe of flavors and smells, of physical attributes and natural properties: he introduces us to a world of things, of objects, of vegetables, and of gestures belonging to the past but compacted and coagulated into a kaleidoscope of words and quotations. The lost totality, the fragmented image, are recomposed through the juxtaposition of quotations and in the network of correspondences that connect one quotation to another.

The arid mechanics of compilation reveals to the reader the taxonomies of the natural world, that are woven by the threads of symbolic values, of popular or learned knowledge, and of customs: so many cultural mediations that confer meaning to the interaction between humans and the material and natural world. The Greeks are like Bororo Indians of Claude Levi-Strauss: they construct the logical and symbolic coherence of their world through myths, rituals, beliefs, and socially shared observations and knowledge. [1]

Here, it is a library that offers the possibility of reconstructing that cultural universe, and to comment, for example, on the meaningful relations between the vine and the cabbage and on their respective place in the continuum represented by the world of plants. Athenaeus is sufficiently indoctrinated into that culture to intuitively take over its codes and frames of relevance. He still possesses the competence of natives, even if in order to mobilize it he needs to authenticate it through his books. For the reader of today, on the contrary, the distance from such a culture is very great, and its exoticism becomes absorbing.

But what exactly is the register of Athenaeus’ discourse? What is his project? And does all this have the blessing of seriousness? Erudite extravagance? Extreme sophistication, that leads to extract and accumulate quotations and information that a reader of Timaeus or Theophrastus would never have noted? Athenaeus introduces an element of disturbing oddity into the heart of a culture and of a library. But is it not perhaps the mechanical stupidity of a primitive search engine that has been programmed to recover everything indiscriminately in the library? Athenaeus would then be a precursor of Bouvard and Pécuchet, lost in the labyrinths of language and knowledge, eternally busy mixing words together? Or does he rather exhibit the virtuosity of a pedantic author, who puts together a text from the fragments of the texts of others, who goes beyond the mere mechanics of compilation and extraction, and incorporates the excerpted materials in an enigmatic dialogue, with enigmatic figures, in an enigmatic project?


[ back ] 1. See Detienne 1994.