The Web of Athenaeus

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

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).


[ 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.