The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 11. How to Speak at Table?

All that is said in Homer is not always said by Homer” (5.178d). This critical insight, which explains the polyphony of the voices and the instances of enunciation in the epic, could be applied to Athenaeus himself: all that is said in Athenaeus is not always said by Athenaeus. First of all because he has chosen the formal and dramatic frame of the dialogue, and thus an interaction between characters who represent different points of view according to their temperament or their professional specialization. And the dialogue does not only give form to the mass of facts, words, and quotations; it also deploys a space of confrontation, criticism, and collective research, which involves everyone’s collaboration.

However, there is also another reason why all that is said in Athenaeus is not always said by Athenaeus: the characters of his dialogue spend most of their time quoting written texts—words, sentences, and entire passages. They lend their voices to the silence of the written texts, as was usual, after all, for ancient readers, and one of the dimensions of their game consists in giving to this literary and fragmented speech the continuity, liveliness, and freedom of tone of a conversation in a live situation of verbal exchange. The result is a coded dialogue, regulated by a series of rules and constraints, which draws multiple and sophisticated effects of meaning out of a virtuoso game of decontextualization and recontextualization, of effects of form and prosody created by the mixing of dialects, metrical structures, literary genres, levels of discourse, and forms of knowledge. The dialogue between excerpts from books thus slides into the dialogue of the deipnosophists, creating an aesthetics of discontinuity and diversity, of poikilia, and a specific intellectual and discursive space, within which Larensius’ library appears as a network of connections between textual loci—a hypertext—rather than a juxtaposition of discrete works rolled and ordered on their shelves.

But before entering Athenaeus’ web, let us turn to those who weave its threads, the members of Larensius’ circle. To suggest an idea that springs to mind: we are in a register of double theatricality. First of all, theatricality in the dialogue, with its leading duet, Ulpian and Cynulcus, but also with its second-rate and token roles (sophists, cooks, and servants), who all draw on the liveliness of comedy. There is also the theatricality of the process itself, seeing that we are here in the domain of performance, with its vocal registers, pathos, and gestures. The game is even more subtle and reflexive, since Athenaeus’ guests amply cite comedy dialogues and lend their own voices to different characters, who in turn introduce a new level of points of view, enunciations, and linguistic registers. [1] This vocal and performative dimension, of the order of hupokrinesthai, is essential in the Deipnosophists: it creates poikilia in linguistic registers and in stylistic forms of expression, and also in the subjects addressed in the course of the conversations.

The Art of Grammar by Dionysius Thrax (2nd century BC) and its scholia offer a fascinating insight into the various visual, intellectual, vocal, and performative processes implied by reading a written text. [2] Such an exercise was merciless, and anyone reading aloud a text revealed immediately his training and his culture or his complete lack of competence. Reading aloud a text written in scriptio continua meant being able to separate words and to articulate them in meaningful sentences, being able to vocally mark accents, the tonoi, the chronoi, and the pneumata, as well as the prosodic structure and melodic lines of poems. Poetical and dramatic texts were expected to be read according to precise cultural conventions: one should adopt a heroic tone in order to imitate tragic heroes, a lively tone for comic characters from the daily life, a high-pitched voice for elegiac poems, a melodic line while reading lyrical poetry with musical accompaniment. The pitch and tone of the voice should go along with appropriate gestures. The reading of poetry was ordered by sophisticated codes that were taught by grammarians, while rhetors were in charge of the reading of prose. Such cultural rules certainly apply to the recitations and quotations of Larensius’ guests, who were displaying not only their memory, but also their culture, their paideia, their expert skill in using the most precise vocal techniques in their game of reviving ancient Greek literature. Literary and scholarly performance is a key element in their dialogues.

Athenaeus’ characters talk and listen to each other while lying on the banquet’s couches (2.47e). By giving preference to conversation over other distractions of the banquet, even with respect to the dining itself, the guests inscribe themselves within the Platonic tradition. Besides, the reproach is made to Cynulcus that he subverts that model and takes the role of the pipe-players and dancers: like them, he disturbs, or even interrupts, the flow of the conversation, the only entertainment that holds pride of place within the frame of a literary banquet (3.97b–c).

Words circulate among the guests like wine-cups (1.1f–2a). They circulate in the unraveling of a series of interventions, be they long or short: everyone takes his turn in the dialogue, some are star-interlocutors, others are more discreet, like the grammarian Leonidas. He takes advantage, for example, of a pause made by Ulpian in order to speak: “It is fair that I should speak, since I have remained silent for so long” (9.367d–e). It is true that for guests to speak presupposes that the others remain silent, that is, that they are a group of listeners. [3] Even the sophist cook, who interrupts Ulpian’s learned dissertation to announce the arrival of the mūma, enjoys general silence as he undertakes a brilliant encomium of his art, recalling, to begin, that even Cadmus, Dionysus’ grandfather, was a mageiros (14.658e). That ring of listeners sometimes expresses its approval, its admiration, and its pleasure, applauding the orator for his eloquence, his memory, and his erudition. Plutarch of Alexandria largely deserved that applause for having completed the long alphabetical list of wine-cups (11.503f). Cynulcus, on the contrary, receives no applause after his digression on lentil soup and wealth, which makes him angry, or at least he pretends to be angry (4.159e): “Chair of the banquet, they are not yet hungry, because they are busy with their river of words, and yet they taunt me about what I said concerning lentils… Seeing that, as I was saying, those pundits hate lentils for those reasons, have at least some bread brought to us; there is no need for anything in particular, but if you have some of those celebrated lentils or that soup called ‘conchos’.” This time, Cynulcus triggers off the group’s laughter. After his severe lecture against Plato, Masurius commands everyone’s admiration for his sophia (5.221a). It then falls to the symposiarch Ulpian to make sure that silence does not descend upon the guests who are petrified as if under the effect of Gorgons, and that the conversation starts again; perhaps by taking the Gorgons as its subject (5.221a–b).

Beginning to speak at the very moment when someone else stops is a way of bringing one’s own contribution into the smooth unfolding of the symposium and of the conversation that takes place there. Thus Masurius speaks once Cynulcus is finished speaking: “but since there are still some points left to deal with in our discussion on slaves, I shall contribute too with a song to love in honor of our wise and very dear Democritus” (6.271b). At times the orator might be interrupted in case his words raise an unexpected problem. During Myrtilus’ exposition of his long catalogue of women, at the moment when he mentions Tigris of Leucadia, Pyrrhus’ lover, Ulpian, as if Hermes in person had made that problem rise before him (hermaion ti), “asked if we knew of the word ‘tiger’ employed in the masculine.” Indeed, in his Neaera, Philemon mentions a “tigress”: Myrtilus provides the requested occurrence, quoting three verses by Alexis (13.590a–b). When one of the guests does not know how to answer a question, another guest takes his place to avoid falling into silence. When asked by Cynulcus about the use of willows to weave crowns, Ulpian remains silent pretending he is thinking about it, and the question is answered by Democritus (15.671d–f). A little further, it is Democritus who finds himself in difficulty: “In which author is the word ‘pistachio’ found?” Ulpian asks him. Democritus remains silent, despite the prize of a cup of wine promised by the symposiarch. “Since you don’t know what to say, I shall proceed to instruct you, Nicander of Colophon names pistachios in his Theriaca, where he says […].” Ulpian then receives compliments for his brilliant exposition on pistachios (14.649c–e).

The conversation often takes on the playful tone of a game of questions and answers, a game that depending on the case can produce reward or punishment. Ulpian thus orders that Cynulcus should be excluded from the banquet and that he should be covered with “haphazardly woven crowns” (khudaioi), but it is only a joke, and he cannot resist the pleasure of quoting what Alexis has to say on those crowns. Ulpian himself excites his companions’ curiosity by mentioning a panēguris in Eleusis called Ballētus (the throwing of stones), about which he will not talk if he does not receive payment (misthos) from each of his listeners (9.406d). Similarly, Cynulcus refuses to answer one of Ulpian’s questions unless he receives a suitable misthos in advance (15.671c). Elsewhere, he settles for the promise of Ulpian’s gratitude (kharis) in order to instruct him on the feast of the Phagēsia (7.275e). Ulpian promises. Fair revenge, since previously, during the meal, Ulpian had threatened to give Cynulcus a sound beating if he did not cite a literary source for the word koiliodaimōn (“he who makes a god of his own belly”). As the cynic fell silent, Ulpian gave the answer repeating his threat (3.100b).

Here, in fact, lies the deep ambiguity of the meetings of Larensius’ circle: are they oratory performances or banquets? Are we in the public space of the agora, of a theater or of a lecture hall, where sophists liked to speak, or in the private space of a Roman house, where a banquet and a symposium are taking place? Such is the question asked by Cynulcus (6.270d): “If I had been invited here only to listen to lectures (eis akroāseis logōn), I would have taken care to come when the forum was full (that is how one of the sophists used to define the hour of public declamations (deixeis), and for that reason the common people called him “Plethagoras”). But if we have bathed in order to dine on trivial words, ‘the contribution is too high for me, a listener’, to quote Menander. For that reason, glutton, I let you stuff yourself with food like this.” And he pretends to get up and depart.

Everything works as if eating and speaking about food were two incompatible activities, unless they merge into a form of “mastication of the word”. The dishes of the banquet are served to be quoted (paratithesthai), and the trays (pinakes) that carry the courses thus become bibliographical and lexical tables. The conversation presupposes the presence of the dishes, but these are objects of reflection, gazing, and desire, and in the distance created by unsatisfied gluttony, or even hunger, a space is found for the recollection of words and texts, for the discourse on food and cooking. Ulpian, a fanatic of the zētēsis, always asks his questions in relation to the dishes before the first mouthful has been taken (1.1d–e). And during the banquet, those two temporal dimensions, that of the food and that of the conversation, are continuously in conflict, both being dependent on the rhythm of the service. “Come on, my dear friends, in which author do we find the term mētra (sow’s womb)? We have sufficiently filled our stomachs and it is time now to talk again,” says Ulpian (3.96e–f). When the guests stretch out their hands towards the bread, it is Galen who cuts in: “We shall not eat until you have heard also from me what has been said on bread and muffins and also on flour by the sons of Asclepius” (3.115c). After Galen’s report, they finally decide to eat, and a starter of salted fish is served. But will they really eat? Leonidas launches the discussion on salted fish (3.116a), in the course of which the physician Dionysocles (116d), Daphnus of Ephesus (116f), Varus (118d), Ulpian (118f), Plutarch (119a), and Myrtilus (119b) speak after him. At least, one learns at the end that the sophists really eat their salted fish (120b). And when, after interminable lists and speeches on fish, the deipnosophists finally prepare to eat, it is once again a physician, Daphnus, who requests the beginning of the meal to be delayed: the question of fish is not yet closed, since the physicians have not all spoken about it (8.355a).

The desire to know, curiosity, the expectation to find a solution to a lexical problem: all this stifles the appetite. “I shall not eat until you tell me in which authors this wheat porridge is mentioned,” says Ulpian. Aemilianus replies, “I shall first of all talk to you about the wheat porridge by citing [serving? paratithemenos] these verses from Antiphanes’ Anthea” (3.127a-b). And when Cynulcus asks Ulpian about the feast of the Phagesia, the latter, puzzled, has the banquet’s service interrupted, although it was already the evening. He invites Cynulcus to give the answer himself, “so that you may enjoy your meal even more” (7.275c). At a certain point, it becomes necessary to ask the cooks to take the necessary precautions so that the long feast of words can take place without having to serve dishes that have already become cold long ago (8.354 d).

Cynulcus does not tolerate very well the interruptions, and the delays, the length of some speeches, which constrain the audience to a ritual fast, where they wait for the end of the discourse like others wait for a star to rise (4.156a–b). At the end of Democritus’ long speech on slavery, as we have seen, Cynulcus exclaims: “But I am still very hungry … because I have ingested nothing but words. So now let us stop once and for all this interminable chitchat and let us take some of this food” (6.270b). And another cynic, in the heart of the discussions on fish, thinks he has fallen in the midst of the feast of the Thesmophoriae, “seeing that we are starved like mullets” (7.307f). Myrtilus answers, “You shall not touch the food until you [the Cynics], or your co-disciple Ulpian, will have explained why mullet is the only fish to be called nēstis, ‘empty belly’” (308a). There is great irony, of course, in the words and the quotations, which rebound like balls.

Even as the group is finally coming close to the end of the dinner, Ulpian remains intransigent. He is lying on a symposium couch alone—his companions are perhaps tired of his obsession—eating little, observing the other guests, and tirelessly asking fundamental questions: “What is vinegar sauce?” (9.385c). On the day when a big fish is served in a sauce of vinegar and brine, Ulpian, that collector of thorns, asks: “Where do we find vinegar-and-brine sauce attested?” But this time the greatest part of the guests damns him to hell and begins eating without answering him. Furthermore, and quite to the point, Cynulcus adds a quote from Metagenes: “But, my dear, first we eat, then ask me whatever you like; now I am really hungry and, in a way, without memory” (9.385b–c). The hungry stomach has neither ears nor memory. Only Myrtilus sides with Ulpian: do not touch the food but go on chattering without pause. Besides, that was the indispensable condition if Athenaeus’ work was to proceed to the fifteenth book.

Of course, those continually interrupted banquets, those dishes that become cold during the long and learned disquisitions, contribute in scattering comic scenes across the text. [7] In the same way as the dinners of comedy, Larensius’ guests like the “meals about which the comic poets speak: rather than constitute a delicacy for the palate, they procure great pleasure to the listener” (9.402d). At least, that is how it is for the reader. Yet one cannot but see even in that game the signs of a tension: Athenaeus makes problematic his transgression of one of the traditional rules of the literary genre of the symposium, where one eats in silence and then converses while drinking wine. To eat and to speak at the same time, to speak of food and cuisine at table, is a paradoxical project that is inserted between the two antithetical positions of Ulpian and Cynulcus: to speak without eating or to eat without speaking, such is the dilemma that feeds the conversation. [8] What is perhaps at play in the Deipnosophists is a conception of pleasure: [9] the notion is explained through philosophical doctrines, illustrated by amusing anecdotes, problematized in the characterization of its deviations and excesses (truphē, opsophagia), politicized through the highlighting of its links with the Hellenistic monarchies. But what sort of pleasure is pursued within Larensius’ circle? There is a form of distance and restraint in respect to a social entertainment, the symposium, which offers a structuring frame, a field of investigation, regularly mediated through language, memory, words, and books. Larensius’ banquet is at the same time a social ritual and a laboratory in which objects, dishes, gestures, and words are observed with an attitude of critical distance and with the help of sophisticated apparatus. In Larensius’ house, the dining-room is indistinguishable from the library.

The reader will have understood: Larensius’ feasts are not the Cena Trimalchionis: there are no baroque excesses, save in the field of language and erudition. The long procession of famous hetairai does not bring with it the pleasures of Eros. The buffoons and other shows introduced by Larensius do not introduce comic interludes: they are nothing more than subjects of conversation, where laughter is provoked by quotations, and not by the entertainment itself (14.613c–d). The flute-players and the crowns, the wine and the skolia, are not a prelude to a kōmos—at best they cause Cynulcus’ light drunkenness.


[ back ] 1. See the observations of Wilkins 2000c:32ff.

[ back ] 2. Ed. Lallot 1998.

[ back ] 3. See what is said at 7.308d: the silence of the Molossus dogs—that is, the Cynics—while it has nothing Pythagorean in itself, makes it possible to move on with the list of fish.

[ back ] 4. Some standard works (among the immense literature) on the subject, which are useful for situating Athenaeus within his cultural and rhetorical universe: Bompaire 1958; Bowersock 1969; Pernot 1993 (Pernot’s work allows us, for example, to situate Cynulcus’ tirade on lentils within the tradition of paradoxical praise: see pp. 532–46, and especially p. 540 n.254); Anderson 1993; Schmitz 1997. See also the stimulating synthesis of Anderson 1974, where the accent is put on the performative dimension of the virtuoso recitals of the deipnosophists.

[ back ] 5. See however 10.448b, where Aemilianus launches the discussion on riddles “in such a way as to put some distance between us and our cups.”

[ back ] 6. From this point of view, Athenaeus occupies the founding position within a long tradition. See Jeanneret 1986.

[ back ] 7. See e.g. 14.649a: “‘You have your koptē, Ulpian, my good accountant of words, and I advise you to devour it (apeshiein)’. And without wasting any time, he took it and began to eat it. Everyone burst out laughing, and Democritus added: ‘I did not ask you to eat it, my dear word-hunter, but not to eat it; indeed, in his Phineus, the comic Theopompus used apesthiein in this sense…’” The only time when Ulpian eats with appetite, he is caught in the trap of the meaning of words.

[ back ] 8. See the observations by Wilkins 2000c:26–28.

[ back ] 9. My reflection is inspired by Romeri 2000.