The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 14. Words and Things

The mental gymnastics of the deipnosophists are not only a mechanism that produces and combines quotations indefinitely. Despite its playful character, it is not an end in itself. It plays an instrumental role in the constitution and the enrichment of a field of knowledge and, more generally, in a project that is at the same time social, ethical, and intellectual: through the multiplicity of its objects, the zēttēsis, within Larensius’ circle, aims to reconquer, to reactivate, and to preserve a cultural identity. Athenaeus’ characters have made the choice, also very common in cultured Greek-speaking circles of the imperial era, of reactivating the cultural universe of the Greece of a given period, from Homer to the Hellenistic monarchies. The reference to a past that is definitely behind them poses the problem of the relation with the present, the time of the Roman Empire, the time of the banquet and of the statements that took place in it. The chronological and geographical gap and the changes that had taken place in the world order, with the Roman dominion over the Greek East, required a set of mediations that made it possible to recover that cultural universe and to immerse oneself in it. For Athenaeus and his characters it is the library that instead represents that mediation. It circumscribes an intellectual space where that culture is collected and preserved, in the two dimensions highlighted previously: on the one hand, the great literary, philosophical, and historical texts and, on the other, the texts that interpret, inventory, articulate, and construct objects from the repository of “primary sources”: lexica, commentaries, and hupomnēmata.

To be Greek, to speak Greek, to want to play Greek, to study Greek in Rome at the end of the second century AD, were thus all things that involved recourse to the library as an essential source of knowledge on people, places, words, practices, beliefs, objects, and relations to the world. It was an essential but not exclusive source, since orality, rhetorical displays, school, rhapsodes and musicians (Larensius made use of both) also contribute to that cultural reactivation in the same way as objects, cooking recipes, table manners, and ways of life in society or conversation. Books remain, however, the privileged and most important source. They are at the same time a field of archaeological excavation and instruments of the deipnosophists, between the library of Larensius and their mental libraries. That work on the library is inseparable from a reflection on the practice of research itself, on the maintenance of the collection (whence Athenaeus’ preoccupation with biblioteconomy), on the relevance of the questions and of the answers. And that reflection is collective, it unrolls under the control and in the light of the assessment of all the guests, it gives rise to controversies and debates on method.

An essential dimension of that cultural archaeology concerns the Greek language as such, and the relation of words to things. In doing this, the deipnosophists throw a critical and genealogical gaze on the language they use in their conversations, whether it is their mother tongue or a language of culture, as in the case of Larensius and of the other Romans present at the banquets. However, even those who speak Greek as a mother tongue are not content with the Greek spoken in their time. One of the functions of zētēsis is that of reconquering a past state of the language, or, more precisely, of constructing it, defining its rules, its semantics, its morphology, and its grammar. Indeed, their language does not correspond to the “common” Greek (the koinē) that was spoken in the imperial period, and it is actually questionable whether their language was ever spoken as such. The deipnosophists do indeed discuss the written literary language, the language of Attic poetry and prose, which can be reconstructed by putting together the rules and usage observed in some key author. Theirs is a language that has been reconstructed by the work of the grammarians, philologists, and lexicographers of Alexandria, but which also constitutes a relevant object of reflection for the rhetors and prose-writers of the Second Sophistic, in search of stylistic and linguistic norms.

Here I will limit myself to underlining the important implications of the linguistic question in the Deipnosophists. Three threads interweave: the inventory of words, the determination of their meaning and their form, and linguistic normativity, the latter tending to define not only the correct use of words, but also a linguistic norm that is only found in Atticist purism. Following those threads, Athenaeus’ characters come and go between past and present, between written and oral language, between Greek and Latin.

As we have seen, one of Ulpian’s obsessions consists in resituating the largest possible number of words within the usage of the ancients, to endow them, that is, with the authority of one or more quotations. “Where is it found?” is his favorite question, and his companions sometimes reproach him his narrow conception of zētēsis. That also earned him the surname of “hunter of words” (3.122c; 4.184a–b; 14.649b; 15.671f). All deipnosophists are hunters of books, and for that they root themselves in the bibliophile erudition that originated in the great Hellenistic libraries. Hunters of words collect more volatile objects, often from the books that they have gathered. Both groups are driven by a logic of accumulation and sunagōgē, and must work out ways that will help them master their collections. The catalogue (pinax) allows the mastery of a large quantity of books, manipulating and combining such “metadata” as the author’s name and the work’s title, and distributing them in sections that reflect the organization of literature and knowledge. As for the lexicon, it allows the ordering of the collection of words, for example in alphabetical order. However, just like the catalogue is not the library, the lexicon is not the language, even when it attempts to register the largest possible number of quotations, documenting the meaning and form of words in the best authors. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists is at the same time part book catalogue and part lexicon, but it dares to condense the library and, in a way, to reawaken language through the polyphony of quotations and the dialogue of the sophists.

Ulpian’s “lexicography” presupposes a well-ordered library. It consists of running through that library following the thread provided by a keyword in order to collect its occurrences. Like a good hunter, Ulpian does not scorn rare and obscure words, as long as they are legitimized by a quotation. The taxonomies of objects and dishes that parade during the course of Larensius’ banquets invite one to decline nouns, and often a ready reply or quotation on the part of another guest will in turn trigger new research. Most of the time, however, the answer to the question “Where is it found?” does not exhaust the curiosity of Ulpian and his companions. The literary sources and the stratification of lexica and commentaries are, in fact, the only mediation in order to reconstruct the link between words and things, to specify the meaning of words and define their form. The variations, the confusions, the mistakes of the lexicographers, the irremediable transition from orality to written discourse as the only horizon of the language’s intelligibility: those factors make necessary an archaeology of the Greek language, where the critical use of lexica, the comparison between sources, the knowledge of realia, and, more generally, recourse to the whole range of literary equipment (grammar, etymology, philology), lead to inventorying variants and, if possible, putting an end to controversies.

For instance, what are kudōnia, the fruit that bear the name of a Cretan city? Quince apples, dictionaries tell us. But Athenaeus goes beyond that: “Nicander of Thyateira states that kudōnia are called strouthia, but he is wrong. Glaucides, on the contrary, states that the best fruit are the kudōnia, the phaulia, and the strouthia.” There follows a series of quotations on kudōnia by Alcman, Cantharus, and Philemon (3.81c–d). The game, in this digression, consists in relocating the fruit within a typology, and in reconstructing its literary echoes. For cabbage as for quince apples. Another example is tripods: does Ulpian let himself get caught in the trap out of malice or out of ignorance? When one of the cynics calls the table a “tripod”, Ulpian exclaims: “Where did you go and find that a table can be called a ‘tripod’?” Impassive, the cynic answers with an accumulation of references that go from the Marriage of Ceyx, attributed to Hesiod, to Xenophon’s Anabasis (2.49a–d).

For Athenaeus, the reconstruction of the meaning of words takes place exclusively within the library, with a closed horizon. It is done through the juxtaposition of lexicographical information and the play of literary quotations that serve to complete words, nuance them, contradict them, and, always, to contextualize them. Whether the subject is fish, birds, vegetables, wine cups, or flower crowns, Athenaeus remains in a universe of words: things are reflected in the mirror of literature, and it is that iridescent, and sometimes enigmatic, reflection that interests his characters. Indeed, the word hunt makes it possible to draw up taxonomies of objects, to generate lists of extracts, and to follow perpetually new paths within the library. Such a hunt involves an inventory of testimonia that document the presence of an object or an animal in Greek literature. In the list of birds, for example, we read under porphuris: “Callimachus in his On Birds claims that the porphurion should be distinguished from the porphuris, and he catalogues the two separately. He adds that the porphurion goes into dark places to eat so that it will not be observed by anyone. Indeed, it considers an enemy anyone who approaches its food. The porphuris is also mentioned by Aristophanes in the Birds. Ibicus calls some birds lathiporphurides [hidden porphurides]”; at this point, two quotations from Ibicus follow (9.388d–e). What attracts Athenaeus’ interest? Certainly not that variety of bird, but the extracts from Callimachus and Ibicus that it allows him to mention; and also, the difference between porphurion and porphuris, and the curious food habits of the former, a curiosity that would not have been looked down upon by compilers of mirabilia.

In return, the knowledge of local dialects makes it possible to enumerate the various names of the plum (2.49f), the lettuce (2.69b) and the wine cup (11.480f). For this, Athenaeus uses lexica like that of Nicander of Colophon (2.69b; 9.369a–b), or monographs, like the treatise of Apollas on the cities of the Peloponnese (9.369a). Putting the regional uses in sequence allows the collection of words to be enriched, and is part of the logic of accumulation that governs the entire text. In that listing of words and forms an imaginary Greece is deployed, where lexica and the entire library give the illusion that they can recover local particularities and manners of speech, in Rhodes, in Sicily, in Cyprus, or in Boeotia. An Alexandrine illusion indeed.

Whether it is a question of flowers, breads, or fish, vegetables, cups, or musical instruments, the meaning and usage of words are incessantly investigated during the conversations of the deipnosophists. One episode seems particularly significant to me, and probably contains a key to the understanding of the work as a whole. In Book 9 Larensius suggests a subject of zētēsis to his guests: “What do you think the tetrax is?” (9.398b–c). The answer comes immediately: “A type (eidos) of bird.” A grammarians’ habit, adds Athenaeus, who are unable to answer anything but “a type of plant,” “a type of stone,” or “a type of bird.” So Larensius produces a quotation from Aristophanes mentioning the tetrax, and then invites his guests to search their memories in their turn. Silence. “Since you cannot find anything, I will show you that bird.” At that point a live tetrax in its cage is brought in—a souvenir of Larensius’ time as procurator in Moesia (398e–f). The bird is described in detail: size, aspect, voice. The company marvels. The bird is then brought to the kitchen and a little later it is served to the guests, who compare its meat to that of the ostrich. “We feed on questions,” Larensius had declared at the beginning of the episode. One can indeed wonder what the deipnosophists are eating in this case: a rare bird, the name of a bird, or the answer to an interesting question? Also, the display of the tetrax is there to compensate for the failings of memory and the silence of the library, to re-establish the link between words and things, to prevent the deipnosophists from going astray in the labyrinths of intertextuality. [4]

Preserving the form of words is an equally difficult achievement. The quotations often introduce observations relating to the spelling, accentuation, and gender of words. A dual tendency can be observed: on the one hand, to indicate the changes in usages; on the other, to prescribe the correct norm. The quotations, however, testify to the possibilities of the language. For Sophocles, “thistle” is a noun that is sometimes feminine (kunara), sometimes masculine (kunaros) (2.70a). Thyme and oregano are found in the masculine, the feminine, and the neuter (2.68b–c). Similarly, in Attic, skuphos, the wine cup, can be masculine or neuter (9.498a).

However, the language does not dissolve into a kaleidoscope of variants. There are rules and norms. When Palamedes, another collector of words (onomatologos), on a day when he is served a dish of gazelle, expresses the following judgment: “The flesh of the dorkones is not unpleasant,” Myrtilus answers him that one can only say dorkades, as attested by a quotation of Xenophon’s Anabasis (9.397a). When one has the intention of bringing to new life the cultural universe of Hellenism through one’s library and one’s language, one ought to respect its grammar, which defines the rules of correct usage for the par excellence form of Greek, i.e. Attic. The deipnosophists do not hesitate, among themselves, to refresh each other’s memory, be it on the reduplication of the lambda in female words ending in –la (7.305a), on the particular declension of the word “eel” in Attic (7.299a), or on the accentuation of the word attagās, where Attic usage goes against the general rule (9.388b).

The zētēsis of the deipnosophists is not limited to exhuming forgotten words and reciting long lists. In fact it also concentrates on rules and norms, and one of the issues at stake in the discussions (sometimes controversies) that take place within Larensius’ circle is the reconstruction of Greek in its Attic form or in its most ancient usage. The love of archaism and Atticism are the two main characteristics of the Greek spoken by Ulpian (3.126e): a language that is acquired, controlled, and mastered to the point of affectation by that Syrian who has earned himself the nickname “Syro-Atticist” (3.126f), and does not touch a dish before having made sure that its name was or was not in use among the ancients, at the risk of slimming down to the point of fading away, like Philetas of Cos, the Alexandrine lexicographer whose body had been desiccated by the zētēseis (9.401d–e). Quoting an ancient or an Attic author can certify and authenticate. Can tarīkhos (“salted fish”) also be masculine in Attic? Myrtilus produces the proof, a quotation from Cratinus (3.119b). Mobilizing everyone’s memory, zētēsis makes it possible to prove the use of a word in ancient times, at least in the written and literary language, which is the only possible testimony for ancient linguistic usage. That sometimes leads into paradoxical situations. For example, the deipnosophists wonder about whether the ancients mention the lemon. Myrtilus thinks he has come across the word in Hegesander’s Notes, but Plutarch proves him wrong. Aemilianus then quotes the treatise by Juba. Democritus cuts in: if the word kitrion cannot be found among the ancients, it is nevertheless without doubt that they knew the lemon, and that it is precisely the lemon that is the subject of a passage in Theophrastus’ Enquiries on Plants (3.83a–c).

The choice of that language of culture involved a constant comparison with the vernacular Greek spoken in the imperial period. In a conversation circle such as that of Larensius one did not miss a chance to highlight the slips of the tongue and impurities that eventually penetrated the contributions of one or the other of the interlocutors. However, the effort and self-control required to speak in the same way as one wrote in the Athens of the fifth and the fourth century BC go hand-in-hand with a reflection on the evolution of the Greek language, on its characteristics of continuity and discontinuity. Indeed, some rare words remain in common use, like thermokuamos, describing a variety of broad bean (2.55e). Other words become specialized: today’s usage, says Myrtilus, gives the name of ornithēs or ornithia to hens alone (9.373a). Ulpian has an infallible nose for words that are no longer in common use: “I know that opsarion [“fish”] cannot be found in any living author” (9.385b). To that, Myrtilus replies: “We say opsarion, and we count among the living” (385d), and follows this with a series of quotations from the comic poets Plato, Pherecrates, Philemon, and Menander, which was perhaps Ulpian’s objective in the first place. Orality gives new life to forgotten words, and oral enunciation here confers upon the word the same ontological status that a bibliographical reference would have conferred to it.

Besides, it is impossible to ignore the situation of bilingualism in which all members of Larensius’ circle found themselves, meeting in Rome and having to confront Latinity. Words and things move within a triangle, between Attic Greek, koinē, and Latin, and at times the deipnosophists take care to establish the equivalence between the language of the past and their contemporary Latin: the protogeustes of today’s Romans is perhaps the protenthēs of the Greeks of old, a “taster of dishes” (4.171c). The cardus of the Romans must be the equivalent of the kaktos of the Greeks, seeing that it is enough to substitute two letters in order to obtain the same word (2.70e–f). Epicharmus’ tellinē may correspond to the mitlos (mitulus) of the Romans, that is to the mussel (3.85e). The artos of the Greeks corresponds to the Latin panis (3.111c). As for the citron, although it is true that the name is not found among the ancients, Pamphilus’ lexicon nevertheless notes that the Romans call it citrus (3.85c).

Athenaeus mirrors the debates and linguistic choices of the cultured, Greek-speaking elites of the imperial period. If the Second Sophistic was preoccupied with revisiting the Greek heritage, it did not however limit itself to exploring its library and exploiting its deposits through the techniques of philology, commentary, and erudite compilation, as in Alexandria and Pergamon. In its project of cultural reactivation, performance constitutes an essential dimension, whether that means re-appropriating a lost language and making it resonate anew in the space of public discourse or private speech, or to put into play once again, in newly produced texts, the commonplaces, the beliefs, the categories, the values, and all the cultural, ethical, and philosophical stereotypes deduced from the classics, catalogued and analyzed in detail in rhetorical manuals. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, where both orality and writing find their place, be it at the level of conversation or in systematically combing the library, participate doubly in that culture of performance.

However, in the mirror in which Athenaeus reflects the cultural preoccupations of his time one can also discern a certain distance as regards the excesses of linguistic purism and lexical erudition that can sink into oppressive affectation, or even into ridiculous obscurity. From that point of view Ulpian is an ambiguous figure: he plays an essential role by virtue of his investigations, his erudition, and his tireless search for the meaning of isolated words and of contextualized words. His preciosity, however, too often sinks into excess. When a wheat pudding is served to him, he asks for a spoon: “Give me a mustilē, because I do not have the intention of using the word mustron, which cannot be found in any author before our time” (3.126a). Athenaeus is enjoying himself. If Longinus was a living library, Ulpian is a living lexicon, who, in addition, eats the wheat pudding of the cynics with an Attic spoon, that is, a piece of bread that is used as a spoon. The most lively criticism is put forward by Cynulcus. When he asks to drink some decocta, a cold-water based sweet drink that was typically Roman, he provokes the anger of Ulpian, who accuses him of barbarism. Cynulcus answers that since he lives in Rome under the empire, he uses the local language, and invokes the precedent of ancient poets and prose-writers, who handled the purest Greek but at times used foreign words when they had entered common usage: Persian words, such as parasangai or schoinos, a measuring unit that was still in use, or Macedonian words. Besides, ancient authors took a less hard line than Ulpian, and sometimes had recourse to less constrained language, and even to improper words, as Cynulcus demonstrates through a series of quotations (3.121e–122d).

Language cannot remain enclosed in lexica, and the best authors know how to liberate themselves from rules. This is all the more true in Rome in the imperial period, where it is not always possible to speak like an Attic orator and ignore the ordinary language. Refusing to use Latin words leads to ridiculous verbal contortions, and to the creation of nouns that are just as foreign to classical usage: thus phainolēs, a neologism created by Ulpian to avoid using the Latin paen ula as he is asking the slave for his cloak (3.97e). Cynulcus paints an entertaining picture of the “Ulpianist sophists” that can be encountered in the streets of Rome, with their ridiculous language, such as Pompeianus of Philadelphia, who thus addresses his slave while speaking of his new clothes: “Strombichides, bring me to the palaestra my ‘unbearable’ sandals and my ‘useless’ cloak. For after I have ‘laced up my beard’ I will go and chat with my friends” (3.97f–98a). In Ulpian’s circles one prefers to speak of the ipnolebēs (“oven-cauldron”) rather than the miliarium which serves to warm up the water (3.98c). Those creators of words revive the memory of other poets of the language, erudition-maniacs lost in the labyrinths of meaning, like the Sicilian Dionysius, who called the dens of mice “mysteries” because they protect (tērei) the mice (mūs) (98d); or Alexarchus, brother of Cassander, king of Macedonia, who founded Ouranopolis, “the city of the sky”, and introduced there a particular language where the cock is called “cry of the morning” (orthroboas), and “barber” is called “shaver of men” (brotokertēs) (98e). Alexarchus had perhaps over-frequented the Alexandrine glossographers, but deep down Ulpian’s temptation is the same: to invent words and to fantasize on their possible usage among the books of the library. Ulpian, ho tōn onomatōn Daidalos, the “Daedalus of words” (9.396a), the artisan who shapes and invents, the architect of the labyrinth, is also its prisoner.


[ back ] 1. See 7.323a–b, 327c–d.

[ back ] 2. Broggiato 2000.

[ back ] 3. See for example the interesting discussion on the Women of Thrace (Thrattai), a variety of fish mentioned in Archippus’ comedy The Fishes. Athenaeus recalls that in Book 108 of his collection of words, Dorotheus of Ascalon writes thētta. He then advances a double conjecture to explain the anomaly: either Dorotheus had an incorrect copy of the comedy, or he corrected the word because of its unusual character. Athenaeus refers the readers who wish to know more to the treatise he has devoted to Archippus’ comedy (7.329b–e)

[ back ] 4. The episode of the mūma, a mysterious dish announced as a subject of zētēsis by one of the cooks, can perhaps be interpreted in a similar way (14.658e).

[ back ] 5. Here Athenaeus reflects the polemics and the lexicographical and grammatical activity that accompanied that attempt to restore a past linguistic situation in reaction to the widespread use of the koinē even among scholars (Strabo, Galen, and so forth). For a general introduction see Anderson 1993, Chapter 4 (“Atticism and Antagonism”), and Swain 1996.