The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 17. The Epitome of the World

The Deipnosophists crystallizes a fluid chain of texts, fragments, and words, connected by the memory threads of a circle of literati and, ultimately, by the memory of Athenaeus himself. A double logic can be recognized in this, namely a centrifugal and a centripetal logic. By bringing together a vast complex of reading notes, the Deipnosophists condenses the library until it has reduced it to the size of a work in fifteen books. That size makes it possible to control it, even while it reflects, at the same time, its wealth, its poikilia, the infinite discoveries that can be made within it. The mastery of Athenaeus’ work is not incompatible with the pleasure of losing oneself in it, of tracing new itineraries within it, or even of enriching it with new quotations.

The epitome of the first book preserves a strange digression (1.20b–c):

Definition. He says that Rome is a city of the world. He also states that one would not be far off the mark if one said that the city of Rome is a “synthesis” (epitom ē) of the inhabited world; it is thus possible in it to see at the same time all cities, and the greatest part of them with their own particularities, like the “city of gold” of the Alexandrians, “the beautiful city” of the Antiochenes, “the wonderful city” of the Nicomedians, and “the most splendid of all cities that Zeus illuminates”, I mean Athens. An entire day would not suffice to count the cities included in the heavenly city of the Romans, Rome, but I would need all the days there are in the entire year, that is how many they are. Indeed entire peoples, all together, live here, like the Cappadocians, the Scythians, the Pontians, and many others.

Rome has become a universal city, where the entire oikoumen ē is summarized. Rome makes it possible to see all of the world’s cities through a synoptic gaze, and to discover the great Hellenistic mētropoleis together with the gem of the entire Greek world, Athens, and with the peripheral peoples. Admittedly, this digression recalls analogous cases in the epideictic rhetoric of the Second Sophistic, where praises of imperial Rome similar to this one were frequent. Yet in this paraphrase, perhaps truncated by the compiler, several elements are present that resonate with Athenaeus’ text and project.

That synoptic gaze upon a condensed world, of which one sees the peoples and the cities, conjures up a cartographic metaphor. However, Rome is also the place where the Greek world is condensed, from the cultural capitals of the Hellenistic period—Alexandria first and foremost—to the Athenian core which was its inspiring source. Rome as a heavenly city (ouranopolis) can recall Alexarchus’ politico-linguistic utopia: Rome as Babel, the place where all languages are spoken; or the paradigm of the universal city, in the terms in which it was delineated by the Stoics in particular. The itinerary that leads from the Greek East to the heart of the Empire is the same one that leads from the libraries of Athens, Alexandria, or Pergamon to that of Larensius in Rome. In the same way that the oikoumenē is condensed in the city par excellence, classical Hellenism and the layers of Hellenistic erudition have come to meet in Larensius’ library. His table, moreover, sees the passage of the most refined dishes and foods, and it also condenses the best that the oikoumenē has to offer to gourmets. This high official also participates in the Roman utopia, since by virtue of his munificence he brings Lusitania to Rome (8.331b–c).

This “epitome of the inhabited world” is perhaps a reading key to the Deipnosophists. Just as Rome sees all cities and all peoples of the world condense in its space, so the library condensed in Athenaeus’ text allows one not only to move through all the books that it contains, but also through the oikoumenē; to travel, to trace infinite itineraries, without ever coming out of a Roman domus. Larensius’ circle is at the center of the world. That world, in turn, is composed of Greek and Roman scholars who come from the most diverse regions and who unite Roman and the Greek worlds, East and West, in the same ritual of conviviality. Larensius, Athenaeus tells us, turned Rome into the fatherland of all his guests (1.3c).

The deipnosophists also employ a geographical horizon, and travel freely on that geographical map, unwinding the thread of words and quotations. The menus of the banquets can indeed lead to Sicily, to Sybaris, to Chios (1.25e–f). The wine list invites one to a periēgēsis of Italy, especially when the task of drawing it up falls to the physician Galen (1.26c). The evocation of famous banquets, whether those of kings, cities, or peoples, unravels a thread that leads the reader from Cilicia to Athens, then to Thebes, Arcadia, Naucratis, and Egypt, to the Galatians, the Thracians, the Celts, the Parthians, the Etruscans, the Indians, the Germans, the Campanians, and the Romans (4.147e–153f). When the moment comes to make the periēgēsis of peoples who have become famous by virtue of their truphē, Athenaeus invites us on another trip, in which we meet the Persians, the Medes, the Lydians, the Etruscans, the Sicilians, the Sybarites, the people of Croton and Tarentum, the Iapygians, the Iberians, the people of Massilia, and which after some stops in Magna Graecia leads us to the Scythians, the Syrians, the Lycians, and many others, until a provisional destination, Cumae, is reached (12.513e–528e). Ham brings us to Gaul, Cibyra, Lycia, and Spain (14.657e), while the name of the plum in a quotation from Clearchus links Rhodes and Sicily (2.49f). The cabbage, as we have seen, is also a good subject for travel: Eretria, Cumae, Rhodes, Cnidus, Ephesus, Alexandria (9.369e–f). The Deipnosophists also includes geographies of fish, of peoples with great drinkers (10.442a–443c), of drinking manners (9.463e–f), and so forth.

Motionless, the reader can travel, he who lets himself be transported by compilations from the interior of the library. When one considers this theme of the condensation of the world, which like a geographical map enables all possible routes, strange correspondences establish themselves, explaining Athenaeus’ project: correspondences between Rome and Alexandria, between the procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus (also a form of epitome of the world: 5.201d–e) and Larensius’ table, between the banquets and the library, between the truphē of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos and great book collector (1.3a), who brings to his table dishes of every provenance—Epirus, Scyros, Miletus, Sicily (12.540c)—and Athenaeus, whose erudite bulimia and frenzy of accumulation belong to the field of spiritual truphē.


[ back ] 1. Anderson 1974:2178 also underlines this geographical dimension and evokes a “culinary Pausanias.”

[ back ] 2. On this author see Olson and Sens 2000.