The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 18. When a Culture Reflects on Itself

The work of Athenaeus would thus be a periodos tēs bibliothēkēs, a “tour of the library”, perhaps the library of Larensius, but certainly also that of memory, and also the ideal library whose reconstruction is enabled by textual tradition, direct and indirect. That trip does not link the books between them but creates a multiplicity of links between the places that compose them: factual information, words, quotations. By weaving that fabric, Athenaeus dismantles the compartmentalized structure of the library, which fixes every text within a book and preserves its formal and intellectual autonomy and coherence.

The comparison with the tradition of periēgēseis, however, is only partially valid. If it is indeed true that the point is to move methodically inside a confined space so as to circumscribe and master it, that route adopts points of view that are placed on different levels, succeed each other, and proceed on the basis of changes in scale that lead, like in Ptolemy, from topography to geography and from the local to the global. Those changes in scale define a number of reading protocols. The Deipnosophists could be described metaphorically as a library that can be visited thanks to a helicoidal gallery, which allows one to go up little by little and to vary one’s point of view on the central space, with the only difference that this variation does not correspond to a compositional principle of the text that will lead, in sequence, from bottom to top, but to a way of reading the text, where meaning is constructed, structured and hierarchized as the work is run through.

The architecture of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, created by Frank Lloyd Wright, could be the material version of that mental device, which seems to me to demonstrate the intention and effect of Athenaeus’ text, and, for the modern reader, a key to its decipherment:


At the ground level of this device is the library of ancient Greek books, which preserves a heritage of culture and language, the space of travel and navigation, within which one moves by activating analogical links between countless textual loci, between words, between quotations that have been chosen in the course of readings. As one begins to walk up the helicoidal ramp, one progressively gains height, and the library appears in its globality, but also with its internal partitions: that first level is that of Hellenistic bibliographic science, which organizes, subdivides, classifies, and identifies.

At the level immediately above that, and with one’s gaze still turned to the library, the highlights of metaliterature become apparent, namely all those works of the Hellenistic and imperial periods—commentaries, lexica, monographs of literary history, and erudite collections—that have exploited classical literature and have become integrated in their turn within the collections. That metaliterature fulfills several functions for Athenaeus’ text. First of all it plays the role of a sieve, through which scholars have passed classical Greek literature and language with the aim of collecting words, information, and quotations on every possible subject, or almost. The materials thus collected are generally classified and set so as to be used by readers wishing to have quick access to a given type of documentation without having to explore the entire library in person. Several successive levels of compilation can redistribute and interpolate those objects of knowledge, sometimes mixing them with complementary materials directly extracted from the original sources, sometimes filtering them, reorganizing them, distorting them—both in their letter and in their bibliographic identity or in their meaning. In its time, Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists occupied the summit of the pyramid, but has since been covered by countless layers of late antique, medieval, Renaissance, modern, and contemporary erudition.

The sieve is also a magnifying glass: the lexica or specialized monographs guide one to the identification of the details and curiosities that are hidden in the texts of the library, and could have escaped the reader. Besides, by decontextualizing words or quotations found in books, those works of compilation produce poles of lexical coherence, or the entries of the encyclopedia of a society, whether one is dealing with fish, vegetables, or wine cups, prostitutes or jokes. The very work of Athenaeus has produced a large number of those poles of coherence, which are for us today an essential source for the reconstruction of entries concerning cuisine, nutrition, and the symposium in the encyclopedia of antiquity.

Still at the same level, where one acquires the consciousness of the mediation operated by metaliterature between the reader and the ancient library, works of erudition fulfill another function, that of the optical filters one uses on a camera in order to bring to light dimensions of reality that are not accessible to the naked eye, to modify the framing or the focus. Those filters are the various forms of technical knowledge at Athenaeus’ disposal: philology, lexicography, grammar, and literary history. When they are applied to the same extract, they can bring out details, problems, and particular curiosities, as one and the same word can be part of a discussion on the constitution of the text of a verse, on spelling and accentuation norms, or on the Attic dialect. Those filters insert texts in the polyphony of interpretations and readings, but also in the chronology of second-degree reading: what does it mean to read Homer through Zenodotus or Aristarchus? And Plato through the Against Plato’s School by Theopompus of Chios (11.508c–509b)?

Athenaeus’ work, however, cannot be reduced to bibliographic itineraries and the technical observation of words and texts. Continuing upwards, one reaches the third level. To overhang the library at this level means to become conscious of a distance that is spatial and temporal at the same time, of a marked gap that inscribes the entire project of Athenaeus in the field of the archive, of conservation and recovery—in sum, to the field of cultural and linguistic archaeology. That distance does not limit itself to making books disappear, to spreading amnesia, to undoing the link between words and things; these are all effects to which the learned practices of Larensius’ circle can bring a remedy, at least within some limits. It leads to the consciousness of the historicity of an entire culture through its progressive entropy, the degeneration of its practices, its ethical norms, its social values, and its behavior.

In this respect, the long treatment of the lifestyle of Homer’s heroes, summarized in the first book, has the effect of suddenly recalling to memory an ideal that is no longer accessible in harmonious solidarity, in measure and simplicity. [1] That framework, moreover, constitutes a real thematic matrix for the Deipnosophists, since it contains all the themes that will be treated in the remainder of the work: food, wine, drinking, crowns, perfumes, incense, tableware, proposis, song, dance, games, and libations. That matrix also constitutes a point of comparison for the ulterior evolution of Greek culture. The habit of eating on couches, public baths, the excesses of refinement exhibited by cooks and perfume-makers, the very evolution of confectionery and the aphrodisiacs that come to sustain sexual activity, the music, and even the clothes and shoes, testify to the degeneration of customs, already noticed by sources of Hellenistic times (1.18b–e). In Book 14, basing himself on Aristoxenus’ Symmikta Sympotika, Athenaeus lingers on the decadence of music, on its technical impoverishment, on the effects provoked by artists in search of the spectacular (14.631e). Corruption and barbarity have taken over the theaters, and the memory of what music of times past had been survives only by a miracle: for instance, in a feast at Poseidonia, a Greek community whose customs and language have been transformed, but which was wise enough to preserve the words and institutions of the rite. In this case, collective and festive memory has the same efficiency as the library (632a).

This temporal and historical depth is accompanied by an inevitable comparison with the social, political, linguistic, and cultural reality of the place of observation: if Larensius’ banquets are the instrument of a trip through the time and space of the Greek world, they are no less rooted in the Roman world and in Latinity. The gaze directed on the library sometimes opens the way to a certain form of linguistic and cultural comparison, intent on gathering the elements of continuity or of rupture. That reference to Rome is contested by Ulpian, locked up in his “Syro-Atticist” intransigence. It is, however, present throughout the text, whether one is trying to recall to memory the existence of a Roman grammatical tradition—a distinguished practitioner of which was Varro, whom Larensius considers as his ancestor (4.160c)—or whether one is quoting a historical source on Caesar’s expedition written “in the language of our fathers” (6.273b), or whether one is looking for Latin equivalents to Greek words. More subtle links appear when Roman and Attic fishmongers are compared (6.224c), or when Larensius tackles the question of slavery in Rome (6.272d–e), or when the mention of the decadence of customs in the Hellenistic world introduces a reflection on the damage provoked by lust in the Roman world (6.274c–f). Roman society also enters the space of zētēsis: for instance, during the reflection on the consumption of wine by women (10.440d–441a). An author like Polybius, between two worlds, plays an essential role in this. Rome and Greece come back into play at the mention of the customs related to serving wine (a task that fell on young men of noble birth: 10.425a) or the norms that regulate the consumption of pure wine (10.429a–b). Even the long list of Greeks who loved jokes extends in a totally natural way to the Latin world, where Sylla and Lucius Anicius represent the type of the philogelōs in its Roman version (14.615a–b). A god like Janus becomes part of the zētēsis concerning crowns (15.692d), and even Roman recipes find their place in Athenaeus’ gourmet universe (14.647e). [2]

This meeting between two worlds, however, does not succeed in hiding the fact that the priority of the deipnosophists is the project of reconstructing a cultural and linguistic universe, that of the Greek world. At the fourth level of that helicoidal gallery that rises above the library, one does indeed reach an anthropological point of view, within which a culture reflects on itself. Finally, why did Athenaeus choose as the subject of his work the banquet, with its two successive phases of deipnon and sumposion? Why precisely this subject and not another? First of all, because the banquet makes it possible to unite the immediacy of an experienced practice—with its ritual, its codified progression, its principles of social cohabitation—with a process of cultural anamnesis that passed through conversations and searches which in turn incited one to keep drunkenness under control so as to be able to exercise intelligence. The gestures, the words, and the objects all participate in the same mnemotechnics, set under the control of Ulpian, the symposiarch and, at the same time, the guardian of the rites and the words. Secondly, because the banquet is a good “anthropological object”, as one would say today. It connects the world of objects to that of cuisine, the acculturation of nature; it calls upon complex codes of civility, conviviality, complicity, and etiquette, from good table manners to the codes of the joke; it inscribes within a social framework the biological need for food. The banquet is also a place of experimentation and social control of affections and experiences, whether it is through drunkenness as a form of contact with alterity, or through erotic desire. On the other hand, the banquet lends itself to the most vast and diverse travels within the space of the library. Medicine, philosophy, cuisine, comedy, poetry, lexica, epic, epistolography, and collections of anecdotes, music, historiography, and antiquarian erudition: those different subdivisions of the ancient library are all represented in the Deipnosophists. Even if the members of Larensius’ circle embody one or the other of those specialties, one should not forget that the one who leads the game, Athenaeus, shares, at least up to a point, their technical competence, in his capacity, for instance, to quote the authors, famous or obscure, of Hellenistic medicine, of Alexandrian erudition, or of the peripatetic tradition. Finally, as suggested by the Attic wine cups, where drinkers observed each other in the act of drinking, the banquet was always the place and time of a certain form of cultural reflection: though the music, the jokes, and the poetry that were recited there, and the subjects of conversation, the sense of belonging to the same traditions was asserted, the sharing of the same universe of thought and language.

Reflexivity: every mirror presupposes maximum proximity, but also an irreducible distance, a distancing necessary to the perception of one’s own image, one’s own identity. Such is the position of the ethnologist or the anthropologist who studies the culture to which they belong, who must construct a point of observation that is both close and distant at the same time. That is also the position of Athenaeus before the mirror of the library: the books, and the words of the Greek language are familiar to him. However, he scans them in search of an elusive strangeness, which manifests itself in cultural codes, in ethical models, in symbolic links now all in the past and diffracted in allusions, polemics or simple literary mentions. This is true for the reflection that underlies the entire work of Athenaeus: what about food? What does it mean to eat? And how should one eat? From what point does a physiological need reveal a psychological trait, or even becomes a social deviation? Where does one place the norm of behavior and how does it happen that the transgression of the norm should carry with it a series of disorders, comical or dramatic? The contemporary reader cannot but take note of Athenaeus’ inquiries and of their anthropological relevance; such inquiries, for instance, lead one to question the consumption of fish, opsophagia, as a paradigm of extreme gluttony: that is, to define an ethical profile and a type of social behavior, but also to introduce a form of destabilizing alterity.

Just as those literati at the banquet reflect on the banquet, so those Greek speakers reflect on their Greek language and on its conformity to the use of the ancients. But this archaeology of words, objects, dishes, and gestures leads to a more fundamental reflection, on ethical norms, on codes of life in society, on the passions, on the links between political power and power over oneself. The pleasure of eating and drinking together in the context of the deipnon and the symposion is indeed put under everyone’s control, tempered by the rules of conviviality and the circulation of the word, supervised by the symposiarch. And in practice, Larensius’ guests do not fall into any excess that is not one of language and erudition. At the same time, however, excess is at the center of their conversation: intemperance, prodigality, lust, exaggerated gluttony, and uncontrolled propensity for wine. Those deviations enable them to satisfy specific points of curiosity, in the form of scandalous anecdotes, edifying stories, and extraordinary descriptions. They also, however, feed a reflection on the ways and the times in which a civilization sinks into excess, in which wealth becomes lust, and in which a materialistic and hedonistic society forgets its culture, its principles, and its identity.

From this particular point of view, the library demands a reflection on history: what is it that has the power to cause the decadence of a people, the fall of a city, or the crisis of a culture? A first answer immediately: all this happens at the moment when the Greeks start imitating the barbarians, let themselves be conquered by their truphē, and adopt their lifestyle, with its excesses of refinement. Such is the case of the Spartans, who according to Phylarchus have adopted the lifestyle of the Great King (4.141f–142b). The problem sometimes also comes from inside, and this happens when a society loosens its vigilance and lets dangerous behavior spread: Athens, Greece’s prutanaeum, thus suffers the fury of the flatterers (6.254b). Societies that give in to truphē risk annihilation, as Book 12 shows with its edifying itinerary: Sybaris, Tarentum, the Iapygians, the Scythians, Miletus, which falls into civil war, the Ionians (Magnesians, Samians, Colophonians), and many other peoples. Contagion does not spare Rome. Lucullus is responsible for the introduction to Rome of the virus of truphē (6.274e–f), he himself having been contaminated by Mithridates, whose wealth he had acquired—and with it, his style of life (12.543a). Apicius testifies to the propagation of the disease (1.7a–d; 4.168e; 12.543b).

The banquet is also a good subject for the critique of individual customs, and the conversations of the deipnosophists develop an immense gallery of characters who are odd, extravagant, tragic, ill, ridiculous, or simply human, by virtue of weaknesses from which even the greatest among the ancients are not spared: characters emblematic of barbarian softness, Greek tyrants with extravagant tastes, effeminate Hellenistic kings obese and corroded by gout, [4] leaders escorted by prostitutes, by harpists and flute players, etc. That critique of customs offers a particular perspective for the reading of the classics, of the great authors, for entire literary genres, or even for the moral and intellectual authorities that are (or should be) the philosophers. The polyphony of the conversation makes possible the polemical diversity of points of view, but the questions nevertheless are asked: what do Plato, the Stoics, the Cyrenaics, the Peripatetics, the Epicureans, and the Cynics have to say on the evolution of customs? What answers do they provide to the questions concerning pleasure, desire, happiness, ethics, and politics? Does the example they give through their personal conduct agree with their words? What do the historians, the comic poets, and the Alexandrine grammarians have to say when those questions are addressed to them, when one applies to them a reading filter that privileges food, drink, relations with women, with youngsters, or with wine, the use of perfumes, or the choice of clothes?

Considered from that point of observation from above, but also from Rome and from its empire, the library of Greek texts, parceled out into thousands of quotations, sees the threads of its discourse pulled back together: a discourse on customs, on history, on crossings between private life and collective destinies, that is, a main concern for all those who from the Hellenistic period have attempted to understand the transformations of the world and the reversals of fortune. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists may reflect, beyond the erudite bulimia and the jokes of its protagonists, the anxiety of a civilization about its own future and the fragility of a cultural identity that strives to preserve its roots, its language, its authorities, and its values. This minute exploration of the world of material goods and of foods, of desires and appetites, of norms and transgressions, of measure and of excess, indubitably offers a fascinating subject of meditation to the contemporary reader. The mirror that Athenaeus turns in the direction of his culture, of his memory, of his library, and of history will not cease to invite reflection.


[ back ] 1. That paradigmatic value of the Homeric banquets comes back in Book 5: they represent an ideal of which the banquets of the philosophers offer but a pale reflection (5.186d ff.).

[ back ] 2. Other noteworthy links between Greece and Rome: 14.639b–e (on Saturnalia and their Thessalian equivalent); 14.660c (on the execution of sacrifices in Rome by the highest magistrates, censors). One recognizes here Larensius’ competence in matters of religion.

[ back ] 3. On the culinary universe of Greek comedy, see Wilkins 2000b.

[ back ] 4. See Gambato 2000.