The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 3. “Athenaeus is the Father of this Book”

What was Athenaeus’ project? Why did he not stop at the stage of compilation, which would have allowed him to possess a collection of excerpts from a wide range of books, or to write a monograph on the pleasures of the table, perhaps even a glossary of the rare words of culinary art? To what end did he build up this mirrored set-up, where the banquet and the symposium diffract into a kaleidoscope of words and information, into a conversation of diners and drinkers exploring the literary memory and cultural knowledge that are specific to banquets and symposia? Why those multiple levels of interpretation? And what do these reveal of Athenaeus’ working methods, of his background, of his goals, of the intended recipients of his work, if any?

And first of all: who was Athenaeus? “Athenaeus is the father of this book”: these are the opening words of Book 1, in the abbreviated version of the Epitome. The title preserved in Marcianus A further specifies that Athenaeus was a native of Naucratis. We know little more about the man than what his work tells us explicitly or allows us to extrapolate.

We know little more of the personal itinerary of Athenaeus than what is implicit in his text. One cannot but be struck by the significant link that unites his “Athenian” name to his Egyptian origin, but also to a work that is manifestly rooted in the heart of the capital of the Roman empire. That triangle marks the limits of the Deipnosophists’ cultural space, between Atticism, which re-incarnates a past ideal of language and culture, the Egyptian pole, where through metonymy Naucratis conjures up Alexandria, its library and its immense project of cultural reactivation, and finally Rome, the new center of the world and a center of power where the synthesis, or at least its writing into history can take place. All we learn from Athenaeus is that he had left Egypt a long time ago (7.312a); despite that, Egypt nevertheless represents an emotional and intellectual horizon that underlies the work as a whole.

That emotional horizon manifests itself in the diffuse presence of Egypt in the work, of Hellenistic Egypt rather than the traditional Egypt of the pyramids, the sources of the Nile and the other mirabilia (thaumata) dear to Herodotus. [9] Athenaeus shows his attachment to his fatherland when he recalls “my Naucratites” (3.73a). In the same way, he remembers that “in my own Naucratis they call hepsētoi the small fish that remain imprisoned in the canals when the Nile withdraws from the plain” (7.301c). And when a guest explains in detail the list of wine cups, it is noted that in Naucratis, “the home of our fellow diner Athenaeus,” there are several types of cup. This introduces a parenthesis in which one is reminded that many potters were active in Naucratis and that for that reason the gate located in the vicinity of their workshops was called Keramikē (11.480d–e). The same local roots probably explain the mention of Naucratis in relation to various subjects addressed in the course of the conversation, be it public banquets on the occasion of religious feasts (4.149d–150a), famous prostitutes (13.596b–d), or the art of flower crowns, concerning which Athenaeus mentions his reading of the work of Polycharmus of Naucratis, On Aphrodite (15.675f–676c), the latter being a goddess that was particularly dear to the Naukratites (ibid.). In the course of a long treatise addressed to Timocrates, Athenaeus also evokes “my Alexandrians” (12.541a), which shows the metonymic link between the two cities.

As for the intellectual horizon, there is indeed a strong continuity between the vast cultural project linked to the Library of Alexandria—the gathering of the cultural and literary heritage, along with the classification and quasi-cartographic distribution of the fields of knowledge and of the books themselves—and the work of Athenaeus. Alexandria, its library, its erudite techniques and its college of authoritative scholars are very present in the Deipnosophists. Both in the library and in Athenaeus’ text, one can observe the same intellectual requirements: to inventory, reactivate, classify, enumerate, categorize. Between what was achieved in Alexandria or Pergamon by many generations of scholars and grammarians, and what Athenaeus accomplished in his work, there is thus an undeniable relation of homology, but also of derivation, mimesis, and condensation: the Deipnosophists is a condensed library, a Library of Alexandria reduced to the dimensions of a book.


[ back ] 1. On the foundation of Naucratis see Boardman 1980:117–34 and Moeller 2000.

[ back ] 2. Plato, Phaedrus 274C.

[ back ] 3. See Fraser 1972:1.511 and 3.736ff., nn. 134–36. Athenaeus cites Lyceas (4.150b; 13.560e and 14.616d).

[ back ] 4. Fraser 1972:1.582.

[ back ] 5. Fraser 1972:1.632.

[ back ] 6. See Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 15.23.30

[ back ] 7. Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 2.21. It is significant that Philostratus does not mention Athenaeus among the famous sophists of Naucratis.

[ back ] 8. See Swain 1996:248–53; and on Fronto, Champlin 1980.

[ back ] 9. See Thompson 2000.

[ back ] 10. On those two works see the overviews by Braund 2000 and Wilkins 2000.

[ back ] 11. See for example 10.459b–c, where Athenaeus postpones to the following day, that is to say the following book, the account of the conversation on drinking wares.