The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 6. Larensius’ Circle

The setting of the conversations is defined from the very first lines of the Deipnosophists: the banquets offered by Larensius, a rich Roman, to individuals endowed with the greatest experience in all fields of culture (1.1a). If Plutarch’s banquets brought together Greeks and Romans united by bonds of friendship or kinship, and therefore defining a relatively homogeneous social environment of professors and provincial notables, Athenaeus, on the contrary, presents a circle of men of letters enjoying the generous hospitality of a Roman patron. Everything suggests a circle that met regularly, bound by deep complicity, united by common gastronomical inclinations and by similar cultural skills. The cohesion and the dynamics of that group constantly appear in their conversations: the liveliness of the exchanges, the jokes, the challenges, and the disputes, sometimes the invectives, constitute so many indices of a profound familiarity, of a common combativeness concerning culture and the table, where everyone knows how to play the others’ weaknesses and strong points to everyone’s amusement. Philosophers, physicians, grammarians, musicians, jurists, and sophists are united in a relation of patronage that binds them to a wealthy protector who, in turn, receives them in his house, offering them sumptuous banquets which revive the tradition of the Greek deipnon and sumposion, and at the same time opening to them his rich library of Greek texts.

We see him speak concerning the wild cherry, imported to Italy by Lucullus (2.50f), criticizing his Greek guests for systematically attributing all novelties to themselves; expatiate on the aroma of lentil soup (4.160b); confirm that it was Marius who brought back to Rome the skins of the Gorgons, and that those skins were hanging in the temple of Hercules (5.221f); comment on the number of servants present in Roman families; meditate on the effects of a sumptuary law and on the deterioration of mores in Rome (6.272d–274f). Larensius can quote Clearchus of Soli and his definition of a riddle, describe in detail its various typologies and throw the ball to his companions: when it is impossible to solve a riddle, the penalty consists in drinking a cup of wine. “Now what that cup is, my good Ulpian, try to find out for yourself” (10.448c–e). Opening the conversation on women, a conversation within which prostitutes of fame, their quips and their lovers will hold the place of honor, Larensius praises marriage and begins a detailed critique of the traditions concerning Socrates’ bigamy, before evoking the concubines of the kings of Persia and those of the Greek heroes (13.555c–558e). In sum, the host has his role in the learned conversations of the deipnosophists, asserting his knowledge and giving proof of his readings and his familiarity with a library that does not only exist for show. Moreover, he claims his status as a man of letters and scholar, as a member of a learned genealogy that connects him to Varro, surnamed “the Menippean” (4.160c). Larensius is, therefore, a long ways from Trimalchio. [2]

Larensius, who was charged by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to supervise the temples and sacrifices, is presented as an expert in matters of religion (1.2c). He knows the traditional rites, both Roman and Greek, like the back of his hand and is an expert connoisseur of ancient sacrificial ceremonies going back to Romulus and to Numa Pompilius. The ritual of libation, accompanied by a paean in honor of Hygeia, which brings the banquet to an end, is most probably accomplished by Larensius, even though the lacunary state of the text does not allow us to be sure (15.702a). He is also a good connoisseur of political laws. He has acquired his competence in the matter by studying the decrees of the assembly and of the Senate, and a collection of laws, all of which are legal texts that seem to be part of his enormous library. In the course of the text, this guardian of traditions mentions his role as procurator of the imperial province of Moesia (9.398e); the temptation is thus great to identify him with the Livius Laurensis who was procurator patrimonii at the end of Commodus’ reign and contributed to the organization of his funeral on the orders of Pertinax. [3] Thus Larensius was a priest and a high official in the imperial administration. An inscription bears the text of the epitaph dedicated by Cornelia Quinta to her incomparable spouse, P[ublius] Livius Larensius, who exercised the function of pontifex minor. [4] Is it our Larensius? Even though the lower-rank priesthood held by the deceased is not incompatible with the hyperbolic praise of Athenaeus, who stresses the competence of his protector in religious matters, one must still explain the absence in the epitaph of Larensius’ two procuracies, important administrative posts that should have been mentioned. [5]

Thus Larensius inscribes the Deipnosophists in the social reality of imperial Rome. Rich and learned, a priest under Marcus Aurelius, later advancing in the cursus of the equestrian order by obtaining under Commodus the charge of procurator patrimonii with its high remuneration, he is also the enlightened protector of a learned and scholarly circle which includes Athenaeus. The latter, for his part, devotes to his patron the work that immortalizes his generosity, the splendor of his banquets, the high tenor of the conversations of his guests. A work written in Greek, in honor of that Roman who was bilingual and a lover of Greece, a work devoted to the exploration of the library of ancient Greek books which surrounds the banquet.

The reference to Alexandria is fundamental in Athenaeus’ text, and this at multiple levels. Alexandrian erudition, its scholarly treatises, its lexika and commentaries are omnipresent, and among the preoccupations of the Alexandrian scholars and those of Larensius’ circle there exists, as we shall see, no break in continuity: the latter like the former were involved in the same activity of inventorying, deciphering, and preserving classical Greek culture; moreover, the Rome of Severus adds a chronological gap of almost five centuries, which makes the undertaking more difficult, but perhaps also more urgent.

The reference to Alexandria can perhaps also be seen in Athenaeus’ similes, which we see materialize from time to time; for example, when our author quotes Timon of Phlius and his satire of the Museum of Alexandria, where philosophers were kept like luxury birds in an aviary, a cage of the Muses where the inmates, who live only in their books, argue uninterruptedly (1.22d): is this not a perfect characterization of Larensius’ circle, where guests eat while incessantly arguing? Or, when the rare bird first mentioned and then exhibited by Larensius, the famous tetrax (9.398b–c), which once again recalls Timon’s aviary, resonates with the tetaroi, the pheasants that Ptolemy Physcon raised in his palace without ever having dared to eat them (14.654b–c; see also 9.387d). If Ptolemy had seen that a pheasant was served to each one of Larensius’ guests, he would have added a twenty-fifth book to his treatise, Athenaeus states. As for Larensius, he has his rare bird cooked to serve it to his guests. When, to our bitterest frustration, Athenaeus does not dwell on the Museum of Alexandria and its library, probably while holding in his hands the rolls of Callixeinus of Rhodes’ On Alexandria, “since these things are well-known to everyone” (5.203e), does he not suggest the idea that the library and the circle of Larensius, and the text that contains them, are now the new poles of memory and knowledge, the heirs and the substitutes of the foundations laid in Alexandria?

Must I continue to hit the same key? When Athenaeus presents the circle of the deipnosophists, he introduces a Philadelphus of Ptolemais (Philadelphos te ho Ptolemaeus), a man brought up in philosophical contemplation, Athenaeus tells us, who in life however has proved himself capable also in the rest (1.1d). Philadelphus of Ptolemais? He does not appear in the text of Athenaeus that we read today. Instead, it is Ptolemy Philadelphus that appears everywhere in the text: the bibliophile king (1.3b), the king of the procession described by Callixeinus (5.196a, 9.387d, 11.483e–f), the king of the sumptuous ships (5.203c), of immense wealth (5.206c–d), to whom Cleino poured wine (10.425e), who succeeded in deceiving Sosibius, one of his learned protégés (11.493e–f), who inspired the fabrication of the rhuton, a drinking vase, but also the attribute of the statues of Arsinoe (11.497b); Ptolemy Philadelphus, the king with many lovers (13.576e–f; see also 5.203a; 13.593a–b).

Philadelphus of Ptolemais serves perhaps as a sign. Where does the game begin? And where does it stop? In his presentation of the deipnosophists, Athenaeus tells us: “Plutarch was also present,” and he places him among the most refined grammarians (1.1c). Plutarch? One needs to wait until the third book to find out that he comes from Alexandria (3.118f). As for Plutarch of Chaeronea, he appears in the second book (52d), in relation to the only reference Athenaeus makes to the Symposiacs (624c): crunching bitter almonds makes it possible to drink much without sinking into drunkenness. When Athenaeus mentions Galen of Pergamon among the physicians present, doubt is no longer an option: Galen “published philosophical and medical works of such importance that he surpassed all his predecessors, and was no less efficient than any ancient author in the art of scientific interpretation (hermeneia)” (1.1e–f). Galen was part of Larensius’ circle? Athenaeus’ emphatic homage suggests that at the very least, he knew the reputation of the physician from Pergamon who, after a first trip to Rome, had taken up residence there permanently from 169 onwards. He remained there probably until his death (around 200?), and thus knew the reigns of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Septimius Severus, three emperors who called upon his services. Galen was one of the great scholarly figures of Rome in the time of Athenaeus and Larensius; he himself belonged to a famous literary circle, that of Iulia Domna, Septimius Severus’ second wife, where he could converse, among others, with Philostratus, Serenus Sammonicus, Oppian, and Cassius Dio. Were his treatises, so numerous that Galen himself was obliged to compile an official bibliography of them, a part of Larensius’ library? Athenaeus’ text does not allow any conclusions regarding this, since his Galen does not practice self-quotation. [7] The guest is also quite less prolix than the author: he speaks on only two occasions, concerning Italian wines, of which he makes a catalogue, describing their properties and effects (1.26c–27d), and concerning breads, sweets, and flours, in a passage where he dwells on their taste and their digestibility (3.115c). Medical talk, without any doubt, by a physician who deals with dyspepsia, flatulence, and migraines, which cannot, however, be put in relation with any of Galen’s known treatises. [8]

Ulpian of Tyre, one of the dialogue’s major protagonists, also awakens a feeling of immediate familiarity: could it possibly be the great jurist, author of a considerable number of works, including a compendium of Roman law reused in the sixth century by Justinian’s jurists? Ulpian of Tyre was active under Caracalla (212–217), was exiled by Elagabalus, and was subsequently praetorian prefect under Alexander Severus, before being assassinated in 223 by the praetorian guard. He was also part of the circle of Iulia Domna. However, despite the homonymy, Athenaeus’ character does not correspond precisely with that figure: Athenaeus’ Ulpian is a rhetor, a virtuoso of the zētēsis, that technique of grammatical investigation that animates the entire dialogue. Besides, Ulpian is obsessed with zētēsis: he never abstains, neither on the road, nor on a walk, nor in the shops of booksellers, not even in the baths. From this he earned himself the surname Keitoukeitos, “is lying there or is not lying there”, literally a mantra of the obsessive lexicographer, with which he begins practically every time he speaks, preferably when his companions are preparing to try a dish (1.1d–e). The meaning and the use of words haunt him, and there is no respite until he has succeeded in associating every word to a literary quotation that testifies to its usage. Ulpian is the topographer of the Greek language, every word in its place, in one of the library’s books.

It is not easy to recognize the traits of the eminent jurist remembered by posterity in this peculiar character. Besides, Athenaeus’ silence on what constitutes his glory poses a further problem, since among the deipnosophists are two other legal exegetes, Masurius (14.623e) and Larensius himself.

The ambiguity of those uncertain identifications opens the way for two divergent interpretations. On the one hand, we can anchor Larensius’ circle to a determined time and place, to the reality of a moment of imperial history, under the reign of Septimius Severus, with real people, where it was after all also possible to meet a Philadelphus of Ptolemais. Or else, we can place this circle in a utopia where the living and the dead converse without any concern for plausibility. Such a hypothesis invites one to consider attentively all the patronymics of Larensius’ guests. What about, for example, that Democritus of Nicomedia with endless knowledge (1.1d)? And does Aemilianus of Mauritania not evoke Scipio Africanus, also an Aemilianus, famous for his circle of scholars (1.1d)? Do the physicians Daphnus of Ephesus and Rufinus of Nicaea not both refer to one and the same person, Rufus of Ephesus? As for Masurius, he could be the grammarian, contemporary of Tiberius and quoted several times by Aulus Gellius. [11] Zoilus, another grammarian, could remind one of Zoilus Homeromastix, who failed to obtain the gift of a life annuity from one of the Ptolemies (perhaps Philopator), despite the textual criticism he had applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey. [12] Larensius then offered him at Rome the protection that the Alexandrian sovereign had refused him. In the same way, one could wonder about the identity of that Arrianus grammaticus, whose erudition Athenaeus praises (3.113a), or even about that of Varus, another grammarian, whose evokes Varro’s (3.118d–e).

Finally the coherence of the intellectual environment described by Athenaeus should be emphasized. The twenty-two named individuals introduced in the account of Larensius’ banquets, who are already present at the beginning of the dialogue, or who appear suddenly as the text unfolds, delineate the field of paideia and erudition, with their specializations as physicians, musicians, grammarians, rhetoricians, cynics, or academic philosophers. This is a cosmopolitan environment where one encounters Roman patronymics, like that of the jurist Masurius (a scholar and a poet at the same time), the grammarian Magnus, and the mysterious Aemilianus, next to Greek ones originating from all regions of the Hellenised world: Elis, Alexandria, Nicomedia, Ptolemais, Tyre, Ephesus, Pergamon, Naucratis, Nicaea. Larensius’ circle is thus the synthesis of diverse scholarly traditions, those of Alexandria and Pergamon, and that of the Roman world. Every man of letters brings with him to the banquet his culture, his readings, his education, his geographical horizon, and his share of quotations and anecdotes rooted in his home region.

Can Larensius’ circle be seen as a new Museum of Alexandria? Like the Ptolemies, Larensius has gathered an elite of scholars who cover all the disciplines of paideia (1.1a) and who, beyond their professional specializations, share the same curiosity, the same encyclopedic knowledge. As at the Museum, the scholars take their meals in common—and what meals! Moreover, they have, in Rome, the use of a library which, it would seem, had little to envy from the one at the court of the Lagids and encompassed all the scholarly tradition unfolding from Alexandria to the peak of the Roman Empire.


[ back ] 1. As rightly noted by Braund 2000b:8; see also Whitmarsh 2000, who puts this situation of social and economic dependence in relation with the treatment on flatterers and parasites in Book 6.

[ back ] 2. Braund 2000b:5.

[ back ] 3. Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Commodus 20.1.

[ back ] 4. CIL 6.2126 (=ILS 2932); see Dessau 1890.

[ back ] 5. The objection is made by Braund 2000b:7ff,, who suggests we identify the Larensius of the inscription with the father of Athenaeus’ host.

[ back ] 6. See the short description of the Museum in Strabo, Geography 17.1.8 C 793–794.

[ back ] 7. The same is true for all the other deipnosophists: they are guests, readers, interlocutors, but not authors, with the exception of Athenaeus, whose other works are mentioned in the course of the dialogue (5.211a).

[ back ] 8. Grant 2000 and Flemming 2000:476, which also shows the abundance of Athenaeus’ medical quotations.

[ back ] 9. Dio Cassius 80.2.2.

[ back ] 10. See Braund 2000b:17ff.

[ back ] 11. I follow here Kaibel 1887:6ff.

[ back ] 12. Fraser 1972:1.310 and Vitruvius, On Architecture 7.Praef.8ff.

[ back ] 13. Athenaeus perhaps indicates one of its rules through the leader of the cynical philosophers present at the banquet: “Cynulcus” is his surname (“dog-guide”), and in order to discover the real name of this brilliant cynic (Theodoros) one must wait until Book 15 (692b). Already in Book 4 (160d), Larensius reveals the existence of a birth name that is different from the surname, but without saying what it is.