The Web of Athenaeus

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

Chapter 7. Writing the Symposium

In the literary tradition of the sumposion, writing fixes the ephemeral character of the conversation, and bestows upon live interaction the monumentality of a text that offers itself to reading, to repeated readings, to the intellectual participation at a distance of readers who, even though they did not participate in the symposium, and were not able to take part in the conversation, nevertheless become its witnesses and its audience.

Reading Plato and Xenophon allows us to attend Socrates’ symposia and to benefit from them, in so far as it is true that the specific pleasure of the symposium lies in the conversations that are held there, and not only in its material and sensual delights. The philosophical symposium is a place of memorable sayings, and writing perpetuates their effectiveness for generations of readers, while at the same time sketching an ideal scenario for learned conviviality (Plutarch, Symposiacs 6.668 B–D).

The reference to Plato in the Deipnosophists is at the same time evident and complex. It is evident, as the author of the epitome of Book 1 highlights: “Athenaeus dramatizes his dialogue in imitation of Plato” (1.1f). It is complex, because the imitation of a general model of composition and the literal allusions go hand-in-hand with a number of deviations and variations, more or less important, which markedly differentiate Larensius’ banquets from the memorable sumposion offered by Agathon. In parallel to the games of mimesis, Plato is also an author who is visibly admired and explicitly quoted; for example, he provides testimony on paradoxal topics (drunkenness, luxury couches, and sane food), [1] but also offers matter for anecdotes, comments, and lively controversies. Through the deipnosophists, Athenaeus in fact abandons himself to a strict criticism of his illustrious model, of his intellectual and moral defects (Book 11), but also of the incoherence and implausibilities of his Symposium (Book 5). [2] One of the dimensions of Athenaeus’ work lies in this critical distance, explicit or implicit, in relation to the founding text of a literary tradition within which he inscribes himself, and in the analysis of the very development of the Platonic symposium, which corrupts the ritual and norms expounded in all their original purity in the Homeric poems (5.186d–193c). Thus the dialogue of the sophists enables a multiplicity of clarifications and points of view on a key author of the classical library, between hagiography and polemics, testifying in this way to the plurality of readings and critical traditions of Plato’s Symposium.

Finding inspiration in Plato’s “dramaturgy”, Athenaeus recounts the meeting of Larensius’ circle to an interlocutor who has not participated in it. Timocrates is the substitute of the reader, the one who by virtue of his curiosity and of the friendly pressure exerted upon him, encourages the narrator to delve into his memory and to bring forth the account. Like in Plato’s Symposium, the reported account has the power to turn the audience and the reader into participants, to integrate them into that circle of learned complicity, of speech and of memory. One could ask whether one of the aims of Athenaeus’ work is not to turn Timocrates, perhaps a substitute of the reader, into a deipnosophist, by making him enter, in turn, that game of culture and conviviality, by providing him with the codes and materials that are necessary in order to participate in those sophisticated conversations. As for Plutarch, he offers to Sossius Senecio the written account of the conversations of the symposia in which (or at least in some of which) he had participated. However, the insistent presence of the dedicatee, especially in the prologues of each book, cannot hide the fact that Plutarch also had in mind a wider readership (see 2.629C–E).

The literary form of the symposium conversation gives a new scope and a new significance to the social game that is represented in that way. The game becomes the setting of a literary, philosophical, or scholarly project, and the literary form can constitute its essential element, or just a superficial background that will be already forgotten as it is displayed. The conversation born within the context of shared and controlled drinking deserves, according to Plutarch, to escape oblivion, to be fixed in memory. To make this point, he rests on illustrious precedents: Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Speusippus, Epicurus, Prytanis, Hieronymus, and Dio.

In Plutarch, the symposium conversation combines with the tradition of the Platonic dialogue, although it takes the form of a series of learned dissertations, putting together a dossier of sources and arguments on a given subject. The subjects treated in the Symposiacs include two large groups of questions: those that refer directly to the symposium, and others, of literary, historical, philosophical, medical or scientific nature, which reflect a curiosity with a wider scope. Here are examples of the second category of questions, which Plutarch defines as “symposium talk” (2.629C–E, preface: sumposiaka): “Why do old people read letters better from a distance?” (1.8); “Why are clothes washed better with fresh water than with sea water?” (1.9); “Who was born first, the egg or the hen?” (2.3); or, “Who is the god of the Jews?” (4.6). As for the first category, it has, according to Plutarch, a practical function: to formulate and to make explicit the rules of the symposium, the principles of making it run smoothly, its values. The conversation allows the guests to give new blood to the tradition, to reach a point of agreement on the progress of their meeting, to collectively define its rules, inscribing it, at the same time, in an archaeology of cultural and social practices that hinges, in particular, on the precedent constituted by literary and philosophical symposia. Examples among others of those “symposium questions” (2.629C–E; Preface, Sympotika) are: “What are, according to Xenophon, the questions and the jokes that are pleasing or displeasing during a symposium?” (–F); “On the art of asking questions” (–B); “whether flower crowns are necessary at the symposium” (3.1); “why does sweet wine not cause drunkenness” (3.7); “should one or should one not filter wine” (6.7). It is noteworthy that the discussion can also focus on the significance of ancient Roman usage (7.4: “why did the ancient Romans have the habit of not having empty tables or burnt out lanterns taken away”).

The deipnosophists participate in the same reflection project: it is a question of integrating the gestures, the objects, the codes, and the distractions of the symposium within a network of quotations, words, anecdotes, authorities, and explanations; of placing drinking and drunkenness under the control of the social ritual of conversation, of making them subject to discourse and to memory. To the calm and well composed talks of Plutarch’s friends, however, Athenaeus substitutes a continuous and dazzling flux of exchanges, words, and quotations, of erudite disquisitions and of anecdotes, which spread through each of the fifteen books. The very structure of the dialogue at times drowns in an impressive logorrhea (or, as Cynulcus put it, “logodiarrhea”: 4.159e), with the consequence that the reader is led to suspect that the text is structured according to different principles.


[ back ] 1. Anderson 2000:320, where the reader is directed to 10.431f, 2.48a, and 4.138a.

[ back ] 2. See Trapp 2000.

[ back ] 3. From that point of view, the prologue of the Deipnosophists presents more similarities with that of the Phaedo (57a). One can compare this with the beginning of Plutarch’s Banquet of the Seven Sages (146B), which presents another variation on the Platonic model.

[ back ] 4. See Romeri 2000:263ff.