The Web of Athenaeus

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


Chapter 9. Accumulation and Structure

Athenaeus’ work, with everything it includes (objects, quotations, information, words), is indeed a collection that seems destined to perpetual growth. That collection, however, and the text within which it finds its space, are nevertheless organized on the basis of ordering principles.

The work’s prologue, in so far as it is only preserved by the epitome, announces its content (1.1a–c):

[Athenaeus] introduced fish into the work, with the related ways of preparing them and the explanations of their names; multiple varieties of vegetables and animals of all sorts; authors of history, poets, and scholars in every field, musical instruments and innumerable types of jokes, and he has included in his exposition the differences between cups, the riches of kings, the sizes of ships, and other subjects, so numerous that it would not be easy for me even to recall them to memory: the entire day would pass expounding one genre after the other. Also, the general design of the work tries to imitate the sumptuous abundance of the banquet, and the articulation of the book mirrors the menu served in the course of the discussion. Thus is presented the delightful banquet of words staged by Athenaeus, who is the admirable inventor of the general design of the work and who, surpassing himself like the Athenian orators, he raises himself with the ardor of his eloquence step by step through the successive parts of the book.

These few lines offer a real key to the understanding of the work. In the first place they define its contents. Athenaeus’ book includes things, names, classifications, but also other books. One of its unifying threads will be to connect all those different elements to each other, to circulate, that is, between the things, the words, and the texts that convey them. The heterogeneous bric-à-brac in which one finds vegetables, fish, boats, drinking cups, and jokes is in fact governed by a specific order, that of classificatory reason, which imposes on accumulation the distribution into categories, genres, and subgenres, a form of intellectual mechanics that can be applied as much to the typology of kitchenware as to that of jokes or vegetables. It is thus possible to conciliate ordering principle and infinite variety, in what the text calls “the general design of the logos.” Athenaeus’ role is precisely that of a “manager of the discussion,” in charge of ensuring the succession of subjects, without repetitions and without omissions, just as the administrator of the banquet deals with the proper succession of the dishes. The deeper issue in the work lies in conciliating its antithetical requirements, the pleasure of the collection, the sunagōgē, and the assertion of order—taxis—which allows one to circulate within the collection and to follow a trajectory that is as coherent as the one within classifications and texts, or the one that leads from the apéritif to the final libation of a symposium.

This preamble thus establishes the principle of a structural mimesis that involves the conversation, the book, and the banquet; the latter element brings to the first two a general ordering principle. That principle deploys a space of homologies and correspondences between distinct levels: the unfolding of the banquet and the text’s thematic sequences; the dishes and the words that serve to describe them; the words of the banquet and the banquet of words; the conversation of the guests and the written dialogue, reconstructed from memory (presumably) by Athenaeus; the quotations from comedy and the comedy played by the guests on the stage of the banquet; the banquet of the deipnosophists and the banquets mentioned in their conversations, from Homer to the Hellenistic kings; the Deipnosophists as a text inscribed in the tradition of symposium literature.

To this first organizing principle, which involved the distribution of the material into the fifteen sections that made up the work, a second structural criterion can be added: the unfolding of the banquet and the symposium. The most important points of articulation are easy to locate: up to the end of Book 5 we see the parade of hors d’oeuvres. From Book 5 to Book 10 the main courses of the banquet are served. From Book 10 onwards (422e) begins the sumposion proper, devoted to drinking and to its entertainments. These points of transition are often highlighted by the narrator, and sometimes also by one of the guests.

A third organizing criterion, intertwined with the major principles of subdivision I have already mentioned, is that of thematic distribution, that is, the parade of foods, dishes, objects, and entertainment, but also the more general subjects of conversation related to the history of banquets, to their norms and to all the related cultural problems. To this principle of thematic variety there adheres a formal variety in the exposition. Indeed, the all-encompassing form of the dialogue integrates levels and genres of discourse that are quite different from each other: for example, very extensive quotations, which could be the pure and simple transcription of extracts of other works, sometimes even an entire text; or lexical sequences which, starting from a lemma, align quotations and comments; or autonomous disquisitions of variable length, which interrupt the dialogue, even in the cases when they are attributed to one of the guests.

The following table offers a summary of the main subjects treated by Athenaeus, at the macro-structural level, obviously without giving an account of all the digressions and meanderings of the dialogue:

Book 1—The circle of Larensius; elements of symposium bibliography; the lifestyle of Homer’s heroes; wines and specialties of the Greek cities.

Book 2—Wine and water; the dining room and its furniture; fruit; appetizers and what is nibbled to accompany them.

Book 3—Seafood; tripes; fried food; bread; salted fish hors d’oeuvres; libum and chickpea bread.

Book 4—Famous banquets and symposia; strangeness and extravagance; lentil soup; critique of the philosophers; the cook and his tools; the hydraulic organ and other musical instruments.

Book 5—Public banquets and symposia of the Greek cities; the Homeric symposia; critique of Plato’s, Xenophon’s, and Epicurus’ literary symposia. Banquets, processions, and vessels of the Hellenistic kings.

Book 6—Fish; luxury; the parasite and the flatterer; slaves.

Book 7—Opsophagia; alphabetical catalogue of fish; Epicurism, a philosophy of pleasure and the stomach; famous cooks and boasters.

Book 8—Fish: mirabilia, jokes, famous fish-eaters; the point of view of naturalists and physicians.

Book 9—Cold cuts; vegetables; meats: domestic fowl, suckling pig, etc; Larensius’ tetrax; game. The cook and his art.

Book 10—On frugality; wine mixtures, drunkenness, thirst, great drinkers; enigmas and riddles.

Book 11—Alphabetical catalogue of wine cups; on the literary genre of the dialogue; critique of Plato: errors, malevolence, doctrine, political influence.

Book 12—Truphē and pleasure; peoples, Greek and barbarian kings, political figures devoted to truphē; philosophers and truphē.

Book 13—On women; famous prostitutes of the past, their witty lines, their lovers; eros and beauty.

Book 14—“Second tables” and desserts: sweets, fruit, poultry, cheese; the art of the cooks.

Book 15—The cottabus, crowns, perfumes; Attic scolia and the paean, parodies; lamps.

At a fourth level, Athenaeus’ text is structured by the dialogue of the guests. If the framing dialogue between Athenaeus and Timocrates underlines the distribution of the work in fifteen “volumes”, the dialogue between the deipnosophists, recounted from memory by Athenaeus, leaves room for a multiplicity of levels and forms of enunciation and multiple modes of statement, depending on the identity, the character, the intellectual interests, and sometimes the profession of the interlocutor: indeed, grammarians, physicians, musicians, and philosophers all explore the complementary facets of the same cultural universe, and bring it back with a shared effort of recollection and mobilization of knowledge. This interaction contributes to the dramatization of the banquet, and to the game of mimesis with the universe of comedy, amply represented in the quotations of the guests. The dialogue, in fact, is not limited to distributing the quotations among a plurality of voices and to break the monotony of the compilation. The conversation is the motor of a process of reactivation of cultural memory. In this codified social game, the circle of participants cooperates towards a common task, circulating the words, the questions and the answers, in the same way in which the dishes and the wine circulate among them. The dialogue has a structural role, not only in the organization of the work as a whole, but also in the production of knowledge, and in the formulation of contradictory, and sometimes problematic, opinions and points of view on values, norms, codes of linguistic, cultural, ethical, and social relevance.

In this respect, two protagonists play an essential role: Ulpian and Cynulcus. Their often lively exchanges and their invectives, whose excessive sharpness in itself brings out their playful and codified nature, brighten up the uninterrupted flux of literary quotations and erudite notes with scenes of pure comedy. [3] One could also claim that implicitly they regulate and problematize it, offering a thoughtful and sometimes critical point of view on the unfolding of the conversation and on the very project of Athenaeus. The obsessively inquisitive Ulpian and Cynulcus, the leader of the cynical philosophers, become angry, hit their cushions, threaten to walk away, hurl invectives and challenges at each other, poke fun at each other, bringing into question Athenaeus’ enterprise, the meaning of his work, and the legitimacy and relevance of his search for words and meaning. What is the point, in the end, of this perpetual sifting of Greek literature in search of rare words and of their usage, in search of a proper Attic language that no longer corresponds to the state of spoken Greek? Cynulcus exclaims: “You do not know how to sustain continuous and wide-ranging discussions, nor recall the facts of history … but you waste all your time investigating this nonsense: ‘Is it written or is it not written? Has it been said or has it not been said?’. And then you examine pedantically all the arguments that are presented in the speeches of those who are in dialogue with you, collecting the thorns [the thorny passages] … without ever putting together any of the more beautiful flowers” (3.97c). Lexicography has nothing to do with anthology. Ulpian replies by treating the cynic as an enraged dog, citing new authorities, and intimating that Cynulcus should answer a question if he wants to avoid a sound beating (3.100b). Upon the arrival at the table of fried livers wrapped in intestine membranes (epiplous), Cynulcus nags Ulpian: “Tell me, learned Ulpian, if in some place wrapped liver can be named in this way.” “If you tell me first in which author epiplous is used to describe the grease and the membrane” (3.106e). A little further, while Ulpian is deriding Myrtilus, Cynulcus interrupts him, screaming: “We need bread!” (3.108f); at that point the conversation shifts from fried fish to the art of bread-making in Greece. When Cynulcus requests to drink decocta (in Latin in the text), it is Ulpian who becomes angry and hits his cushion: “When will you stop expressing yourselves through barbarisms? Perhaps only when I will have abandoned the symposium and will have gone, since I am unable to digest what you are saying?” To which Cynulcus replies, “Living presently in Rome, the queen of the empire, my dear, I used the local language out of habit” (3.121e). These words do not lack good sense when confronted with the Atticist purism of the lexicographer. And when the libum, a sweet flat bread, is served, Cynulcus provokes the Syrian Ulpian once again: “Fill yourself with your khthōrodlapson, a word that, by Demeter, is not found in any ancient author, except in your compatriots, the Phoenician writers.” “But for me, horsefly that you are, I have had enough of sweet flat bread and honey,” is Ulpian’s answer (3.125f–126a).

In Book 6, immediately after an important speech by Democritus on slavery, Cynulcus suggests it is finally time to eat: “I am very hungry, seeing that until now I have eaten nothing but words” (6.270a). Ulpian, continuously waging war on him, replies: “Beautiful speeches are food for the soul” (270c). Cynulcus answers and pretends he is leaving, but at that point fish is served and Cynulcus, having dealt a blow to his cushion and let out his rage with a bark, decides to stay (270e). It is true that the end of Book 6 is now close. At the beginning of Book 7 Cynulcus is in a better mood, and asks Ulpian: where is there a mention of the feast of the Phagēsia and the Phagēsiposia? Ulpian does not know, enjoins the slaves to suspend the service, and asks the Cynic to give the answer, which the latter does with erudition (7.275c–276a).

In Book 8 there is another incident, when Democritus suggests a new research subject for Ulpian. Cynulcus bursts out: “And which one of these, I shall not say fish, but problems, is he not capable of understanding? All he does is select and extract the bones of the odds and ends and the small fish, and of the tiny and even more miserable fish, if there are any, disregarding the large slices of salted fish.” For Cynulcus, “Ulpian does not feed himself with human food, but observes those who are eating, in case they happen to discard a fish-bone, a bit of bone or cartilage” (347d–e). In short, the dog is not the cynic, but that lexicographer who is always picking holes in something.

Cynulcus is a guest who shouts a lot and uses invective according to the rules of the art of the Cynics, for example when he calls Myrtilus a pornographer (this is where the word enters western literature), accusing him of hanging around taverns in the company of prostitutes, bringing along the books devoted to them (13.566f–567a). To reply, Myrtilus throws himself into a beautiful eulogy and a long list of women with dubious virtue but with lively spirit and famous lovers, while at the same time re-establishing his reputation: erōtikos, yes; erōtomanēs, no (599e). After that flowing speech, much appreciated by everyone, Cynulcus adds, ironically: “There is nothing more empty than erudition!” (610b). This is a paradoxical statement, since Cynulcus quotes the words of the divine Heraclitus. Cynulcus continues: “What is the use of all those names, our dear scholar, if not to obtain the effect of overwhelming the hearers, rather than to make them wise?” (610c). It is indeed time to ask oneself this question, after thirteen books of grammatical wanderings of all sorts. That earned him a series of blows, together with a violent diatribe against philosophers in general, and the Cynics in particular.

It would be tempting not to reduce the dialogue to the interaction of the guests, but to extend it to all the Greek authors cited in the course of their conversations; the remnants of their texts, the reported words, deploy a complex polyphony, almost a dialogue of the dead, where Homer, Theophrastus, Aristotle, Polybius, Poseidonius, Alexis, and a hundred others converse through the medium of quotations. This can be seen as the fifth level of organization of the text: the possible encounters between the authors of the books ordered on the shelves of the library (that of Larensius?), that utopian space of memory, where words and thoughts set in writing are stored, are here set in motion, awakened, activated by the memory and the voices of obsessive readers who contribute to the construction of a text-corpus of undeniable originality.

Indeed, only a hasty reader could perceive in the Deipnosophists nothing but a haphazard and disorderly flux of textual materials chosen along the way of a lazy and thoughtless compilation. To the attentive reader, on the contrary, the work follows the principles of a complex architecture, both at the level of its great structural divisions and at that of its micro-sequences. It cannot be doubted that an authorial project gave form to the materials gathered from books, and the work thus constructed produces meanings that cannot be reduced to those produced by the quotations that are embedded in it.

For that reader I would like to lead the way in the following pages, by showing that the work of Athenaeus defines an original system of textuality, both from the point of view of writing as from that of reading. The links, the path, and the crossroads all play a fundamental role in it: they make it possible to circulate without end, and without getting lost, in the labyrinth of words, through the web of Athenaeus.


[ back ] 1. It is also significant to note how these structural elements have disappeared in the Epitome, where the name of Timocrates is only encountered once: 1.2a.

[ back ] 2. See the discussion by Arnott 2000 and Rodrigues-Noriega Guillén 2000.

[ back ] 3. See Wilkins 2000c.

[ back ] 4. Wilkins 2000c:26.