Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.33

Christian Jacob, The Web of Athenaeus. Hellenic studies, 61.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University, 2013.  Pp. x, 139.  ISBN 9780674073289.  $19.95 (pb).  

Contributors: Translated by Arietta Papaconstantinou.

Reviewed by Patrick Paul Hogan (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The publication of Braund and Wilkins’ book of papers from the conference they held on Athenaeus in Exeter in 19961 and the new Loeb edition of Athenaeus by Olson, finished just last year,2 have contributed to a renaissance in studies of Athenaeus in the last decade and a reappraisal of the author’s work in the intellectual context of the Second Sophistic and in the historical context of late 2nd c. C.E. Rome. The age of mining Athenaeus’ banquet only for tasty quotations has indeed passed, and Christian Jacob’s The Web of Athenaeus helps its readers make the transition to new approaches to the Deipnosophistae.

In his review of the expansive and expensive Italian edition and commentary of Athenaeus,3 John Wilkins remarked, “Jacob’s magisterial introduction is an essay which every Hellenist should read.”4 Now Jacob has republished his essay, originally entitled Ateneo o il Dedalo delle Parole,5 in a new English translation in the Hellenic Studies Series. This will make available to a larger audience an important essay that spurs deep reflection not only on Athenaeus, his work, and his environment but also on our work as Classical philologists in the modern age. Like modern scholars, Athenaeus and his fellow denizens of the Second Sophistic were trying to study and revivify a Classical and Hellenistic world and language that was becoming more remote with every passing year. In particular, scholars interested in the mindset of Greeks during the High Roman Empire, and in the philhellenic Romans who served as their patrons, colleagues, and friends, will find much to reward their reading of this short but important book.

I should say at the outset that this essay serves, as it did in the Canfora edition, as an admirable short introduction to the Deipnosophistae – “a map and a compass” (i), as Jacob puts it, to guide the reader on a journey inside what Jacob calls “a perverted Ariadne’s thread” (5) and a sort of “Noah’s ark” (8), only a few of the many metaphors that enliven this book. Students and scholars who recognize Athenaeus’ name only as a frequently cited source of comic fragments will certainly learn enough about the author’s background (chap. 3), his choice of the deipnon and symposion as the setting of his work (chap. 4), and the characters—their role, their possible identities, and their significance (chap. 6)—to approach the fifteen books of Athenaeus without a feeling of vertigo. A macro-structural summary of the work (35-36) also will aid the reader in wading deeper into this ocean of literature.

Jacob also devotes considerable time to placing Athenaeus in the milieu of the Second Sophistic. He shows how the genteel atmosphere of learned aristocrats in Plutarch’s Sympotic Questions, though seemingly very different from the grammatically obsessed and often rambunctious bent of Athenaeus’ work, shares with Athenaeus’ circle of well-read scholars a strong concern for mutual edification and the rules of learned practice (chap. 5). I would add that one part of Plutarch’s work, the banquet at Ammonius’ house in Book 9, seems to prefigure in a way Athenaeus’ motley crew: Ulpian’s constant lexicographical tormenting of his fellow banqueters is not far removed from Maximus the rhetorician needling Zopyrion the grammarian by asking which of Aphrodite’s hands Diomedes wounded in the Iliad (SQ 9.4). Whether Plutarch and Senecio would have deigned to attend Larensius’ soiree if they had had a chance may be up for debate (I would vote no), but Ulpian and Cynulcus are convincingly presented as their heirs.

Jacob also grounds Athenaeus’ project in the long tradition of literary symposia, explaining the Platonic models for the frame dialogue of the Deipnosophistae between the author and Timocrates (chap. 7). He notes that Athenaeus’ guests engage in much criticism of the philosopher too (Book 11), another activity that ties the author to his contemporaries (e.g. Aelius Aristides’ Platonic Orations). Elsewhere Jacob intriguingly ties Athenaeus’ “periegesis” of Larensius’ library to Dionysius Periegetes’ poem on the oikoumene and Pausanias’ grand account of the memorial landscape of Old Greece as similar attempts to travel through space and time by means of ἀνάμνησις (110-111). Readers of Athenaeus will also benefit from Jacob’s discussion of what he terms the five ordering principles of the work: the frame dialogue; the narrator’s careful noting of the progressive stages of the deipnon and symposium; the thematic variety of dishes and formal variety of exposition; the dialogue of the guests with its multiple viewpoints; and the dialogue of the texts that they cite (chap. 9). Jacob’s arguments do much to counteract the idea, encouraged by the sheer extent of the work, that Athenaeus’ synagoge is but a shapeless mass of knowledge, like the compendious tome that Aulus Gellius returns to his friend in disdain in Noctes Atticae 14.6.

Two of the most valuable parts of Jacob’s book are his analysis of Athenaeus’ library, both the putative private one of Larensius and the shared virtual “library” of the pepaideumenoi (chap. 12), and his discussion of the practices of Athenaeus’ scholars (chap. 13), in particular their three “fundamental operations.” Jacob identifies these as reading per se (and the note-taking that accompanies it), memorization (of quotations and related memory games), and ζήτησις (the posing of questions and searching for answers as a joint project). Jacob emphasizes that these activities mirror Hellenistic and imperial age scholarly practices - fitting for a work that often seems to lie in the shadow of the Great Library of Alexandria and its dining hall (56-7). But he also shows how ζήτησις in Athenaeus is “necessary for the maintenance, activation, and enrichment of the library of memorized texts that every guest carries within him” (81) and necessary for the reactivation of the culture embedded in the texts the sophists quote. The Deipnosophistae is indeed more than the sum of its quotations.

Furthermore, as Jacob explains, Athenaeus’ work is both a stage for performance by pepaideumenoi—much like the deipnosophists’ more extroverted kin, the sophist superstars of the age—and a reactivation of cultural memory and identity. Just as a sophist can play a Classical orator, a deipnosophist can embody a whole library. He also notes the deep ambiguity of these conversations: “Are they oratory performances or banquets? Are we in the public space of the agora, of the theater or of a lecture hall, where sophists like to speak, or in the private space of a Roman house, where a banquet and a symposium are taking place?” (51) The strand that ties them all together is language: making an inventory of words (even if Ulpian, a.k.a. the notorious Keitoukeitos, often tests the patience of hardened but hungry grammarians), determining meaning by splitting synonyms, and solidifying linguistic normativity in the face of change (chap. 14). But they are not fully sealed in the bubble of Classical usage: Jacob notes that the deipnosophists often refer to vernacular Greek dialects of their age and confront the ubiquity of Latin occasionally (92-93).

In chap. 16 Jacob examines the deipnosophists’ brand of sophistic performance, their “art of weaving links” in their shared library as a sympotic game that creates a myriad of possible itineraries through their shared library. He also gives some brief examples of the banqueters connecting quotes through threads of objects, authors, and analogies. To supplement his discussion of this topic I would recommend John Paulas’ recent article on the role of creative intertext and intratext in Athenaeus and the pervasiveness of symbolic language there.6 Paulas reveals in particular the deep ingenuity that Athenaeus’ banqueters exercise as they link texts together with flourishes of epideixis that would make Favorinus proud.

The monograph builds up to the final chapter where Jacob pictures (in words and in a diagram) the levels of the virtual library that Athenaeus and his peers construct as a helicoidal gallery with five levels. His schema provides a number of ways to approach the text(s) of the Deipnosophistae, the behavior of the characters within it, the work of Athenaeus and his colleagues, and those who study them all, i.e. us. From the ground floor of the library as a space of navigation between the original Classical texts Jacob leads the reader up the stairs to the bibliographical structuring of the library in its genres (level 1), e.g. Callimachus’ Pinakes and the work of the Alexandrian librarians. Rising higher we reach the meta-literature (commentaries, lexica, etc.) that sieves, magnifies, and filters Classical literature and becomes literature in return (level 2), e.g. Athenaeus’ own lost monograph On the Kings of Syria. Then we become conscious of the spatial and temporal distance between Classical literature and culture and ourselves, just as Athenaeus and his contemporaries inevitably compared their Romanized world with the golden ages before (level 3). Finally, at the top “the mirror culture” reflects on itself, renewing the rite of the symposion and achieving a full synoptic view of the past and present (level 4). If we take into account all of these levels, Jacob argues, we come closer to a better understanding of Athenaeus’ work and of our role in preserving, studying, and interpreting the Classical past.

A cursory examination of the original Italian essay reveals very few changes to the body of the text, but Jacob has shifted some material from the footnotes of the original work to the foreword of this translation. The Web of Athenaeus also has a brief bibliography at the end, incorporating scholarship that has been published since the essay first appeared in 2001. Very occasionally an ancient name is misspelled - for example, in the cases of Eustathius (ix but correct in the index), Amasis (9), and Ibycus (88 and index) - but I could find no other errors of spelling.7

Table of Contents

1. On the Art of Planting Cabbage
2. Banquet, Symposium, Library.
3. “Athenaeus is the Father of This Book”
4. Banquet and Sumposion
5. An Art of Conviviality: Plutarch and Athenaeus
6. Larensius’ Circle
7. Writing the Symposium
8. Forms of Collection
9. Accumulation and Structure
10. Serving the Dishes, Quoting the Texts: The Unfolding of the Banquet
11. How to Speak at Table?
12. Libraries and Bibliophiles
13. Scholars’ Practices
14. Words and Things
15. The Deipnosophists as a Text: Genesis, Uses
16. The Web of Athenaeus: The Art of Weaving Links
17. The Epitome of the World
18. When a Culture Reflects on Itself
Works Cited


1.   Braund, D. and Wilkins, J. (eds.) Athenaeus and His World: Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire. Exeter, 2000.
2.   Olson, S. Douglas. Athenaeus: The Learned Banqueters. 8 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA, 2006-2012. See BMCR 2008.02.48.
3.   Canfora, L. (ed.) Ateneo Deipnosofisti. I Dotti a Banchetto. Salerno Editrice, 2001.
4.   JRS 123 (2003): 215-216.
5.   One can see the genesis of many of the ideas in this essay in Jacob’s contribution to Braund and Wilkins 2000 (“Athenaeus the Librarian” 85-110).
6.   “How to Read Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists” AJP 133.3 (Fall 2012) 403-439. For creative intertext see especially his analysis of Plutarch of Alexandria’s riff on crows (428-434).
7.   English-speaking Classicists weaned on the LSJ may be momentarily puzzled by references to Bailly, whose Dictionnaire Grec Français occupies an analogous place among French philologues (89), but this is a very minor point.

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