BMCR 2008.02.48

Athenaeus: The Learned Banqueters. Loeb Classical Library

, , The learned banqueters. The Loeb classical library /. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006-2012. 8 volumes ; 17 cm.. ISBN 0674996208. $21.50 (each volume).

Athenaeus does himself few favours as an author. Writing in the tradition of the philosophical symposium, he turns his back on the elegant prose of Plato, the clear narrative of Xenophon and the well-focused discussions of Plutarch’s sympotic conversations, choosing instead to present the sequence of the meal and symposium through the medium of quotation. His diners pause to quote precedents for the foods on offer before taking a mouthful. The citations of foods thus validated by the Greek literary past are sometimes assembled in strings of quotations, sometimes gathered into lists that may or may not be ordered alphabetically; they are sometimes encased in debate and sometimes not. Book 12 for example is all reported in the voice of Athenaeus himself. The Deipnosophistae is on the one hand no easy read, and on the other a very useful repository of quotations of a large number of authors, many of them otherwise lost to us, not to mention information on the history of sympotic practice in the Greek world, the history of scholarship and the reception of Greek literature under the Roman Empire. This utility has frequently led to the well-known filleting of the Deipnosophistae for quotations and the dismissal of the diners’ comments as a structuring device of poor quality. Athenaeus not only lacks sparkling prose; he also repeats earlier collections and syntheses of the Hellenistic period. Recent scholarship has tried to reconsider the relationship between quotations and the diners’ conversations 1 and to reassess Athenaeus’ overall project more broadly.2

No justification is needed for this new Loeb edition, though a reviewer might timidly ask the series editor whether the imbalance between two full editions of Athenaeus and one solitary volume of Galen,3 a near contemporary of Athenaeus and one of his Deipnosophists, but also the greatest writer of the Second Sophistic and an author desperately inaccessible to Classicists and the wider world, might soon be redressed. The first Loeb editor of Athenaeus, Charles Burton Gulick, sees himself as bringing Athenaeus’ ‘cookery book’ (vol. 1. vii-viii) to a sophisticated audience who resembled the three generations of New Yorkers who had benefited from Delmonico’s famous restaurant. Gulick, a good translator for the most part, is well aware of Athenaeus’ strengths in lexicography (xv) and the history of scholarship, believing that he read and cited independently as well as drawing on earlier collections of excerpts (xvi). On balance Gulick has great respect for his author, though he believes the Deipnosophistae was ‘originally of much greater extent’ (xvii). This imprecise statement masks the suggestion developed by Kaibel in particular that the Deipnosophistae was originally in 30 rather than the present 15 books. Gulick’s editorial policy (xviii) is to follow Kaibel’s Teubner text, but with fewer of his emendations, a number of which are ‘too bold or unnecessary’.

Since Gulick’s time, and particularly in the last decade, Athenaeus has enjoyed a large degree of attention, with multi-authored studies and translations recently completed or in progress into Italian, German, Spanish and Polish.

S Douglas Olson has produced these volumes (two of seven) after a period of prodigious editing and translation that includes editions of Aristophanes’ Acharnians and Peace, a major edition of Archestratus of Gela and Matro of Pitane ((these last two with Alexander Sens), and most recently Broken Laughter, which is a selection of comic fragments taken from Kassel and Austin and arranged thematically. This is excellent preparation for an edition of Athenaeus, who enthusiastically cites comic passages and almost uniquely preserves the fragments of Archestratus and Matro.

In comparison with Gulick, Olson gives the reader a firm sense of Athenaeus as author. The 30 book theory is ‘unlikely to be true’ (I xv) and the text we have ‘is most likely the text Athenaeus produced’. Olson believes that Athenaeus may well have carried out his research in the personal library of Larensis (viii), though he ‘is heavily dependent on the work of earlier scholars’ (xv). Much hangs on this latter statement. Olson does not appear to believe that large parts of the Deipnosophistae are in fact taken from Favorinus or Herodicus of Babylon, as Düring and others have proposed. As for the text itself, Olson too uses Kaibel’s text as his base, to be checked against his own collations. Olson sets out his views on the Venice manuscript and its relationship to the Epitome manuscripts in the Archestratus volume, p. lxvii-lxx. In practice, Olson offers a more slender apparatus than does Gulick. Where the text contains a quotation from another author, Olson follows the text of the best modern edition (xvii; see below); if the quotation is also known from other sources, Olson follows the version of Athenaeus. This is a good policy decision. He also uses’s Kaibel’s format, which picks out the quotations more clearly than Gulick’s system.

Olson does not cast Athenaeus as the gastronome and afficionado of the cookery book that Gulick had identified. Rather, he sets him firmly in the sympotic tradition, finding an interesting model in a letter of a certain Parmeniscus (xiii). Athenaeus uses literary letters as a key source, particularly at the beginning of book four with the letters of Hippolochus and Lynceus on the development of Hellenistic dining. Parmeniscus is a good choice, for his letter concerns a dinner held by a number of Cynic philosophers, a group who might be expected to have a sharp perspective on the symposium, and who figure largely among the Deipnosophists, not to mention in Lucian’s Symposium. Athenaeus quotes this letter in book four, in a passage that satirises philosophers of many schools. It does appear that the diet of lentils and the numerous literary quotations constitute an important predecessor of the Deipnosophistae. Olson’s model is much more to the point than Gulick’s since it builds in the use of citation and scholarship at the symposium, which the cookery book does not normally do (Archestratus of Gela is an exception). Olson does not further evaluate the literary powers of Athenaeus, though his inclination appears more to favour the traditional stitcher together of quotations than Christian Jacob’s postmodern Athenaeus who works in some ways analogously with hypertext and advanced library aids, and builds a construction somewhat analogous to the New York Guggenheim.4 Giuseppe Zecchini, too, showed that careful analysis of sources used throughout the Deipnosophistae reveals Athenaeus as an intriguing reader of Greek texts, the most widely read (such as Homer and Aristotle) as well as the most obscure.5 There are thus sophisticated models available for reading the Deipnosophistae.

A modern reader needs to know above all what Athenaeus and his learned banqueters are saying to their contemporary world (late second century/ early third CE). What is the message to be received by the reader of these exquisite accounts of earlier luxury and sophistication wrapped in satirical dialogue of cynic philosophers and grammarians? In an ideal world, these questions might receive at least an indicative answer from the early pages of the text where the participants at the banquets and their topics of conversation are introduced. Sadly we can draw only tentative conclusions from the first seventy pages (I 2-415 in Olson’s pagination) since the text of Athenaeus survives only in epitomised form until page 74 of the Casaubon edition, after which the valuable Venice manuscript begins. Olson improves on Gulick at the beginning, with a footnote explaining that 1.1a is an introduction by the Epitomator and not part of his summary, which begins with an incipit at 1.2a. This is encouraging, for the eager reader needs all the help he or she can find. If we were to believe with Kaibel that the whole text is just a summary; that Athenaeus’ composition and structure are desultory, and his characters clumsy versions of historical figures such as Galen and Ulpian, then the spirit may fail when confronted with a passage like the following (Book 3.106e, I 577 Olson), which is the last page of volume I.

‘Sophron refers to shrimp as kourides in the Women’s Mimes (fr. 25), as follows: ‘Look at the lovely shrimp ( kourides)! Look at the lobsters! Look, my dear! See how red and smooth they are!’ Epicharmus in Earth and Sea (fr. 28): ‘and red shrimp ( kourides)’. But in Male and Female Logos (fr. 78) he has the word with an omega: ‘both small fry and curved shrimp ( korides)’. Simonides (Semon. fr. 15 West 2): ‘a cuttlefish for tuna, shrimp ( korides) for gobies.’ ‘

Shrimps may not be the main thing that a reader would hope to survive from a mime of Sophron or a play of Epicharmus, and even if they were, would they most want to know the precise dialectal forms? Correct identification of foods in specific texts is very much what Athenaeus and his diners want to know, since for them dialect and zoology are a big interest.

How far can the translator help the reader? Gulick’s version of this passage (I 457) differs in three respects. He emphasises the italicised Greek term over the English translation (shrimp); he refers to an older edition of Semonides than West’s; and he translates κωβιοῖσι not as ‘gobies’ but as ‘gudgeon’.

The first point is a matter of judgement.

The second is a major advance, for Olson replaces older editions with recent ones, such as West on Semonides. Athenaeus’ authors seem less obscure if we are referred to West rather than Bergk. Similarly with Mnesitheus of Athens, a medical writer of the fourth century BC, Olson can refer to Bertier’s edition of 1972, where no edition was available to Gulick in 1927. Medical writers, such as Diocles of Carystus in van der Eijk’s edition (2000), comic writers in Kassel and Austin and historians in Jacoby are particularly well served in this respect in these volumes.

What support should an editor give to an inexperienced reader, a student perhaps who is unfamiliar with Epicharmus? This reader sees that Epicharmus has spoken of shrimp in fr. 28. Reference to Gulick’s index reveals (curiously) that Epicharmus ‘of Megara in Sicily, [was a] humorous writer on politics, myths and persons’. Olson takes no prisoners and just has ‘Epicharmus of Syracuse’. This example may not concern the average reader of BMCR, but it would concern a student who has no Greek and is given no idea that Epicharmus is a comic writer like Aristophanes and not a humorous writer like Stratonikos and many others that Athenaeus uses. I hope Olson will be more lenient in the later five volumes, and even more so if there is to be a comprehensive index in volume seven. Gulick’s index in volume seven is full of gaps, and is not coherently integrated with the indexes in the six earlier volumes. The reader of Athenaeus desperately needs an index to aid navigation of the text, whatever our judgement on the quality of that text.

The third point, which species the Greek term refers to, is a nightmare for the translator, but at least one that Olson faced in the edition of Archestratus. I believe he is right in this case.

In many ways, Olson provides excellent reader support. Footnotes are never enough or on the right topic for all readers, as is clear even in the deluxe Italian edition edited by Canfora. In the section on breads (3.113c-d), Olson help us with Greek versions of Latin ‘materia’ ‘tracta’ and ‘fumosus’, not to mention Aramaic ‘lachma’ and Doric ‘Damater’. Olson brings out these details, which are germane for the Syrian symposiarch Ulpian who presumably knows Aramaic but apparently has difficulties with Latin. None of these were considered in need of comment in Gulick, and the Greekless reader simply passed them by. In this area of language, no doubt Olson will translate the obscene words of the courtesans in book thirteen into English rather than Latin, which was Gulick’s choice. Athenaeus is quite complicated enough without genteel obfuscation. Olson thinks that Aristarchus of Samothrace should appear in a footnote in this passage on breads, quite rightly, since he like the Deipnosophists is ‘immensely learned’ and a denizen of the library. Likewise we are given help to follow the banter of the Deipnosophists (vol. 2 pp. 38-9), and to remember who the speaker is. Thus Olson tells us most of book 5 is spoken by Masurius — Gulick did not. The speakers are often of key importance, as will be the case in book six where the Roman host Larensis is the speaker on the history of Roman slavery and Roman luxury. Prosopograhical references are also provided, at the beginning of book four, for example. We need help with historical as well as fictional characters, as indeed in the indexes, as I mentioned above.

In many ways Olson could not go wrong with this project. He is an able and very experienced translator who understands what the reader needs to aid understanding. His Archestratus is a model of clarity and good judgement. Updating Gulick and freeing the reader from the irritation of reference to Müller rather than Jacoby and Kock rather than Kassel-Austin is a big benefit in itself. I hope that in the next five volumes Olson will continue to reflect on his readers’ needs since the readers of this particular text are, all of us, extraordinarily needy. Gulick’s indexes are slimmer in some volumes than others. I hope Olson’s will expand, and tell us the genre and date (where known) of all authors.


1. D. Lenfant (ed) Athénée et les fragments d’historiens (Paris 2007).

2. D. Braund and J. Wilkins Athenaeus and his World (Exeter 2000).

3. A.J.Brock Galen: On the Natural Faculties (Cambridge Mass. 1916)

4. Introduction to L. Canfora (ed) Ateneo: I Deipnosofisti (Rome 2001) xi-cxvi.

5. La cultura storica di Ateneo (Milan 1989).