Sunday, March 06, 2011

Deipnosophistae



Athenaeus, author of the Deipnosophistae, was a Greek Egyptian who lived in the ancient world city of Naucratis, circa the late 2nd to early 3rd century CE. In the 15 books of  the Deipnosophistae, loosely-translated as the 'banquet or dinner-party of the  philosophers',  nearly  800 authors and 2500 separate works are cited, making it  a treasure-house of information and  a valuable source of many  works of Greek literature which otherwise would have been lost. James Russell Lowell  famously characterized the Deipnosophistae and its author  as -

 the somewhat greasy heap of a literary rag-and-bone-picker like Athenaeus is turned to gold by time.

The banquet takes place in  Naucratis, a city situated some 45 miles  inland from the Mediterranean sea and the first Greek settlement in Egypt. Naucratis was an  important Egyptian  harbor in antiquity until the rise of Alexandria, when the shifting sand-banks of the Nile led to its decline. It was the only permanent Greek colony  in Egypt and a  dynamic melting-pot of  Greek and Egyptian art and culture.

The characters of the banquet  includes physicians, philosophers, grammarians and musicians who discuss topics at  the dinner-table  such as Baths, Wine, invented words, feasts and music,  useless philosophers, precious metals, flatterers,  gluttony and drunkenness, hedonism and obesity, women and love, prostitutes, mistresses and courtesans, the cooking of  fish and  cuisine in general, ships,  entertainment, luxury and  perfumes.

Here’s a typical and touching extract from  the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus- 

There is a story  in Iasus that a dolphin fell in love with a boy as Durius records… "There lived a boy named named Dionysius who, in company with the other boys of the wrestling-school, went to the sea-shore and began to dive in.  A dolphin came up to him out of the sea, and taking him on his back swam off with him a very great distance, setting him down again safely on the shore.  Moreover the  dolphin  is a most friendly animal to man and extremely intelligent, and knows how to repay kindness with gratitude". Phylarchus says - “ Coeranus of Miletus saw that same fishermen had caught a dolphin in their net and were on the point of cutting it up; after entreating them and paying  them money he let the dolphin go in the sea. Some time later he met with  ship-wreck off Myconos, and when all the rest were lost, Coeranus alone was saved by a dolphin.  When he died in old age in his native city his funeral chanced to take place in Miletus by the seashore; and a school of dolphins appeared that day in the harbour, a short distance from the company attending the remains of Coeranus, just as if they were joining in the funeral, and the mourning of the man". - from Book 13: 606



 There was a revived interest in the Banquet of the Learned amongst scholars during the 17th century following its publication in 1612 by the Genevan  scholar  Isaac Casaubon  (1559-1614). The  editing and commentary to the text was Isaac Causabon’s  magnum opus. Incidentally it was Isaac Causabon’s analysis of the highly influential esoteric text, the Corpus Hermeticum, which proved that it was not written during the time of Moses, as was commonly believed, but  was a syncretic work of Hellenism circa 200 and 300 CE. Isaac Causabon is buried in Westminster Abbey. His son Meric Causabon, also a scholar, wrote  a denunciation of  the Elizabethan occultist John Dee entitled -  A true and faithful relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits (1659).

The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus is one of over 1000 books listed as once in the library of Sir Thomas Browne. ( 1711 Sales Catalogue page 7 no. 67).  It  must have been  one of Sir Thomas Browne’s favourite books for  he was inspired to write a short essay upon it. 

There is a most amusing story in Athenaeus about the boys in the inn at Agrigentum. They are so mad with drink that they think they are sailing in a ship tossed about by a wild storm. To lighten the ship they throw out all the carpets and crockery, call the police ‘mermen’, offer rewards for their rescue to those who reproach them, and do not even return to their senses when the onlookers take their things.

It’s now  seven years ago  since I transcribed Browne's short essay on Athenaeus to Wikisource. Here’s the link to the full text of  Browne’s short essay from a reading of Athenaeus  at Wikisource.

The publication of a  paperback edition of edited extracts from the Deipnosophistae is long overdue.
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