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"You, you teacher of love, are in no respect better than Amasis of Elis, whom Theophrastus, in his treatise On Love, says was extraordinarily addicted to amatory pursuits. And a man will not be much out who calls you a pornographer [πορνογράφος], just as they call Aristeides and Pausanias and Nicophanes painters [ζωγράφοι]. And Polemon mentions them, as painting these subjects exceedingly well, in his treatise On the Pictures at Sicyon." --Deipnosophistae[1]

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The Deipnosophistae[2] (deipnon, "dinner", and sophistai, "professors"; original Greek title Deipnosophistai, English Deipnosophists) may be translated as The Banquet of the Learned or Philosophers at Dinner or The Gastronomers. The Deipnosophists is a long work of literary and antiquarian research by the Hellenistic author Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt, written in Rome in the early 3rd century AD. The protagonist is Ulpian, the host of a leisurely banquet whose main purpose is literary, historical and antiquarian conversation. Characters include grammarians, lexicographers, jurists, musicians and hangers-on.



The Deipnosophistae professes to be an account given by the author to his friend Timocrates of a series of banquets (apparently three) held at the house of Larensius, a scholar and wealthy patron of art. It is thus a dialogue within a dialogue, after the manner of Plato, although each conversation is so long that, realistically, it would occupy several days. Among the twenty-nine guests, Galen, Ulpian and Plutarch are named, but all are probably to be taken as fictitious personages, and the majority take little or no part in the conversation. If Ulpian is identical with the famous jurist, the Deipnosophistae must have been written after his death in 228; but the jurist was murdered by the praetorian guards, whereas Ulpian in Athenaeus dies a natural death.

The work is invaluable for providing fictionalized information about the Hellenistic literary world of the leisured class during the Roman Empire. To the majority of modern readers, even more useful is the wealth of information provided in the Deipnosophists about earlier Greek literature. In the course of discussing classic authors, the participants make quotations, long and short, from the works of about 700 earlier Greek authors and 2,500 separate writings, many of them otherwise unrecorded. Food and wine, luxury, music, sexual mores, literary gossip and philology are among the major topics of discussion, and the stories behind many artworks such as the Venus Kallipygos are also transmitted in its pages.

Food and cookery

The Deipnosophists is an important source of cookery recipes in classical Greek. It quotes the original text of one recipe from the lost cookbook by Mithaecus, the oldest in Greek and the oldest recipe by a named author in any language. Other authors quoted for their recipes include Glaucus of Locri, Dionysius, Epaenetus, Hegesippus of Tarentum, Erasistratus, Diocles of Carystus, Timachidas of Rhodes, Philistion of Locri, Euthydemus of Athens, Chrysippus of Tyana and Paxamus.


In addition to its main focuses, the text offers an unusually clear portrait of homosexuality in late Hellenism. Books XII-XIII holds a wealth of information for studies of homosexuality in Roman Greece. It is subject to a big discussion that includes Alcibiades, Charmides, Autolycus, Pausanias and Sophocles. Furthermore, numerous books and now lost plays on the subject are mentioned, including the dramatists Diphilus, Cratinus, Aeschylus, and Sophocles and the philosopher Heraclides of Pontus.

Survival and reception

The Deipnosophistae was originally in fifteen books. The work survives in one manuscript from which the whole of books 1 and 2, and some other pages too, disappeared long ago. An Epitome or abridgment was made in medieval times, and survives complete: from this it is possible to read the missing sections, though in a disjointed form. The encyclopaedist Sir Thomas Browne wrote a short essay on Athenaeus which reflects a revived interest in the Banquet of the Learned amongst scholars following the publication of the Deipnosophistae in 1612 by the Classical scholar Isaac Casaubon. Browne wrote of it:

Would that a little part survived of the writers from whom Athenaeus quotes, scattered here and there, notable, startling or amusing sayings, and whets the appetite of his eager reader..... Mimes, fools, parasites, lute-girls are bearable and not inappropriate amusement for a drinking party. 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.

Writing in 1867, poet James Russell Lowell characterized the Deipnosophists and its author thus:

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

Modern readers question whether the Deipnosophistae genuinely evokes a literary symposium of learned disquisitions on a range of subjects suitable for such an occasion, or whether it has a satirical edge, rehashing the cultural clichés of the urbane literati of its day.


  • Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists ed. and tr. C. B. Gulick. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927-41. 7 vols.
  • Athenaei Dipnosophistarum epitome ed. S. P. Peppink. Leiden, 1937-9.
  • Athenaeus and his world: reading Greek culture in the Roman Empire ed. David Braund, John Wilkins. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000.
  • Food in antiquity ed. John Wilkins, David Harvey, Mike Dobson. Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1995.
  • Andrew Dalby, Siren feasts: a history of food and gastronomy in Greece (London: Routledge, 1996) especially pp. 168-180.
  • Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents ed. Thomas K. Hubbard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) pp. 76-82 (translation of a passage from book 13).
  • Warren Johansson, 'Athenaeus' in Encyclopedia of Homosexuality ed. Wayne R. Dynes (Garland Publishing, 1990) p. 87.

See also

Full text[3]

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