Thursday, June 23, 2011


Robin Nadeau, Les manières de table dans le monde gréco-romain. Tables des hommes. Rennes/Tours: Presses universitaires de Rennes / Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2010. Pp. 490. ISBN 9782753511286. €24.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The rites and customs surrounding Greek and Roman banquets have been of considerable interest to scholars in recent decades. Historians, archaeologists and theologians have produced the bulk of the literature on the subject, searching the widely spread literary and epigraphic material for relevant information. However, Nadeau fills a remaining gap by publishing a comprehensive volume on table manners. The title does not reveal what is clarified only in the introduction: the book is actually a study on three authors of the 2nd century CE, Athenaeus, Plutarch and Lucian. This emphasis is natural, since these authors have produced the extant deipnon-literature. The title of the book is nonetheless justified;citations from older literature (especially in Athenaeus) and Nadeau's use of other Greek and Roman texts broaden the scope of the book. It thus becomes a valuable introduction to the broad subject of Graeco-Roman table manners.

Nadeau devotes considerable space to preliminaries, divided into a presentation of the theoretical framework in the introduction (pp. 11-49) and introductory remarks on the three authors and their times in chapter one (pp. 51-95). He rightly cautions against both generalizations (p. 11) and an uncritical reading of the sources (p. 29). Regional and temporal variations have to be kept in mind, and reading the sources uncritically may lead to confusion between discourse and reality. How one eats is a personal issue, but bound to norms and expectations. Any given presentation of the matter is therefore susceptible to having been adapted to standard discourse. Apart from these methodological caveats, Nadeau emphasizes repeatedly the function of table manners for the recognition of hierarchies. The banquet and its associated customs form a system of communication shaped by an elite – and in turn shaping humans from childhood on (pp. 20-22; 26-27). Thus table manners only make sense in their historical and social context; Nadeau uses this insight to disqualify the evolutionary scenario of Norbert Elias (pp. 36-48). The section on sources (chapter one) offers the standard information on Plutarch, Athenaeus and Lucian, as well as discussion of more specific questions. For example: did these authors conceive of themselves as Romans or Greeks? (pp. 67-70, 81-82); answer: they are at least not anti-Roman. Was the Second Sophistic uninterested in the present and therefore preferred idealizing the past? (pp. 54-57); answer: no, idealizing the past was already a standard feature of Greek literature. No new hypotheses are presented, but the broad readership for whom the book is intended will find the section useful enough. The first analytic chapter discusses the educational aspects of table manners (pp. 97-152). Its aim is to show how they can (and why they must) be learned, always with a view to their function for the recognition and reproduction of elites (pp. 101-102; 136-141). Nadeau finds various approaches to the subject. He discusses Greek terminology for orderly behavior, vulgarity and lack of taste, argues for a model of learning by imitation (with the Spartan syssition as the main example, pp. 119-120), and devotes some space to the question of oral and/or written transmission of behavioral norms. After reviewing epic and older sympotic literature, he discusses the rise of educational handbooks in the 4th century BCE. According to him, they were written by philosophers who felt the need to organize commensality in their schools (pp. 123-128). There are some ambiguities in this chapter as well as some questions which might better have been asked in a different way; the author (pp. 125-127) gives an affirmative answer to the question whether or not it is possible that Aristotle wrote a treatise on nomoi syssitikoi, but what kind of argument could have led to the opposite conclusion? A more general need for handbooks is seen in regional variations of table manners, but Nadeau nonetheless concludes that written rules of orderly conduct were not broadly disseminated, since none are extant (pp. 133-135). Notwithstanding the moralizing overtones attached to banquet-traditions, especially by Plutarch, Nadeau classifies the literature he discusses as direct heir to a philosophical discourse designed to teach the norms of elite behavior (pp. 150-152).

The next chapter on rituals is the longest in the book (pp. 153-255). The introduction concentrates – again – on the banquet as a "manifestation politique" (p. 158) which puts hierarchies on stage, but the discussion of religious rites (the primary norms to be followed, p. 160) is not really connected to this framework. Nadeau presents a collection of passages, e.g. on libation, proposis, clothes, and hand-washing. Apart from these rituals, the chapter also contains elaborations on hospitality and the duties of the host (pp. 206-218) or the proper manner of table talk (pp. 235-252). This renders the chapter unnecessarily erratic (especially since chapter four discusses some of these subjects again). The conclusion asks the interesting question of continuity. Does the persistence of certain performative elements in literary texts from Homer to Athenaeus indicate that there was actually little change in Greek banqueting culture for almost a millennium, or is this a false impression conveyed by an overreliance on literary authorities? Nadeau leaves this question unanswered (p. 255).

Chapter four treats the obligations of host and guests (pp. 257-325). Again, Nadeau presents an inventory of topics discussed by the three authors, such as arriving late, inviting family members, "forgetting" what was said by someone in a drunken state, and the obligations of the symposiarch. Unsurprisingly, in light of the preceding chapters, discussion of rank, placement of guests and hierarchies receives special emphasis (pp. 305-325). This subject also enables Nadeau to point to differences between Greek and Roman banquet-traditions (equality vs. demonstration of hierarchies) as well as to possible amalgamations in the imperial era.

The following chapter treats the ethical dimension of table manners (pp. 327-398). Since this dimension was never absent in the previous chapters, some repetitions are unavoidable. Nadeau discusses diverse notions of excess and its manifestations. Because items of luxury indicate status, there are further opportunities to discuss the socio-economic context of table manners (e.g., p. 396). At times, Nadeau offers mere collections of material that speaks for itself; this is especially evident in the section on perfume (pp. 373-379). Other issues create more problems and merit their discussion. Thus, the interesting digression on fish and luxury summarizes different positions on the status of fish, which is associated partly with luxury, partly with poverty in the literary sources (pp. 379-388). Furthermore, Nadeau identifies the decadence of contemporary table manners as a primary mode of observation in all three authors (and in earlier Roman literature), but rightly states that the idealized vision of Homeric commensality is itself based on an idealization of the Heroic age (pp. 364-370). It is at times difficult to arrange the material in this chapter, because a moralizing tendency is always present in the texts. Some subjects are very general, e.g. a section which could be entitled "different attitudes on the legitimacy of pleasure" (pp. 352-364), others are specific, like the section on fish. This is probably the chapter which is most concerned with the actual perspective of the authors discussed. The result is that it mainly arranges material, since there are few opportunities to add additional background or material to a moralizing argument.

The last chapter (apart from the conclusion) is very different, because it expressly uses the texts for the discussion of a historical hypothesis (pp. 399-440). Nadeau argues for a cultural transfer: in the imperial era, Greek banqueting culture changed under Roman influence. He presents two cases where this is apparent,the use of triclinia outside Italy and the presence of free women at the banquet. This leads to a more general discussion of identity questions (pp. 427-440). The result of this rather arduous section is not particularly surprising. There were multiple identities; a Greek like Plutarch was able to eat in a Roman manner when at Rome or in a recognizably Roman context, and in a Greek manner when he met Greek friends. Local identity was more important in Greece than in other regions of the empire, and the Romans never tried to enforce assimilation.

This is a well organized and detailed study of a vast topic. It is noteworthy for the attempt to take into account the nature of the sources, especially their constant recourse to earlier authors. It is a normal procedure for historians to mine Athenaeus for information on Greek customs, but it is also important to study the use he makes of the many quotations included in his work. Nadeau does this most of the time. Where he does not, problems immediately arise. In his discussion of preparatory sacrifices (pp. 166-170), Nadeau points to a number of passages in Athenaeus from which we learn that this custom was already known to the Homeric heroes and is therefore to be regarded as normative. Athenaeus does not give an interpretation of the rite. Nadeau, however, is confident that the reason is the presence of the divine at the banquet. Here it might have been prudent to keep to the program of analyzing discourses, and not to impose a scholarly interpretation of certain rituals on the ancient sources.1 Athenaeus simply does not say what Nadeau makes him say (Athen. 8.363d-364a is concerned with sacrificial feasting, not with preparatory sacrifices before the banquet). The same problem is to be found in the discussion of clothes (pp. 194-199) and hand-washing (pp. 199-202). (When Athen. 1.18f. states that hand-washing is not mentioned in the Odyssey but not in the Iliad because there is no time for personal hygiene when at war, this cannot be taken to mean that hand-washing is "une étape obligatoire appartenant au rite religieux", p. 200). Discussion of religious rites is always most prone to the imposition of preconceived ideas; Nadeau is much more convincing when he reconstructs ancient discourse on the basis of the texts themselves.

The book is part of the series "tables des hommes"; it therefore aims at a broad readership. Nadeau often uses comparisons (ethnographic descriptions or parallels taken from French court society) to make the reader more familiar with the Greek or Roman point of view; he does not use Greek characters and leaves no source without translation. These are well-considered ingredients for a book written with a non-scholarly readership in mind. But is the book useful for readers already familiar with the material? Apart from the sensible structure and the knowledgeable discussions, there are two characteristics of Nadeau's writing that made the reading of his book somewhat tiresome for this reviewer. The first is his use of quotations. They often fill half a page or even more, to be followed by a summarizing statement and another long quotation. This style of writing can surely be accounted for by reference to the target audience, which is not likely to read Athenaeus. The scholarly reader might have preferred some passages to be mentioned in a footnote rather than quoted in full. The second characteristic is Nadeau's own style of writing. It is repetitive at times, and very concerned with the inclusion of fragmentary insights from social theory. If the inclusion of theoretical debates serves only as a pretext for rather obvious statements, it may as well be omitted. Thus, it is hard to imagine any educated reader conceiving of "excess" as an ontological reality rather than a cultural construction. There is no need to repeat this obvious point several times, including an attempt to "prove" it via a discussion of Atargatis (pp. 332-336). This is just one of many examples. The impression is that this book could have been shorter and more to the point if Nadeau had avoided stating the obvious repeatedly and at considerable length.

This will all work well for an audience not familiar with the sources and unlikely to read them. Scholarly readers may find the book to be unnecessarily digressing at times. Its use as a handbook is limited by the lack of appropriate indices (there is only a fragmentary index nominum, but the table of contents is detailed). Still, the volume provides easy access to a complex field of study; it is therefore recommended as a research tool covering all aspects of interest for scholars working on ancient banquets.


1.   Plut. frg. 95 would have provided a good starting point, but is missing from the discussion.

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