Wednesday, July 6, 2011


S. Douglas Olson (ed.), Athenaeus: The Learned Banqueters. Volume VII: Books 13.594b-14. Loeb Classical Library 345. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 402. ISBN 9780674996731. $24.00.

Reviewed by Athina Papachrysostomou, University of Patras (

Version at BMCR home site


The seventh volume of the current edition of Athenaeus comprises the final part of Book 13 and the entire Book 14 of The learned banqueters. The value of Athenaeus' work for modern scholarship is immeasurable and has been comprehensively presented by John Wilkins in his review in BMCR 2008.02.48. Suffice it to say that the text of The learned banqueters constitutes a huge reservoir of fragmentary material originating from a variety of literary genres: comedy (and even phlyacography), tragedy, historiography, lyric poetry, etc. Most of this valuable material would have been lost and totally unknown to us today, if it weren't for Athenaeus. Wilkins also comments at length on the benefits we derive from Olson's update of Gulick's edition – from every single aspect. Wilkins already notes and praises Olson's reference to recent editions of fragmentary authors; e.g. to Kassel-Austin instead of Kock (for comic playwrights), and to Jacoby instead of Müller (for historians). In addition to replacing these older editions with new ones, Olson can now refer his readers to Traill's new Attic prosopography Persons of Ancient Athens, which features a much wider compass than Kirchner's Prosopographia Attica. What is more, Olson can now identify more firmly various – less known or otherwise obscure – figures related to ancient drama and music by pinpointing them within Stephanis' work Διονυσιακοὶ Τεχνίται (Herakleion, 1988).

Book 13 is distinct in itself, since it deals extensively with women, and in particular with a specific group of women, i.e. the hetairai. Volume seven of The learned banqueters begins at 13.594b, where we find the grammarian Myrtilus delivering an encomium of hetairai (having started his speech at 13.590a). The structure of Myrtilus' speech has already been scrupulously outlined by McClure:1 After referring to several famous hetairai and to the various monuments and dedications related to them (594b-599e), Myrtilus produces an encomium of Aphrodite (599f-600e), before proceeding to a discussion of lyric poets and erotic poetry (600f-601e). Next, he talks about homosexual love with boys (601b-604f), and refers to erotic perversions and to bizarre tales of animals that fell in love with humans (605d-607a). Myrtilus rounds off his speech with an encomium of female beauty (608a-610b). After a brief intervention by the Cynic philosopher Cynulcus, who delivers an invective against Myrtilus (610b-d), Book 13 ends with Myrtilus delivering a bitter invective against philosophers.

At the beginning of Book 14, Olson does his readers a favour by warning them that "the words of the external narrator Athenaeus and of Ulpian blend imperceptibly into one another" (p. 101, n. 2). The topics covered in the penultimate Book of The learned banqueters are of a wide-ranging nature. First in order is a discussion about wine (613a-c), followed by a discussion about various sorts of entertainers; mainly comedians (γελωτοποιοί) and wandering jugglers (πλάνοι) (613d-616e). From 616e onwards the banqueters engage in a conversation about music; they talk about pipes (αὐλοί), various songs appropriate for different occasions, the art of rhapsodes and hilarodes (ῥαψῳδοί and ἱλαρῳδοί), and conclude with a reference to an old Spartan style of comic entertainment (performed by the so-called δ(ε)ικηλισταί).2 After a brief digression about the citharode Amoebus, who belatedly joined the banquet (622d), the musician Masurius resumes the discussion about music (623e); his lengthy speech includes a discourse about dancing as well (628c onwards). Masurius' speech concludes at 639b, where the banqueters are presented with the "second tables" (δεύτεραι τράπεζαι). As one would expect, the conversation now focuses first on the nature and function of these "second tables", and subsequently (640a) on the various types of desserts normally served during this part of the symposion (identified by various terms: ἐπιδορπίσματα, τραγήματα, ἐπιφορήματα, etc.). There follows a detailed analysis of the different varieties of cakes (πλακοῦντες), regularly offered as desserts (643e-648c). Subsequently, miscellaneous foodstuffs come into question: from pistachio nuts (649c) to pears (650b) and dried figs (652b), and from roasted pigs (655f) to cheese (658a). After a parenthesis on cooks (658e-662d), the banqueters are presented with a couple of exquisite dishes (μῦμα and ματτύη); a discussion about the origin and the ingredients of these dishes brings the banquet to an end: καὶ γὰρ ἑσπέρα ἦν ἤδη (664f).

Olson's translation is by and large accurate and faithful to the original Greek text; at any rate, it is more fluent and smoother than Gulick's was. Olson is also very thorough and meticulous as far as the critical apparatus is concerned. He avoids any unnecessary overloading with multiple readings that would frustrate the reader; instead, he selectively chooses to include only the meaningful alternative ones. At times, Olson comes up with his own conjectures; e.g. in 14.649d he resourcefully alters the manuscript reading μακρόν into μικρόν (the topic of discussion being the fruit of the pistachio tree). Olson has also furnished his edition with plenty of explanatory footnotes, which supply the reader with useful information; apart from the vast number of cases where various personalities are being identified, it is a welcome surprise for the reader to come across brief notes concerning chronological issues (e.g. 14.657f, p. 343, n. 417), parallel passages (e.g. 13.599f, p. 31, n. 46), etc.

Although Olson's edition outdoes Gulick's in many ways, there are some sporadic typographical errors and oversights, of which the most conspicuous are the following:

– In 13.610e Olson rightly adopts Schweighäuser's emendation of the Greek text. However, in so doing he misprints Ἵππει (both in the main text and in the critical apparatus), whereas Schweighäuser's emendation is Ἱππεῖ (J. Schweighäuser, Animadversiones in Athenaei Deipnosophistas, Strasbourg 1801-7).

– In 14.619d Olson translates κατεκρήμνισεν ἑαυτήν as "she hung herself", as if the Greek verb was κατακρεμάννυμι. However, the verb here is κατακρημνίζω, so the translation should be "she threw herself down a cliff / precipice".

– In 14.639f Διὶ Πελωρίῳ should be translated as "to Zeus Pelorius" (or "Pelorios"), rather than "to Zeus Pelorias" (given that the Greek nominative is Πελώριος, and not *Πελωριας). Πελώριος is a rare epithet of Zeus.

– In 14.646e πλακοῦς ὁ τοῖς Ἐλαφηϐολίοις ἀναπλασσόμενος is translated as "the cake made during Elaphebolion", whereas the dative plural (Ἐλαφηϐολίοις) is meant to signify the festival of Ἐλαφηβόλια held during that month (in honour of Artemis), so the translation should have been "the cake made during the festival of Elaphebolia".

– In 14.657a Πλάτων Ἰοῖ is translated as "Plato in Ion", whereas the reference here is to the comic playwright Plato (rather than to the homonymous philosopher) and to his comic play Ἰώ. Accordingly, the translation should have been "Plato in Io".

All in all, despite the few language infelicities (for which the proof-readers should probably be blamed), Olson has carried out a tremendously helpful work, which enables the readers to better understand and come closer than ever before to Athenaeus' intricate world and rich heritage. Through the pages of Olson's analysis of The learned banqueters we, the modern readers, feel like partakers not only of the milieu in which Athenaeus lived and flourished, but also of the atmosphere of nostalgia for the Attic past that dominated during the Second Sophistic.


1.   Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama, Princeton 1999, pp. 179-181 (Appendix II). Here McClure outlines the narrative structure of the entire Book 13.
2.   In his Broken Laughter (Oxford 2007, pp. 2-6) Olson comments extensively on this passage (14.621d-f) and reflects on its implications regarding the existence of an early, widespread tradition of Doric farce.

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