Monday, November 25, 2013


Catherine Grandjean, Christophe Hugoniot, Brigitte Lion (ed.), Le banquet du monarque dans le monde antique. Table des hommes. Rennes; Tours: Presses Universitaires de Rennes; Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais​, 2013. Pp. 547. ISBN 9782753521414. €24.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Simon Speksnijder, University of Groningen (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume springs from a conference organized in Tours in March 2010 and contains 21 articles grouped around five themes: politics, contacts, banqueters, luxury, and spaces and objects. The papers are preceded by an introduction written by the editors, where sections on royal banquets in the ancient Near East, the Greek world, and Imperial Rome provide the reader with the general characteristics of these banquets and a historiographical 'state of the art'. There is, however, no particular agenda proposed by the editors. As most articles engage with concepts like commensality, (re-)distribution, exchange or patronage, luxury and hierarchy, a programmatic introduction or proper synthesis would have been useful. However, Françoise Thelamon ties together some themes in her seven page 'Conclusions'. Most time periods and regions are well-represented, although royal banquets in Egypt (in any time period) are left unexplored.

Charpin starts off with a study of the political uses of royal banquets in early second millennium B.C. Mesopotamia. He makes good use of the source material (tablets from palatial archives) to show that soldiers, diplomats and foreign kings were present at the king's table, all arranged hierarchically. Presents, also distributed according to rank, further helped to cement the political and social status quo.

Azoulay's object of study is the description of royal banquets in Greek texts, particularly the polar opposites used to characterise banquets (and, consequently, the monarch himself): solemnity (semnotês) and affability (asteiotès). The former concept is associated with the 'distant' and absolute monarch (such as Cyrus the Great), whereas the latter points at a more 'democratic' but also more vulgar and 'popular' style of dining and government. Azoulay convincingly shows that the civic ideology of the Greek authors pervades all their descriptions of royal banquets.

Bouyssou also examines literary sources and ideology. He discusses 'tyrannical banquets', which, he argues, is actually a contradiction in terms. The tyrant, often dining alone, embodies hybris and tryphê, and dominates his dining companions. All this goes contrary to Greek ideologies of commensality. Bouyssou does not see tyrannical banquets change over time, yet one wonders whether Greeks in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods did not judge royal banquets differently from those in the Classical period.

Zaccaria Ruggiu discusses Roman banquets 'between Monarchy and Republic' (she reiterates most points made in an earlier book).1 She argues that reliefs with banqueting scenes fit with well with Tarquinius Superbus' political and tyrannical programme. After the fall of Tarquinius, banquets became more 'Etruscan' and disappeared from the public consciousness. Her ideas are appealing, but the author accepts the archaeological and literary sources (e.g., Livy) too easily as offering direct 'evidence' on early Roman banquets.

Royo discusses Dio 67.9 on the 'banquet of the dead' hosted by Domitian in 89 A.D. Rather than seeing it as an example of Domitian's 'craziness', Royo explores it as a mirror image or reversal of the standard Roman funerary banquet. The dining guests (all senators) at Domitian's banquet, are, in a way, living but already dead. The emperor presides and rules supreme over his subjects. Royo shows that Dio portrays Domitian (also in the preceding paragraphs) as an anti-Augustus: he is not a primus inter pares, but a dominus or tyrant.

Crogiez-Pétrequin examines imperial and elite banquets in Late Antiquity. She spends much time (in a short article) on the paucity of the evidence available, though her focus on juridical texts does not help. The sources we do have point at continuity, especially concerning the ideology of commensality: topoi in literary sources (luxury, mostly) are very similar to those found in earlier texts. However, dining also becomes a way of separating 'Romans' and 'barbarians' in the Late Antique world.

Tolini explores the link between the tributary system in Babylonia and the royal table of Darius the Great. Using source material from private archives of both contributors (subjects who supplied food) and entrepreneurs (who did the shipping), Tolini illuminates the impact of Persian rule on Babylonian agriculture and economy in great detail. Especially important were the movements of the king, since resources followed the itinerant court.

Wilkins analyses Greek views (found in Athenaeus) on Persian royal banquets. We find a large group of sources that equate the Persians with luxury, and, secondly, claim that luxury was transferred from the Persians to later royal tables, including the Romans'. Thirdly (and this is the major point), Athenaeus and his contemporaries consume the same 'products of empire' as the Persians. However, these foods have lost their negative connotations and are no longer perilous, since they are consumed together.

Capdetrey investigates the differences and similarities between Persian and Hellenistic royal banquets. Persian banquets were, above all, 'centrifugal' and 'redistributional' – resources flowed from the corners of the empire to the power centre and were then redistributed. Alexander only haphazardly and partially took over this 'territorial' aspect; after him, the banquets of Hellenistic kings were even more 'deterritorialised'. Redistribution remained on the menu, thus tying nobles to the king and court according to earlier Macedonian practice.

Lerouge-Cohen studies the table manners of the Parthian kings as reported by Posidonius (and copied in Athenaeus' Deipnosophistai). She shows that Posidonius' history is scrambled and misconstrued, and at times simply fantastic. Why so? In describing the kings of Parthia, Posidonius evokes the earlier Achaemenid kings of Persia. For example, 'friends' (philoi) were placed at the feet of the king, who sat alone and above everyone else. In Posidonius, the Parthians are, in short, like Persians: cruel (in their treatment of friends) and 'barbarian'.

Villard analyses the sort and number of dining companions of Neo-Assyrian kings in the early first millennium B.C. Often, he dined with his wife, his son(s) and the high elite, and the gods (in the form of statues) were always present. On special occasions mass banquets for thousands of subjects were organised. The king was usually seated separately, while other sat at tables with people of equal rank. The king was thus clearly recognisable as sole ruler and protected by the gods.

Vössing's discusses a banquet at Bactra in 327, where Alexander ordered his guests to honour him with a proskynêsis or 'thrown kiss'. This was a standard deferential gesture for Persian kings, but for Greeks, this gesture was reserved to gods alone. Vössing examines the different versions of this story and gives most credibility to Plutarch's, who states that the proskynêsis was not offered to Alexander himself but at a hearth, which represented his daimôn. In the end, Vössing's analysis solves some issues, but changes little about the fact that Alexander's 'Persian' self-representation did not last.

Badel discusses the convivia privata of the Roman elite, an odd choice of subject given the overall focus on royal banquets. The concept is problematic, too: the wording convivium privatum appears only once in all Latin literature (Pliny the Elder 32.20), while 'public' and 'private' are surely more problematic than the author presents them here.2 However, Badel makes some good points on convivia and elite competition in the Late Republic and Early Empire, mostly on place settings and the treatment of clients.

Winter studies Assyrian royal banquets, and argues that these were used to transmit the idea of the king as the sole (and rightful) recipient of all agricultural produce. Her focus is on images of commensality which show the king drinking and eating among other guests, and she convincingly argues that images of banquets, hunts and subjects offering tribute to the king were at the same time a product of and communicated the ideology and 'politics of abundance'.

Dalby searches for the true geographical origins of Solomon's riches and luxurious products as mentioned in the Book of Kings. He finds that almost all places mentioned there simply did not yet exist in the age of Solomon, the tenth century B.C. The region governed by Solomon is described as 'on the other side of the river', a Persian technical term which did not come into use before the late sixth century to refer to the area governed the Persian satrap in Babylon. In short, Solomon is described in the Book of Kings as if he was a contemporary Persian satrap.

Joannès studies the 'leftovers' of banquets offered to the gods received and re-distributed in first millennium B.C. Mesopotamia. Different sorts of leftovers are attested: the king's 'portion' (kurummat), 'share' (zitti) and 'basket' (selli) were all given to him on a seemingly regular basis due to his position as the primary 'sponsor' of the temples. In contrast, true 'leftovers' (rēhātu) were given more irregularly and probably coincided with annual or one-off divine banquets. The latter supply of food firmly linked the power of the king with those of the gods.

Milanezi discusses the wedding banquet of Caranos of Macedon as described in a letter by a certain Hippolochos (otherwise unknown) and cited in Athenaeus' Deipnosophistai. Some scholars have argued that Caranos was a mythical king of Macedon. Milanezi disagrees, though it is not wholly clear why - she argues that the letter was linked to the contemporary political situation and 'propaganda' (371) and was thus linked to a real monarch. She proposes that Caranos was either Ptolemaus Keraunos, or, more likely, Antigonus II Gonatas.

Shelmerdine turns to Mycenean Greece. Given the archaeological sources she uses, the lack of images or maps is disappointing. On the basis of the textual evidence we find that subjects of the king, both 'normal' persons and elites, brought food and drinks to Pylos, where religious banquets were regularly held. The evidence suggests that, unlike most royal banquets, the monarch mostly received foods from his subjects but did not (re-) distribute food or drinks.

Carneiro Cerqueira Lima explores the link between banquets and kômoi (a procession of revelers) in Corinth in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. The author argues that 'popular' kômoi and 'official' pompai (religious processions) were different yet both linked to the social and political order. How exactly remains unclear: in this short paper, most space is devoted to ancient Greek and modern anthropological concepts that hardly seem to have any relation to the topic. Banquets are only mentioned on the first page of the article.

Lubtchansky studies Etruscan images of symposia and kômoi. Greek written sources portray the Etruscans as 'barbarian': they dined with women at their table and fell victim to truphê. Lubtchansky argues that the images show Etruscans dining and drinking in the 'proper' Greek way – the fact that men and women dined together is not very 'transgressive', and all other such images correspond to kômoi, when the rules of symposia did not apply. Whether and how we can actually distil Etruscan 'agency' and cultural values from these vase paintings is a question left unexplored.

Fichtl discusses a number of Celtic sites in France and Germany, most of which date from the second or first centuries B.C. All are large, enclosed, and not near any major settlement. Earlier, Matthieu Poux labelled some of these sites as 'banquet enclosures' after such spaces described in (Greek) literary sources.3 Fichtl adds a number of recent sites to see whether Poux's analysis is still correct, and concludes that they were indeed used for banqueting and drinking, but also part of aristocratic residences or villas.

This volume provides valuable and in-depth studies of ancient royal banquets and ideologies, often supported by a wide array of sources. Due to the lack of a particular agenda set by the editors, the volume lacks in coherence. At times, the reader would have hoped for more editorial focus and cross-references, especially when we find various authors discussing the same source or topic (which happens repeatedly in the articles on Assyrian/Babylonian banquets). This is partly countered by the excellent indices, which helps to search for specific kings or themes discussed in various articles. The volume is quite well-produced and at times well-illustrated, yet affordable. All in all, it should appeal to graduate students and scholars of commensality and monarchies in the Ancient world alike.


1.   A. Zaccaria Ruggiu (2003), More regio vivere: il banchetto aristocratico e la casa romana di età arcaica. Rome.
2.   See A. Winterling (2009), Politics and society in Imperial Rome, 60-76. Malden/Oxford.
3.   M. Poux 2004, L'âge du vin: rites de boisson, festins et libations en Gaule indépendante. Montagnac. ​

No comments:

Post a Comment