Happy Eaters and Talkers, or The Great Idea of the Encyclopaedia

Krystyna Bartol

I love to look back upon the convivial visits to Wendlebury I made almost every year in mid-July for over twenty years – the warm welcome from my charismatic host, a high-minded bearded man with out-of-control hair and thick spectacles, and an unstoppable outpouring of absorbing talk at a dinner table laden with delicacies. Getting from Oxford to this rather out-of-the-way place was not too difficult. There was a convenient bus connection to Bicester. But I was constantly worried that I wouldn’t notice the faintly visible Wendlebury Turn bus stop, so every time I would keep a close lookout for a distinctive red face, whose gaping mouth had a finger pointing at it. This was the unmistakable Happy Eater logo, a motorway service located along the M40, not far from where it meets the A41 road and my desired stop.

In the years that followed, when this ‘landmark’ was replaced by the Little Chef’s ‘Charlie’ figure in a white outfit on a red background, I was less enthusiastic about the sign that marked the impending end of my bus trip. No longer was it the image of an eater to whom (shame to say) I was hoping to assimilate myself, as soon as the path by the old church led me straight to the door of the Wendlebury house.

Icons of simpler times.

But why am I writing about these memories here, you may ask. The answer is rather simple: these memories of eating while talking (or better – talking while eating) have always made me think about other happy eaters and talkers. I think especially of the twenty or more guests who feasted at the house of Larensis, a wealthy Roman aristocrat and great lover of Greek culture, somewhere in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, as described by Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt in his work entitled Deipnosophistai, i.e. The Sophists at Dinner or The Learned Banqueters, written somewhere between AD 195 and 210.

This huge work, consisting of 15 books describes a fictional feast, or rather a series of feasts, modelled on real Greek dinner parties. The characters appearing in the book have names that call to mind well-known real persons of the Imperial Era, or earlier times: Ulpian, the great jurist Galen, the celebrated physician and philosopher, Democritus, the atomist philosopher, or Plutarch, the famous moralist and biographer. But Athenaeus is careful to warn the reader against making such identifications, if only by indicating other places of origin for his characters: Plutarch, for instance, comes from Alexandria, not Chaeronea, and Democritus from Nicomedia, not Abdera. He thus teases his readers with these suggestive hints. What the guests of Larensis have in common is a predilection for consuming luxurious food and drinking fine wines.

Mosaic of a Roman-style symposium, perhaps discovered in Lebanon, 3rd/4th cent. AD (priv. coll., but on display at the Musée De La Vigne Et Du Vin, Le Chateau de Boudry, Neuchâtel, Switzerland).

Yet it is not so much their gargantuan gourmandism as their pleasure in talking about food that constitutes the essence and value of this bizarre work, which must be considered one of the most fascinating survivals of the Greeks’ encyclopaedic thinking. The author of the Epitome of the work calls Athenaeus’ work a logodeipnon, that is a “feast of words”. Presenting its thematic diversity and the principles of its composition, he says that Athenaeus

omits no one’s fine sayings; for he included fish in his book, and the ways they are prepared and the derivations of their names, as well as every sort of vegetable, animals of every kind, and authors of historical works, poets, and philosophers. He also described musical instruments, a million types of jokes, different styles of drinking cups, the wealth of kings, huge ships – and so many other items that I could not easily mention them all, or else the day would end as I was still going through them category by category. The account is arranged to imitate the extravagance of the dinner party, and the book’s structure reflects how the dinner party was organized. This is the sort of delightful feast of words this marvellous chief literary steward Athenaeus introduces. And driven by his ardor for language, like the orators in Athens he outdoes even himself and sets off by leaps and bounds to the later portion of his book. [tr. S. D. Olson]

The table-talk of the Deipnosophists is filled with long series of quotations or summaries of statements by ancient poets and prose writers on certain topics. Discussion stuffed full with quotations is a kind of intellectual display in which the disputants encourage each other, often with provocative questions, to share their knowledge of literature. One of the banqueters, Ulpian, was so obsessed with asking questions about the use of certain words by writers that he earned the nickname Keitoukeitos. i.e. “Mr Attested-or-not-attested”. The Epitomator presents him as a man who

observed a custom, unique to himself, of never eating anything until he asked “Is it attested or isn’t it” (keitai ē ou keitai?), as for example, if the word hōra (“hour, season”) is attested for a portion of the day, or methusos (“drunken”) for a man, or if mētra (“womb”) is attested for edible food, or if the compound suagros (“wild-pig”) is attested for a pig. [tr. D. S. Olson]

keitai ē ou keitai?: the wild boar (sus scrofa)

This is not mere talkativeness, however, but the constant satisfaction of the Deipnosophists’ need to recall the words of the old masters. This search of their own memory results in a recital that is like putting together a cultural map of Ancient Greece from numerous literary jigsaw puzzles. One modern scholar has rightly called them walking or breathing libraries because their vast reading knowledge so clearly embodies the book collection.[1]

The Library of Alexandria – optimistically reimagined (source as yet untraced).

Sticking to this metaphor, one can say that the knowledge stored in the book of the Deipnosophists’ minds is made available to others through a key word uttered, like a password, by one of the participants of the conversation hold at the table. In this way, the diners activate their memory, search the database stored in their minds, and allow others to retrieve parts of it to store on the hard drives of their own minds (modern scholar, it seems, like using IT terminology to describe activity of deipnosophists).[2] They continually draw from their memory what may be a relevant addendum to the previous speaker. The result is a collection of information on various topics, forming a kind of encyclopaedia – rather like Larousse gastronomique or the Oxford Companion to Food, as John Wilkins put it;[3] it is a literary thesaurus full of items wonderfully displayed, described and explained.

It can be said that Athenaeus’ work combines two functions, that of a library, which collects books, and that of an encyclopaedia, which condenses their content. Its recipient, in turn, may be a user who treats it as a reference book, and a reader who reads the entire work, discovering its compositional principles and artistic values. So it is an example of a specialised text and at the same time one belonging to what we call belles lettres.[4]

Isaac Casaubon’s celebrated edition of Athenaeus (Lyons, 1657).

The idea of encyclopaedism becomes particularly popular in the post-Classical era filled with nostalgia for times gone by. It stemmed from the need to save and preserve the achievements of past times. The new context in which the Greeks found themselves after the loss of political independence did not plunge them into cultural inertia but gave an impulse for a new kind of intellectual activity which consisted in ordering knowledge and transferring it to a new reality. The encyclopaedic works created at this time were, as a rule, not arranged alphabetically, but according to the concept adopted by their authors.

In the work of Athenaeus the main principle of ordering the material is the feast itself, i.e. the order of the meal served, and the composition of the dialogue imitates Platonic conversation. The author of the Epitome draws attention to this feature by saying that Athenaeus dramatises the dialogue in a Platonic manner.

The first edition of Athenaeus, edited by Marcus Musurus: with a suitably cup-shaped body of text above the Aldine anchor (Venice, 1514); those keen to read the text can do so here.

A favourite procedure employed by the author is the accumulation of material, the result of which is a sequence of quotations illustrating a phenomenon or the meaning of a word or confirming a fact.

Let us mention some emphatic examples of each of the tools of accumulation used by Athenaeus. In Book 6 (224c–28b) we have a large, absolutely splendid, collection of citations from Greek comedies that show the bad character and behaviour of fishmongers (their arrogance, deceit, overpricing, dishonest advertising, offering stale goods, etc.). In Book 14 (662f–664f) one can find an impressive series of quotations from Archaic and Classical poetry explaining the meaning of the term mattye, an exquisite dish. In Book 3 (80a–b) the series of citations testifying that figs eaten in the afternoon cause disease is amazing. Many more examples of such accumulations can be found. You just need to look around carefully.

Often the combination of separate elements is the result of agglutination, that is the joining together of different passages which contain the same word or phrase. Sometimes the pasting of a text into another text is simply a digression, as in Book 14 (655b) where the passage devoted to peacocks is interrupted by the remarks of one of the Deipnosophists: “since Menodotus mentioned guinea fowl let us talk a little about them”. This is followed by a digression on guinea fowl. 

Athenaeus’ artfully arranged work is one of the oldest incarnations of the idea of encyclopaedism. He was aptly called the “Daedalus of words” because, like the famous architect from Crete, he created a complicated labyrinth in which only an intelligent, intellectually active reader could find his way.[5] His work was once called the bibliographical Noah’s ark,[6] since it preserves thousands of fragments from Greek poetry and prose that would otherwise have been lost in the flood of history.

The great idea of the encyclopaedia and its conceptual goals, the largeness of its scale, the wealth of detail and consequently the seductive power of knowledge offered by any encyclopaedic book have remained appealing and influential in modern times. It is enough to mention the famous French Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and published in France in the 18th century (1751–66), aiming to change the way people think, which had a profound influence through introducing the new open-mindedness of the Enlightenment.

The title-page of the first volume of Denis Diderot’s transformational Encyclopédie (Paris, 1751–72).

The fascination with the great idea of encyclopaedias continues to this day. As proof of the interest that modern people have let me mention a fairly new book which is not an encyclopaedia at all, but a novel about it: Hombres buenos (Good Men) by Arturo Pérez Reverte, published in 2015, which vividly illustrates the everlasting power of the encyclopaedia.[7] The novel shows the adventures and heroic endeavours of two academics, Hermógenes Molina, a librarian, and Pedro Zárate, an admiral, both members of the Royal Spanish Academy, who went to Paris to seek 28 volumes of the Encyclopédie, banned in Spain at the turn of the 18th century, in the hope of changing the world with these books.

The novel, believe me, is no less fascinating than Athenaeus’ work. You will read both with bated breath. So get to it!

Krystyna Bartol is Professor at the Institute of Classical Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań; she writes on Greek poetry, especially lyric, and Greek Imperial prose. She is the co-author (with Jerzy Danielewicz) of the first Polish translation, with commentary, of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (2010); she is grateful to her publishers for the red-wine-coloured cover of the book, which would surely appeal to Larensis and his guests). She has written for Antigone about Greek attitudes to music here.

Further Reading

There are two Loeb editions of the Deipnosophists. The first by Charles Burton Gulick (Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists with an English translation, London/New York 1927-41, repeatedly reissued), the second by S. Douglas Olson (Athenaeus: The Learned Banqueters, edited and translated, Cambridge MA, 2007-12). For those who read Italian I strongly recommend the nice introduction written by Christian Jacob, Ateneo. I Deipnosophisti. I dotti a banchetto, Prima traduzione italiana commentata su progetto di L. Canfora, vol. I, Roma 2001, pp. XI-CXIV (the English revised version of it, entitled The Web of Athenaeus, was published as a separate book in 2013 by Harvard University’s Centre of Hellenic Studies) Valuable discussions of various issues related to many aspects of Athenaeus’ work brings the volume Athenaeus and His World: Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire (D. Braund and J. Wilkins eds.) Exeter 2000. The history of encyclopaedism is instructively presented by R. Collison, Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages, New York-London 1966.


1 Yan Lee Too, “The walking library: the performance of cultural memories,” in D. Braund and J. Wilkins (eds.), Athenaeus and His World: Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire (Exeter, 2000) 111–23.
2 See C. Jacob, “Athenaeus the Librarian,” in Braund and Wilkins (as n.1) 105, who says “Putting such a strong emphasis on linking previously unrelated textual fragments together an on navigating through a wide corpus of literary materials calls for an analogy with we today call ‘hypertext’: reading a large and heterogeneous corpus of text, deciding to link such and such key words or fragments, deconstructing the cohesiveness of texts in order to follow the thread of a lexical search or of a thematic investigation, define a new way of reading, but also in many respects a new form of writing”.
3 J. Wilkins and R. Nadeau (eds.), Companion to Food in Ancient World (Chichester, 2015).
4 This double role of the recipient of Athenaeus’ work is highlighted by Dirk U. Hansen, “Leser und Benutzer. Überlegungen zu Athenaios,” Classica et Mediaevalia 51 (2000) 223–36.
5 The term proposed by C. Jacob, Ateneo o il Dedalo delle parole, in: Ateneo, I Deipnosophisti. I dotti a banchetto (Rome, 2001) 1 xi.
6 C. Jacob, “La citation comme performance dans les Deipnosophistes d’Athénée,” in C. Dabro-Peschanski (ed.), La citation dans l’Antiquité (Grenoble, 2004) 148.
7 It appeared in Polish translation in 2017 under a telling title: Misja: Encyklopedia (Mission: Encyclopaedia).