Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Athenaeus author of The Deipnosophists (‘professors of dining’ or perhaps ‘professors at dinner’). This is a compilation of Greek wisdom and anecdote on food, dining, and entertainment, threaded together in the form of a series of dinner conversations, by a Greek scholar who probably lived and worked in Rome about AD 200, when (as Gibbon said) ‘the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind’.

Athenaeus (Athenaios) was born in the old Greek trading post of Naucratis in Egypt. Nothing is known of his life, but The Deipnosophists was not his only work: he had written something on the rulers of Syria, and had compiled a commentary on The Fishes by Archippus, a 5th-century BC comedy (now lost) which had no doubt been full of obscure names of fishes. The conversations in the Deipnosophists, though evidently fictional, involve some real people, including the famous physician galen (died AD 199) and the great jurist Ulpian (died c. ad 223), who comes across here as a pedant. It is possible that Athenaeus knew these people, but it is unwise to imagine (as some have done) a real literary circle somehow matching the one in the Deipnosophists. These conversations are a way of recording the researches of Athenaeus himself.