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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Athenæus of Naucratis (Second Century?)

LITTLE is known that is authentic about the Græco-Egyptian Sophist or man of letters, Athenæus, author of the ‘Deipnosophistæ’ or Feast of the Learned, except his literary bequest. It is recorded that he was born at Naucratis, a city of the Nile Delta; and that after living at Alexandria he migrated to Rome. His date is presumptively fixed in the early part of the third century by his inclusion of Ulpian, the eminent jurist (whose death occurred A.D. 228) among the twenty-nine guests of the banquet whose wit and learning furnished its viands. He was perhaps a contemporary of the physician Galen, another of the putative banqueters, who served as a mouthpiece of the author’s erudition.

Probably nothing concerning him deserved preservation except his unique work, the ‘Feast of the Learned.’ Of the fifteen books transmitted under the above title, the first two, and portions of the third, eleventh, and fifteenth, exist only in epitome—the name of the compiler and his time being equally obscure; yet it is curious that for many centuries these garbled fragments were the only memorials of the author extant. The other books, constituting the major portion of the work, have been pronounced authentic by eminent scholars with Bentley at their head. Without the slightest pretense of literary skill, the ‘Feast of the Learned’ is an immense storehouse of Ana, or table-talk. Into its receptacles the author gathers fruitage from nearly every branch of contemporary learning. He seemed to anticipate Macaulay’s “vice of omniscience,” though he lacked Macaulay’s incomparable literary virtues. Personal anecdote, criticism of the fine arts, the drama, history, poetry, philosophy, politics, medicine, and natural history enter into his pages, illustrated with an aptness and variety of quotation which seem to have no limit. He preserves old songs, folk-lore, and popular gossip, and relates whatever he may have heard, without sifting it. He gives, for example, a vivid account of the procession which greeted Demetrius Poliorketes:—

  • “When Demetrius returned from Leucadia and Corcyra to Athens, the Athenians received him not only with incense and garlands and libations, but they even sent out processional choruses, and greeted him with Ithyphallic hymns and dances. Stationed by his chariot-wheels, they sang and danced and chanted that he alone was a real god; the rest were sleeping or were on a journey, or did not exist: they called him son of Poseidon and Aphrodite, eminent for beauty, universal in his goodness to mankind; then they prayed and besought and supplicated him like a god.”
  • The hymn of worship which Athenæus evidently disapproved has been preserved, and turned into English by the accomplished J. A. Symonds on account of its rare and interesting versification. It belongs to the class of Prosodia, or processional hymns, which the greatest poets delighted to produce, and which were sung at religious festivals by young men and maidens, marching to the shrines in time with the music, their locks crowned with wreaths of olive, myrtle, or oleander; their white robes shining in the sun.

  • “See how the mightiest gods, and best beloved,
  • Towards our town are winging!
  • For lo! Demeter and Demetrius
  • This glad day is bringing!
  • She to perform her Daughter’s solemn rites;
  • Mystic pomps attend her;
  • He joyous as a god should be, and blithe,
  • Comes with laughing splendor.
  • Show forth your triumph! Friends all, troop around,
  • Let him shine above you!
  • Be you the stars to circle him with love;
  • He’s the sun to love you.
  • Hail, offspring of Poseidon, powerful god,
  • Child of Aphrodite!
  • The other deities keep far from earth;
  • Have no ears, though mighty;
  • They are not, or they will not hear us wail:
  • Thee our eye beholdeth;
  • Not wood, not stone, but living, breathing, real,
  • Thee our prayer enfoldeth.
  • First give us peace! Give, dearest, for thou canst;
  • Thou art Lord and Master!
  • The Sphinx, who not on Thebes, but on all Greece
  • Swoops to gloat and pasture;
  • The Ætolian, he who sits upon his rock,
  • Like that old disaster;
  • He feeds upon our flesh and blood, and we
  • Can no longer labor;
  • For it was ever thus the Ætolian thief
  • Preyed upon his neighbor;
  • Him punish Thou, or, if not Thou, then send
  • Œdipus to harm him,
  • Who’ll cast this Sphinx down from his cliff of pride,
  • Or to stone will charm him.”
  • The Swallow song, which is cited, is an example of the folk-lore and old customs which Athenæus delighted to gather; and he tells how in springtime the children used to go about from door to door, begging doles and presents, and singing such half-sensible, half-foolish rhymes as—

  • “She is here, she is here, the swallow!
  • Fair seasons bringing, fair years to follow!
  • Her belly is white,
  • Her back black as night!
  • From your rich house
  • Roll forth to us
  • Tarts, wine, and cheese;
  • Or, if not these,
  • Oatmeal and barley-cake
  • The swallow deigns to take.
  • What shall we have? or must we hence away!
  • Thanks, if you give: if not, we’ll make you pay!
  • The house-door hence we’ll carry;
  • Nor shall the lintel tarry;
  • From hearth and home your wife we’ll rob;
  • She is so small,
  • To take her off will be an easy job!
  • Whate’er you give, give largess free!
  • Up! open, open, to the swallow’s call!
  • No grave old men, but merry children we!”
  • The ‘Feast of the Learned’ professes to be the record of the sayings at a banquet given at Rome by Laurentius to his learned friends. Laurentius stands as the typical Mæcenas of the period. The dialogue is reported after Plato’s method, or as we see it in the more familiar form of the ‘Satires’ of Horace, though lacking the pithy vigor of these models. The discursiveness with which topics succeed each other, their want of logic or continuity, and the pelting fire of quotations in prose and verse, make a strange mixture. It may be compared to one of those dishes known both to ancients and to moderns, in which a great variety of scraps is enriched with condiments to the obliteration of all individual flavor. The plan of execution is so cumbersome that its only defense is its imitation of the inevitably disjointed talk when the guests of a dinner party are busy with their wine and nuts. One is tempted to suspect Athenæus of a sly sarcasm at his own expense, when he puts the following flings at pedantry in the mouths of some of his puppets:—

  • “And now when Myrtilus had said all this in a connected statement, and when all were marveling at his memory, Cynulcus said,—
  • ‘Your multifarious learning I do wonder at,
  • Though there is not a thing more vain and useless.’
  • “Says Hippo the Atheist, ‘But the divine Heraclitus also says, ‘A great variety of information does not usually give wisdom.’ And Timon said,… ‘For what is the use of so many names, my good grammarian, which are more calculated to overwhelm the hearers than to do them any good?’”
  • This passage shows the redundancy of expression which disfigures so much of Athenæus. It is also typical of the cudgel-play of repartee between his characters, which takes the place of agile witticism. But if he heaps up vast piles of scholastic rubbish, he is also the Golden Dustman who shows us the treasure preserved by his saving pedantry. Scholars find the ‘Feast of the Learned’ a quarry of quotations from classical writers whose works have perished. Nearly eight hundred writers and twenty-four hundred separate writings are referred to and cited in this disorderly encyclopædia, most of them now lost and forgotten. This literary thrift will always give rank to the work of Athenæus, poor as it is. The best editions of the original Greek are those of Dindorf (Leipzig, 1827), and of Meineke (Leipzig, 1867). The best English translation is that of C. D. Yonge in ‘Bohn’s Classical Library,’ from which, with slight alterations, the appended passages are selected.