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  • The Dictates of Language:Food, Words, and Narcissism in Athenaeus’s Dinner of the Sophists1
  • Jeroen Lauwers


Athenaeus is perhaps not the most famous author of symposiastic literature. Unlike the symposia of big names such as Xenophon, Plato, and Plutarch, his work, though comprising no fewer than fifteen books, has only recently received increased scholarly attention.2 Among classicists, he is still mostly used as a sourcebook for the reconstruction of classical literary works, primarily ancient comedies, that we no longer possess but that are cited quite extensively in Athenaeus for the sake of their linguistic oddities.

My contribution will deal with Athenaeus in his own right, even if this discussion will probably not lead to a completely positive appreciation of this writer.3 He does occupy, however, a distinctive place in the history [End Page 47] of sympotic writing, and he reveals a side effect of the obsession of Greek imperial culture with linguistic perfection and the cultivation of knowledge of the classical past. As a touchstone for our modern culinary behavior, moreover, a discussion of Athenaeus can stir up reflections about culinary etiquette and culinary conversation. This paper thus neatly inscribes itself among those that show that the recent increase of interest in food is a relevant hermeneutic element in the study of culture.

The angle from which we will treat this issue is that of Lacanian psychology. As the title of this article indicates, my main argument is that the dictates of linguistic preoccupations are so strong in Athenaeus that they deprive the dinner’s participants, as well as the reader, of the possibility of enjoying a sensory perception of food that goes beyond the mediation of language. The vocabulary of Lacanian psychology will enable us to bring out this psychological side effect of the participants’ narcissistic preoccupation with self-display at the dinner table.


In order to understand Athenaeus’s work, it is worthwhile to discuss his cultural environment, commonly labelled in scholarly literature the Second Sophistic (for an introduction, see Whitmarsh 2005). During the first centuries c.e., there was a re-emergence of a so-called sophistic movement, consisting of self-conscious intellectuals who took pride in their Greek cultural heritage and presented themselves as educated people, pepaideumenoi. These pepaideumenoi travelled around and delivered vivid rhetorical performances on classical subjects, thus ideologically reaffirming Greek cultural anteriority and superiority over Rome and claiming for themselves a notable place in society. Elite Roman citizens, for their part, tended to honor Greek education to such an extent that many young Romans went to Greece in order to complete their educational curriculum and thereafter maintained an intimate, friendly relationship with Greek intellectuals.4 [End Page 48]

Apart from rhetorical talent, cultural knowledge was of major importance for those who wanted to seek public recognition for their education. The craze for ancient things went so far that aspiring imperial intellectuals spoke and wrote in an artificial Attic language in which, ideally, each word and syntactic phenomenon was attested in the classical literature of fifth-century Athens or, at least, soon thereafter. The use of such an artificial language was obviously meant to set the elite intellectuals apart from mere bystanders, but also served as weaponry for individual sophists and other intellectuals in their quest for public recognition (see, especially, Kim 2010). Philostratus, the Greek author of the Lives of the Sophists, narrates many anecdotes that illustrate the tense rivalry between intellectuals who competed for what Pierre Bourdieu later came to label “symbolic capital” (see Schmitz 1997).

It is probably no coincidence that this culture also witnesses an increasing interest in the ordering of knowledge (see König and Whitmarsh 2007 and, for Athenaeus specifically, Too 2000). This is an era in which epitomization and categorization saw a huge upsurge. Diligent study of the classics was widely advertised, and rhetorical education focused on exercises to enhance a pupil’s ability to reproduce memorized material in a vivid rhetorical fashion.5 After all, since there were no diplomas to guarantee the permanent recognition of one’s learning, knowledge could only be socially validated in so far as it could be publically performed (see Lauwers...


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