THE LEARNED BANQUETERS BKS I-III.106e (Vol. 1)
This fun little volume is a catalog of the party habits of the ancient Greeks – probably around the first two hundred years of the Common Era. It’s the single source of “over 10,000 lines of verse” and quotes from around 1000 authors – some familiar: Aristotle, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles, and Homer.* So many unfamiliar names are quoted or mentioned with lip-smacking, teeth-cracking abundance:
How funny that my spell-check only recognizes Xenophon, Democritus, and Thucydides out of this list.
The structure of the volume is similar to the Platonic dialogues. Party guests represent different areas of knowledge or schools of thought. Musicians talk about music. Physicians talk about medicine. Everybody talks gossip and WINE! There’s wisecracks and sarcasm enough for a Friar’s Club roast. Some guests represent social classes and some are real people.
Mundane and profane, chatty and catty, cynical and clinical. TLB is painfully detailed (or do I mean painstaking?). Can you imagine a party where the host is entertaining experts in “every field of knowledge” at his pimped-out crib (to use a pimply adolescent hyperbole)!
From page 18 to about page 39, it’s like an episode of “Bizarre Foods—Ancient Greece.” The early part of the book also details party protocols. How to entertain soldiers. How to entertain politicians. How to prepare seafood. The temperaments of cooks. There’s even ancient Greek charcuterie and canapes and bizarre cocktails. For example, a guest named Nestor prepares some wine for another guest – Machaon – who’s been wounded. Nestor sprinkles some cheese on the wine and drops an onion in it. Just like those martinis that have a pearl onion! The cheese? Who can say. Nestor was trying to get him drunk. Cheese coats your stomach and you can stomach more alcohol that way. Jus’ conjecture here.
At one of Homer’s parties, the women of the house have to bathe the guests. Ugh! Was that a reality or just wishful thinking on Homer’s part? (He’s a genius, not an angel.)
P. 63 shows us the words for meals according to Philemon and corroborated by Aeschylus in general terms:
- akratisma: early meals; breakfast
- ariston: evening meal
- deipnon: second course
Another Aeschylus-related version shows arista as breakfast, deipna as dinners, dorpa as suppers (a third course).
Homer calls the fourth meal deilinon, and it comes between ariston and deipnon.
There’s a bit more, but you can see how nitpicky the telling gets. The book even goes into who eats sitting down, who eats reclining. nicknames for people who do particular tasks, like carving the meat and serving drinks.
Speaking of drinks! Oh Em Gee the catalogue of wines! How would you like to see a wine list with the type of wine, the region it comes from and it’s health effects. Whether it’s sweet or sour, pure or mixed with water. Imagine seeing the word “diuretic” with ridiculous regularity when reading the wine list. The exhaustive catalog even tells you which wines get you drunk fast, and which ones are good for your health. It’s a looooooong section! Again — the word “diuretic” is mentioned A LOT!
I kid you not – a section on almonds and other assorted nuts. Their health benefits, roasted or green, disputed names for nuts; whose nuts are better; different ways of serving and eating nuts.
Water: where the best water comes from; health benefits of water; water mixed with wine. The word “diuretic” is not mentioned as much as in the wine section.
Fruits and vegetables: where do the best fruits come from; disputed names of fruits; ideal cooking methods for fruits and veg; health benefits.
The last section of Book I (Proton Biblion) covers sea food. I’m not to that part yet, but if it’s like the other sections, there will be a lot of quotes and nitpicky details.
When it comes to discussing a particular item, like almonds or water, several quotes about the item are reported, so you get a cocktail party perspective on whatever the Alpha-foodies are talking about. Basically, ancient Greeks making small talk about food and drink, making wisecracks and good-natured insults. There’s always a know-it-all and a smart-ass. Everyone tossing in their two cents. So even though it the text is fragmented, it still flows logically. It seamlessly flows from one topic to another. Before you know it, you’ve gone from hosting soldiers in your home to what to do with olive mash once you’ve extracted all the oil.
Now that I’ve got the gist of it, I don’t think I’m going to shell out for the other two volumes. At the end of the day, it’s an entertaining read. It shows the ancient Greeks were very much like us when we gather over food and drink.
Other posts that mention Loeb Classics:
Bizarre Foods in Greece
*I am not hyperlinking these names because all you need to do is Google them and you get like a gazillion hits.