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Poets Eat Free: State Dinners, Symbolic Capital, and Distinction in Ptolemaic Alexandria

Brett Evans

University of Virginia

In recent decades scholars have challenged the long-established view of Hellenistic poets as ivory tower intellectuals and demonstrated that they were fully-fledged members of the Hellenistic courts. It is increasingly recognized that scholar-poets like Callimachus had the lifestyles and sometimes titles of philoi, ‘courtiers’ (Cameron 1995, 3-11; Petrovic 2016; 2017; Strootman 2017, 104-8; Berrey 2017, 91-5). Yet important questions arising from these poets’ social status have yet to be asked. In particular, what was the value of their poetic gifts compared to the more tangible contributions of courtiers including military leaders, doctors, political dignitaries, athletic victors, and wealthy benefactors?

In this paper I demonstrate that the perquisites of membership in the Alexandrian Museum reveal their recipients’ high status at the Ptolemaic court. I focus on the most tantalizing benefit of Museum membership, namely free meals. Hunter (2003, 33) has posited a connection between the scholars’ meals and the civic honor of sitesis. Building on his suggestion I demonstrate that the Ptolemies appropriated a far more wide-ranging civic practice of honoring poets with state food, putting them on par with traditional state benefactors.

First I discuss the epigraphic evidence for civic grants of sitesis to poets as state benefactors in the Hellenistic period. A salient example of the practice is the honorary decree of the Athenian deme of Delos recording its award of sitesis to the poet Amphicles of Rhenaea in 165 BC (I.Delos 1497.5-18, 26-33). This Amphicles composed a prosodion hymning the gods and the deme, and he taught the citizens’ children to sing it, thus perpetuating his gift through reperformance. The decree cites Amphicles’ εὔνοια and εὐσέβεια as justifications for his worthiness of sitesis, and I argue that this language classes Amphicles alongside traditional εὐεργέται. Next I demonstrate the widespread civic practice of offering portions of sacrificial meat to benefactors, including poets. I focus on the case of the poetess Aristodama of Smyrna, honored in 218/17 by Chaleion with meat sent to her from the sacrifice of Apollo in return for her poetry praising the city and its sanctuary (FD 3.3.145). While Carbon (2018, 368 n. 88) has recently proposed the supplement [πέμψα]σθαι, arguing that the meat was sent to Aristodama only once, I demonstrate that the middle voice is inappropriate here. Other inscriptions attest rather to the regular provision of such sacrificial portions (e.g. IG XI.4 1038.23-9, meat to be sent to the famous architect Sostratus of Cnidus during each celebration of the Delian Ptolemaia). I thus side with Daux (1922) and FD in supplementing [πέμπε]σθαι, and argue that Aristodama regularly received honorary meat from Chaleion, 350km from Smyrna.

My interpretation of this epigraphic evidence reveals a fierce, international competition between poets for the symbolic capital of civic meals. I contend that the Ptolemies, eager to attract the world’s best poets, entered this competition by offering regular honorary meals to the poets who joined their Museum. The poets who accepted took their place at court as distinguished benefactors, competing for status alongside military and athletic victors.

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Ancient Scholarship

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