You are here


Athenaeus provides many hundreds of fragments of earlier writers from all genres of composition. He is a major source for the Hellenistic historians especially, but also comedians, biographers, philosophers, and the like. Therefore, it is of prime importance that we establish a methodology to determine his credibility in accurately representing the cited non-extant authors, and we can only do so by examining carefully his use of extant sources. The question is more complicated than simply separating verbatim quotations from those which are not. There are many different ways in which an original may be misrepresented, ranging from small alterations to essential changes, to conflations, paraphrases, allusions, and thematic characterizations. Others have looked at Athenaeus’ use of Herodotus (Lenfant, Pelling). Here I propose to follow Bréchet and look at the citations to Homer as a model for the ways in which Athenaeus treats his source material, since the Poet is by far the most frequently mentioned extant author in the Deipnosophistai, providing 200 of about 500 references to extant sources, excluding 1-3 word references and the epitomes in the first three books. Of those 200, three-quarters are exact quotes for as long as six lines. Another 20 are near-exact quotes, with minor changes such as tense.

The remaining 28 examples, however, exhibit virtually every type of alteration conceivable. Four passages are exact, but for a lacuna. Several undergo word alteration so as to be unmetrical. Elsewhere several lines are conflated into one. Additional citations attributed to Homer are without source in the poems. Also curious questions of diction arise when key words are altered in ways that would mislead the Athenaean audience if they did not know their Homer, such as the substitution of νÏŒου (“understanding”) for á¼€ρετῆς (“virtue”) at Athen. 6.264e-f (≈Od. 17.322-23).

A most disturbing tendency of Athenaeus is to add moral characterizations to otherwise accurate citations, where those characterizations are not appropriate to—and often contradict—the theme of the original. Thus when Athenaeus states that Homer preferred the life of pleasure over the good life (12.513d), the examples that follow do not bear out the stated theme. Similar misrepresentations occur at 12.511a-b, where pleasure is supposed to cause the gods their greatest injuries, and at 10.412b-c, where Odysseus is said to be a glutton. The clearest example falls at 12.546d, when Homer is cited in order to demonstrate that kings have an obsession for drunkenness. The passage offered as evidence, Od. 11.419-20, is the scene where Agamemnon is lying amidst the banquet-tables, not drunk, but stricken dead by Aigisthos. Thus a scene that is meant by Homer to illustrate an extreme of pathos—unarmed men cut down in a monstrous abuse of hospitality by an adulterous couple—is transferred by Athenaeus into a paradigm of drunkenness. In fact, there is no occasion where a moral characterization applied to Homer is accurately representative of the tone in the original.

The conclusions I draw are twofold. First, while most citations to Homer are absolutely accurate, it would be impossible to tell when they are not if we did not have the works of Homer surviving, and so it is impossible to argue that any particular quotation to a lost author is accurate. Second, even where Homeric citations are accurate, they may be strangely misrepresented in introductory language as examples of moral lessons that do not derive from the original, and often are at odds with it. This pattern must give us cause for concern when using citations to lost Hellenistic authors that are only preserved in Athenaeus. If, for example, all the passages from Hellenistic historians that contain moral themes are found in Athenaeus alone and are framed in similar, moralistic language, we cannot argue, as is commonly the case now, that the Hellenistic historians practiced a moralizing brand of history. Athenaean fragments must be treated with far more discrimination than is often done.


  • Bouvier, D.. “Usage et autorité de l’épopée homérique chez Athénée.” In Lenfant 2007, pp. 305-20.
  • Bréchet, C. “Du ‘Grand Livre’ homerique aux Deipnosophistes: explanation d’un continuum.” In Lenfant 2007, pp. 321-40.
  • Brunt, P.A. “On Historical Fragments and Epitomes.” CQ n.s. 30 (1080): 477-94.
  • Gorman, Robert J. and Vanessa B. Gorman. “TruphÄ“ and Hybris in the Peri Biōn Of Clearchus.” Philologus154 (2010): 186-206.
  • Gorman, Robert J. and Vanessa B. Gorman. “The TruphÄ“ of the Sybarites: A Historiographical Problem in Athenaeus.” JHS 127 (2007): 38-60.
  • Lenfant, Dominique, ed., Athénée et les fragments d’historiens. Paris 2007.
  • Pelling, Christopher. “Fun With Fragments: Athenaeus and the Historians.” In David Braund and John Wilkins, eds., Athenaeus and His World: Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire. Exeter 2000. Pp. 171-90.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy