The Deipnosophistae is an early 3rd-century AD Greek work (Ancient Greek: Δειπνοσοφισταί, Deipnosophistaí, "The Dinner Sophists/Philosophers/Experts") by the Greco-Egyptian author Athenaeus of Naucratis. It is a long work of literary, historical, and antiquarian references set in Rome at a series of banquets held by the protagonist Publius Livius Larensis for an assembly of grammarians, lexicographers, jurists, musicians, and hangers-on. It is sometimes called the oldest surviving cookbook.
The Greek title Deipnosophistaí (Δειπνοσοφισταί) derives from the combination of deipno- (δειπνο-, "dinner") and sophistḗs (σοφιστής, "expert, one knowledgable in the arts of ~"). It and its English derivative deipnosophists thus describe people who are skilled at dining, particularly the refined conversation expected to accompany Greek symposia. However, the term is shaded by the harsh treatment accorded to professional teachers in Plato's Socratic dialogues, which made the English term sophist into a pejorative.
In English, Athenaeus's work usually known by its Latin form Deipnosophistae but is also variously translated as The Deipnosophists, Sophists at Dinner, The Learnèd Banqueters, The Banquet of the Learnèd, Philosophers at Dinner, or The Gastronomers.
The Deipnosophistae professes to be an account given by the author to his friend Timocrates of a series of banquets (apparently three) held at the house of Larensius, a scholar and wealthy patron of the arts. It is thus a dialogue within a dialogue, after the manner of Plato, although each conversation is so long that, realistically, it would occupy several days. Among the numerous guests, Masurius, Zoilus, Democritus, Galen, Ulpian and Plutarch are named, but most are probably to be taken as fictitious personages, and the majority take little or no part in the conversation. If Ulpian is identical with the famous jurist, the Deipnosophistae must have been written after his death in 223; but the jurist was murdered by the Praetorian Guard, whereas Ulpian in Athenaeus dies a natural death. Prosopographical investigation, however, has shown the possibility of identifying several guests with real persons from other sources; the Ulpian in the dialog has also been linked to the renowned jurist's father.
The work is invaluable for providing fictionalized information about the Hellenistic literary world of the leisured class during the Roman Empire. To the majority of modern readers, even more useful is the wealth of information provided in the Deipnosophistae about earlier Greek literature. In the course of discussing classic authors, the participants make quotations, long and short, from the works of about 700 earlier Greek authors and 2,500 separate writings, many of them otherwise unrecorded. Food and wine, luxury, music, sexual mores, literary gossip and philology are among the major topics of discussion, and the stories behind many artworks such as the Venus Kallipygos are also transmitted in its pages.
The Deipnosophistae is an important source of recipes in classical Greek. It quotes the original text of one recipe from the lost cookbook by Mithaecus, the oldest in Greek and the oldest recipe by a named author in any language. Other authors quoted for their recipes include Glaucus of Locri, Dionysius, Epaenetus, Hegesippus of Tarentum, Erasistratus, Diocles of Carystus, Timachidas of Rhodes, Philistion of Locri, Euthydemus of Athens, Chrysippus of Tyana, Paxamus and Harpocration of Mende.
In addition to its main focuses, the text offers an unusually clear portrait of homosexuality in late Hellenism. Books XII-XIII holds a wealth of information for studies of homosexuality in Roman Greece. It is subject to a big discussion that includes Alcibiades, Charmides, Autolycus, Pausanias and Sophocles. Furthermore, numerous books and now lost plays on the subject are mentioned, including the dramatists Diphilus, Cratinus, Aeschylus, and Sophocles and the philosopher Heraclides of Pontus.
The Deipnosophistae was originally in fifteen books. The work survives in one manuscript from which the whole of books 1 and 2, and some other pages too, disappeared long ago. An Epitome or abridgment (to about 60%) was made in medieval times, and survives complete: from this it is possible to read the missing sections, though in a disjointed form.
The English polymath Sir Thomas Browne noted in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica-Athenæus, a delectable Author, very various, and justly stiled by Casaubon,
Græcorum Plinius. There is extant of his, a famous Piece, under the name of
Coena Sapientum, containing the Discourse of many learned men, at a Feast provided by Laurentius. It is a laborious Collection out of many Authors, and some whereof are mentioned no where else. It containeth strange and singular relations, not without some spice or sprinkling of all Learning. The Author was probably a better Grammarian then Philosopher, dealing but hardly with Aristotle and Plato, and betrayeth himself much in his Chapter
De Curiositate Aristotelis. In brief, he is an Author of excellent use, and may with discretion be read unto great advantage: and hath therefore well deserved the Comments of Casaubon and Dalecampius.
Browne's interest in Athenaeus reflects a revived interest in the Banquet of the Learned amongst scholars following the publication of the Deipnosophistae in 1612 by the Classical scholar Isaac Casaubon. Browne was also the author of a Latin essay on Athenaeus. By the nineteenth century however, the poet James Russell Lowell in 1867 characterized the Deipnosophistae and its author thus:the somewhat greasy heap of a literary rag-and-bone-picker like Athenaeus is turned to gold by time
Modern readers question whether the Deipnosophistae genuinely evokes a literary symposium of learned disquisitions on a range of subjects suitable for such an occasion, or whether it has a satirical edge, rehashing the écultural clichés of the urbane literati of its day.