misers’ complex, demanding struggles in classical Arabic literature

physician treating an ill man (miser)

Some would restrict “miser” to a person impulsively hoarding money. Such tight thinking is mistaken. Being a miser entails a complex, ongoing, and demanding struggle against reason and human nature. The challenges of being a miser have never been as richly and fully described as al-Jahiz did in his lengthy, ninth-century book given over completely to misers. Al-Jahiz’s book overflows with letters, testimony, stories, tales, quotes, anecdotes, and glossaries about misers. Just three sentences from al-Jahiz’s book offer much more meaning than subsequent writing about misers has been able to provide.

Al-Jahiz’s book begins with a letter to his unnamed patron. Within that letter, al-Jahiz recounts at length his patron’s request for a book on misers. Among the patron’s many, detailed questions about misers were these:

What is going on in the miser’s mind when he notices other persons’ shortcomings when they entertain him to a meal, but doesn’t perceive his own when entertaining them, even though his own shortcomings are blatantly evident and those of the person entertaining him are not openly apparent? Why is this sort of miser lavish with any amount of gold or silver while stingy with a few bits of bread, even though well aware that what he has kept back is paltry beside what he has so lavishly dispensed? If he should want to get in return a mere fraction of what he has spent so liberally, which was many times over that with which he was so stingy, the return, a mere trifle, would flow into his hands. [1]

The bread miser who is generous with money is aware of the net material benefits of being generous with bread. But he’s unable to act based on his awareness. Speaking on behalf of the miser, the patron generously presents his questions to al-Jahiz, or at least so recounts al-Jahiz in the lengthy space he gives over to his patron’s words.[2] In al-Jahiz’s work, what it means to be a miser requires extensive, generous consideration.

Literary history has not been generous to al-Jahiz’s work on behalf of misers. The popular Arabic press has tended to tear off choice morsels from his work to feed to their audiences. Elite classical Arabic writers have also cut back on al-Jahiz’s meaning. About a millennium ago in a wisdom book for the ruler of Khwarezm, an eminent Arabic writer recorded:

Some early authority has said: “If there is anything that resembles being a deity, it is feeding people. How few are the princes that are characterized by this noble quality, and how numerous are those among them that are generous with large gifts but stingy with the least bit of food!” [3]

The base issue corresponds to that which the miser shared with al-Jahiz’s patron. Yet here, nothing more than the issue of inconsistent generosity is offered. The prince is merely instructed to be generous with food, especially if he is generous with large gifts.

Another eminent Arabic writer from about a millennium ago shifted focus from social prestige to personal psychology. An important man sought to host guests for dinner. The man, however, couldn’t cope psychologically with seeing and hearing his guests chewing his food. He confessed his unusual personal difficulty to a close friend. That friend suggested preparing food that guests could swallow without chewing. The man, grateful to his friend for this ingenious suggestion, prepared such food. The man then invited guests to his table:

the man sat in a room overlooking them so that he could watch how they ate. After a while, his friend with whom he was on intimate terms went up to see him and found him unconscious. So he waited until he regained his consciousness and then said to him: “How are you, Sir, and what hit you?” He said: “My friend, swallowing, by God, is harder on me than is chewing!” [4]

Even if one recognizes the social benefits of being generous, personal psychological difficulties can be a serious impediment to realizing those benefits. More generally, focus on self characterizes misers. This story of the man’s psychological problems has less rich and expansive meaning than the miser’s consciousness that al-Jahiz’s patron shared.

Literary stinginess is an acute problem today. Because readers don’t recognize the benefits of reading medieval Latin literature, they don’t read it. Readers grasp and hold Aesop within the genre of children’s literature. They dismiss men’s literature of sexed protest as being nothing more than anti-feminism and misogyny. We must recreate a culture of literary generosity like that exemplified in al-Jahiz’s book on misers.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more


[1] al-Jahiz, On Misers (al-Bukhalāʼ), from Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 3, adapted non-substantially for readability. For an alternate, similar translation, Hefter (2014) p. 195.

[2] For a thorough analysis of the introduction to On Misers, Hefter (2014) Ch. 4. Hefter presents the reader’s task as “discerning the author’s true intentions.” Id. p. 216, similarly, p. 217. That’s an overly possessive understanding of reading.

[3] al-Tha’ālibī, writing to Abu’l-Abbas Ma’mun ibn Ma’mun (Ma’mun II, reigned 1009-1017), in Adāb al-mulūk, from Arabic trans. Van Gelder  (2000) p. 8.

[4] al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (lived 1002 to 1071), in Bukhalāʼ, from Arabic trans. Malti-Douglas (1985) p. 132.

[image] Physician and an ill man. Detail from Arabic traslation of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 GC). Iraq (Baghdad), 1224. Calligrapher: Abdallah ibn al-Fadl. Item S1986.98, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Images available for non-commercial user via Open F|S.


Hefter, Thomas H. 2014. The reader in al-Jāḥiẓ: the epistolary rhetoric of an Arabic prose master. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 1985. Structures of avarice: the Bukhalāʼ in medieval Arabic literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Serjeant, R.B., trans. 1997. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. The book of misers: a translation of al-Bukhalāʼ. Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 2000. Of dishes and discourse: classical Arabic literary representations of food. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon.

funny monkey: Parmeniscus laughing at statue of Apollo’s mother

funny-looking monkey

I remember fondly, as a young boy, singing with my brothers at another brother’s birthday party:

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
You look like a monkey,
And you smell like one too!

None of us had studied classical Greek literature. Nonetheless, though the amazing influence of human culture, we had unconsciously absorbed the thinking of the ancient wise man Anacharsis the Scythian. What we had understood remains opaque to learned interpreters of Parmeniscus laughing at a statue of Apollo’s mother. That’s no mere matter of amusement. It indicates a fundamental failure in critical intellectual development.

Anacharsis the Scythian offered wisdom on human beings in relation to monkeys. About 2600 years ago, Anacharsis learned Greek, visited Athens, and befriended the eminent, progressive democratic legislator Solon. About 800 years later, Athenaeus recounted Anacharsis’s wisdom in discussion among learned banqueters:

I am certainly aware that when Anacharsis the Scythian was at a party and some comedians were introduced, he failed to laugh, whereas when a monkey was brought in, he laughed and said: “This creature is naturally funny — but a human being has to work at it!” [1]

Compared to other animals, monkeys and apes are relatively close to humans in an evolutionary biological sense. In the ninth century, an eminent Christian physician working in the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate was said to have an ape as his beloved friend. An Arabic story from perhaps a century later tells of a sailor having sex with a monkey and engendering a monkey-human hybrid. Nonetheless, most humans throughout history probably would regard monkeys as funny-looking relative to humans.

When it comes to dominant women, being funny-looking is irrelevant. Consider Parmeniscus of Metapontum. After receiving an oracle from the god Trophonius, Parmeniscus lost the ability to laugh. Perhaps Trophonius revealed to him the fundamental principle of communication economics or a similarly horrifying insight. Parmeniscus then consulted the priestess Pythia (the Delphic Oracle) about the situation. She said:

You ask me about soothing laughter, unsoothed one;
Mother at home will give it to you — honor her greatly. [2]

Parmeniscus thought that when he saw his mother, he would regain the ability to laugh and be soothed. Seeing his mother, however, didn’t help.

Confronting fundamental social structure, not meeting with his personal mother, enabled Parmeniscus to laugh. One day he entered a sanctuary of Apollo’s mother Leto. That sanctuary held a famous statue of her. As mother of the powerful god Apollo, son of Zeus, Leto held preeminent divine power:

But when he saw that it {the statue of Leto} was made of wood and ugly, he laughed spontaneously. He then recognized the meaning of Apollo’s oracle {Pythia’s oracle} and was cured of his malady. He then showed the goddess enormous honor. [3]

The Delphic Oracle, which knew everything, undoubtedly knew the genre of ugly mother jokes, e.g. “Yo mama is so ugly that she turned Medusa to stone!” The oracle’s message to Parmeniscus encompassed that humor within cosmic insight.[4] The divine mother that rules the world is ugly, yet powerful. The reality of the social order is laughable, but irresistible. Men must honor the ruling ugly woman.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 14.613d, from Greek trans. Olson (2010) p. 101.Yonge’s translation (1854) is available online at the excellent site Attalus.

[2] Semus, History of Delos, Book V, quoted in Athenaeus 14.614a-b, trans. Beard (2014) p. 175, adapted slightly. Beard’s translation is slightly more literal than Olson’s. According to Semus, Parmeniscus was from a distinguished family and very rich. For a detailed description of the oracle of Trophonius, see Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.39.3 – 9.40.2.

[3] Id., quoted in Athenaeus 14.614.c, trans. Olson (2010) pp. 103, 105. Leto’s sanctuary was on the island of Delos.

[4] Mainstream scholarship has interpreted the story of Parmeniscus with ponderous complexity, but without any sense of humor and without any understanding of men’s social position. Milanezi suggests that “monkeys’ attitudes resemble those of men.” She recounts Plato’s slanderous representation that Thersites, a strong, independent voice of men’s sexed protest, chose to be reincarnated with the soul of a monkey. Milanzi (2010) pp. 404, 406. Kindt abstractly discerns enlightened appreciation for the dominant order and ignores the implicit gender-political critique:

Parmeniscus’ laughter, we can suspect, changes in quality as it becomes self-reflective. It starts off as a naïve and unreflective response to the apparent crudeness of divine form. It turns into an astonished appreciation of the complexities of divine representation as Parmeniscus understands the meaning of the oracle.

Kindt (2010) p. 259. Beard archly responses, “I rather doubt it.” She then ponderously explains:

In Athenaeus’ account, what finally dispelled Parmeniscus’ inability to laugh was the sight of a statue that was, in his view, a very poor imitation of what it was pretending to be. This is, in other words, another example of how mimesis and, more specifically, the boundaries of successful imitation were linked to the production of laughter.

Beard (2014) pp. 175-6. Distinctively masculine voices are unwelcomed, harassed, and suppressed in literary criticism. The resulting lack of understanding is deplorable.

[image] A bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) sitting on a rock. Thanks to Augustus Binu and Wikimedia Commons.


Beard, Mary. 2014. Laughter in ancient Rome: on joking, tickling, and cracking up. Sather classical lectures, v. 71. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kindt, Julia. 2010. “Parmeniscus’ Journey: Tracing Religious Visuality in Word and Wood.” Classical Philology. 105 (3): 252-264.

Milanezi, Silvia. 2000. “Laughter as Dessert: On Athenaeus’ Book Fourteen, 613-616.” Ch. 29 (pp. 400-12) in Braund, David, and John Wilkins, eds. Athenaeus and his world: reading Greek culture in the Roman Empire. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Olson, S. Douglas, ed. and trans. 2010. Athenaeus of Naucratis. The Learned Lanqueters. Vol. VII. Loeb Classical Library 345. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

al-Jahiz’s misers offer rich framework for reading Athenaeus’s banqueters

Ewer, made in Abbasid Basra, probably 9th-10th century

Writing in ninth-century Baghdad, the acclaimed Arabic prose writer al-Jahiz pondered the rich Arabic and Islamic literary heritage within the urban, cosmopolitan capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. Athenaeus, an Egyptian writing in Greek about 200 GC, similarly addressed the rich heritage of Greek culture within the Roman Empire, including lands that later came under Islamic rule.[1] Should cultural heritage be preserved, guarded, and solemnly displayed? Should it be casually bandied about and freely shared with others for elite status-seeking and amusement?Al-Jahiz’s On Misers offers a rich literary framework for reading Athenaeus’s Learned Banqueters.[2]

Capaneus was not like the man the noble Chrysippus depicts in his On Things Not To Be Chosen for Their Own Sake, where he says the following: Some people descend so far into miserliness that tales are told of how at the end of his life one man swallowed a large number of gold coins and died, while another sewed his money up into a tunic, put it on, and told his family to bury him just as he was, without burning his corpse or preparing it for the grave. Because these men and others like them all but shout when they die:

O gold, the item mortals are happiest to receive!
Neither a mother nor children in one’s house
nor a beloved father provides the sort of pleasure
that you and those who have you in their houses do.
If Cypris casts golden glances with her eyes,
it’s no wonder she’s attended by countless gods of love.

This is how greedy people were in those days. Anacharsis referred to their greed when someone asked him “What do the Greeks use money for?”, and he said: “They count it.” [3]

Scholars in recent decades have been exploring the overall literary qualities of Athenaeus’s Learned Banqueters. Athenaeus presents a symposium with two unusual features:

  1. continual focus on food, wine and sympotic practice
  2. dialogue packed with explicitly cited, direct quotations of ancient Greek literary works [4]

Athenaeus revels in contraries and paradoxes expressed concretely in material-textual artifacts.[5] His Book 13 explicitly addresses “matters relating to love.” The learned host starts with praise of wives and invective against courtesans. Then Leonidas, with all the fierceness of a grammarian, responds with invective against wives and praise of courtesans. After an interluding encomium of eros, another grammarian inveighs against philosophers and pederasty. Philosophers typically discuss love in high abstractions. In Athenaeus’s dinner symposium, love is primarily a matter of carnal relations presented in contrary positions.

Readers of al-Jahiz have long appreciated literary genius like that of Athenaeus’s Learned Banqueters. A ninth-century Arabic reader of al-Jahiz complained that al-Jahiz would “defend in turn a case and its opposite.” He would engage in “enhancing little things so that they become great, and belittling great things so that they become mean.”[6] In On Misers, al-Jahiz describes with sophisticated distancing intellectual practice like those of Greek sophists:

You asked me too about al-Jahjāh’s reason for approving of falsehood in places and denouncing truth in places, raising falsehood to the level of truth, and abasing truth to the place of falsehood. You asked me about his reason for asserting that people treat falsehood unjustly in pretending to forget its virtues while keeping its defects in mind. You further asked about his asserting that people evince partiality for truth through calling its benefits to mind, pretending to forget its harmful properties, averring that were they to weigh the conveniences of one against the other, they would certainly not discriminate between them in this manner, nor regard them with those eyes. [7]

This sophisticated distancing in describing sophistic practices exemplifies subtle literary strategies that al-Jahiz deploys more generally:

{al-Jahiz} disappears behind characters to whom he ascribes opinions, within a context of disputation and controversy. He is present and absent, distributing opinions to the representatives of this or that position, and withholding his own viewpoint. He does not arbitrate or offer the final word. Even when he speaks in the first person, in his own name, his opinion takes no precedence over others’ because it also aligns with the opposite views. He is a writer who for the most part appears to be without location.

By the same token, one point deserves full scrutiny, but I will only mention it here: al-Jahiz is unable to compose a book! This judgment may appear silly and counterfactual. Does he not have hundreds of works to his name? Yet he did not regard them as books, in the full sense of the word, and he often apologizes for his inability to compose a book, with what that requires of structuring, division into chapters, development of an argument, and organization. There is plenty of evidence to support that, including his rapid and unexpected shifts of topics and direction, his mixing of the serious and the humorous, and his constant address to the reader. In talking about his books, he sometimes gives the impression that he considers his digressions to be a defect, for he justifies them by his desire not to bore the reader. [8]

Scholars have debated whether al-Jahiz’s On Misers is an monograph or anthology — whether it was meant to be read cover-to-cover or consulted as a reference work.[9] The form of On Misers easily prompts the latter view:

The Book of Misers {On Misers} is a huge banquet where people from all walks of life rub elbows: spendthrifts, misers, governors, parasites, gluttons, philologists, and theologians. The most varied dishes are served there. Let us reiterate that most of the scenes in the book concern cooking, nutrition, and intimate or ceremonial meals. The very diversity of dishes presented to guests is proportionate to the variety of subjects treated by al-Jahiz. Everything has been arranged in order to satisfy the reader’s appetite: “In this book you will find three things: original arguments, subtle ruses, and amusing anecdotes. You will soon discover that, if the serious matters aggravate you, there is no shortage of things to make you laugh and amuse you.” [10]

Though far from easy, the most fruitful reading of On Misers treats it as a unified literary work. Athenaeus’s Learned Banqueters is also best read as a unified literary work. Both works offer serious arguments, subtle ruses, and amusing anecdotes that are best interpreted metaphorically in relation to major cultural and literary concerns of their times.[11]

Literary reading of Athenaeus is far less developed than literary reading of al-Jahiz. The currently leading literary treatment of Athenaenus forthrightly acknowledges problems:

The text of the Deipnosophists {Learned Banqueters} presents serious problems to readers. … A speech might consist of, for example, an annotated, alphabetical catalogue of cups (Book 11) or fish (Book 7) that runs for scores of our modern pages. Furthermore, the characters speak mostly in fully cited quotations from the literature of the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, literature which was to them as it is to us, ancient and very often strange. Speeches that have a point to make do not make an obvious, expected argument. The quotations speakers use to illustrate their points do not actually seem on the surface to illustrate them, and speakers often respond to each other by talking at cross purposes. All of these factors make Athenaeus’ text exceedingly difficult to
read and understand. A reader, therefore, stands in need of help. [12]

More than a millennia of reading of al-Jahiz and the body of Arabic literature that he influenced can provide help.

Al-Jahiz’s literary weave of hard-working, absurdly rational misers and their profligately generous, status-grubbing counterparts provides a useful literary model for understanding of Ulpian, Cynulcus and the broad literary concerns of Athenaeus. In attacking Ulpian, Cynulcus invokes today’s caricature of philologists, but includes irony and signs pointing to metaphorical meaning:

Glutton! Worshipper of your own belly! That’s all you know how to do—not how to have a careful discussion, or recall historical events, or offer graceful words on occasion. Instead, you spend all your time asking “Is it attested {in the literary record} or is it not? Is the word used or is it not?” And you scratch away at whatever occurs to the rest of the group to discuss, collecting all the thorns,

just as amid urchin’s-foot and rough rest-harrow,

always wasting time and collecting none of the sweetest flowers. [13]

Ulpian shows much more interest in words than in food. Without respect to his personal pleasure or instrumental value to him, he metaphorically fills his belly with uses of words in the literary record of Greek culture. He is al-Jahiz’s hard-working, absurdly rational miser with respect to Greek literary culture. Cynulcus worships his belly in a different way:

Cynulcus shouted: We need bread {artos}—and I’m not referring to the king of the Messenians in Iapygia {Artos}, who is the subject of a treatise by Polemon! Thucydides also mentions him in Book VII, as does the comic poet Demetrius in his play entitled Sicily, as follows:

(A.) From there we took advantage of a south wind and crossed the sea to Italy, to the Messapians. Artos took us in and entertained us very well.

(B.) A lovely host was there large and shining!

This was not the moment for this Artos, then, but for the loaves invented by Demeter, called Mistress Grain and Abundance; for the Syracusans honor the goddess with these titles, as the same Polemon records in his On Morychus. And in Book I of his Response to Timaeus he reports that in Boeotian Scolus statues have been erected of Megalartos {Large Loaf of Bread} and Megalomazos {Large Barley-Cake}. Since loaves of bread were now being brought in, and a large quantity of food of various sorts along with them, he fixed his eyes on them and said:

How many traps wretched mortals set to catch loaves of bread!,

as Alexis puts it in his Into the Well. So let us have some discussion about bread. [14]

Cynculus’s demand for food signifies his concern for cultural hospitality and accommodation. Cynculus isn’t concerned for systematic accumulation and preservation of cultural knowledge. His sharing literary quotations with others indicates status-seeking and instrumental use of culture for material benefit and immediate pleasure. That’s the socially disreputable coloring of generosity in al-Jahiz’s On Misers.[15]

Hospitality and generosity are central values in Arabic and Islamic culture. Those values apply to culture as well as material goods. Yet cultural hospitality and generosity raises risks of corruption and dissipation. Given the Arabic literary record’s importance for interpreting the Qur’an, preserving, guarding, and displaying literary texts has a serious claim for social value. How to treat highly valued literary heritage was a dilemma in the Abbasid Caliphate.

The treasured heritage of Greek literature in the Roman Empire apparently implied a similar dilemma. Should one seek to be buried with Greek culture as an alternative to prevailing Roman practices in life and death? Greeks didn’t merely count their money. Yet in the Roman Empire, one might well question the wisdom of accumulating as much Greek culture as possible. One could tally Greek learning, but does it actually have use in ordinary life? [16]

“Boy! Pour the water, for food time is near. I appeal to you by God, do you see this water? How pure it is! Blue as the eye of the cat, clear as a crystal wand, drawn from the Euphrates, and it is used after standing for the night when it has become like the flame of a torch and translucent as a tear. The vital issue is not in the water carrier, but in the vessel. Nothing proves to you the purity of the vessel more correctly than the purity of the liquid.

Now this napkin, ask me its story. It is a fabric of Jurján and a production of Arraján. It fell to my lot and I bought it. My wife took a portion of it for pants and I made some of it into a napkin. Her pants took ten yards and I forcibly wrested this much from her hand, gave it to the embroiderer to make and embroider it as you see it. Then I brought it back from the market and stored it away in a box and preserved it for refined guests. The common Arabs have not defiled it with their hands, nor women with the corners of their eyes, for every precious thing has its day and every instrument its people.

Boy! The table! For the delay is great, and the bowls! For the discussion has been long, and the food! For words have been multiplied.” The slave brought the table. The merchant then turned it over,  sounded it with his fingers, and bit it with his teeth. He said, “May God enrich Baghdad, how excellent are her goods and skillful her artisans! By Heavens! Observe this table, look at the breadth of its surface, the lightness of its weight, the soundness of its timber and the beauty of its make.”

I said, “So that is the make, but when is the meal?” [17]

Misers, philologists, and earnest exhibitionists are readily disparaged as narrow-minded and boring. Yet cultural heritage, like money, can be squandered. Generosity and pleasure can become sharing, one after another, dishes of lentil soup or wheat gruel.[18]

pottery shard, probably from Abbasid Basra

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Athenaeus was from Naucratis in Egypt. Among Athenaeus’s deipnosophists, Plutarch was from Alexandria in Egypt, and Democritus, Galen, Rufus, and Daphnus were from cities in present-day Turkey: Nicomedia, Pergamum, Nicaea, and Daphnus, respectively. The host Larensis (probably Publius Livius Larensis) was from Moesia in the Balkans. Athenaeus’s Learned Banqueters seems to have been written between 193 and 197 GC. Braund (2000) p. 13.

[2] The leading study of banquets in classical Arabic literature states:

For all its riches, Arabic literary history has no Athenaeus with his stunning Deipnosophists or Plutarch with his Symposiaka, to mention the two most important works on food and conviviality. Not a few Arabic texts could be called, anachronistically, Rabelaisian in their celebration of eating and other bodily functions; yet there is no Arabic Rabelais. … The format of the banquet or symposium, known in famous Greek and Latin examples — Athenaeus, Plutarch, Macrobius — does not itself serve as a frame for material on banquets and food in Arabic, as far as I am aware.

Van Gelder (2000) pp. 6, 48. Al-Jahiz and Athenaeus connect meaningfully in their use of norms and practices of sharing food as a means for literary exploration of accumulating and sharing culture.

Food is deeply related to culture in human evolution: “our digestive systems have coevolved with culturally transmitted know-how related to food processing.” Use of stone tools for processing food probably goes back at least three million years in the human lineage. Use of fire in cooking appears to have developed along with with the genus Homo. Henrich (2015) pp. 66, 69. Here’s more on cultural success and cultural failure in an evolutionary perspective.

[3] Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae 4.159b-c, from Greek trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 2, pp. 261, 263. The quoted verse is from Euripides (from Danae according to Stobaeus). When quoting from Olson’s translation, I suppress his embedded references to modern editions of the quotations so as to improve the literary texture. Associating the pleasure of Aphrodite (Cypris) with being a miser is like the literary weave of al-Jahiz.

[4] Wilkins (2008), p. 132, highlights these two points.

[5] While Deipnosophistae is commonly treated as a compilation of Greek quotations, Athenaeus claims to be “producing something new”:

The novelty of which Athenaeus boasts arises from the paradoxical and unexpected connections among quotations.

Gorman & Gorman (2007) p. 40, drawing on ideas of Jacob. See Jacob (2013) Ch. 16.

[6] Ibn Qutaybah, Ta’wil Mukhtalaf al-Hadith 59-60, quoted and trans. in McKinney (2004) p. 193. Athenaeus calls Rome “the epitome of the world” and declares a pig’s uterus “a real metropolis.” On these figures, Jacobs (2013) Ch. 17, Paulas (2012) pp. 413-4.

[7] al-Jahiz, On Misers (al-Bukhalāʼ), from Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 4 (prefatory letter to patron), adapted non-substantially for readability. Toward the end of On Misers, al-Jahiz represents Ibn al-Taw’am advising his addressee:

Money does not last if not well looked after and if it is being constantly milked. So be wise to your affairs and to the fore in protecting your money, for he who protects his money is protecting the two noblest things — which are the faith and honour.

Trans. id. p. 169.

[8] Kilito (2008) pp. 36-7.

[9] Literary anthologies (adab anthologies) became popular in the Islamic world beginning in the ninth century:

A popular genre is the so-called adab-anthology or adab-encylopedia: a more or less thematically arranged compilation of bits of prose and poetry, with or without commentary or connecting texts between the quotations; in short, a kind of literary banquet.

Van Gelder (2000) p. 39. Id. describes the first anthology of this kind in the Islamic world as Ibn Qutayba’s ninth-century ‘Uyūn al-akhbār.

The World Digital Library’s online edition of On Misers declares: “Al-bukhala (The book of misers) is considered a scientific, literary, social, historical, and geographic encyclopedia.” A scholar of Arabic literature observed:

What poses a problem is its classification as monograph or anthology. Since in the Bukhalāʼ al-Gāhiz collected just texts about the single topic avarice, the work has been largely understood as a monograph about misers, although it is equally valid to argue that al-Gāhiz’ compilation of diverse materials — si’r, Qur’an, habar, and hadit — is an anthology about misers. The question of monograph versus anthology is important, because an answer implies already an assumption about the use to which written texts have been put by their medieval Arabic readers.

Riedel (2001) p. 208. Al-Jahiz had great influence on adab anthologies:

Al-Jāḥiẓ, who cannot of course be called a mere anthologist, wrote his seminal work al-Bukhalāʼ (‘The Misers’) which was used, directly or indirectly, by all later compilers

Van Gelder (2000), p. 47. Al-Jahiz uses “the persona of a detached collector of circulating materials” as a sophisticated literary strategy. Hefter (2014) p. 214, passim.

[10] Kilito (2014) p. 103. W. Marçais declared that On Misers has “une absence complète de composition” (a complete absence of literary structure). Cited with relevant discussion, Malti-Douglas (1985) p. 42. Jacobs in turn describes Athenaeus as displaying “erudite bulimia and frenzy of accumulation.” Jacob (2013) p. 112.

Diversification is a well-recognized economic tactic. Pliny the Younger described his authorial strategy of bundling different materials to appeal to different readers. Al-Jahiz used a well-established figure of adding spicy anecdotes to a work (“camels graze on some hamd {piquant plants} after having for a long time eaten the khulla”). Id. p. 104, n. 5.

[11] Paulas convincingly makes the case for a unified literary reading of Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae. He interprets that work to be “concerned with how to read texts” and as a “dramatization of acts of reading.” Paulas (2012) pp. 413, 428, 434. Hefter similarly interprets al-Jahiz’s On Misers. Hefter (2014), esp. pp. 182, 207.

[12] Paulas (2012) pp. 406-7.

[13] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 3.97d-e, trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 1, pp. pp. 529, 531.

[14] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 3.108f-109b, trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 2, pp. 13, 15. See similarly id. 6.270b. Understanding Ulpian to represent speaking and Cynculus, eating, eliminates much of the text’s literary sophistication:

Cynulcus also reminds us that Ulpian, in contrast, stands for acantho-logy, the collection of thorns—rough, workman-like reading that looks for answers to questions posed of a text. The joy of this type of reading is that of the hunt. For Ulpian, meaning is viewed as the answer to an answerable question: “Is it found in literature or not?” Cynulcus, in contrast, prefers easy, continuous reading, logoi that have kharis, smooth and beautiful accounts that partake of the variety of historia. With this understanding of Cynulcus’ side, we can move away from the current formulation of the debate between Ulpian and Cynulcus as being one of whether to eat or whether to talk. Their collision of opinion is fundamentally about neither of those two issues.

Paulas (2012) pp. 427-8; similarly, id. p. 415. The dramatization of reading that Paulas identifies seems to me to be more meaningfully related to the work’s particular cultural circumstances.

[15] Kilito (2014), Ch. 9, and Hefter (2014), Ch. 5, insightfully discuss al-Jahiz’s implicit appreciation for misers and criticism of generosity.

[16] The dinner-party host Larensis served as a Roman official. He was fluent in Latin as well as Greek. More generally, Athenaeus’s Learned Banqueters (Deipnosophistae) is “deeply engaged with contemporary and imperial society.” Braund (2000) p. 18. Other than Ulpian’s denunciation of using Latin words, the cultural context of the dinner party is harmonious:

nowhere in the Deipnosophistae is there any sign of significant conflict between Roman and Greek identities. … Throughout the work there is a warm accommodation between Greek and Roman, as should be expected in the patronage of ‘Asterpaeus’ {an ambidextrous Trojan-allied warrior whom the Greek hero Achilles slay}. … The Greeks are very much part of the empire.

Id. pp. 21-2. That harmonious surface seems to me to co-exist with more fundamental concern about the Greek cultural heritage in the second-century Roman empire.

[17] al-Hamadhāni, Maqamat 22 (The Maqama of the Madirah), from Arabic trans. Prendergast (1915), with my adaptations for readability.

[18] Parmeniscus recounted a Cynics’ banquet of solely lentil soup in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 4.156d-158f, trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 2, pp. 247-54. In On Misers, al-Jahiz describes Ahmad ibn Khalaf as “one of the delightful misers.” Ahmad fed his family wheat gruel (muthallathah):

It is most beneficial and expands a lot. It replaces the midday meal and fills the stomach, enabling it to dispense with dinner.

From Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 33.

[images] (1) Brass Ewer. Abbasid period, 9th-10th century, Basra. Freer Gallery of Art, F1945.13. (2) Pottery shard. Abbasid period, Iraq, most likely Basra. Freer Study Collection. FSC-P-4072. Gift of Mary Slusser in memory of Dorothy Shepherd Payer. Images available for non-commercial use via Open F|S. Thanks to Feer|Sackler Smithsonian Museums of Asian Art.


Braund, David. 2000. “Learning, Luxury and Empire: Athenaeus’ Roman Patron.” Ch. 1 (pp. 3-22) in David Braund and John Wilkins, eds. Athenaeus and his world: reading Greek culture in the Roman Empire. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Gorman, Robert J., and Vanessa B. Gorman. 2007. “The Tryphê of the Sybarites: A Historiographical Problem in Athenaeus.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 127: 38-60.

Hefter, Thomas H. 2014. The reader in al-Jāḥiẓ: the epistolary rhetoric of an Arabic prose master. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Henrich, Joseph. 2015. The secret of our success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jacob, Christian. 2013. The web of Athenaeus. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies. Revised English version of “Ateneo o il Dedalo delle Parole” (Athenaeus, or the Labyrinth of Words), introductory essay in Luciano Canfora and Christian Jacob, eds. 2001. Ateneo, I deipnosofisti, I dotti a banchetto. Roma: Salerno.

Kilito, Abdelfattah, via Wail S. Hassan, trans. 2008. Thou shalt not speak my language. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. First published in Arabic in 2002.

Kilito, Abdelfattah, via Eric Sellin, and Mbarek Sryfi, trans. 2014. Arabs and the art of storytelling: a strange familiarity. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 1985. Structures of avarice: the Bukhalāʼ in medieval Arabic literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

McKinney, Robert C. 2004. The case of rhyme versus reason: Ibn al-Rūmī and his poetics in context. Leiden: Brill.

Olson, S. Douglas ed. and trans. 2006-2012. Athenaeus of Naucratis. The learned banqueters {Deipnosophistae}. Loeb Classical Library vols. 204, 208, 224, 235, 274, 327, 345, 519. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. (review) (available online: Yonge’s 1854 translation)

Paulas, John. 2012. “How to Read Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists.” American Journal of Philology. 133 (3): 403-439.

Prendergast, W.J., ed. and trans 1915. The Maqámát of Badí ‘al-Zamán al-Hamadhání. London, Madras: Luzac & Co., S.P.C.K. Depository.

Riedel, Dagmar A. 2001. “Review of Abū ‘Uthmān ibn Bahr al-Jāhiz, The Book of Misers, trans. R. B. Serjeant.” Der Islam 78: 209-211.

Serjeant, R.B., trans. 1997. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. The book of misers: a translation of al-Bukhalāʼ. Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 2000. Of dishes and discourse: classical Arabic literary representations of food. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon.

Wilkins, John. 2008. “Athenaeus the Navigator.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 128: 132-152.

Bacchis gives necklace to Colophon so he could sleep with Plangon

Prominent women writers of the European Middle Ages had loving concern for men. So too did some women in ancient Greece. About 2350 years ago on the Greek island of Samos, a beautiful young woman named Bacchis showed that she had the inner beauty of generosity and sympathy for men.

Bacchis, beautiful inside and out

Bacchis, a courtesan, had as a lover a young man named Colophon. They had a torrid, wild love affair. Nonetheless, Colophon also fell in love with the extremely beautiful, notorious courtesan Plangon of Miletus.[1] Plangon first told Colophon that to have her he would have to give up Bacchis. But Colophon, like the big-hearted Ovid, sought to have more than one lover.

Plangon then concocted a scheme to pry Colophon from Bacchis. She told him that she would sleep with him only if he gave her a necklace that everyone knew belonged to Bacchis. She was trying to humiliate Bacchis and kindle her wrath against Colophon. Women are far superior to men in formulating such schemes.[2]

Lovesick for Plangon, Colophon urgently implored his girlfriend Bacchis for help. He explained everything to her. He put his life in her hands:

He was so besotted {with the courtesan Plangon} that he begged Bacchis not to let him die before her eyes. When she saw how desperate he was, she gave it {the necklace} to him. [3]

Bacchis deserves to be as famous as Abelard’s wonderful lover Heloise. Bacchis’s loving care and generosity toward Colophon marks her as being at the summit of womanhood.

The story of Bacchis, Colophon, and Plangon ends with poetic justice. Imagine this:

Plangon recognied Bacchis’s lack of jealousy and sent the necklace back to her, but still slept with the young man. After that, the women were friends and treated him as the lover of them both.

You may say that the author is a dreamer. But he’s not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join him, and then the world will live as one.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] McClure (2003), p. 192, dates Plangon of Miletus at 350-330 BGC. Plangon was also known as Pasiphile (“wide-loving”). Cf. Pasiphaë. Bacchis was from Samos. Samos was reputably the hometown of the transgressive thinker Aesop.

Id., Appendix III, provides a useful table of all the courtesans and prostitutes explicitly named in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, Bk. 13. But that table regrettably lacks information on customer service and customer satisfaction.

[2] Gynocentrism tends to repress recognition of this truth. Menetor in On Dedications reportedly wrote:

like a fig-tree among the rocks that feeds many ravens,
good-hearted Pasiphile {Plangon} who receives many strangers

Quoted in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 13.594d, from Greek trans. Olson (2010) p. 5. Plangon wasn’t initially good-hearted toward Colophon and Bacchis.

[3] Probably from Menetor, On Dedications, quoted in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 13.594b-c, trans. Olson (2010) p. 3. The subsequent quote is from id.

[image] The Birth of Venus. Oil painting. By Sandro Botticelli, 1483-85. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


McClure, Laura. 2003. Courtesans at table: gender and Greek literary culture in Athenaeus. New York: Routledge.

Olson, S. Douglas, ed. and trans. 2010. Athenaeus VII, the learned banqueters. Loeb Classical Library 345. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

al-Jahiz shows alternative to Ziolkowski’s magnanimity

In the opening acknowledgements to his seminal and magisterial critical edition of Solomon and Marcolf, eminent professor Jan Ziolkowski thanked numerous persons. Ziolkowski even went as far as to thank students:

The second group of those who merit appreciation is the audience of students, in both large lecture courses and small language classes at Harvard University, upon whom over the past decade I have inflicted draft translations of the Medieval Latin S&M. The glee that these readers have taken in both the subversive earthiness of Marcolf and the authoritative schoolishness of Solomon played no small part in my decision to complete the undoing of my reputation among my colleagues by publishing this project. [1]

Ziolkowski thus credited his intellectual daring and courage to his students. Moreover, Ziolkowski exonerated all who had helped him for any errors in his critical edition:

All of them are entitled to exculpation for any remaining errors and infelicities.

Monograph authors commonly conclude acknowledgments by accepting personal responsibility for any remaining errors. For a book that’s not much more than the author’s subjective interpretation of literature, that’s not much more than taking responsibility for one’s own thoughts.

Error in a critical edition is a much different beast. Consider:

est largior in dando: ist mult zu beczalen den man α. Mulier pinguis et grossa est larior in dando iussa: Cattus (Catta MN) piguis et grossa est tardior (tardus L) in murium captura LlMm; Nn has both versions. dando: danda C. iussa: fissa Gg; lacking in S. [2]

What if iussa actually isn’t lacking in S? Philologists swing battle axes over lesser offenses. How could anyone dare to accept responsibilities for all errors in a critical edition? After all, an author cannot be expected to verify personally all the factual grammatical etymological linguistic textual scribal details that go into a critical edition. Some mistakes may really be someone else’s fault!

The eminent ninth-century Arabic scholar and author al-Jahiz shows a much less magnanimous alternative to distributing credit for work and responsibility for errors. Al-Jahiz’s masterful On Misers begins with a formal address to the book’s anonymous patron. That address concludes with a disclaimer:

I have written down numerous tales for you, many with their author’s names attached, others with no attribution to their authors, either out of fear of them or out of respect for them. Had you not asked me for this book, I would certainly neither have gone to the trouble of writing it, nor exposed myself to ill treatment and retaliation. So if this book be reproached or have weaknesses, it’s your fault; but if there be success, it’s mine not yours! [3]

Later in his book, al-Jahiz declares:

If in this book you come across any solecism, words lacking grammatical inflection, or improper expression in my source, please realize that I have left them out on purpose. Applying the correct rules of grammar to those words would spoil the charm of our stories and blunt their edge. But I have retained the errors where I offer words of those misers with pretensions to intellectuality and words of such avaricious house scholars as Sahl ibn Harun and the likes of him. [4]

Al-Jahiz might appear to be rude, crude, and unlearned. But those who study his book closely recognize his literary genius. His book is On Misers. Misers is a topic plausibly related to the implied author’s lack of magnanimity toward others.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ziolkowski (2008) pp. ix-x. The subsequent quote is from id. Solomon and Marcolf should be required reading for all college students.

[2] Id. p. 251 (Textual Notes on Part 1, Prologue 14b). Here’s some relevant discussion (see in particular note [1]).

[3] al-Jahiz, On Misers (al-Bukhalāʼ), from Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 7, adapted non-substantially for readability. The proper transliteration of al-Jahiz is al-Jāḥiẓ. I use the former form because non-specialists are more likely to search using that form.

[4] al-Jahiz, On Misers, last paragraph before section on Ahmad ibn Khalaf, my adaption of the translation of Serjeant (1997) p. 32, with help from Colville (1999) p. 40. The manuscript witnesses to On Misers are sparse and full of errors. Serjeant generally provides a more exact scholarly translation, while Colville’s translation is generally more readable.

The translations of the above passage have some significant differences. Serjeant’s translation is:

If, in this book, you come across any solecism, or speech wanting in grammatical inflection, or an expression misapplied from its proper sense, you should know that I have left it out because grammatical inflection makes this kind (of story-telling) obnoxious and removes it from its own sphere, except when I retail some of the speech of those misers with pretensions to intellectuality and of such avaricious ulema as Sahl b. Hārūn and the likes of him.

Colville’s translation is:

If you come across any grammatical errors in this book, non-Arabic words or colloquial expressions, please realise that they have been left in on purpose. Applying the correct rules of grammar would spoil the charm of our stories and blunt their edge. The exception to this is when I quote from what pseudo-intellectual skinflints and cheapskate scholars, such as Sahl ibn Haroun, have to say.

The translation above is my attempt to provide a translation for readers with no knowledge of Arabic literature or culture. My translation is based on Serjeant’s and Colville’s translations, plus my sense of the meaning of the text given my understanding of how al-Jahiz writes. If the above translation is in error, everyone is responsible, but I am more responsible than all others.


Colville, Jim, trans. 1999. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. Avarice & the avaricious {Kitâb al-Bukhalāʼ}. London: Kegan Paul.

Serjeant, R.B., trans. 1997. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. The book of misers: a translation of al-Bukhalāʼ. Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Cato the Elder understood Pythionice’s public prominence

Ceres, Roman counterpart to Greek goddess Demeter

Anyone who doesn’t consider Eros the most important god
is either stupid, or lacks experience of what is good
and fails to realize who the most significant god for mortals is. [1]

In ancient Greece, the largest tomb monument on the Sacred Way into Athens didn’t belong to any of the great Athenian political leaders, who were all men. The largest tomb monument honored Pythionice. She was a beautiful prostitute who helped to realize the progressive, democratic welfare program of the wise law-maker Solon. Comparing the formal status of women and men has promoted the false cult of patriarchy. Women like Pythionice have always been the most powerful persons in urbanized human societies.

Pythionice was a pioneer of democratic welfare reform. Prostitutes throughout history have favored serving the men who would pay the most money for sex. Pythionice, however, burned with the democratic spirit kindled in fifth-century Athens. Herself a third-generation descendant of slaves and whores, she made herself “available to anyone who wanted her at a minimal price.”[2] She thus worked to reduce the most significant inequality in human societies.

Pythionice was honored in death beyond any man. Harpulus, an aristocrat who served as director general of the royal treasury for his childhood friend Alexander the Great, adored Pythionice. She was everything he wasn’t and could never be. He built great tombs for her in Athens and Babylon. A ancient historian complained to Alexander about Harpulus’s honoring of Pythionice:

neither he nor any other official has yet set up a marker at the burial spot of the men who died in Cilicia to secure your kingdom and the freedom of the Greeks … {yet Harpulus} had the audacity to construct a temple and a sanctuary in her honor, and to refer to the temple buildings and the altar as belonging to Pythionice Aphrodite, both ignoring the revenge the gods might take on him and doing his best to trample in the mud the honors due to you. [3]

Men conscripted into armies and dying fighting for their country matters little in public discourse relative to women’s voluntary, non-fatal sexual service. Men honor women as de facto the greatest gods.

Women rule as gods in mundane ways. Consider the ancient Greek courtesan Gnathaena:

Gnathaena was extremely witty and sophisticated in conversation, and composed a set of dinner regulations, which her lovers were required to follow when they visited her and her daughter, in imitation of the philosophers who put together similar documents. … This set of regulations was drafted to be equitable and to apply to everyone: 323 lines long. [4]

Highly detailed sex regulations currently being enacted at U.S. colleges and universities are much more extensive than Gnathaena’s regulations, but the spirit is the same. So is the attitude in enforcing them:

after all these dishes, {a slave} came carrying a large number
of testicles. The other women pretended not to notice them,
but the man-slaying Gnathaena laughed
and said, “What nice kidneys, by the beloved
Demeter!” And she grabbed two and gobbled them down [5]

The ancient Greek goddess Demeter was often known under the cult title Thesmophoros (“Bringer of Divine Law”).[6] The real threat of castration, obscured with ridicule, trivialization, and scholarly verbiage, serves to suppress men’s sexuality and keep men subordinate to women.

In Rome about 2200 years ago, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Wise) understood women’s rule. Cato quickly became a stock figure for the traditionalist — the white-knight woman server ridiculed for supporting enormous gender inequality in instructing children. Yet alongside his silly traditionalism, Cato had keen insight into women’s power:

He used to say that the man who struck his wife or child, laid violent hands on the holiest of holy things. Also that he thought it more praiseworthy to be a good husband than a good senator … Discoursing on the power of women, he said: “All other men rule their wives; we rule all other men, and our wives rule us.” [7]

Of course, rational, forward-looking men don’t get married. Moreover, one shouldn’t be too traditionalist, prudish, or idealistic to recognize that many women effectively work as prostitutes or courtesans (as do many men more metaphorically in their workplaces). Yet Cato with his wisdom recognized a subtle, fundamental truth: women rule. Liberation from ancient, oppressive structures of gynocentrism is the greatest social-justice challenge facing societies today.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Euripides (from Auge, according to Stobaeus), quoted in Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae 13.600d, from Greek trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 7, p. 33. I’ve adapted the translation to be non-sexist.

[2] Theopompus, Letter to Alexander, quoted in Athenaeus 13.595b, trans. id, p. 7. The subsequent quote is from id., 13.595b-c. Pythionice lived in Athens in the fourth or third century BGC. McClure (2003) p. 192. In addition to Athenaeus, the Greek historians Diodorus Siculus (first-century BGC) and Pausanias (second century GC) tell of Harpalus building a massive funerary monument for Pythionice. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (Bibliotheca historica) 17.108.5. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.37.5.

[3] The men who died fighting for Alexander’s empire in Cilicia fought in the battle of Issus (333 BGC).

[4] Athenaeus 13.585b-c, trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 6, p. 381. The text before the ellipsis is from the deipnosophist Myrtilus; the text after the ellipsis is quoted from Callimachus, Laws, third tablet.

[5] Philippides, Ananeosis (Rejuvenation), quoted in Athenaeus 9.384e-f, trans. Olson (2006-12) vol. 4, p. 281, 283, using the more literal “man-slaying” for Olson’s “bloodthirsty.” Gnathaena in ancient Greek means “Jaws.” McClure (2003) p. 89. Id. shows no awareness of the prevalence of violence against men, and no awareness that trivializing violence against men’s genitals is part of the structure of gender oppression.

[6] A tenth-century Greek scholion to Lucian, Dialogs of the Courtesans 2.1, declares:

Demeter is given the epithet “Lawgiver” for having set down customs, which is to say laws, under which men have to acquire and work for their food.

Rabe (1906) translation, quoted (with incorrect attribution) in O’Higgins (2003) p. 22. Women set the laws by which men work. The scholion further stated that the festival Thesmophoria “civilized the race of humans.” The gender-derogatory banality that women are necessary to civilize men became a key component of the late-twentieth-century celebration of men-oppressing courtly love. With respect to the Thesmophoria:

Only women took part, although it required the support — financial and otherwise — of the men in the community.

Id. p. 22. The Thesmophoria thus provided a forerunner of the gender structure of today’s child custody and child support laws in action.

[7] Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Cato the Elder 20.2, 8.2, from Greek trans. Bernodotte Perrin (1914), Loeb Classical Library, adapted non-substantially. Plutarch stated that this is wisdom that Cato translated into Latin from a Greek saying of Themistocles:

This, however, is a translation from the sayings of Themistocles. He, finding himself much under his son’s orders through the boy’s mother, said: “Wife, the Athenians rule the Greeks, I rule the Athenians, you rule me, and your son, you. Therefore let him make sparing use of that authority which makes him, child though he is, the most powerful of the Greeks.

Id. 8.3, modernized English. Themistocles jokingly referred to the child as the ultimate ruler. On the solicitousness of fathers toward their daughters, Hallett (1984) pp. 109-14. Cato more insightfully recognized that wives rule. Leading scholars today are beginning to recognize seriously that women rule.

Men’s sexed protest existed even in Cato’s time. Aulus Gellius reports:

Marcus Cato, when recommending the Voconian law, spoke as follows: “In the beginning, the woman brought you a great dowry. Then she holds back a large sum of money, which she does not entrust to the control of her husband, but lends it to her husband. Later, becoming angry with him, she orders a servus recepticius, or ‘ slave of her own,’ to hound him and demand the money.”

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 17.6.1, from Latin trans. John C. Rolfe (1927), Loeb Classical Library. Today, government agencies perform this role of servus recepticius.

[image] Roman goddess Ceres, counterpart to the Greek goddess Demeter.  Illumination on folio 8r of fifteenth-century French manuscript, Le Livre que fist Jehan Bocace, de Certalde, des Cleres et nobles femmes, lequel il envoya à Andrée des Alpes de Florence, contesse de Haulteville. ark:/12148/btv1b10515437z  Thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France.


Hallett, Judith P. 1984. Fathers and daughters in Roman society: women and the elite family. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

McClure, Laura. 2003. Courtesans at table: gender and Greek literary culture in Athenaeus. New York: Routledge.

O’Higgins, Laurie. 2003. Women and humor in classical Greece. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, S. Douglas ed. and trans. 2006-2012. Athenaeus of Naucratis. The learned banqueters {Deipnosophistae}. Loeb Classical Library vols. 204, 208, 224, 235, 274, 327, 345, 519. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Solon, wisdom, and men’s sexual welfare

ancient Greek legislator Solon studying book

The ancient Athenian legislator Solon (no relation to Solomon) is famous for his wisdom. Solon broadened political representation in Athens, provided debt relief for the enslaved poor, and limited the political power of women’s wailing.[1] Those are important democratic initiatives, particularly the third. But none of those initiatives are as important as addressing sexual inequality and promoting men’s sexual welfare. The crown jewel in Solon’s reputation for wisdom is his credit for founding public brothels serving all men at a fixed, affordable price.

Free sexual market competition produces enormous sexual welfare inequalities. An experiment on an online dating site showed that women received roughly a hundred times more messages than men did. Across five women and five men with profiles active for four months, the least attractive woman received about the same or more messages than all but one man. The two most attractive women each were sent roughly fifty times more messages than the most attractive man received.[2] Three men received in total only three messages from women across four months. In short, the free sexual market generates large sexual inequality, greatly disadvantages men relative to women, and leaves a large share of men sexually impoverished.

Solon reportedly was the first public official to establish publicly owned and operated brothels. A Greek poet writing probably early in the third century BGC praised Solon’s action:

You invented something for the use of all men, Solon. Because they say you were the first person to see this — a thing democratic and salutary, Zeus is my witness. Yes, it is fitting that I should say this, Solon. Seeing our city full of young men, seeing too that they had urges that couldn’t be controlled and that they they went their erring way in a direction that they should not, you purchased and stationed women in various quarters, and got them ready and gave everyone access to them. [3]

Men’s wrong direction was to impoverish themselves by giving private-enterprising women expensive gifts in the vain hope that the women would then have sex with them. One man in ancient Athens complained about Phryne:

I fell in love with Phryne … and even through I spent enormous amounts, whenever I visited, her door was locked. [4]

Solon established affordable, tariffed rates for the public prostitutes: one obol per session. The public sex workers worked with the efficiency and dedication that characterizes many public servants:

There isn’t a bit of prudishness or nonsense, nor does she snatch herself away, but straight to it, as you wish and in whatever way you wish. [5]

Public provision of goods and services tends to be associated with lack of options and inconvenience. That, however, wasn’t the case for prostitutes in ancient Athens:

A man can pick whichever one he likes —
thin, fat, round, tall, withered up,
young, old, middle-aged, ancient —
without setting up a ladder and entering the house secretly,
or getting in through a peep-hole beneath the roof,
or being carried in sneakily in a heap of bran. [6]

Public sex services in Athens were more convenient than private alternatives. Honoring and celebrating the great benefits of the public prostitution service to Athens, Solon established a temple of Aphrodite Pandemos – the goddess of love belonging to all the people.[7]

Free sexual market competition generates large sexual welfare inequalities. Almost all men are sexually disadvantaged relative to women. Today’s democracies should recognize the wisdom of the ancient Athenian legislator Solon by establishing public prostitution services. Sex is too important to be left to free market competition. Public provision of prostitution can ensure that sex is available to all equitably and affordably. In a truly just and democratic society, such policy would be a worthy complement to compensating men for their erection labor.[8]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Plutarch wrote a detailed biography of Solon about the year 100 GC. Here’s a modern biography of Solon.

[2] The figures above refer to results after four months of activity. In computing the sex ratios, one must recognized that the top two women’s figures are greatly under-reported:

The two most attractive women probably would have received several thousand more if their inboxes hadn’t have reached maximum capacity.

See Jon Millward’s post. That suggests that the top two women were sent about four thousand messages in four months. The top man in the period received only 38 messages.

[3] Philemon, Brothers, fragment quoted in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 13.569d, trans. from Greek adapted from Olson (2010) p. 301 and Rosenzweig (2004) p. 17. The original Greek text was in verse.

[4] Timocles, Neaera, quoted in Athenaeus 13.567e, trans. Olson (2010) pp. 289, 291. Anaxilas states in Neottis:

And isn’t Phryne behaving just like Charybdis,
by grabbing the ship-owner and gulping him down, boat and all?

Athenaeus 13.558c, trans. id. p. 239.

[5] Philemon, Brothers, fragment quoted in Athenaeus, 13.569d trans. Rosenzweig (2004) p. 17. The courtesan Clepsydra reportedly regulated her sessions meticulously:

she had sex with a water-clock (klepsudra) running, and stopped once it was empty

Athenaeus 13.567d, citing Asclepiades, son of Areius, in On Demetrius of Phaleron. From Greek trans. Olson (2010) p. 289. Publicly provided brothels probably provided similarly well-regulated service.

[6] Xenarchus, The Pentathlete, quoted in Athenaeus, 13.569b, from Greek trans. Olson (2010) p. 299.

[7] Athenaeus 13.569d states that Nicander of Colophon in History of Colophon, Book 3, provides the information about Solon’s founding of the temple of Aphrodite Pandemos.

[8] Lacking appreciation for law and comedy, a learned scholar declared in a scholarly article:

May we finally declare Solon innocent of founding public brothels in Athens? This charge was stated as fact by a distinguished historian a quarter-century ago. The hoary old canard has just been repeated in a Greek history textbook written by the same author and three additional well-known scholars and therefore has the potential to mislead a whole generation of young students who consider Oxford University Press publications authoritative. In fact, almost the only reference to Solon and public brothels in all extant ancient literature is a passage in Philemon’s Adelphoi. Philemon was a famous playwright of New Comedy. … He might indeed have died from laughing too hard had he known serious scholars were going to base a Solonian law on his play.

Frost (2002) p. 34. Frost argues against Solon founding public brothels with little more than an earnest claim of improbability:

As improbable as laws regulating male sexual activity may be, so much more incredible would be Solonian laws about prostitutes in the early sixth century

Id. p. 41. Consider some factual legal farces today: men are forced to pay “child support” to women who raped them and bore a child from that crime. Men’s sexual activity is severely regulating, and has long been severely regulated. Today men aren’t permitted to have consensual sex of reproductive type for pleasure, free of ensuing legal obligations, even if they sign a contract to that effect. Men in U.S. colleges and universities today face draconian sex regulations far beyond anything Draco would have imagined. Based on fact-based understanding of law and comedy, Solon founding public brothels is not improbable.

[image] Solon reading a book. Woodcut print from Liber Chronicarum (Book of Chronicles / Nuremberg Chronicles), printed in Nuremberg in 1493. Detail from folio 59r in University of Cambridge Library, classmark Inc.0.A.7.2[888]. Thanks to University of Cambridge Digital Library.


Frost, Frank. 2002. “Solon Pornoboskos and Aphrodite Pandemos.” Syllecta Classica. 13 (1): 34-46.

Olson, S. Douglas, ed. and trans. 2010. Athenaeus VI, the learned banqueters. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Rosenzweig, Rachel. 2004. Worshipping Aphrodite: art and cult in classical Athens. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.