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 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 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 rewarding 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 Arabic literary texts has a serious claim for social value. How to treat highly valued literary heritage was an important 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

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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] For discussion of al-Jahiz’s On Misers in relation to earlier Greek and Latin work, Malti-Douglas (1985) pp. 161-6. The Characters of Theophrastus, a Greek work written in 319 BGC, has been regarded as the genre closest to On Misers. The former includes character types of unconscionableness, penuriousness, and meanness. There’s no evidence that the Characters of Theophrastus was known in Arabic. Moreover, On Misers treats misers more broadly and dynamically than as a typed character. Id. pp. 164-5.

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 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”). Kilito (2014) 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. 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.

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