From a reading of Athenaeus

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From a reading of Athenaeus
by Thomas Browne

Source: British Museum Sloane MS no. 1827. Collected works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Simon Wilkin Fletcher and Sons, 1835–6, Norwich.

Would that a little part survived of the writers from whom Athenaeus quotes, scattered here and there, notable, startling or amusing sayings, and whets the appetite of his eager reader. Who that reads the Parodist of Matro does not blame time for being no respecter of persons? Who will not desire a milder wearing away of time in the lost books of Antiphanes, Antigonus, Alexis and the others? so that sometimes we might reach the sharp wit of the Greeks, sometimes might see the bare Latin horn, now covered with Greek patches, which time will never lay bare. Lucian could tell best what justice there may be in this matter between Greeks and Latins in the next world, but since this is the will of fate and no few of the better works are given to oblivion, we may wish for more Athenaeuses, more Greek Plinies. We forgive the Mantuan Homer his rich gift of translation, for to him alone we owe the Sibylline oracle; I could wish he had translated more and better. Would that under any name some little part had survived of those books of Aristotle, which I read and reread hopelessly in Laertes’ catalogue. The greatest of men is said to have written some poetry, which I for sure would not be sorry to exchange for Cicero’s verse.

Ulpian, that man of miscellaneous learning, was called Keitoukeitos by the Deipnosophist since he reports of single words keitai e ou keitai – ‘they occurred or not’ in a certain writer; this free reproach is safely conceded to the Greeks, to whom nothing is denied. The same is almost allowed to the early Latin school. For their older writers freely used Greek in composing and forming words and did not think it barbarous to primitive to use the words most apt to the sense. The copious Plautus was praised at Rome for saying ‘blow-bearers’ and ‘iron-wearers’. Now shut in a Nizolian prison the Latin herd dares nothing new save by roundabout ways and coldly paraphrases in fear of foreign forms. Meanwhile Scaliger the prince of scholars renders the corrupt verses of Hegesander of Delphi in Lucilian style; and you may still see many of the most accomplished using both tongues.

I certainly should not want anyone to chase after archaisms and gather new or renovated words in his vocabulary; but while there are fewer words than objects and no author possesses them all, we are unnecessarily shut in to the very short period of classical Latin and restricted by the unfair law of one writer or the narrow limits of a brief age. Many words occur in authors outside the classic period which satisfy eager discernment and fill the corners of the mind. I seize on some in Sidonius, Apuleius etc. which I miss in the greatest of orators.

Athanaeus called Laurentius ‘lightning wielder’ or ambidextrous since he was skilled in Latin and Greek. A two-tongued man was a wonder to Galen, indeed a man skilful in two languages was a marvel. Yet many barbarians were linguists. How many languages had the King of Pontus who employed a man that spoke twenty? Or the famous Queen of Egypt, as many-tongued as the mouths of her river? Among the Jews besides Philo and Josephus who wrote in Attic Greek, the Seventy Elders were most skilled in Greek, and before the time of the Greek Empire the Hebrew priests expounded the prophecy of Daniel to Alexander the Great. And certainly a knowledge of Greek must be admitted in a Jew, if the Stagirite, as is said, obtained some of the secrets of philosophy from Clearchus the Jew.

Yet the Greeks themselves spoke Greek even at Rome, which is remarkable in Galen and Plutarch who, while he treated widely of Roman subjects, had hardly more ability in Latin than perhaps Philo (Judaeus) had in Hebrew, while if Philo of Byblus had not known Phoenician the noble memorial of Sanchoniathon would have been lost in oblivion.

At the same time the Romans studied Greek wonderfully, even while they seduced Greece. The most graceful of poets must be praised for writing a few words of Phoenician. Whence I wish that Herodotus too, so learned in Egyptian matters, had recorded inscriptions and memorials in Egyptian as will as Greek, to form our opinion on the relation of the language of Canaan to Hebrew. For with his help the three words of Egyptian preserved in Holy Writ would not have exercised linguists so tiresomely.

But I fear that many words are corrupted when they are translated by Latin authors and like Anchialus in Martial not a few eastern words are altered. This is common with the Greeks too: sometimes the Celtic and Phoenician words in Dioscorides need a Delian swimmer. The early writer Chaerilus so paraphrases Hebrew that he leaves it in doubt whether he thought it Syriac or Arabic, Hellanicus and the earlier Greeks who from reading or translation had some knowledge of Hebrew matters before the Ptolemaic period, changed so many words and sounds that they need inebriated deciphering, as it is no wonder they could be deceived as to the Spartans drawing their origin from Abraham, in the letter of Maccabaeus to the Jews. Linguistic ability is worthy of honour; but the man who thoroughly knows Greek alone is equal to the man of many tongues. Scholars need not fear that a man may fail in critical power from knowing only a single language. Consider Galen the prince of critics with only one language, or Plato’s details in the Cratylus.

The learned count two and seventy tongues from the confusion of Babel. I wish that number had not been exceeded in the new world alone. The millennium brings back Babel to the nations, so that our forebears appear barbarians to us and we ourselves shall be Scythians to our descendants.

Pleasant is that custom of entertainment of Charmus of Syracuse, to attach amusingly suitable rhymes and mottoes to each dish at feasts. I am sure more amusing ones could have been attached than those which Athenaeus records. Mimes, fools, parasites, lute-girls are bearable and not inappropriate amusement for a drinking party. But that kind of mock murder, ‘the hanging game’, in which a horrible kind of malignant pleasure the ancients watched from the table with laughter and mockery while men were absurdly trussed up, is the summit of monstrous feasts. That was a custom suitable for Thracian feasts, it is beyond anything Scythian. I should have applied fire and the mockery of bees to these men after dinner so that they might suffer in absurdity themselves. The Emperor Nero deserved this kind of Thracian mockery, when he sang an epic lament over burning Rome, and mocked it in his thoughts though he dared not show it in his face. Indeed I prefer the hellish dinners and midnight feasts of Domitian to these barbarous banquets.

There is a most amusing story in Athenaeus about the boys in the inn at Agrigentum. They are so mad with drink that they think they are sailing in a ship tossed about by a wild storm. To lighten the ship they throw out all the carpets and crockery, call the police ‘mermen’, offer rewards for their rescue to those who reproach them, and do not even return to their senses when the onlookers take their things.

The impudent wantonness of the ancients placed sponges in the natural parts of women that by expanding they might produce a lewd and as it were haunching movement in the female, whence a keener lust is provoked in the male. In the elaborations of coition almost nothing has been untried, so that the indecent egg of Marcellus Empiricus is no marvel. Away with these foolish toys of lust; what Plato will bear to seat spurred jockeys on the winged horses of the mind! What coachman will apply nettles to mares mad for the stallion or advise hot bathing where Styx and Nonacris should be called in aid! Among the ancients mullets were forced into the bellies of gross fornicators, they were beaten with scorpions, pierced with radishes. Why not these, too, deserving of the radish and fit to be placed among the lustful who are enwound in rain and storm and whirlwind in the Florentine hell.

It is remarkable that with so many heads madness has a single face, so that I suppose all madmen have one simple madness. But those who quaff the unwilling wine, purge their follies; they who deal wrongly with Bacchus, take too little heed for the wrestler’s tricks, and drinking deeply, think not on the storms in the bottles.

That ship of Agrigentum is the world, and in it how few are not fools! Whose brain has God compounded so skilfully that it brings forth no madness? We drink in foolish appearances of things, we are fed on images, we go mad in earnest; and – this is worthy of Heracleitus – those who are crazy when young take no medicine when old. In vain we plead drunkenness or the poison of wine, wineless drink upsets the dry and there is drunkenness this side of wine. Men have dreams and most are sleepwalkers, awake they snore, and with their eyes open do what in sobriety would be blind madness. Through storms, tumults, and the gusty winds of error the play of life is acted, the race is run, in which like drunkards not without expense of fame, fortune, and life we perform jingling trifles with a great effort, and (the summit of misfortune) in the doubtful course of age we reach the end of life before the goal of virtue.

Let me speak in terms of sport: our life is a race to which we are summoned by lot from fate’s stable, set high or low in the car, and we drive our trace-horses badly. Often we crash before reaching the dolphins, we seldom pass the turning point, we mostly stop before the circuit-marks are finished, the course is hardly ever completed.

We pour into the theatre of life in a great rabble, there are not enough entrances, gangways, rows or sections for this silly show. From top to bottom of the theatre few are satisfied with their seats. The knights get into the senators’ seats, the populace into the knights’. No one takes notice of Lectius, hardly anyone considers Oceanus. From the ceiling to the floor everyone watched comic and savage acts with the same expression, few protest, more applaud. We ourselves in the end on the field of death repay in all seriousness the price of folly, mangled by disease, wounded in many darts, without the hope of release, we are dragged into the pit of hell.