Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2021
We shall never be able to write a reliable history of the dinner-table conversation of archaic and classical Greece. There was no vehicle that might accurately record conversation in prose. We can, however, get tantalisingly near to ancient table-talk by a number of routes. We can attempt access by way of Platonic dialogue, above all the Symposium, or by way of the works of Xenophon, along which it is again his Symposium that is richest. But from the start we must suspect that there is a distortion in the attitudes and utterances of the character whom these works attempt to heroise (i.e. Socrates), and that this distortion must affect the discourse of other characters too. A different route is offered by other genres in which a narrative or mimetic account is given of a δεῖπνον, ‘banquet’, or συμπόσιον, ‘symposium’. Such narrative accounts, spread over a long chronological span, are found in epic, history, pastoral poetry, epistles and the novel; mimetic representations are to be found in comedy. But again we must remember the stylisation that results from the genre and the distortion that may follow from the author’s purpose.