Contrasting Banquets: A Literary Commonplace in Philo’s On the Contemplative Life and Other Greek and Roman Symposia



When Philo says in On the Contemplative Life what I cite herein, he locates his work securely in the literary tradition of Greek and Roman symposia. For as Athenaeus’s similar type of remark in the second quotation suggests, it became a commonplace in Greek and Roman literary symposia to contrast one’s own symposium or favored banquet practices with those of Others. In this paper I show first that “contrasting banquets” is a commonplace of the Greek and Roman literary tradition to which Philo’s description of the meals of the Therapeutae belongs. Then I show how Philo chooses not to use perhaps the defining characteristic of the Greek and Roman literary symposia per se, the dramatic dialogue format, which represents characters conversing over a meal. Finally, I show why Philo eschews the sympotic dialogue format in his account of the Therapeutae’symposia in On the Contemplative Life. He wishes to play down the conflicts, especially over competing ideas, for which the sympotic dialogue form is especially well suited. Instead, Philo idealizes the harmoniousness and unity of the Therapeutae community at their meals, in contrast to the discord and drunkenness characteristic of Others’ banquets.


Wild Boar Literary Tradition Dialogue Format Literary Convention Table Talk 
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  1. 5.
    Josef Martin, Symposion: Die Geschichte einer litearischen Form (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1988), “Deipnon,” RAC.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    See especially the discussion of Lucian’s technique of composition in Graham Anderson, Lucian: Theme and Variation in the Second Sophistic (Leiden: Brill, 1976). The remark Luke attributes to Jesus in Luke. 14:12–13: “When you are having guests for lunch or supper, do not invite your friends, your brothers, or other relations [suggeneis], or your rich neighbors; they will only ask you back again and so you will be repaid. But when you give a party, ask the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”— seems to be quite consistent with Athenaeus’s literary aesthetic for symposia, whatever other theological connotations it may also have. Suggeneis, metaphorically, can mean “of the same sort.” So while Luke may be making a dig at priest-like Pharisaic exclusivity by having Jesus recommend that Pharisees invite precisely those whom Biblical law excludes from participating in priestly activities—“the crippled, the lame, the blind”—could he also be suggesting that God likes a “good mix” of rich and poor, fit and unfit, family, and others at His banquet? Does the householder want his “house full” (Lk. 14:24) in the enigmatic conclusion to the parable of the Great Supper for aesthetic reasons, or theological ones, or some combination of the two?Google Scholar
  3. Since Marcella has so well embarked on this discussion without adequately finishing it, I think I must try to complete the argument. Now I think she has well explained the fact that man has made slow and gradual progress towards chastity under the impulse that God has given him from time to time. But her suggestion that from henceforth men are not to procreate children is not well stated. (Emphases mine). (Herbert Musurillo, ed. and trans. St. Methodius: The Symposium on Chastity, 38, 48–49 (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1958).,Google Scholar

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© Susan Marks and Hal Taussig 2014

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