Persians and Medes: Herakleides of Kyme, Klearchos of Soloi, and others on royal banquets (fourth century BCE)

Authors: Herakleides of Kyme (= FGrHist 689), Xenophon of Athens, Klearchos of Soloi, and others as cited by Athenaios of Naukratis, Sophists at Dinner 4.145-146 and 12.513-515 (link to Greek text and full translation)

Comments: With the aim of critiquing “luxury,” Athenaios (second century CE) draws on a variety of Greek ethnographic sources (most lost, except Xenophon) regarding the banqueting and other customs of Persian and Median royalty. Herakleides’ Persian Matters (now lost with the exception of quotations like these ones) was likely written in the mid-fourth century BCE and Klearchos (or: Clearchus) was a peripatetic philosopher dating to the fourth and early third centuries BCE. Chares of Mytilene was associated with the court of Alexander of Macedon in the late fourth century BCE.

Source of the translation: C.B. Gulick, Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists, volumes 2 and 5, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928 and1933), public domain (copyright expired), adapted by Harland.

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Book 4

[145] Herakleides of Kyme, author of Persian Matters writes, in the second book entitled “Equipment”:

“All who attend upon the Persian kings when they dine first bathe themselves and then serve in white clothes. They spend nearly half the day on preparations for the dinner. Of those who are invited to eat with the king, some dine outdoors, in full sight of anyone who wishes to look on. others dine indoors in the king’s company. Yet even these do not eat in his presence, for there are two rooms opposite each other, in one of which the king has his meal, in the other his invited guests. The king can see them through the curtain at the door, but they cannot see him. Sometimes, however, on the occasion of a public holiday, all dine in a single room with the king, in the great hall. Whenever the king commands for a meal (symposion)​ to take place (which he does often), he has about a dozen companions at the drinking. When they have finished dinner, that is, the king by himself, the guests in the other room, these fellow-drinkers are summoned by one of the eunuchs. After entering, they drink with him, though even they do not have the same wine. Moreover, they sit on the floor while he reclines on a couch supported by feet of gold. They depart after having drunk to excess. In most cases the king breakfasts and dines alone, but sometimes his wife and some of his sons dine with him. throughout the dinner his concubines sing and play the lyre. one of them is the soloist, the others sing in chorus.”

Herakleides continues:

“So the ‘king’s dinner,’ as it is called, will appear prodigal to one who merely hears about it, but when one examines it carefully it will be found to have been done with economy and even with extreme care about expense. The same is true of the dinners among other Persians in high station. For one thousand animals are slaughtered daily for the king. these comprise horses, camels, oxen, asses, deer, and most of the smaller animals. many birds also are consumed, including Arabian ostriches – and the creature is large – geese, and cocks. of all these only moderate portions are served to each of the king’s guests, and each of them may carry home whatever he leaves untouched at the meal. But the greater part of these meats and other foods are taken out into the courtyard for the body-guard and light-armed troopers maintained by the king. there they divide all the half-eaten6 remnants of meat and bread and share them in equal portions. Just as hired soldiers in Greece receive their wages in money, so these men receive food from the king in requital for services. Similarly among other Persians of high rank, all the food is served on the table at one and the same time. but when their guests have done eating, whatever is left from the table, consisting chiefly of meat and bread, is given by the officer in charge of the table to each of the slaves. this they take and so obtain their daily food. [146] Hence the most highly honoured of the king’s guests go to court only for breakfast. for they beg to be excused in order that they may not be required to go twice, but may be able to entertain their own guests.”

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book 12

[513-515] The first men in history to become notorious for luxurious living were the Persians, whose kings wintered in Susa and summered in Ekbatana. (Now Susa was called this, according to Aristoboulos and Chares, because of the beauty of its situation. For suson is what in Greek would be called krinon or lily). In Persepolis they spend the autumn, and in Babylon the remaining portion of the year. So also the Parthian kings live in springtime at Rhagai, but they winter at Babylon, and pass the rest of the year in Hekatompylos. The very badge of rank which the Persian kings placed on their heads certainly was not calculated to hide their indulgence in luxury. For, as Dinon says: “It was made of myrrh and what is called labyzos. The labyzos is fragrant, and more costly than myrrh. Whenever the king descended from his chariot, Dinon says, he never leaped down, although the distance to the ground was short, nor did he lean on anyone’s arms. Rather, a golden stool was always set in place for him, and he descended by stepping on this. The king’s stool-bearer attended him for this purpose.” “ And so three hundred women watch over him,”

[514] Herakleides of Kyme records in the first book of Persian Matters:

“And so three hundred women watch over him, , , These sleep throughout the day in order to stay awake at night, but at night they sing and play on harps continually while the lamps burn. The king takes his pleasure of them as concubines. . . through the court of the Apple-bearers. These formed his bodyguard. All of them were Persians by birth, having on the butts of their spears golden apples and numbering a thousand, selected because of their rank from the 10,000 Persians who are called the Immortals. Through their court also the king would go on foot with Sardis carpets spread on the ground, on which carpets no one else but the king ever walked. When he reached the last court he would mount his chariot, or sometimes his horse. But he was never seen on foot outside the palace. Even when he went hunting his concubines went out with him. The throne on which he sat in transacting business was of gold, and round it stood four short posts of gold studded with jewels, and on them was stretched an embroidered cloth of purple.”

Speaking of the luxury of the Medes and saying that because of it they had made eunuchs of many neighbouring tribes, Klearchos of Soloi (in the fourth book of his Lives) proceeds to add that the practice of “apple-bearing” was taken over by the Persians from the Medes not only in revenge for what they had suffered, but also as a reminder of what depths of degradation the luxury of the bodyguards had reached. For their immoderate and at the same time senseless luxury of life, it is plain, can turn even men armed with lances into beggars.

Going on, Klearchos writes:

“to those, at any rate, who supplied him with any delicacy he gave prizes for the invention. Yet, when he served these delicacies, he did not sweeten them by bestowing special honours, but preferred to enjoy them all alone, showing his sense. This, I think, is in fact the proverbial, ‘A morsel for Zeus’ and at the same time for the king.”

Chares of Mytilene in the fifth book of his History of Alexander says:

“The Persian kings reached such a pitch of luxury that near the royal bed, beyond the head of it, was a chamber large enough to contain five couches. In the chamber were stored 5000 talents of gold coin filling the whole, and it was called the ‘royal cushion.’ At the foot was a second, three-couch chamber, containing 3000 talents in silver money, and called the royal footstool. In the bed-chamber a golden vine, jewel-studded, extended over the bed.”

Now in his Itinerary Amyntas says that this vine had clusters composed of the costliest jewels. Not far from it was set up a golden mixing-bowl, the work of Theodorus of Samos. Agathokles, in the third book of his work On Cyzicus, says that in Persia there is also water called “golden.” This water consists of seventy bubbling pools, and none may drink of it except only the king and his eldest son. If anyone else drinks it, the penalty is death.

Xenophon, in the eighth book of The Education of Cyrus, says:

“In those days they still retained the discipline derived from the Persians and the Medes’ luxury in dress. But today, while they allow the sturdiness derived from the Persians to pass into extinction, they preserve the effeminacy of the Medes. I wish now to explain the extent of their self-indulgence. In the first place, they are no longer content with having their couches merely covered with soft mattresses, but they proceed to set the feet of the beds on carpets in order that the hard floor may not offer resistance, and that the carpets may give a yielding effect. What is more, not only have none of the things cooked for the table which were invented in earlier times been taken from them, but they also constantly devise other novelties besides. The same is true also of fancy dishes. For they possess slaves who are inventive in both these branches. Again, in the winter season they are not satisfied with having heads, bodies, and feet protected, but they also cover the extremities of their hands with thick gloves and finger-sheaths. In summer, too, the shade of trees or rocks does not suffice them, but even here slaves stood close to them, in this way providing a new kind of sun-shade.”

In succeeding paragraphs Xenophon also says about them:

“But today they have more coverings on their horses than on their couches. For they do not care much for horsemanship as for having a soft mount. Even the door-keepers, the bakers, the cooks, the wine-pourers, the waiters who serve at table and remove the dishes, the servants who put them to bed and wake them up, and the beauty-specialists who paint their eyes for them and rub them with cosmetics and do other things to put them into proper shape . . .” [Athenaios does not complete the citation].

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