Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE) was one of those special ancient authors who not only wrote down for posterity the events of his time, but also recorded it in an absorbing way that pulls the reader into the atmosphere of daily life in his long-gone age. He did not simply discuss what the competing states were doing in his day, but also described in vivid detail the feelings and experiences of the people in these regions—the decadent lives of courtiers, the attitudes of common warriors, and the goings-on of civilians all fell into his scope. Xenophon’s insight into the different sections of society was greatly enlightened by his own colorful career. An Athenian scholar (who studied under Socrates), a landed aristocrat, and a mercenary captain who worked with royalty in Persia, Thrace and Sparta, Xenophon’s personal experiences gave his works incredible depth and life.
One such vivid scene of daily existence was Xenophon’s description of a feast hosted by Prince Seuthes of Thrace. The year was 399 BCE, and Seuthes had just hired the mercenary company to which Xenophon belonged. To celebrate their partnership, Seuthes invited the commanding officers of the mercenaries to a banquet with himself and his courtiers. In his Anabasis, which covered the mercenary company’s career from 401-399 BCE, Xenophon wrote down what he and his comrades saw as they joined the Thracians for the feast:
“The dinner guests included the most high-ranking of the Thracians who were there, the Greek generals and company commanders, and envoys from various communities. Once they had gone inside, they were seated for the meal in a circle, and then three-legged tables were brought in for everyone. There were about twenty of these tables and they were laden with slices of meat joined by skewers onto huge loaves of risen bread. For the most part, the tables were placed, according to Thracian custom, by each of the guests” (Anabasis, 7.3).
Along with the tables of food, the Thracian prince also provided each guest his own horn of wine, handed out by cup-bearers. The host also had on hand a band of musicians playing horns and trumpets, as well as some comedians or jesters, who were eventually given the stage in the course of the evening. When all the pieces of the banquet were in place, Xenophon watched with amusement as the Thracian prince started off the feast with an interesting local custom:
“Seuthes initiated the proceedings as follows: he picked up the loaves which had been served in front of him, broke them into small pieces, and tossed the pieces to whichever of the guests he felt like. Then he did the same with the meat, leaving himself only morsels. Once he had finished, everyone else who had a table placed near by did the same. But an Arcadian called Arystas, who had a prodigious appetite, could not be bothered with throwing pieces of food around: he just picked up a three-choenix-sized loaf, put some meat on his knees, and began to eat” (Anabasis, 7.3).
After everyone had their fill of the food, the drinking and socializing continued. In time, courtiers among the banqueters began to offer gifts to Seuthes. The presents greatly differed in size and value—a silver goblet, a carpet, a white horse and a slave were all reportedly handed over to Seuthes during the course of the evening. Xenophon, however, was caught off guard by the gift-giving and, having brought nothing, improvised a speech to make up for his lack of an offering. His gift, he claimed, would be the land and wealth soon to be delivered to Seuthes by the mercenary company.
As the drinking continued, the group became quite merry. By the end of the feast, Xenophon, who was “a little tipsy” (Anabasis, 7.3), gave a public and long-winded pledge of friendship to the Thracian prince. Yet, Xenophon was not the only one feeling jolly—he wrote, “Seuthes also stood up on his own, yelled out a war-cry, and with great agility performed a vigorous dance which simulated the dodging of missiles” (Anabasis, 7.3).
Although they were all evidently having a great time, the mercenaries kept a strict schedule. When the sun began to set, the mercenary officers at the banquet proclaimed that they had to take their leave to prepare their army’s nighttime security. After ceremoniously sprinkling out the last drops of wine from the feast, Prince Seuthes gave the mercenaries a counter-offer, suggesting that they set off on their campaign that very night. According to Xenophon, the mercenaries accepted the proposal and they all began their march around midnight.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene depicting Achilles from Pompeii, c. 1st century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.