The Banqueter’s Life: How to Live from Athenaeus and Ashurbanipal

In the midst of a nearly endless discussion of fish in the 8th book of his Deipnosophistai, Athenaeus has his banqueters bandy about epigrammatic advice about the nature of human life. One of his speakers quotes Chrysippus who alleges that Sardanapallus (the Greek name for the Syrian king Ashurbanipal) had the following as an epitaph:

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]

The speakers critique the dead king’s sentiments and propose that the epitaph could be emended with more elevated aims.

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in words: nothing is useful once eaten.
For even I am now but rages though I ate and took as much pleasure as possible.
I keep whatever I learned and the thoughts I had and the fine things
I experienced with them. Everything else, however pleasing, is gone.”

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος μύθοισι· φαγόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ῥάκος εἰμί, φαγὼν ὡς πλεῖστα καὶ ἡσθείς.
ταῦτ’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔμαθον καὶ ἐφρόντισα καὶ μετὰ τούτων
ἔσθλ’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ καὶ ἡδέα πάντα λέλειπται.

Some other epitaphs (fictional or not) are included:

“Drink. Play. Your life is mortal and time on earth is but short.
Death itself is everlasting once a man has died.”

πῖνε, παῖζε· θνητὸς ὁ βίος, ὀλίγος οὑπὶ γῇ χρόνος·
ὁ θάνατος δ’ ἀθάνατός ἐστιν, ἂν ἅπαξ τις ἀποθάνῃ.

“Drink. Eat. Yield everything to your soul.
For I am the stone that stands in place of Bachidas.”

πιέν, φαγὲν καὶ πάντα τᾷ ψυχᾷ δόμεν·
κἠγὼ γὰρ ἕστακ’ ἀντὶ Βακχίδα λίθος.

Ashurbanipal
The Man. The Myth.

Among certain Greek writers (starting as early as Aristophanes: Birds 1021) Sardanapallus was proverbially a glutton:

 

Hesychius

“Sardanapallos: Nearly everyone writes that this guy was a slave to every kind of excess and delicacy. They say that this is recorded on his on monument in Assyrian letters in Ninevah, Assyria.”

Σαρδανάπαλ(λ)ος· πάντες σχεδὸν ἁπάσης ἀκολασίας καὶ τρυφῆς
δοῦλον τοῦτον ἀναγράφουσι γεγονέναι. καὶ ἐπὶ τῷ μνήματι αὐτοῦ ἐν
τῇ ᾿Ασσυρίᾳ ἐν Νίνῳ φασὶν ἐπιγεγράφθαι ᾿Ασσυρίοις γράμμασι·

 

Perhaps someone should write a song about him….