The failed buffoon

Philip, who pitches up at Xenophon’s symposium in search of a decent meal, seems to be a fall-flat flailing fool, and bears some resemblance to the parasite dinner-guest who sings (or jokes) for his supper.

I love Philip’s sulking stance when nobody laughed at his wit – pulling his cloak over his head and lying down (try it next time someone fails to get your jokes).  Only his nobody-understands-me weeping and sniffling finally wins a laugh from one of the symposium guests, and this at least allows the jester to recover his appetite. 

The company, then, were feasting in silence, as though some one in authority had commanded them to do so, when Philip the buffoon knocked at the door and told the porter to announce who he was and that he desired to be admitted; he added that with regard to food he had come all prepared, in all varieties—to dine on some other person’s,—and that his servant was in great distress with the load he carried of—nothing, and with having an empty stomach.


Hearing this, Callias said, “Well, gentlemen, we cannot decently begrudge him at the least the shelter of our roof; so let him come in.” With the words he cast a glance at Autolycus, obviously trying to make out what he had thought of the pleasantry.  But Philip, standing at the threshold of the men’s hall where the banquet was served, announced:


“You all know that I am a jester; and so I have come here with a will, thinking it more of a joke to come to your dinner uninvited than to come by invitation.” “Well, then,” said Callias, “take a place; for the guests, though well fed, as you observe, on seriousness, are perhaps rather ill supplied with laughter.”


No sooner were they engaged in their dinner than Philip attempted a witticism, with a view to rendering the service that secured him all his dinner engagements; but on finding that he did not excite any laughter, he showed himself, for the time, considerably vexed. A little later, however, he must try another jest; but when they would not laugh at him this time either, he stopped while the dinner was in full swing, covered his head with his cloak, and lay down on his couch.  


“What does this mean, Philip?” Callias inquired. “Are you seized with a pain?” Philip replied with a groan, “Yes, Callias, by Heaven, with a severe one; for since laughter has perished from the world, my business is ruined. For in times past, the reason why I got invitations to dinner was that I might stir up laughter among the guests and make them merry; but now, what will induce any one to invite me? For I could no more turn serious than I could become immortal; and certainly no one will invite me in the hope of a return invitation, as every one knows that there is not a vestige of tradition of bringing dinner into my house.”


As he said this, he wiped his nose, and to judge by the sound, he was evidently weeping.  All tried to comfort him with the promise that they would laugh next time, and urged him to eat; and Critobulus actually burst out into a guffaw at his lugubrious moaning. The moment Philip heard the laughter he uncovered his head, and exhorting his spirit to be of good courage, in view of approaching engagements, he fell to eating again.

Source: Xenophon (c. 430 – c. 354 BCE), Symposium, in Xenophon in Seven Volumes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1979), vol. 4, available online here.  A note tells us that, ‘Philip puns on the ambiguous συμβολαί, which means either hostile encounters or a banquet to which the viands are contributed by the guests. His exhortation to his spirit is quite Odyssean’.

Image credit: Greek marble relief with a heroic banquet (150-100 BCE), Getty Villa Museum, Los Angeles, California: Roman, Greek, and Etruscan Antiquities; photo credit Gary Todd at


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