The Dinner-Table Dream Team

Just yesterday, a good friend and fellow history student sent me this article, in which Dr. Suzanna Lipscomb made the case for which six historical individuals she would most like to have for dinner, and then challenged me to come up with my own top choices. When I began to think about it, though, a strange thing happened– all my candidates were either explorers, or women, or both! With a bit more thought, however, I’ve compiled a more balanced list of the top six writers, adventurers, and poets (all from the years before 1550 CE) whom I think would make the most entertaining dinner guests.

13th century manuscript illumination of people feasting. (


Zhang Qian: Born in China in the 2nd century BCE, Qian was an explorer sent to find allies who would join China in a campaign against the Xiong-nu, a tribal empire in northwest Central Asia. On his journey, he was made captive by the Xiong-nu for over a decade, married one of their women, escaped from custody, and eventually returned to bring the first detailed intelligence reports of Central Asia back to the imperial court. He introduced alfalfa (for horse fodder), the cultivation of wine grapes, and other exotic products, and also laid out the military capabilities and diplomatic customs of the peoples he visited. A keen observer, well travelled and resourceful, I think he would be a great guest able to regale us with stories of his adventures on the ancient Silk Route.

Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir: Born in Iceland around the year 1,000, Gudrid spent the majority of her life travelling across the north Atlantic from Greenland to Norway and back. At one time married to Eirik the Red’s son Thorsteinn, she travelled with a group of Icelanders to Vinland, where she became the first known European woman to give birth in the New World. Later in life, she went on pilgrimage to Rome and ended her days as a nun in Iceland. Portrayed as strong and intelligent in the sagas, Gudrid could give us an eyewitness retelling of one of the greatest Norse voyages of exploration.


Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: Born in the Persian region of Khurasan in the 13th century, Rumi was an educated Muslim theologian, Sufi mystic, and poet who settled in Konya after fleeing from the advance of the Mongols. As a believer in mystical Islam, Rumi pursued the union of the self with God, and was a popular teacher to Christians, Muslims, and Jews during his time in Konya. As an outstanding spiritual guide and consummate artist whose enjoyment of life fills his verse, Rumi would make a vivacious conversationalist at any party.

Taliesin: Lived in what is now Wales during the 6th century, a time of discord and social change as British society adapted to the fall of Rome and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. As a bard, Taliesin composed many poems in praise of Welsh kings and commemorated their victory in battle. His literary skills were so renowned that many poems later became ascribed to him, and he enters legendary stories as a man of mythic origins whose words have magical powers. Trained to entertain war-bands and chieftains during feasts, Taliesin would be able to recite the deeds of the Welsh heroes of the past.


Isidore of Seville: Born in Visigothic Spain in the 6th century, Isidore was one of the most prolific writers of the Middle Ages. His works, ranging from natural philosophy and theology to political science and history, display a formidable intellect out to codify and explain the world around him. As Bishop of Seville, he also encouraged the programmes of education in Spanish churches and was an influential figure in Visigothic politics, presiding over the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633. Educated, with vast curiosity and a perceptive mind, Isidore would bring any number of fascinating discussions with him to the dinner table.

Anna Komnene: Born in Constantinople in 1083, Anna has bequeathed to us an unusual and priceless source both for her life and her times, The Alexiad. Through it, we see her as a woman of excellent education and broad understanding, whose life at the centre of Byzantine politics witnessed some of the greatest events of the Middle Ages. During her lifetime, Anna met crusaders, plotted for the imperial throne, and retired, like Gudrid, to the religious life. Her wit, personality, and ambition have fired the imagination of historians for centuries, and her views on Greek civilisation and palace politics would be utterly absorbing.

So, these are my six, but the fun doesn’t need to end there. Who would you most like to find across from you at a dinner party?

Have a guest, but don’t see them above? Please tell us about them in the comments!


12 thoughts on “The Dinner-Table Dream Team

  1. I should point that Anna Komnene didn’t really “retire” to a monastery; she was incarcerated in one after her failed attempt to take the throne. She seems to have been confined rather tightly until the early years of the reign of her nephew, Manuel I Komnenos. (I would also argue that she was not Greek, but that’s a bigger issue.)

    • You’re right that the nature of Gudrid’s and Anna’s entry into religious life were very different, but I don’t think this changes the two points I was hoping to make with the comparison, namely that both women had very diverse experiences during their lives, and that convents often were not the cradle-to-grave institutions we today might think of automatically. Instead, they were, as you point out, often used as repositories for widows, unwed daughters, and political trouble makers.

      As for Anna’s Greekness, or lack of it, its true that the term has its difficulties. She certainly wouldn’t have welcomed being identified as Greek, for example. At the same time, she never would have described herself as Byzantine either, since the term was invented by modern scholars to take account of the changes undergone by the East Roman Empire in late antiquity. I think that due to the fact that she wrote in Greek, modelled her history off earlier Greek texts, listened to her liturgy in Greek, and lived in an empire who used Greek as the dominant administrative language, however, she should be seen in the context of ‘Greek Civilisation’, in its Byzantine inflection. This of course should be equated with neither modern Greek national identity, or ancient civilisation.

      • The very use of the term “Greek” is where we run into difficulties, largely because it associates the Byzantines with the ancient Greeks and the modern Greeks. Nineteenth century Greek nationalist historians tried to write modern Hellenism into Byzantium, but those ideas are long dead in the academic realm, although they continue to be taught in the Hellenic Republic. Just because the language was Greek does not presuppose an identity on its own, and the writings of the Byzantines clearly reveal this. They continually consider themselves to be Roman (Ῥωμαιοι) Christians. There is no better indicator of desired identity than how a people understand their own past, and when we look at the Byzantine re-writing of ancient history (which occurs frequently, since the world-chronicle was an important genre for them) we see what they emphasize. These world-chronicles have a lot to say about Roman history, and a lot to say about Old Testament history, but nothing to say about Greek history. Perikles and Thucydides are scarcely mentioned, and the Persian Wars are only in there due to prophetic connections that were made between Persia and the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. If not Rome, Byzantine civilization (despite being a direct continuation of the Roman Empire) should be seen as the result of Eusebios of Caesarea’s ethnogenesis of Romano-Christian ideas, which only really came to fruition three centuries after he wrote.

      • I am aware of the a-historical difficulties of modern philhellenism, but there’s hardly a mediaeval identity which hasn’t been yoked to a similar modern argument of national identity. If historians were to discard all of them because of these problematic associations, we would find ourselves with a seriously reduced vocabulary. Not only would the word ‘Greek’ be off limits, but adjectives like ‘English’, ‘Arab,’ ‘French/Frankish’, and a whole host of others would be disqualified from historical discourse. Because all of these words do have legitimate historical meaning for the mediaeval period, however, I feel that we simply have to delimit what we do, and do not, mean by them, and move on.

        As regards language, you are correct that elaborating an entire identity, for either an individual or a culture, simply from language alone results in significant distortions. This is also true, however, if we look solely at self-presentation, as you do with the Byzantines. After all, anyone and everyone in early mediaeval Europe claimed a part of the Roman imperial legacy, from the Merovingians and Ottonians, to the Visigoths and the Lombards, to the Britons. In fact, writers in mediaeval Wales propagated an origin legend which traced the history of the Welsh back to the eponymous settler of Briton, Brutus, and his band of roaming Trojans. This story, though entirely spurious from a modern perspective, had real force in the political millieu of mediaeval Wales. To come to an understanding of Welsh cultural identity, therefore, we have to balance what we know of the ’empirical past’ (or at least, what we think we know) with the self-perception of the Welsh.

        Now admittedly, the Byzantines have a far stronger claim to the Roman heritage. Their political structure and society undeniably originated in those of the East Roman Empire, and this influence continued to be a determining factor until the final demise of the state in 1453. And, as you say, these Roman roots play a primary role in constructing the desired identity of the Byzantines. To parrot this desired identity uncritically, and to say that it is the primary lens through which we should view Byzantine culture, however, reduces the role of the modern historian to that of a mouthpiece, rather than that of critical examiner and synthesiser.

        When we shift our gaze from how the Byzantines wanted to be seen to how they were in fact seen by contemporaries, we find that Western, Latinate sources refer to Byzantium, and Byzantines, almost entirely by the term ‘Greek’ in Anna’s time. This was not meant to link them to the glories of ancient Greek civilisation and literature (since these authors knew very little about it), but was a reflection of the single most prominent difference betweeen the West and Byzantium. Nor was the Byzantine use of Greek significant purely on the level of vernacular–the use of Greek as a liturgical language in Orthodox churches was one of many differences in praxis which were causing increasing divergence between the Patriarchate of Rome and that of Constantinople. To Western observers (and most significantly Crusaders) then, the term ‘Greek’ was a pejorative that captured the perceived otherness of Byzantium.

        Anna’s identity, and the broader cultural affiliations of Byzantium, should therefore be situated somewhere at the intersection of these differing perceptions and traits. She herself wrote in Greek and alluded to Homer in her work. This situates her within a Greek-speaking intellectual tradition, though by no means necessitates the creation of an unbroken Pan-Hellenic cultural continuum. She also prized her imperial identity, rooted in Roman tradition. The disjunction between a contemporary outsider’s perception of her Greekness (in the mediaeval sense) and her own perception of Romanness, is precisely the reason why ‘Byzantine’ was adopted by scholars in the first place, as a way to express the interaction of these varied strands of cultural influence while not adopting too many extraneous assumptions. That said, I stand by my original statement that Byzantine civilisation should also be considered Greek because to an audience unfamiliar with the period, the Greekness of Byzantium is one of its salient features, and deserves to be highlighted.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Marissa. I’m sorry that I did not respond earlier, but it has been a busy week. You raise an excellent point about the use of names by outsiders, but this in itself is problematic and not entirely universal. The Arabs, for example, always refer to the Byzantines as Romans. When they use the term Greek, it is in reference to the ancient Greeks. Despite the continuity of the language, they clearly viewed a disconnect between the two peoples. The Armenians use the terms “Roman” and “Greek” interchangeably. I suspect that this is similar to how we see the Latins referring to the Byzantines, and it is an extremely important point given that for a good four hundred years the Armenians were the group most closely engaged with the Byzantines. I suspect the Armenians came to use the term “Greek” because it was a convenient way to refer to the other, given the linguistic reference. On the other hand, they did refer to the Byzantines as Romans, likely because of the constant reminders provided by the Byzantines.

    Some of the Latin speakers differ in this, though, because they have a particular reason to specifically refer to the Byzantines as Greeks, namely the Carolingians and Ottonians. Liudprand of Cremona encountered these difficulties when he went to Constantinople because the Byzantines would not accept that there was another claim for the imperial title in the west: “Ipse enim vos non imperatorem. id est Βασιλέα, sua lingua, sed ob indignationem ῥῆγα, id est regem, nostra vocabat.” (My translation: That man even said that you were not an emperor. It is basileus, in his tongue, but for the sake of indignation he was calling your rega, which is called king in our tongue.” ‘Ipse’ refers to Leo Phokas, the brother of the emperor Nikephoros I.) When we go back a little earlier, some sources have a different opinion on those in the east. For example, Isidore of Seville (Etymoligiarum libri XX, 42-3) refers to the seventh century empire as the Roman Empire in the east. I once did a study of Einhard’s imitation of Suetonius’ Latin vocabulary and found some very interesting (and unexpected) results. The terms he generally uses to refer to the emperors in the east both show Charlemagne’s attempted rapprochement and a genuine confusion on Einhard’s part as to what to call the eastern emperors. As these indicate, these labels show that the issue was hardly clear-cut in the Middle Ages and that even then there were political motives and genuine inconsistencies about what to call the inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire.

    These problematic labels continue to plague us today. I still firmly believe that the only ideal approach to understanding who the Byzantines were lies within, but this is hardly an uncritical acceptance of the desired identity from the sources as you suggest. When I did the introductory lecture on Byzantium for my supervisor’s class on the crusades I stressed that for the Byzantines the founding figures were Moses, Augustus, Jesus, and Constantine. Of course, on an historical scale, this is an utter absurdity. Other than Augustus and Jesus, all these figures lived in radically different time periods, and Moses belongs more closely to the realm of myth than history. Yet these are the figures that the Byzantines viewed as foundational to their understanding of their own universe, and thus we cannot ignore it. We simply do not have the literary material that the medieval west does. We are never going to have anything other than a very basic understanding of how a Cappadocian monk or minor members of the sub-Roman urban elite viewed themselves in Athens. The vast majority of our material is all centered on imperial power in Constantinople, and that is what we have to work with. Given this, it is important to acknowledge the symbolic universe that the Byzantines constructed for themselves. When I explained this to my class I stressed the fusion of ideas that formed the desired Byzantine identity and how the labels “Greek”, “Roman”, or “Byzantine” all fail to represent how they viewed the world. I think this is an important point, since too many general works are eager to apply one of those labels without considering the complex problem of how the Byzantines viewed themselves. The secondary goal of this exercise is broadly pedagogical. I hope that by illustrating the problems that such generalized labels present it would convince people to not be so quick applying them in everyday life.

  3. I’d try to get an invite for Ibn Khaldun too. “That time I met Timur” has to be fantastic dinner-table conversation.

    Fascinating discussion on Byzantium in the comments too. I think the slipperiness of the terminology of nationality is summed up rather neatly with one of your other guests, Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Rumi is a nickname that seems to refer to Konya and its location in the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

    • You’ll be pleased to know that I was thinking about including Ibn Khaldun instead of Rumi, but I thought the latter would be a little less self-aggrandising. You’re right that his experiences with Timur would make excellent conversation, though!

      You also bring up an excellent point about his complex identity. Although most famously associated with Konya, the Seljuk capital, Rumi is claimed not only as Turkish, but also as Persian (his language of choice,) and Afghan, because of the territory he was born in, which makes him even more complicated (in my view) than Anna Komnene! Its an illustration of just how malleable identities are, particularly in the region of Anatolia where many peoples have come and gone and intermingled!

      • I’m almost certain he is (or is considered) a Tajik too.
        And that word’s apparently a not-too-nice Turkic term to refer to Persian-speakers and, I think, nicely brings everything full circle.

        I think ultimately you have to embrace the complexity. Not that I’d really want to, but there are so many writers even today that would be difficult to “pigeon hole” definitively: Ahdaf Soueif, Samuel Beckett, Khaled Hosseini, T.S. Eliot…

      • Embracing complexity is good, and it certainly makes historical study a lot richer. It can be inconvenient, though, to try to get things done on other topics if you’re always tripping over unintended associations!

        I think we can tend to forget how ambiguous our own modern associations are, like you say. I remember doing Chinua Achebe when I studied English literature, and his work raises some very interesting questions. Is English literature all that which is composed in English? And how does colonialism, and all its complications, effect our view of literary trends and inclusions? These kinds of thoughts can also be applied to Ibn Khaldun and Rumi’s times, since the sphere of Persianate culture was used across political and ethnic boundaries. A lot of times, overlapping spheres of identity works a lot better than any kind of strict nationalist categorisation.

  4. John Scot, Eriugena, is always my first choice for this question: Carolingian philosopher and mystic whose writings, in translation at least, absolutely sing with the joy of understanding the cosmos, but also and more importantly credited with the first preserved Latin pun by William of Malmesbury, a pun committed while drunk at table with King Charles the Bald. He might go on a bit but he’d be enthralling company. But I’d second Ibn Khaldun too…

    • He does sound like a good choice! Especially if he had an ear for puns…. I definitely struggled to pick just 6, since my list kept wanting to get longer and longer!

  5. Pingback: Party Like it’s 1454: the Revels of Ducal Burgundy « mediaevalmusings

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