Throughout Ancient Greece, the symposium, from the Greek sympinein meaning “to drink together”, refers to a drinking party. A fundamental Greek social institution, the symposium provided the opportunity for Greek males to come together and engage in debate, cultural pursuits, and just plain revelry. Symposia were often held in celebration of an athletic or poetic victory, or to mark the introduction of young men into aristocratic society.
Symposia were usually held in the andron, the men’s quarter of the house; “respectable” citizen wives were strictly forbidden from attending these events. Guests reclined on couches arranged around the wall and were attended to by slaves, dancing girls, and courtesans known as hetaireai. Black and red-figure pottery provides much of our evidence for what went on at these events, since depictions of symposia account for a substantial proportion of their iconography, perhaps reflective of their use. Many depict men reclining, being entertained by dancing girls and aulos players, with tables of food laid out and drinking vessels adorning the walls. Some of these images also portray the adverse effects of consuming too much alcohol!
Indeed, wine played a significant role at the symposium; before the party commenced proper, libations would be poured to the relevant deities, and a symposiarch would be chosen to oversee the proceedings. One of his principal tasks was to decide on the strength of the wine. The wine was mixed together with water in a large two-handled vessel called a krater carried by two men, and served using oinochoai (jugs). A fragment from a lost play of Eubulus (c.375 BC) indicates that three kraters of wine should suffice for a pleasant evening, but that once this “sensible” threshold was passed, things might start to get messy…
In addition to the entertainment provided by musicians and dancing girls, guests also involved themselves in light-hearted games, a particular favourite being that known as kottabos. Players would swirl the dregs of their wine about in their drinking cups and try and flick them at a target, usually another empty vessel and whoever was successful won.
Guests also engaged in more intellectual pursuits including displays of rhetoric, poetry recitals and philosophical debate; the most famous example we have for this is Plato’s dialogue entitled “Symposium”, in which Love is explored, with each man at the symposium delivering an encomium on the subject. So too, at the beginning of his Republic, Socrates and his companions go back to Polemarchus’ house following a religious festival, where they begin a discussion which acts as the impetus for the debate about Justice, with which the work is primarily concerned.
The institution of the symposium remained an integral part of society for centuries, and was also adopted by the Romans under the name of commissatio or convivium; we catch a glimpse of this in the works of the erotic poets of the Augustan Age, such as Propertius and Ovid.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger