Symposiums in Ancient Greece: Fun or something more?
Wine drinking gatherings or symposia (Greek: συμπόσιον, gathering of people who drink together) were of the utmost importance in the ancient Greek world. In a culture that did not have the means of entertainment that exist in modern societies, banquets functioned as a form of entertainment that played its own role in the daily life of the ancient Greeks during the Classical Period. More specifically, thanks to them, a literary genre was born based on events and discussions that took place at the symposia, with works such as Plato's The Symposium, Xenophon's The Symposium, and Plutarch's The Symposia. At the same time, a large part of artistic production is dedicated to these gatherings with representations adorning a multitude of vases.
The ancient banquet is in no way similar to today's wine-drinking gatherings as it was a ritual institution with its own rules and rituals. The most accurate definition of this type of entertainment is found in Plutarch's Morals; he described the banquet as an event to spend time with wine, which, guided by a pleasant social behaviour, ends in friendship (Plutarch&Nachstadt, 1971). Symposia served many purposes, however the one listed in Morals is the main one.
In the Spartan meals, as well as in Athens and Corinth, only men could participate in these gatherings (Flacelière, 2002). Free women were excluded from such gatherings, as was the case with all manifestations of political life. However, in representations of banquets, women appear who serve different purposes. They were not the spouses of the associates, but their main purpose is serving and entertaining the men.
These banquets were the main manifestation of the ancient Greek socialization. They were attended by men from affluent families, who would eat and drink together, chat and have fun all along. They were held on the occasion of family celebrations, city celebrations, sports victories, poetry competitions, and the arrival or departure of a friend. However, very often, it was men of the aristocratic class which gathered to dine together. Most of the time, the host wrote on a sign the names of the guests and the day and time of the banquet. Then, a servant went to the homes of those who would participate in order to hand them the sign (Garland, 1998).
The banquets took place in a room called 'andron', or in public buildings (if they were organized by the city). The composers ate and drank, usually lying on couches in pairs and rarely in threes, leaning on their elbows and with their torsos upright or slightly sloping. Often, they would be supported by pillows or large headrests. The honorary seats were located next to the host, who could define the position of each composer. The tables were small and portable, one for each symposiast or one in front of each couch. The banquet space was small; seven to twelve couches, called anaklintra (Greek: ανάκλιντρα), were usually placed along the walls or in such a way that they were all on the same level and each man could see the others. Thus, they facilitated the immediacy in communication and discussion, which were key features of the symposium. Even the public banquet venues were not large.
As soon as the guests arrived at the house, where the banquet was to take place, they took off their shoes; the servants washed their feet and led them to the banquet hall. Symposiasts often wore wreaths of leaves or flowers and also wore ornaments on their chests. As soon as they took their places, the servants offered them wine and a basin (hernips) to wash their hands. Dinner began with the toast, a glass of aromatized wine, from which all the banqueters drank before the meal.
Some of the guests arrived after the dinner to participate only in the banquet itself, which began with honours to the gods (especially to Dionysus, the god of wine). The beginning of the ritual consisted of drinking a little wine and pouring a few drops; then, chanting the name of the god, for whom they then sang a hymn. A lottery was held to determine the leader of the banquet (symposium leader), who determined the ratio of wine and water to be poured into the crater and the number of glasses that each banqueter had to empty. If someone disobeyed the co-leader, he was obliged to execute a sentence; a funny feat.
After all this, the ceremonial the amusement began in two parts, one of food and then of drink. During this part, lyrical compositions were recited by the composers and fun spiritual games were played, such as riddles. However, the most popular of the games was kottabos, which was played with certain rules. Each drinker drank the wine almost to the bottom of the glass. He then swirled the glass, holding it by the handle with his index finger or two front fingers, aiming to hit the mark with the last drop, which was usually a disk or small vessel placed on a pedestal.
Hetaira's (a courtesan or mistress, especially an educated one in ancient Greece) profession seemed to be developing and closely related to the symposiums. It was the place where they kept the men company, as long as they had fun. With the wives of the attendees not having access to the banquets, it was the hetaira who came in contact with the men. Highly educated to cope with such circumstances, they were able to have discussions with men about many different topics; this included politics and philosophy. In addition, they developed skills, such as dancing, singing or acting, to try to entertain the symposium participants.
To sum up, the institution of the symposium, with all the specific rituals, played a significant role in the educational, cultural and political life of the Greeks. It was a place of social interaction and exchange of views. The ancient Greeks appreciated the value of companionship and fun, while honouring the gods Dionysus and Aphrodite; but, they took advantage of the institution of symposiums in order to strengthen their friendships.
Flacelière, R. (2002). Daily life in Greece at the time of Pericles. Phoenix Press.
Garland, R. (1998). Daily life of the ancient Greeks. Greenwood Press.
Hobden, F. (2013). The symposion in ancient Greek society and thought. Cambridge University Press.
Kurke, L. (1997). Inventing the "Hetaira": Sex, Politics, and Discursive Conflict in Archaic Greece. Classical Antiquity, 16(1), pp. 106-150. https://doi.org/10.2307/25011056
Murray, O. (2009). The Culture of the Symposion. In K. Rafflaub & H. van Wees, A Companion to Archaic Greece. pp. 508–523. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Otto, W., & Palmer, R. (1973). Dionysus, myth and cult. Indiana Univ. Press.
Plutarch., & Nachstadt, W. (1971). Moralia (621d). Teubner.
Makron painter. (490/480 B.C.). Men playing kottabos. Attic kylix. Retrieved from : https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2020/ancient-sculpture-and-works-of-art/an-attic-red-figured-kylix-attributed-to-makron-as
Philocleon reverse group. (400/390 B.C.). An auletris (flautist) performs at a symposium. Red-figure krater. Retrieved from : https://harvardartmuseums.org/tour/animal-shaped-vessels-from-the-ancient-world/stop/1973
Triptolemos painter. (480 B.C.). Guests at a symposium drinking wine. Attic kylix. Retrieved from : https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/ancient-greece-symposium-dinner-party