The Ancient Greek Symposium: Just an Excuse for Debauchery?
It’s no secret that the ancient Greeks loved to have parties, dance and drink for every occasion. It could be celebrating a birth, the arrival of a loved person or a marriage. Indeed, in many cases no specific purpose was required for them to celebrate. These parties and celebrations, however, shouldn’t be confused with the symposium (or symposion), a very significant aspect of ancient Greek life that usually took place in private homes. At a symposium, Greek males gathered for more than just drinking, eating, and having fun, as many falsely believe today.
The significance of a symposium within ancient Greek society
The social and cultural importance of a symposium can be inferred by the fact that it is mentioned in major literary works, such as Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium , and it is mentioned in a number of Greek poems such as the elegies of Theognis of Megara. The most famous symposium in history is, undoubtedly, the homonymous philosophical text by Plato from around 385 –370 BC. In the Symposium, love is discussed and examined by a bunch of men – including Socrates and Alcibiades – attending a symposium. The event takes place at the house of the tragedian Agathon in Athens and is best remembered for the famous speech of Socrates, where the famous philosopher declares that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom.
Plato´s Symposium painting by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Widely considered as one of Plato's finest works, the dialogue has been used as a credible source by contemporary historians in order to understand life better in ancient Athens, particularly the views of the ancient Athenians on human sexuality and the symposium as a social institution. More importantly, many contemporary scholars believe that the Symposium concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and is the origin of what we know as Platonic love.
What actually happened during a symposium?
To begin with, the symposium was permitted only to Greek males of the highest social class. The only women who could participate were the hetairai, described as gorgeous, highly educated and elegant prostitutes that were particularly trained in dance and music. Each guest would be given a garland to wear on his head and would recline in a room designed to hold seven to fifteen couches with cushions and low tables. Many such rooms have been identified archaeologically in domestic settings, although the best representation is perhaps the painted Tomb of the Diver at Paestum . In this aristocratic, choreographed social gathering, men drank together, conversed, engaged in jokes and games, and recited poetry while listening to music, all in a joyful atmosphere.
The party would usually start at dusk, although preparations such as choosing the wine, hiring the musicians, dancers and hetairai, would have been in progress during the previous days. The event launched with food since the ancient Greeks were not known for drinking with their meal.
The master of ceremonies for the evening, called the symposiarch, was the one who decided how much wine would be drunk. Ancient Greeks diluted their wine with water, a practice that they believed set them apart from “barbarians,” which was a term they used to refer to all non-Greeks. The symposiarch would also determine the proportion of water to wine, and servants would mix the liquids in a vessel called a krater, from which he would later serve the guests. Interestingly, by the late sixth century BC there was wide variety of symposium vessels that included wine coolers, jugs, and various drinking cups and mixing vessels, most of which were painted depicting drinking parties and orgies of, who else? Dionysos and his followers!
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Ancient Greek jug design depicting social scene. ( Public Domain )
No one left a symposium entirely sober
As host in charge of drinking, responsible symposiarch would try his best to avoid the intoxication of his visitors, since a lot of drunk men in the same place usually meant fighting and would earn him a bad reputation. At the same time, if even one man were to leave a symposium entirely sober, that wasn’t considered a good thing either. Fundamentally, the golden rule for how a great symposium should be, is amusingly described in a fragment from a play by Greek poet Euboulos: