A symposium is a ritualized drinking event in ancient Greece. Its name, "symposium," literally refers to a "drinking together," a hint for the defining activity shared by participants of the symposium: the consumption of wine. Symposia are sometimes defined as banquets, but the official symposium usually occured after the consumption of food and is best understood as a drinking party (1). Our evidence for symposia comes from illustrations on various types of Greek vases, archaeological remains of houses and of vessels used during symposia, and discussions and descriptions in ancient texts, such as Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium, both written around 360 B.C.E.
Symposia in ancient Greece were hosted by aristocratic men for their peers. They were often held in private houses in a purpose-built room called the andron. The andron was usually located close to the front entrance of a house to limit visitors' access to the more private parts of the house. In the andron, participants of the symposium, called symposiasts, would recline on couches called klinai that were arranged around the borders of the room. Klinai were long and often elaborately decorated. Symposiasts drank from specialized drinking cups, which could be made from terracotta or more expensive metals, such as bronze, silver, and gold. Entertainment was provided by musicians, acrobats, and other performers, while symposiasts often engaged in activities including reciting poetry, telling bawdy jokes, and having sex.
Symposia were not merely relaxed social gatherings; they also functioned as "a place for the ostentatious display not just of gilded ceilings or inlaid floors, Ionian couches, exotic entertainment, or luxury vases, but also of the cultural quality of host and guests" (2). In other words, the symposium was an opportunity for aristocratic men to display their wealth and sophistication. One way that hosts could show off their wealth was in the vessels provided. Ceramic sympotic vessels, including kylikes and kantharoi (cups), kraters (wine-mixing vessels), and oinochoe (wine jugs), were often among the most elaborately decorated of vessels and they could be decorated with scenes of symposia themselves, or with scenes from mythology or daily life. The decorations on vases could add humor to the symposium with inside jokes and visual puns or even act as conversation pieces, spurring discussions of the myths depicted.
The CU Art Museum has several vessels associated with the symposium in its collection. Wine was drunk from a variety of cup shapes, including a deep and high-handled kantharos or the wide and shallow-bowled kylix. In the Hellenistic period, it could be drunk from mould-made bowls. Wine could be poured from jugs like the pelike.
The wine drunk at symposia was not like the wine we drink today. It was not, that is, left undiluted, but was mixed with water in precise proportions in a vessel called a krater. The mixing of water and wine ensured that symposiasts maintained composure and self-control, traits that were highly valued in ancient Greek society, at least according to most of our literature on the symposium. The Greeks seemed to believe that only barbarians -- and, of course, anyone who was not Greek was considered a barbarian -- drank unmixed wine (3). Despite the importance of self-control, however, many vases decorated with scenes of the symposium depict men engaged in activities that may be considered somewhat less than dignified. The tondo of a kylix in Berlin, for example, shows a man vomiting into a basin while a slave holds his head. On the exterior of a kylix in at the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA, a parade of revellers, called komasts, are shown wearing women's clothing as they dance in a drunken procession called a komos.
If we are to believe the bawdy scenes shown on many vases, various forms of sexual activity were also popular at symposia. Men in ancient Greece engaged in sexual activity with both men and women and sex acts were frequently depicted on Greek vases. Because "respectable" women were not allowed to attend symposia, women who are shown attending these parties are usually identified as courtesans, called hetairai, who "provided sex and music, and no doubt conversation" (4). Hetairai were differentiated from pornai, translated as "prostitutes," who were often of a lower class of slave. Hetairai and pornai on Greek vases are often depicted nude; when shown dressed, however, the association of objects like money pouches could signal their deviation from respectability.
The floor of a symposium was usually waterproofed, probably because of a popular drinking game called kottabos. To play this game, symposiasts would swirl the dregs of wine in the bottoms of their cups and then fling these remnants either onto the floor, attempting to form the first letter of their beloved's name, or at a specific target in the center of the room. One variation of this game involves flinging the wine at small saucers floating in a basin of water in order to sink them (5). In yet another version, a disk is balanced atop a pole and kottabos players would attempt to knock it down (6).
Unlike many depictions on vases, ancient literature such as the treatises by Plato and Xenophon discuss the more dignified aspects of the symposium. Each author implies that the symposium was an elegant, intellectual gathering where men could eat and drink (in moderation, of course), recite poetry, and hold philosophical discussions. In fact, the men in Plato's Symposium (176a-e) consciously decide not to make the evening "a tipsy affair." Likewise, those in Xenophon's Symposium (2.26) heed this admonition spoken by Socrates: "If we pour ourselves immense draughts, it will be no long time before both our bodies and our minds reel, and we shall not be able even to draw breath, much less to speak sensibly."
While each of the two accounts reinforce the idea that the symposium was an event exclusively for men, they do not discuss the presence of hetairai, often described as the symposium's only female attendants. In fact, in Plato's Symposium (176e), Socrates suggests that the host send the flute-girl away so that they may hold their intellectual conversations regarding love, medicine, music, and other topics without the distraction of frivolous music. Similarly, in Xenophon's Symposium (1.4), the host Callias invites Socrates along with other men "whose hearts have undergone philosophy's purification" to his symposium, where they discuss topics such as the importance of nobility of soul and the most valuable types of knowledge (though, in this dialogue, the flute-girl and jester are allowed to stay).
From the evidence given in the texts as well as the images on vases, it is evident that the Greeks held many competing and complementary views regarding the nature of the symposium. While vases often show the bawdier aspects, such as drunkenness and sexuality, ancient texts illustrate a sense of dignity, intelligence, and moderation, which are much more in line with what we believe were valued traits for aristocratic men in ancient Greece.
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- Francois Lissarague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: Images of Wine and Ritual, translated by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990): 7.
- William J. Slater, "Introduction," in ed. William J. Slater, Dining in a Classical Context (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1991): 1-5.
- Lissarague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: 7. In this passage, Lissarague alludes to the expression used by the Greeks to indicated a person who drinks heavily and to the point of inebriation: "to drink like a Scythian." He notes that the origin of this phrase stems from the story of King Kleomenes of Sparta, who "died a madman from having drunk too much pure wine in the company of Scythian envoys."
- Martin Robertson, The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 27.
- Lissarague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: 81.
- Lissarague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: 81.