Category: Plato in 80 entries

The symposium/banquet

The symposium (συμπόσιον), an ancient Greek word literally meaning “common drinking”, hence “banquet”, appears, neither as a term nor as a social institution, in Homer. In the form in which we know them the symposia (plural) were established in the 7th c. B.C. and came to be the basic means of entertainment and social interaction for the rich until late antiquity. Their decline is causally related to the rise of Christianity.

The symposium was an aristocratic institution with a relatively stable structure over time: the arrangement of space and the temporal stages of a symposium were well determined in advance. The participants, in groups of two (or less often three), reclined on couches arranged in a Π-shaped order such that they could enjoy eye-contact with one another. The position of their reclined torsos, supported by the left arm, permitted the free movement and use of the right hand. Low little tables full of food were placed in front of them. Prominent in the centre of the room was a large crater where wine was mixed with water, the normal proportion being one to three (for the weakening of wine’s strength was considered necessary for mortals). Household slaves treated the guests. The fragrance of incenses permeated the room.

A typical symposium began with a ritual invocation of the gods, continued with the consumption of prepared food, and culminated with the potos (lit. “drinking”), the longest part of the institution during which the participants, while always drinking wine, were conversing, singing, watching acrobatics and other performances, flirting, or playing games.

The ancient Greek symposium was a men-only affair. The only female presences allowed-in consisted of flute-playing girls, danseuses, cultivated hetaerae or common prostitutes, i.e. members of the unfree population, who contributed to the cultural, aesthetic and sensual entertainment of men. The symposium took place in the andrôn (“men’s apartment”). All female family members were restricted in the gynaikônitis (“women’s apartments”).

Especially in the Archaic age, the symposium was a very significant institution for public life. In those banquets the kaloi kagathoi (lit. “handsome and good”, hence “aristocrats”) discussed the social and political affairs of the day, made alliances, decided for common lines of political action, or even conspired for the overthrow of a tyrannical or democratic regime.

Besides the rich iconographical material with various sympotic scenes preserved on ancient vases, basic sources for our knowledge of ancient Greek banquets are the Symposium of Plato and Xenophon’s namesake literary work.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
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