The symposion as a main mode of entertainment and social interaction between wealthy Greeks became established in the 7th century, and survived well into Late Antiquity. This was an aristocratic institution of a relatively stable structure: both the arrangement of the space in which symposia were held, as well as the etiquette observed were largely fixed.

The institution

The institution of the symposium emerged and flourished in the Greek world during the Archaic period. As an affair involving wealthy individuals it can be viewed as the continuation of the dinners already described in Homer’s epics. In the Classical era symposia were very common in aristocratic circles, and they remained popular during Hellenistic times. In the Roman era they were replaced by other modes of entertainment. The term was preserved, however, in the larger sense of a ceremonial meal. Jesus invited the crowd of 5,000 people who had followed him to a deserted place to recline on the green grass and participate in the symposion he had organized with only five loaves of bread and two fish (Mark 6.39).

The participants, or symposiasts, who rarely numbered more than 30, arrived well-groomed and adorned with flowers. They would recline in pairs (or, more rarely, in groups of three) on couches placed against the three walls of the andrōn, so as to allow unobstructed eye contact between all. By reclining on their left hand they had free use of their right hand. Low side-tables with delicacies were placed in front of the couches, while the krater dominated in the middle of the room: this was a large vessel in which wine was mixed with water (the ratio was 1 part of wine to 3 or more parts of water). Household slaves attended to the guests. Incense was used to sweeten the air in the room. The symposium began -and was completed- with hymns and a ritual invocation of the gods; the deipnon (meal) followed next and then the poton, the longest part of the event, during which the participants conversed, sang, and were generally entertained by acrobats and other performers, engaged in flirtation or played games, all the while enjoying their wine. Their discussions revolved around various topics, usually trivia and current affairs, but also political, historical or even philosophical subjects.

The celebrated poet Theognis was worried over the possibility of frivolous and tiresome blathering.

To a talkative man silence is a sore burden, and his speech a weariness to his company; all hate him, and the mingling of such a man in a carousal cometh only of necessity. (Theognis 1.295-98, trans. J. M. Edmonds).

Many symposia ended up in drunkenness, about which Theognis also provides advice in his poems:

…drink not thou to excess, but either arise thou and go out privily before thou be drunken… But speak ye wisely albeit ye abide beside the bowl, withholding yourselves far115 from mutual strife, and speaking, whether ye address one or all, that any may hear; in this wise is a carousal a right pleasant thing. (Theognis 1.483-96, trans. J. M. Edmonds).

A symposium was a purely male affair. The only female presence allowed was that of the auletrides (flute players), orchestrides (dancers) and psaltries (harpers) or common prostitutes, i.e. members of the slave population, who participated to provide artistic, sensual or erotic entertainment for the men. The hetaerae invited, usually beautiful and cultivated, were in most cases free women but they did not originate from the class of citizens. The spouses and daughters of the citizens were confined to the women’s quarters (gynaikōnites). Symposia played an important role in politics. Symposiasts commented on current affairs, formed alliances, decided on common courses of action, even conspired sometimes to overturn a tyrant or neutralize a political leader.

Two famous symposia

Several extant symposiastic poems provide a wealth of information on ancient symposia, as does the pictorial decoration of numerous pottery vessels, most of which were employed in such gatherings. The Symposium of Plato and that by Xenophon were works that established a new philosophical genre, greatly enhancing the future fame of symposia. In Plato’s Symposium the gathering has been organized by a prizewinning poet as a victory feast. Socrates arrives, as symposium etiquette ordained, freshly bathed and wearing his sandals, something that he was not in the habit of doing. He is also accompanied by an uninvited friend of his. Both of them arrive somewhat belatedly. A slave receives them, washes their feet and leads them to their couch. Seated first on the left is their host. They dine, make libations and sing a hymn to the god. The wine drinking comes next. They keep reminding each other that, according to Medicine, inebriation is harmful. Yet they all proceed to drink as much as each can handle. At some point they ask the flute girl to retreat, she could leave or entertain the women of the house, and the party begin their discussion, on a subject mutually agreed beforehand. As time goes by, more people find out about the symposium, and a band of uninvited komastai (revelers) show up at the gate. They hope they will also be admitted. In the end some of the participants leave, while others have fallen asleep on their couches. Socrates, who has drank more than anyone else but has remained sober, helps them settle down and soon makes his way to start another day. The time is early in the morning.

In Xenophon’s work, the symposium is not prearranged. It is organized by an affluent Athenian on the spur of the moment. Socrates and the other guests are hesitant at first, but arrive at his house in the end. They exercise, bathe, and perfume themselves before entering the chamber and taking their places on the couches. As they are dinning in silence, a jester knocks on the door, hoping to tell a few jokes and thus earn his meal and his drink. As the slaves are clearing the tables, the participants make libations and sing a paean. A Syracusan specialist, paid for this job, will provide entertainment. He is accompanied by a flute player and a dancer. The girl dances as she throws twelve hoops in the air, catching them before they fall. They then bring a wheel ring with swords affixed around it. The dancer jumps through it, without hurting herself. The slaves keep everyone’s drinking vessels topped up. A young male singer plays his lyre to the accompaniment of the flute. A pantomime performance completes the show. A young slave girl dressed as Ariadne sits on a throne. Another male slave, playing Dionysus in the nude, dances in front of her, sits on her lap, and passionately kisses her on the mouth. Seeing the youths retiring to the marital bed, the symposiasts depart in a hurry; some head home to join their wives, others in search of a bride. Socrates prepares for his walk.

By the early Imperial era real symposia had become extinct, yet the literary genre retained its prestige. It was successfully employed by Plutarch and Athenaeus, who composed a lengthy work rich in multifarious information. A popular work composed by the ecclesiastic author Methodius confirms the distance from the Classical original: it is entitled Banquet [Symposion] of the Ten Virgins, or On Chastity. The protagonists are all women discussing the virtues of virginity.

Author: Dimitris Kyrtatas
  • Murray, O. ed. Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposium. Oxford, 1990.
  • Lissarrague, Fr. The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: Images of Wine and Ritual. Princeton, 1990.
  • Wecowski, M. The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet. Oxford, 2014.
  • Hobden, F. The Symposium in Greek Society and Thought. Cambridge, 2013.
  • Dunbabin, K. M. D. The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Klotz, F., Oikonomopoulou, K. eds. The Philosopher’s Banquet: Plutarch’s Table Talk in the Intellectual Culture of the Roman Empire. Oxford, 2011.
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