Significance. One of the most important leisure activities in Greece was the symposium. The symposium was, on the one hand, a drinking party: its name is derived from the words sun and posis and literally means “drinking together.” It was, on the other hand, a complex institution that had important social and political implications. Perhaps no other institution reveals more about the lives of Greek citizen males, and about class and gender ideology.
Exclusive Club. Meals assume a great symbolic importance in all cultures. For the Greeks, eating together had the function of asserting the cohesiveness of the community: all citizens in Athens could get an equal share of sacrificial meat, while Spartan men ate at communal messes to reinforce their sense of being an army, not just a citizen body. The symposium is an application of this principle to smaller, more exclusive groups: not the whole citizen body, but a self-defined, exclusive subset of that group. The symposium was a leisure activity of upper-class males, whose bonding was designed to exclude others: women, noncitizen males, and males who were political or social rivals of the symposiasts.
Evidence. The history of the symposium can be traced back to Homer. In the Iliad and Odyssey (both written around the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e.) feasting among the leading warriors is an important social occasion, one by which the harmony of the elite social order is reasserted (in contrast to the breakdowns in the social order caused by war, or by Penelope’s unruly suitors). While these are fictitious works, they reflected the ideals of the poet and the audience he composed for, so it may be assumed that formalized aristocratic dining rituals existed well before 700 b.c.e. At about this time, new rituals began to be imported from Lydia, such as the practice of lying down at the table. It is at this time that the drinking part of the evening (the symposium proper) was separated from the dinner which preceded it, and the complex rituals of the symposium developed.
Proper Etiquette. Sometimes friends, or the members of a club or association, would arrange to share expenses of the meal, each contributing his portion known as an eranos. The more exalted form of the symposium, however, involved hosts rich enough to pay the expenses themselves and to provide a suitable atmosphere. Guests upon arrival would remove their shoes and have their feet washed by slaves. Seating was on couches in the andrôn (the men’s quarters or dining room): five, seven, or eleven couches were the norm, with usually two guests per couch. Larger rooms are not unheard of, but since a primary purpose of the symposium was to create an intimate atmosphere for bonding among the guests, this tended to limit the size of the rooms. Because of the presence of a door in one of the walls, there was a recognizable hierarchy in seating, with a head place for the host, and other places reserved for honored and less-honored guests (the practice of bringing friends along seems to have been common).
Libations. Dinner came first (presumably with wine), then the symposium proper began. First, a slave came around to allow the guests to wash their hands; at this point they were crowned with wreaths of laurel leaves or flowers, and perhaps anointed with perfume. Next, libations were poured to the gods, in particular to Dionysus, the god of wine (here called the agathos daimôn, or “good divinity,” for giving humans the gift of wine). The libation would involve taking a small sip of unmixed wine (the only time that unmixed wine would be drunk during a well-ordered symposium) and sprinkling a few drops of it on the ground. Hymns to Dionysus were also sung.
Wine Preparation. The next step was to choose a symposiarch (leader of the symposium). This person was responsible for fixing the proportions of wine and water, for telling the guests when and how much to drink, and directing the evening’s activities (which might consist of speeches, songs, or other contributions from each of the guests). The ritual of mixing and serving wine was a complex one, involving certain shapes of vessels, certain proportions of mixing, and certain ways of drinking. A large open bowl, known as a kratêr (the source of the English word crater, from its shape), was used for mixing the wine. The water added could be cold or warm (sometimes snow was added, an ostentatious gesture in a country where snow was rare and refrigeration nonexistent). A mixture of half wine and half water was considered dangerously strong; three-to-one and four-to-one seem to be the usual limits. After the wine was mixed, it would be ladled into a jug by a slave, then taken around to serve the individual guests. The cup used by guests might be a goblet or a particular form known as the kulix, a shallow, open bowl on a stand and a handle on
each side. The shape of the kulix, in addition to being useful for playing the game kottabos, was desirable since it allowed for decoration on the round, flat interior surface. Cups, bowls, and serving vessels for symposia were usually decorated with scenes appropriate to the symposiastic atmosphere: these could include pictures of Dionysus and scenes of drinking or sexual acts. The effect was to create a symposiastic world that closed in on itself: the symposiasts saw that everything around them reflected the world of the symposium, which would not only increase the intensity and pleasure of the experience, but also help cement the bond among the participants.
Drunkenness. The ideal symposium would involve drinking enough to get drunk, but not enough to make participants lose control. The symposiarch would tell everyone how much to drink: drinking would be in unison, usually involving giving a toast to each guest, or with each guest in turn singing a song. Guests who failed to perform properly would have to pay a forfeit devised by the symposiarch. The symposiarch would also determine the number of kraters to be drunk, either beforehand or as he went along. In a play by the comic poet Eubulus, Dionysus announces that three is the appropriate number for sensible people: “one for health, the second for eros and pleasure, and the third for sleep; when the third is finished, wise guests head home.” He continues listing the results of additional kratêres: hubris, black eyes, shouting, legal proceedings, and finally—after ten of them—“madness and people throwing furniture around.” A well-ordered symposium ended with everyone pleasantly drunk, and then heading home in a procession (a kômos, from which the word comedy may be derived); but as may be expected, things often got out of hand.
Other Activities. The symposium was a place not only for drinking, but for poetry, music, games, talk, and sex—each of these individually, or in various combinations. In the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.), Greek lyric poetry evolved in the context of the symposium: it is often explicitly about how to run a symposium, but it is also concerned with matters such as love. Music was often provided by the guests themselves, who would play the lyre and sing—either the old lyric songs, or patriotic songs (in Athens, a popular song praised Harmodius and Aristogeiton, famed for killing a tyrant), or lyric passages from tragedies. There were also, in the wealthier houses, hired entertainers: in some cases male poets, singers, mimes, dancers, or acrobats, but often flute girls, who provided an exception to the rule that only men attended symposia. Flute girls were not respectable women of the citizen class, and in many cases doubled as prostitutes. The exclusion of women was not merely motivated by a desire to preserve an all-male world, but by a desire to protect women from the sexual attention of men (the same impulse that led to the construction of women’s quarters within the house).
Homoeroticism. The symposium also functioned as a place where male homoeroticism could find full expression. Greek adult males were routinely attracted to both women and adolescent males, and the all-male, erotically charged atmosphere of the symposium was a perfect place to forge erotic bonds as well as social and political ones (indeed, the erotic and the political often overlapped, and a youth’s choice of lovers could be a way of making alliances for the future). A tomb painting from the Greek colony of Paestum, in southern Italy, has a memorable vignette of symposium culture. Guests are reclining on three couches: on the rightmost couch, a man is courting a youth (depicted as beardless), who responds by touching the man’s chest. On the center couch, one of the guests looks back with evident jealousy, while his couch-mate is busily engaged in a game of kottabos.
Popular Game. Although there were other games played at the symposium, kottabos is the best known. The game involved holding one’s kulix by the handle (a ring-shaped handle, like that on a coffee mug) and using it to fling the remains of wine toward a target. While doing so, it was customary to shout out the name of one’s beloved: winning at kottabos was thought to predict erotic success. Variants included trying to knock a disk off a metal rod, or trying to sink targets floating in a basin of water. The game was also played in public baths and was so much a part of the popular consciousness that the Athenian politician Theramenes parodied it with his dying gesture. Condemned to death by Critias and the Thirty Tyrants, he finished his cup of hemlock, flicked the last drops on the ground, and said “Good health to noble Critias!”
Socrates. There were also conversation and intellectual games of various sorts: charades, riddles, and a variety of word games. In this context can be placed the two surviving literary representations of symposia, those by the fourth-century Athenian authors Plato and Xenophon. In each case, the symposium has Socrates as a guest (both authors were his followers), and the guests take turns making speeches about the nature of desire. In Xenophon’s Symposium (circa 430-circa 356 b.c.e.) the speeches are frivolous and lighthearted and interspersed with entertainment from mimes, dancers, and acrobats. At the end the eroticism of the dancers inspires the guests to rush home to their wives, and the symposium ends in an orderly (if hasty) way. It is not an entirely typical example (the presence of Socrates reminds us that this is a literary work with philosophical implications), but it is probably accurate in reflecting the mix of entertainment, semiserious conversation, and eroticism that went on at many symposia.
Serious Conversation. Plato’s Symposium (circa 380-360 b.c.e.) is altogether atypical. A group of guests gather at the house of the tragic playwright Agathon to celebrate the victory he had won in the previous day’s dramatic festival. Since they are so hung over from the previous night’s celebrations, they decide to dispense with mandatory drinking and allow each guest to drink as much or as little as he wants. A further break with tradition occurs when the flute girl is sent away, leaving the guests alone to talk about serious matters. Proceeding around the room in turn, each guest makes a speech in praise of Eros, the god of sexual desire. The speeches are complex, philosophical, and entirely devoted to homoerotic desire—women (like the flute girl) are excluded symbolically as well as literally. The climactic speech is that of Socrates, which he claims to have learned from a priestess named Diotima (a complex irony in this all-male world), and which imparts Platonic doctrines on the nature of desire and its relation to the life of philosophy. The symposium reverts to a wilder form, however, when the young political hero Alcibiades crashes the party, and eventually the evening degenerates into wild drinking, with guests falling asleep on their couches and only Socrates left awake at the end. In creating such a fantasy world, Plato showed some of the possibilities inherent in the form of the symposium and also exposed its limitations. After Plato, the fictitious symposium became a popular literary genre, and the word symposium today refers not to an occasion for drinking, but for serious conversation.
Women’s Equivalent. No formal institution equivalent to the symposium existed for women. Assuredly there were gatherings of women of all classes, especially of those who had leisure time. On many occasions this group activity must have involved sharing meals. Yet, except for public festivals and religious ceremonies, which are well documented, there is relatively little information about women’s communal leisure activities. The fact that almost all historical sources were produced by men, combined with the men’s reluctance to talk about what women’s life in the home was like, leaves modern scholars with little to go on. The standard stereotype about women was that they were overly fond of wine, sex, gossip, and luxury: how much truth, if any, lay behind this is open to debate. In a world in which women were not citizens of the cities they inhabited, and in which they were almost entirely shut off from public life, at-home amusements must have been extremely important.
Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977).
Francois Lissarague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: Images of Wine and Ritual (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).