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Debauchery in ancient Athens

Why would someone want to go to a symposium?

What really went on at ancient Greek house parties? In this article, Daniel Woon explores what people gained in a personal sense from attending a symposium, with an emphasis on Athenian sources.

Written by Daniel Woon on

Rhetoric practices and reciprocal attitudes were the basis upon which Athenian society was grounded.Show O. Murray, “Sympotic history”, p. 9. The oikos was closely associated to the infrastructure of the polis.Show J. Roy, “Polis and oikos in classical Athens”, Greece and Rome 46.1 (1999), p. 1. See also Arist. Pol. 3.1276b1.

Consequently, the symposium, which is described as being held in the andron (a male-only space within the oikos) conformed to the reciprocal values and mimicked Athenian society.Show L. Nevett, “Gender relations in the Classical Greek household: the archaeological evidence”, Annual of the British School at Athens 90 (1995), p. 369. Following the democratic tradition of Athens, the symposiarch was the elected host of the symposium.

This meant that the kurios – the head of the household – was not necessarily the host of the symposium (Pl. Symp. 213e-214ap). There are even examples of when an attendee elected himself as the symposiarch. The role of symposiarch was highly prestigious as it was his responsibility to organise and provide food, wine, conversation and entertainment.

These were the basic personal benefits that an individual attending a symposium might acquire. However, the possible rewards also entailed risks, which could be detrimental to an individual’s reputation.

Yet we find accounts and evidence suggesting that these gatherings took place frequently. The risks that will be explored in this article will highlight a high-stake gamble that offered rewards of great personal value and risks of equal impact.

Euripides’s Cyclops includes a “mock symposium” which highlights some defining features of a symposium, which consisted of reclining, discussions, garlands, banter, and lust (Eur. Cyc. 544; 548; 559; 572; 582-9). These provide a useful insight that will enable a better understanding of the motivations behind an individual attending.

Reclining

Reclining at symposia offered a personal reward as a symposium provided the opportunity to display a level of elegance by reclining on what was a shared couch – a symbol of luxury used exclusively by symposiasts.Show F. Cooper and S. Morris, “Dining in round buildings”, in: O. Murray (ed.), SYMPOTICA (1990), p. 77. If one demonstrated his knowledge of sophistication successfully then he would be accepted as a fellow symposiast.

On the other hand, if he were not successful then he would be mocked, as is apparent in Aristophanes’ Wasps, a comedy where Bdelycleon teaches Philocleon how to recline correctly (Ar. Wasps. 1208-64). This indicates that anyone who did not know how to recline gracefully was subjected to mockery and humiliation.

Therefore, the reward of having knowledge on how to recline would have granted you a seat on the couch yet the risk was that if you failed, you would have been considered a social outcast. In Athens social outcasts were liable to lose their citizenship and many would have been ostracised.Show Ostracism was a ten-year exile. See J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1998), p. 298.

An attendee of a symposium would have spent the majority of his evening in the reclined position. Physical evidence gathered from sympotic amphorae (see below) reveals that the correct way in which symposiasts reclined would have been to the left, on their left elbow, leaving their right arm free and their left arm close to their body.

When reviewing red-figure pottery there is a feeling of order and symmetry in that every symposiast painted had a beard to define him as a man and they were all in the same reclined position. This suggests that a symposium was organised in an orderly fashion.

The agenda of symposia

The symposiarch was responsible for the agenda, the scheduling of the banquet, the distribution of wine, which fell afterwards, and the topic of conversation – the highlight of the evening.Show P. Stadter, Plutarch and His Roman Readers (2015), p. 111 The symposium commenced with a banquet, which was distributed evenly to the guests.

There were two food groups that are heavily mentioned by Greek writers. They describe a diet formed heavily of carbohydrates called sitos, which were primarily cereals and breads. These foods were considered the standard in Athenian society and were ideally complimented with garnishings such as olive oil and cheese, known as opson.

The proper way to dine at symposia was to recline, taking sitos with the left hand and opson with the right, suggesting that this was a sophisticated banquet.Show J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes, p. 23.

The kinds of food available

Sympotic banquets would have entailed the following foods: she-goat, pork, blood sausage, bread, olives, cheese, figs and sometimes fish. For dessert (tragemata) various fresh fruits and dried figs would have been available.Show L. Bruit, “The meal at the Hyakinthia: ritual consumption and offering”, in: O. Murray (ed.), SYMPOTICA (1990), p. 163.

The variety of food offered would have attracted many individuals from a culture with a love for food, indicating that food was a personal reward (Arist. Eth. Nic.1118b). Attendance to a symposium would have been dictated by the quality of the feast with which the symposia commenced.

Additionally, the banquet was an opportunity to demonstrate one’s generosity to provide food for other people.Show L. Bruit, “The meal at the Hyakinthia”, p. 163. This spectrum alludes to an expectation of balance and control. A defining attribute of Greek masculinity was how a man asserted his power and his ability to control himself in life.Show J. Roisman, “The rhetoric of courage in the Athenian orators”, in: R.M. Rosen and I. Sluiter (eds), Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (2002), p. 127.

The symposium was a platform to exhibit control by both the guests and especially the symposiarch as he was the host.

Alcohol

Soon after stomachs were lined, the drinking began. It was customary in Greece to drink a red wine in honour of the Greek God Dionysos from sympotic kylikes. Wine of about sixteen per cent would have been watered down and contained in a krater.Show O. Murray, “The culture of the symposion’, in K. Raaflaub and H. van Wees (eds), A Comparison to Archaic Greece (2009), p. 515.

The potency of the alcohol contributed to the satisfaction of the guests and its strength or weakness demonstrated the symposiarch’s wealth and power – or lack of it. It was also a chance to display control as the symposiarch instructed when it was time for another round.

Control over the percentage of alcohol within the wine and when it was consumed served the purpose of maintaining a balance between nephein and kraipalan.Show E. Pellizer, “Outlines of a morphology of sympotic entertainment”, in: O. Murray (ed.), SYMPOTICA (1990), p.178.This was to avoid potential implications this could have had on the symposiarch.

If he neglected this then he would be left with either sober and therefore dull guests or violent and problematic ones, neither of which were desirable, and so the role of the symposiarch was to stabilise this, demonstrating his ability to control and construct a popular atmosphere within the symposium. Wider implication could mean further invitations to other parties and a celebrity reputation within his local community.

The opening of Plato’s Socratic dialogue, The Symposium, provides an example of this when two characters, Apollodorus and an unnamed companion, catch up to discuss the events of Agathon’s symposium (Pl. Symp. 172b.). Neither of the two characters had attended the dinner party, yet they sought to recollect its events.

The tone used by Plato in the text and the attempt to gain an insight indicated that they felt a sense of envy and regret for not having attended. This supports the argument that Athenians sought the personal rewards that came with symposia or otherwise regretted it.

Entertainment

Various forms of sympotic entertainment were a major contribution to the appeal of a symposium. Xenophon’s Symposium features a Syracusan who brought with him a dancing girl who was skilled in acrobatics and an attractive boy who was a good dancer and musician (Xen. Symp. 1.16-2.2).

An excited response from the guests indicates that they would have enjoyed these performances. There was also a failed comedian present named Philip, who explained that he used to be invited to dinner to bring laughter and joy to members of the symposium (Xen. Symp. 1.15-16). This indicated that comedy was also used to entertain guests. What can be learnt from this is that by bringing entertainment to the group granted you access and invitations to future symposia.

Kylix, ca. 480 BC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession number: 20.246. Left obverse, right reverse.

Flute-girls (aulētrides) were typically hired to entertain guests at symposia with their musical abilities. They could also be eroticized, but it would be a mistake – as colleagues have pointed out to us on Twitter – to assume that they were also prostituted.Show See: Max L. Goldman, “Associating the Aulêtris: flute girls and prostitutes in the Classical Greek symposium”, Helios 42.1 (2015), pp. 29-60; R.F. Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens: Gender, Ethnicity, and Citizenship in the Classical City (2014).

Sex workers were present at symposia, depending on who could afford them. Hetairai were the high-class sex workers of Greece: they were renowned for their participation in the logos sympotikos.Show E. Pellizer, “Outlines of a morphology of sympotic entertainment”, p.179; but see also: R.F. Kennedy, “Elite citizen women and the origins of the Hetaira in Classical Athens”, Helios 42.1 (2015), pp. 29-60, regarding the misleading wife-whore dichotomy that underpins a lot of scholarship in this field.

The logos sympotikos refers to a form of contest between symposiasts (see also Pl. Symp. 194a). When a contest emerged, the victor would receive individual recognition by the sympotic group and the agreement of sexual gratification by the sex workers available.

The logos sympotikos

Plato’s Symposium asks the question, “shall we have conversation or songs?” (Pl. Symp. 214b-c), suggesting that the highlight of the evening was either musical performance or intellectual conversation, upon which the symposiasts decided to compete in conversation, each attempting to offer the greatest speech dedicated to the god of love.

The epilogue of all sympotic texts appears to be the sophisticated discussion about topics chosen by the symposiarch. It is obvious by the works written by classical sources that this was an aspect of symposia very much enjoyed by the attendees. The use of flirtatious language and witty banter demonstrated a symposiast’s linguistic rhetoric capabilities.

The distinction between physical and verbal performance was next to non-existent as it was just as glorious to win on the battlefield as it was in the logos sympotikos. A sense of verbal wrestling can be deduced from a scene in Plato’s Symposium where Socrates “pressed the others to agree” (Pl. Symp. 223d).

The language used in this passage indicated a clear understanding of how rhetoric ability was just as important as battlefield bravery.

Conclusion

So, why would someone want to go to a symposium? The answer is that it appealed to basic human desires, offering lavish foods, drinking excess amounts of alcohol at the expense of someone else, sexual gratification and interesting conversation.

The rewards outweighed the risks because reciprocity was imbedded within their culture and people had no choice but to conform. The symposium provided the platform to demonstrate one’s level of sophistication through sympotic expressions.

Corrections

An earlier version of this article assumed that flute-girls were also sex-workers. Maximum Planudes (@lpoldybloom) and Rebecca Futo Kennedy (@kataplexis) were quick to note the error, pointing to more recent scholarship. We’ve corrected this mistake and added references in the accompanying footnote to Max Goldman’s article in Helios (2015) and Prof. Kennedy’s book, Immigrant Women in Athens: Gender, Ethnicity, and Citizenship in the Classical City (2014). We’ve also added a footnote to Prof. Kennedy’s article in Helios regarding hetairai. Based on a comment from Dr Emlyn Dodd (@emlynkd), we’ve added a footnote to clarify a statement on the alcohol content of ancient wine.

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