Greek Drinking Parties
Robert Garland examines the makeup of the Greek symposium.
The most famous drinking-party in ancient Greece was held at the house of a young tragic poet called Agathon in 416 BC following the victory of his first play in the dramatic contest of that year. Because some of those present were suffering from hangovers, the company decided to drink only a modest amount of wine. In addition, they elected to dispense with the services of a hired flute-girl, preferring to provide their own entertainment instead by delivering encomia in honour of Eros, god of Love. When Socrates, the last to speak, came to the end of his speech, the party was interrupted by the arrival of a young aristocrat called Alcibiades, already the worse for drink, who tried to make everyone tipsy by forcing them to consume large quantities of wine. Eventually he was persuaded to settle down and agreed to follow the procedure laid down by the others. The party continued till dawn, with Socrates still discoursing indefatigably and completely unaffected by all the alcohol he had consumed. With the exception of the comic poet Aristophanes, with whom Socrates was conversing on the subject of poetry, the rest of his interlocutors were asleep beside him.
The symposium or drinking-party described here by Plato in his dialogue of that name is certainly more decorous than many that took place in ancient Greece. Doubtless the average fifth-century Athenian, no less than his modern counterpart, would have preferred to listen to a pretty girl playing the flute rather than hear a discourse on love. Plato is probably guilty of some exaggeration, however, when in The Laws he puts into the mouth of an Athenian who has made symposia the subject of sociological inquiry the claim, 'I have never yet seen or heard of one that was properly conducted from beginning to end. Here and there a few minor details may not have been amiss, but by and large I have found universal bad management.' The dialogue from which this extract is taken was Plato's last work, written a few years before his death, and this statement is no doubt a reflection of the bitterness of his old age. Though the earlier Symposium give. a somewhat idealized picture of a Greek drinking-party, it is clear that such gatherings, aside from their obvious. social importance, played a key role in the educational, cultural, political and religious life of the Greek world. But before discussing its importance, a few words about what a symposium actually was.
The word symposium refers to the communal drinking of wine which took place at the conclusion of a dinner. Only after the tables had been cleared away, the garlands distributed, the libations performed, and a hymn sung, was it permitted, according to Greek custom, to begin drinking. The symposiasts did not sit but reclined on couches, a custom probably learned by the Eastern Greeks from their neighbours around the turn of the seventh century BC. The Roman writer Plutarch defines a symposium as a 'passing of time over wine, which, guided by gracious behaviour, ends in friendship.'
The preservation of orderly conduct among the drinkers was in the hands of a 'master of drinking', known as a symposiarch, who had the power to inflict a penalty for any infringement of the rules. The fourth-century writer Theophrastus has provided us with some examples of bad behaviour at a drinking-party. These include: dropping one's cup while the company is at prayer and bursting out laughing, tapping or whistling an accompaniment to the flute-girl’s playing, and spitting across the table at the wine-pourer. Election to the role of symposiarch was often made on the throw of dice, so that management of the drinking more frequently devolved on one of the guests than on the host. His inaugural duty was to determine the proportion of parts in the mixture of wine and water, since, except in toasting, the Greeks regarded the drinking of neat wine as both dangerous and barbaric. In fact, among certain Greeks there existed a law which expressly forbade the drinking of unmixed wine except on doctor's orders and under penalty of death, It was also left to the symposiarch to fix in advance bow many cups should be drunk by each member of the party, for only rarely was the individual allowed to determine the quantity of his own drinking.
From the fourth century onwards, well-appointed Greek houses had specially constructed dining-rooms known as androns which are easily identifiable in archaeological excavations because of possessing an off-centre doorway, so placed in order to accommodate the couches which were set against the walls. The couches themselves were made either of wood or stone. In front of each was set a three-legged table on which the food was laid out and the symposiast rested his cup. Increasingly in the course of the fourth century and later androns were built with mosaic floors and painted walls, and from the evidence of vases it seems that they were decorated with elaborate furnishings.
Drinking and sexual activity was regarded by the Greeks as not wholly incompatible. Though a sympotic setting is not invariably indicated, scenes of love-making on Greek vases are probably to be interpreted as taking place in such a context. The earlier black-figure vases favour homosexual encounters, but in red-figure, heterosexuals are more to the fore. All positions of love-making are shown, as well as a bizarre range of sexual aids, including the slipper, which, as Boardman notes, is doubtless wielded to add piquancy.
Pederasty, which formed the basis of Greek aristocratic education, was actively fostered and indeed institutionalised by the atmosphere of the symposium. Book II of the collection of poems which are traditionally ascribed to Theognis of Megara, which was intended for recitation at a symposium, is an exposition of the pleasures and pitfalls of this kind of love. It is his pederastic inclinations which stir the poet to teach and there is much that has to be learnt that pertains to conduct at the symposium. The historian Herodotus tells us that Cleisthenes, the sixth-century tyrant of Sicyon in the Peloponnese, announced that contenders for the hand of his daughter should present themselves before him to undergo scrutiny. 'The younger men,' writes Herodotus, 'he took out to the gymnasium, but especially he tested them at the symposium.' Conversation and musical accomplishment were both on trial, A young Athenian called Hippocleides proved an easy winner until he called for a dance-tune from the flautist. Carried away by his own virtuosity, he proceeded to stand on his head and beat time with his legs in the air, drawing the comment from Cleisthenes, 'Hippocleides, you have danced away your bride.'
To be a good symposiast, you had to be able to play the 'capping game'. The rules were as follows: either the first player recited a line from poetry and the second had to 'cap it' by quoting the next verse, or one player recited a passage of poetry and the next had to quote from another poet who had spoken to similar effect. It goes without saying that such games could only become popular in a society or social group which had an easy familiarity with the works of its own poets; conversely familiarity would itself be fostered in a social context in which it was demanded.
Other skills required by the symposiast were of a less intellectual kind. They included skill at the game of cottabus , which merely required a certain dexterity of the arm. The method of playing was such: a piece of wood was fixed into a hole in the floor or to some kind of support, and a cross-beam was placed on top with a shallow vessel at either end. Under each vessel stood a platter filled with water with an object fixed upright in the centre. The purpose of the game was to aim a drop of wine from a cup into one of the pans, causing it to descend and strike the object, thus making a noise. The winner was the player who spilled the least wine and made the most noise.
Of the dances performed at the symposium, most famous of all was the lewd cordax, which, says Theophrastus, only a madman would dance when sober. Such dances doubtless required some energetic movements. At the end of Aristophanes' comedy The Wasps , the chorus urge, 'Whirl around, punch yourself in the belly, hurl your leg sky-high, became spinning-tops.'
The political dimension of the drinking-party is indicated by the fact that many of the songs which were sung by the drinkers were politically inspired. The most famous of these songs at Athens celebrated the murder of Hipparchus, brother of the tyrant Hippias, by Harmodius and Aristogeiton in 513 BC. It seems to have become something of a national anthem, though it may have originated in the circle of Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy. In addition, it was at a meeting of a drinking club that the proposal was made to mutilate stone statues known as herms, an act which was certainly politically inspired, being intended to spread consternation through the city and prevent the sailing of the expedition to Sicily in 415 BC.
There seems to have been a significant connection between wine-drinking and religion. A Greek child's first taste of wine marked its formal admittance into the religious community. On the second day of the spring festival of flowers known as the Anthesteria, an Athenian child, upon reaching its third year, would be presented with a wreath, a wreathed juglet called chous , and a small cart. The ceremony thus had something of the flavour of religious confirmation, In addition, every stage of the symposium was marked by a traditional religious act. Before the drinking began, the first few drops of unmixed wine were poured in honour of the Agathos Daimon , who saw that the atmosphere in the symposium remained cordial. This ceremony was followed by three libations. It was also customary to sing a hymn to the gods, either during or after the libations. Before the party broke up, a triple paean was sung in honour of Apollo, followed by a hymn to the goddess Hygieia. Some kind of purificatory rite was performed at the close of the symposium, and possibly before its commencement as well.
Although in the world of the Homeric poems, women take their place at dinner seated beside their husbands, in later periods it became the rule that only hired women, such as hetairai , were permitted to attend such social gatherings. It is fundamentally misleading to translatehetaira as prostitute, though the profession certainly included women of that sort. Many were highly accomplished and well-educated: we learn of one hetaira who was the pupil of Plato and another who was the pupil of Epicurus.
In addition to hetairai , who ministered diversely, there were also flute-girls and dancing-girls to provide a musical accompaniment. As we have seen, the flute-girl is dismissed by the symposiasts at Agathon's party, and on the subject of hired entertainers generally, Socrates, in Plato's Protagoras , has this to say: 'Where the drinkers are men of worth and culture, you will find no girls piping or dancing or harping. They are quite capable of enjoying their own company without such frivolous non- sense, using their own voices in sober discussion and each taking his turn to speak or listen, even if the drinking is really heavy.' Xenophon's Symposium, on the other hand, which shows Socrates positively delighting in the acrobatics of the hired entertainers and even deigning to make a spectacle of himself by emulating their movements, presents a very different picture of the philosopher. Interestingly, one of the earliest laws to survive regulating hours of labour refers to the hire of flute-girls according to three separate shifts: dawn till noon, noon till after dark, and after dark till dawn. Passed at Colophon in Asia Minor it was evidently intended to protect the profession against exploitation by seasoned symposiasts who could go on drinking round the clock. Conversely, flute-girls were themselves subject to price-control: a statement in Aristotle's Constitution of Athens says that in Athens in the fourth century it was forbidden by law to charge more than two drachmas for their hire.
At the conclusion of a symposium, or when moving from one symposium to the next, the drinkers would komazein, that is to say, roam the streets in a gang. It is just such a crowd of 'komasts', headed by Alcibiades, that gate-crash Agathon's party. 'No sooner had they sat down than the whole place was in an uproar,' Plato writes. The orator Demosthenes in his speech Against Conan gives us the exact flavour of these komoi , which frequently led to violence and cases of drunken assault. Conon in his youth had belonged to a hetaery known as the Triballi: the name, that of a wild barbarian tribe, does not inspire confidence. The names of those to which his sons belonged, the Erect Phalloi and Self-Lubricators, hint at unmentionable rites of initiation. Assaults were not uncommon at symposia themselves. The famous incident in Greek mythology of the attempted abduction by the Centaurs of the Lapith women at the wedding feast of Perithoos is the archetypal drinking party gone wrong. It formed the basis for the second-century AD satirist Lucian's description of a symposium attended by philosophers of rival schools which degenerated into a bloody rumpus involving a broken head, a smashed jaw, a gauged-out eye, and several broken teeth.
It is clear that many Greeks were both mystified by and fearful of the effects of wine upon the brain and that they viewed the spectacle of extreme intoxication with genuine horror. Comic writers, however, saw the funnier side of drunkenness. One described its effects as follows: 'The first cup is to health, the second to love and pleasure, the third to sleep, the fourth to violence, the fifth to uproar, the sixth to drunken revel, the seventh to black eyes, the eighth to the summoner, the ninth to bile, and the tenth to madness and throwing chairs around.' The physical symptoms of drunkenness were of scientific interest to Aristotle who wrote a treatise on the subject containing this empirically-based observation; 'Under the influence of all other alcoholic beverages, people who get drunk fall in all directions, to the left, to the right, on their faces, and on their backs. But those who drink pinon (barley wine) only fall on their backs and lie supine.'
For Further Reading:
Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae (Professors at Dinner), (Loeb Classical Library [parallel Greek and English], Heinemann); Plato, The Symposium , (Penguin Books); J. Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases and Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Archaic Period (Thames and Hudson, 1974 and 1975); O. Murray, Early Greece , (Fontana, 1980); M. Vickers, Greek Symposia , (Joint Association of Classical Teachers).
- Robert Garland is a lecturer in Classics at Keele University and is at present completing a book on the Greek Way of Death.
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