Different Images Of Symposiums That Have The Same Meaning

The Greek symposium is represented in many example of literature, both ancient and recent, as well as in visual art such as vases and mosaics. Often the dependability of such sources needs to be questioned for many reasons. For example, who the writer or artist was and if they had an extensive knowledge of the symposium, the context of the art or literature and the audience it is created to be aimed at. These are all important aspects when looking into whether such sources can give us a clear view of the role of the symposium in Greek culture and if so, why.

A symposium was usually a drinking party, held after a banquet, often to talk about a specific subject. Participants were known as symposiasts and would recline on a pillowed couch, on their left side, holding wine and/or food with their right. Young men, if in attendance did not recline. A symposium would typically involve games, songs, flute girls and slaves performing for entertainment. The drinking was overseen by a symposiarch who would decide how much the wine would be diluted (with water) and how many kraters (jugs) they would drink throughout the course of the evening, though this limit was often not observed . The dilution of wine was done because drinking pure, unmixed wine was seen to be uncivilised. A fragment from a play by Eubulus, written in c. 4 BCE shows these standards for the volume of wine one would set to drink to a symposium :

“For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more – it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness”

This is evidence for the idea that it was considered uncivilised to drink large quantities of wine, this also acted as a reminder to what such a lack of responsibility would lead to and how this was commonly viewed.

Verses from an Elegy of Dionysius Chalcus quoted by Athenaes show the presence of song an elegies were common in the drinking rites of a symposium. “To pour hymns like wine from left to right for you and us” Pouring hymns like wine indicates that this was a common occurrence in symposia and was often done in large quantities supporting Schenker’s idea. Bowie also uses the Elegies of Theognis saying that “Theognis predicts that Cyrnus will be present at all feasts and banquets, lying in many men’s mouths, and says ‘with clear-voiced auliskoi young men will sing of you fairly and clearly’” this shows that there is likely sympotic song and praise during a symposium and is a common occurrence. Bowie drew the conclusion that elegiac poetry (a poem of mourning) was closely associated with the symposium and claims that there is no other evidence of this being performed in any other context. The talks about how sympotic elegy often included narratives of the city’s history and can sometimes resemble hexameter epic (a metric line or verses consisting of six feet used as the standard epic metre in Greek and Latin literature. Examples include, The Odyssey and The Aeneid). There can also be some ‘personal’ poetry, though this would more commonly be performed and public festivals such as the festival of Dionysus (the god of wine, winemaking, cultivation, fertility, ritual madness, theatre and religious ecstasy).

The evidence used by both arguments offer practical explanations of what happened at a symposium helping us to understand its role. They were also written by people of the time meaning that they have a reliable viewpoint and explanation of such an ancient tradition.

Other examples of symposia being discussed in ancient text is Thy Symposium By, Plato where he portrays philosophical conversations being the main aspect. In his book everyone in attendance must make a speech to praise Eros, the god of love which will then be judged by Dionysus. Speeches were done by Phaedrus, Pausanias, Erycimachus, Aristophanes, Agathon and Socrates. They talk of definitions of love and Eros, Aristophanes, for example, explains how:

“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”

After Socrates talks Dionysus arrives, in the form of Alcibiades very intoxicated causing the party to end in a drunken mess and the symposiasts waking up to Socrates still debating. Plato’s take on the symposium show it as a party centred around philosophical debate where the members often get drunk at the end either leaving or falling asleep, a common occurrence in such texts, such as Lucian’s symposium which ends in a drunken brawl. Often this is done to show the hypocrisy of philosophers. The drunkenness of the group is portrayed as a corruption by Dionysus as if this was not respectable behaviour.

We should be careful in believing idea posed by such people as Plutarch and Athenaeus who show the symposium as an intellectual group of people celebrating their culture and heritage as many works written about the symposium are actually mocking the idea of it being stoic and exposing the hypocrisy of such philosophers, like Lucian does in his work. Regardless, these sources are still very useful in helping us to understand the role of the symposium as they are written by people of the time, and even though sometimes mocking them, they still give us a representation of what happened and the ideals of the people.

Hansen argues that many scenes depicting symposia, Dionysus and Satyrs (lustful and drunken woodlands gods, represented as a man with a horse’s ears and tail) on mosaics and other such visual arts are “not always, at first glance, obviously ‘sympotic’” An example that supports this argument it the Psykter of Douris . Douris was an ancient Athenian red-figure vase-painter and potter who was active during the years c, 500 – 460 BCE, one of his most famous works being the Psykter (a vessel used to cool wine).

The vase shows a frieze of eleven frolicking satyrs all holding various wine vessels and vases typically used in symposia. One particular satyrs are doing a handstand and drinking from a kylix (a shallow drinking cup) while another watches over as if mimicking a trainer. Others dance around the cup, one is squatting while being fed wine and another is balancing a of wine on his Phallus. Satyrs were known for their lustiness and oversized phalluses meaning that this was a common was of depicting them.

Looking at such images might create uncertainty of what actually happened during a symposium and possible causing them to thing that these kind of things would happen when in fact, they would not. These vases may therefore not be the most useful indication of the role of the symposium. This shows that many vases and mosaics, etc. do not represent the symposium completely accurately since these are not always recognised and representing the symposia at all. Hansen argues that they often include association of “eastern luxury” and “metaphors for masculine behaviour” creating an “ostentatious setting for the symposium”.

Hansen also recognises a link between the depictions on such vases for the symposium and the sea. She argues that “the Greeks drew frequent connections between the sea and wine, between the nautical journey and the symposium”. Both activities show communal identity which can be reflected as the crew of a ship, or a group of symposiasts, isolated within a space and that they “enter solidarity with one another” Symposiasts can be depicted as sailor in some literature or visual art and the passing of the wine cup can symbolise the sailing of a ship.

Timaues supports this link as he talks of symposiasts become[ing] so drunk that they hallucinate, and, believing they are in a ship during a storm and need to discard the ship’s load to prevent sinking, they begin to throw furniture out of the house’s windows”. This means that there must be a prominent link that can help us understand the significance of the symposium and the importance of it. Another example includes a sixth century wine cup signed by Exekias now in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen museum which shows Dionysus sailing across the interior of a black figure wine cup surrounded by grape vines and dolphins. Such vases can help us make important links between beliefs, stories etc. and symposia and help us understand the role it had in Greek society.

Konig explains how a common form of entertainment in the symposium is “insulting speech and drunken excess” which never cross but “sail close to the boundaries” keeping their stoic high-class status. Though he also points out that in an elite symposium this may not have been present but most of the time there seemed to be “light hearted mutual criticism” but that they had a “shared set of values” and the person being made fun of might “seek to maintain face by directing teasing in turn against his original tormentor”. This was a form of entertainment for the symposiasts that seems common.

Aristophanes’ Wasps also shows how this was a practise for the symposium as shown when the character Philokleon attends one, convinced by his some to take his mind off the courts. His describes the happenings of symposia such as the skolion game where each symposiast would sing in turn and try to better the previous attendee. This would also happen with insulting language. Xanathias, a household slave, describes the bad behaviour of Philokleon and explains how he “insulted each of [the attendees] in turn, mocking them boorishly and also telling stories, in the most ignorant fashion”. This supports the idea that mockery as a form of entertainment was a common practise in symposia. However, it also poses the idea that this may not have been favourable to everyone. On the other hand, since this account was told by a household salve instead of a symposiast or someone who is integrated into the society, they may not be a great representation of what people in their culture and place enjoyed during a symposium, we should bare this in mind when looking into accounts of symposia.

As mentioned by Konig, there is still a continuous display of how they should act around the elite and a showing of skill to stay within the boundaries or maybe even push them. This is shows in many instances, such as the Wasps where mockery is present, Plato’s Symposium where the party gets drunk. It is often displayed as uncivilised or unacceptable to cross such boundaries like getting too drunk and disorderly or pushing the like of mockery too much. Such sources are also very good sources since they were written by people of the time that attended symposia themselves and therefore can give an accurate description of what they were like and help us understand their role in society with more depth. Konig is also a specialist in Greek culture and literature as well as an author so can also give us a useful analysis of such works, also helping us understand the symposium’s role.

The role of the symposium sometimes differs between writings and art but there are similarities in each that can help us draw a conclusions of what happened and its role in society at the time. For example, the use of song, poetry and ‘playful mockery’ was common, as it is mentioned in multiple works by people from the time. We can also find practical set ups and occurrences in these works too, such as Philokleon’s son explaining to him how it worked, saying “stretch out your knees and throw yourself down athletically and languidly on the covers”. This shows us how the symposium was set up. Similarly, Hansen’s link with the symposium and the sea can help us draw conclusions of the significance of the symposium, as can vases have depicted Satyrs and Dionysus.

Therefore, in conclusion, the meaning and occurrences in symposia can differ but we can also find common links in between each. It seems that the symposium may have had different meanings for some people, but the overarching theme was that it was for discussions between fellow acquaintances, business deals, political talks or sometimes just a fun dinner party. Tastes of what was entertaining also could differ though this is expected, as throughout society there will always be different opinions of fun, for example the depiction of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium show him as a cynical stoic with no interest for physical pleasure, this is different to every other character.  

07 July 2022
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