The word ‘Symposium’ comes from the infinitive ‘Sympinein’ which means ‘to drink together’ (‘syn’ which means ‘together’, ‘pinein>pino’ which means to ‘drink’). As it is revealed by the etymology, the Symposiums were gatherings taking place after meals, where the guests could drink wine for pleasure and start a conversation, accompanied by music, the most times played by a flutist. Socratic dialogues, Plato’s Symposium -which focuses on the nature of love, Xenophon’s Symposium, and other Greek poems are typical examples of literary works that describe what a Symposium was.
In ancient Greece, a symposium could be attended by 14 to 30 wealthy men from the aristocracy, called ‘Symposiasts’. They used to gather together, have dinner, drink wine and talk about topics they were interested in. The host of the Symposium invited friends or admirable men he came across in the streets or Agora of Athens. Each guest might even bring one of his own friends along, the ‘akletos’, who was more than welcome, too. However, all Athenians who participated in a Symposium should follow certain rules and rituals. The etiquette required that before attending the banquet, men should bath and groom and give attention to their looks.
As soon as a guest arrived at the host’s house, he was welcomed by a slave who guided him to the ‘andron’ -the men’s room. There he helped him wash his hands, take off his sandals, and offer him a couch to lie down. Once the guest was settled in, he could take a few moments to observe the ceiling, the walls painted with colored murals, the mosaics and the decorations in the room, before the dinner, ‘deipnon’, would be served. In other words, it was included in the general concept of organizing a Symposium that it was a chance for the host to show his aesthetics and his taste in decoration.
Τhe dinner table was dominated by fish rather than meat, served in bite-size pieces so as to be easy for men to eat with the fingers. The basic menu had dishes such as bread, cheese, onions, olives, and garlic, together with mashed beans and lentils. At the dessert time, guests could taste fruits such as grapes and figs or honey-based sweets. During the dinner, the Symposiasts ought to drink up to three cups of wine, if they wanted to keep themselves sensible. Afterward, the slaves tided up the room and prepare it for the core Symposium, while the diners perfumed themselves and, if needed, put on garlands made of flowers to ease the headaches caused by drinking so much wine.
The Symposium actually started taking place when the slave carried away the eating tables and replenish the ‘krater’. The ‘krater’ was the big jug, the most times made by clay, where the wine was watered (one part wine to three parts water).
Watering the wine was a technique Athenians used to follow as a healthier way of drinking and as a trick to extend their sobriety. Drinking wine not mixed with water was seen as uncivilized, and as a kind of behavior simulating that of the barbaric neighbors. It was also believed that the men who drunk straight wine, had many possibilities to gradually be lead to madness.
‘In the saddle’ of the Symposium was the ‘Simposiarch’, who was picked randomly from among the guests. His role was to check the concentration of wine in the jug, as well as how many cups each guest was allowed or not to drink. During the Symposium guests nibbled on snacks called ‘tragemata’, which were dried fruit or toasted beans, both ideally to absorb the alcohol and maintain the feeling of thirst for wine.
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Religion and Entertainment
Symposiums had religious origins. The libation of undiluted wine in honor of Zeus or any of the other Olympian Gods, praising Apollo with hymns, was part of the Symposiums, that used to have also a philosophic and artistic character. As was already mentioned, music was accompanying the conversations on topics such as philosophy, poetry, politics, medicine, and the issues of the day. Later, the men might participate in competitive games such as ‘kottabos’, in which the players were flinging wine lees at targets. Symposiasts might also compete in rhetorical contests. This is the reason why nowadays, the word ‘Symposium’ refers to events with speeches like academic conferences or councils.
The other side of the coin
As many ancient Greek pottery vessels and vases’ scenes depict, the Symposiums were not only places for discussion and pure entertainment. Naked women playing the aulos or dancing with men are obvious painting topics on these ceramics. This implies that sometimes the line was crossed due to overdrinking and many of the men participating were engaged to sexual activities.
Many historians and experts have studied texts and ancient findings regarding the Symposiums in Ancient Greece. Although some of these present the Symposiums as elegant, entertaining gatherings and some others reveal the delirious and sensual turn these banquets were often taking on, it is generally recognized that Symposiums are connected with the principles of dialogue and the Arts, traits that are more in line with the aristocracy in Ancient Greece.