This story appears in the January/February 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
The Greek historian Xenophon recounts in his Symposium that one day Socrates was out walking with some friends when they were approached by Callias, a wealthy Athenian. “I am about to give a dinner party ... and I think my entertainment would shine much brighter if my dining room were graced with the presence of men like you, whose souls have been purified.” At first, Socrates thought Callias was mocking his disheveled appearance, but the great man insisted. They thanked him for the invitation, without promising they would go. But when they saw his disappointment, they agreed to attend. They spent the evening at his home—eating, drinking, and talking—in one of the most characteristic social fixtures of the classical world: the symposium.
As Xenophon’s anecdote reveals, a symposium could be an informal affair, in which a host might invite friends he happened to bump into in the street or at the agora, the meeting place of Classical Greek cities. A guest might even bring one of his own friends along, too, without a formal invitation, a role that even had a special name in Greek: The akletos was made to feel as welcome as anyone else, provided he (in Classical Greece, dinner guests were always male and almost exclusively drawn from the aristocracy) enlivened the evening for the other guests with his entertaining conversation.
One of Plato’s great works, also called the Symposium, examines the nature of love. Written around 375 B.C., it reveals the central importance of the feast to classical Greek culture. Like Xenophon’s earlier work, Plato’s is also set at the dinner party of a famous Athenian poet. One of the guests present, Aristodemus, is sometimes regarded as the token akletos—but Aristodemus is at pains to point out that he has been invited by his fellow guest Socrates, which, one assumes, was as good a recommendation as any guest could have.
Despite the relaxed nature of invitations, however, there were certain rituals that all aristocratic Athenians would unfailingly observe. Etiquette required guests to bathe and groom themselves before attending a banquet. Aristotle said it was “inappropriate to come to the symposium covered with sweat and dust.” Even Socrates, famed for his simple clothing and preference for going unshod, smartened himself up for these occasions and reportedly wore sandals when heading out to a banquet.
The Feast Begins
The symposium, derived from the Greek words meaning “drinking together,” might be held to mark any number of festive occasions: an athlete’s triumph, the successful opening of a playwright’s new tragedy, a family celebration, or the homecoming or departure of a friend.
At the host’s home, a slave welcomed guests into the hall designed for such get-togethers: the andron, or “men’s room.” A slave would be present to wash their hands, take off their sandals, and offer them a couch on which to recline. Politeness dictated that once guests were settled, they would take a few moments to look around and praise the ceiling, decorations, and tapestries in the room. Then the dinner itself, deipnon, would be served. In Classical Greece this was simple, even frugal fare: Cheese, onions, olives, figs, and garlic were the essential dishes, along with mashed beans and lentils. Meat was served in bite-size pieces, which guests would eat with their fingers. There was no cutlery or napkins; diners wiped their fingers on slices of bread, which were then dropped for the household dogs. Dessert generally consisted of fruit such as grapes, figs, or perhaps honey-based sweets, all the food washed down with diluted Greek wine.
The feast itself was the prelude to the evening’s real purpose. Once appetites were sated, the slaves carried away the tables, tidied up the room, and replenished the wine jug, or krater, so the symposium itself could begin. A certain amount of revelry was expected, even demanded, but there was much debate over where high spirits crossed into boorishness. A fourth-century poet, Eubulus, observed that the behavior of diners could be kept within bounds if they limited themselves to only three servings of wine.
Rites and Forfeits
The symposium was, however, more than just a dinner party. The distinctive Greek customs observed on such an occasion reflect a ritualistic element that distinguishes it from a mere social get-together or dinner party. Following the meal, for example, guests would anoint themselves with perfume or put on garlands made of myrtle or flowers. Not just fashion accessories, these were believed to ease the headaches caused by drinking so much wine.
At a certain stage in the revels, a libation of undiluted wine was poured. This took the form of drinking a few sips, and then scattering drops of wine in honor of Zeus or any of the other Olympian gods. In the course of this ritual, a paean or hymn might also be sung to Apollo, reminding the guests of the religious origins of the symposium, when the dinner itself was preceded by a solemn sacrifice in which the animals to be eaten were killed.
The master of the symposium, called the simposiarca, was usually picked at random from among the guests. His role was to decide on the concentration of wine in the krater or how many cups each guest ought (or ought not) to drink. Forfeits were sometimes imposed for disobeying the simposiarca: dancing completely naked, for example, or running around the room with the flautist on one’s back.
The Greeks did not drink pure wine. It was first mixed with water in the krater before being served in the communal cup. Generally speaking, the mixture was two parts wine to five parts water, or one part wine to three parts water. The dilution was a nod to moderation: It lengthened the evening’s pleasure by ensuring the guests would be truly intoxicated only at the end of the night. Wine was sometimes mixed in a special vessel, a psykter, filled with cold water or even snow, to chill the drink. Usually a single cup was passed among the guests from left to right, and a young slave filled the krater each time. During the symposium guests nibbled on snacks called tragemata—dried fruit, toasted beans, or chickpeas—which both absorbed the alcohol and built up a thirst for more.
Wine, Women, and Song
Plato’s account of his symposium is probably the distillation of many evenings spent in the company of the classical world’s most brillant and learned men, drinking and talking until late. Most symposia, however, would have been of a somewhat less philosophical intensity. Its guests typically chatted, telling each other riddles or drawing caricatures of one another.
Once the evening’s earlier rituals of proper dress and robust conversation had passed, plenty of records show that good behavior often deteriorated over the course of the night. The third-serving rule seems to have been breached regularly.
The most common after-dinner activity was the singing of skolia, sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. These short songs typically celebrated friendship or the pleasures of wine, recounting historic events or exalting the social values of the aristocracy from whose ranks most guests were drawn. The word skolion means “sideways” in ancient Greek, a reference to how the guests took turns to sing, afterward passing a myrtle branch to the man reclining next to him who was to sing next.
One of the most popular games was known as kottabos. After finishing his cup, the guest picked it up by the handle and flicked the dregs at a target, usually another cup. As he did so, he uttered the name of his beloved, as it was believed that hitting the target boded well for his love life. There were more elaborate variants of the game: In one of them, the guests tried to sink small clay vessels floating in a large cup; in another, they shot at a saucer balanced on a metal bar. Xenophon writes how in 404 B.C., Theramenes, an aristocrat who had been condemned to death, proved his sangfroid by parodying the kottabos ritual with the cup of hemlock he had been forced to drink. According to Xenophon, he cried out: “To the health of my beloved Critias” (the name of the man who had condemned him to die).
Female flautists, known as auletrides, were brought in for the later stages. Pictures of symposia on vases show these women performing semi-naked between the reclining guests who, hands behind their heads, seem mesmerized by the sensuality of the moment. Considering the flautists’ menial status, it is highly likely they also performed sex acts.
In Xenophon’s Symposium, the rich host Callias hired an impresario who brought an entire troupe of entertainers: a flautist, a dancer who was an expert in acrobatics, and a handsome boy who played the lyre and danced, too. At the end of the evening, the dancers performed a kind of erotic dance, a pantomime of the wedding of Ariadne and Dionysus, the god of wine.
Other women who often attended symposia were hetaera, courtesans who became the regular companions of men who could pay for their services. They dazzled the men with their beauty and entertained them with their wit and refined conversation. The symposium gave them the opportunity to show off their charms and meet generous protectors. There were no illusions about their role in the proceedings. Athenaeus recounts that when some young men fought for the favors of a hetaera called Gnatena, she consoled the loser saying, “Cheer up lad, it is not as if you were fighting for a crown, just for the obligation to pay.”
When the rowdier symposia ended, the guests went out to the street, wearing their garlands, and forming a drunken procession called a komos. Sometimes these got out of hand. The playwright Aristophanes, offering Athenians comic relief through his plays during the grim years of the Peloponnese wars, depicted a character in his play The Wasps who defied all the conventions of a good feast-attender: Ignoring the lighthearted attempts to restrain him, his komos takes the form of threatening to punch passersby. Despite attempts by city authorities to curtail such excesses, symposia continued to play a central role in aristocratic social relations until Roman times. They are still identifiable in the drinking societies of British universities or in fraternities in the United States.