Wine, Women, and Wisdom: The Symposia of Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, wealthy men often gathered for decadent banquets called symposia. Not only an occasion for thinking and philosophizing, the symposium was also a place for enjoying women, wine, and song.

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.

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