What was the social significance of the Symposium in the archaic period?

by christos1

What was the social significance of the Symposium in the archaic period?

The early Greek society, Murray says, possessed a relatively homogeneous social structure, without a formal priestly caste or a centralized power structure. It can be seen that its rites of consumption can be characterized as forms of commensality, rituals of eating and drinking together as equals and as an expression and reinforcement of community values . By the late archaic age we can see four clear ideal types of consumption, firstly the religious festival, secondly the military communal meal, thirdly the public meal and finally the symposium, which was for, pleasure. While I agree with Murray’s statement that Greek society had four types of festivals/meals as mentioned above, I believe that the symposium had a much more significant role in society than just as a place for leisure. This is not to say that it was not a place for leisure because it obviously was, but in the process of enjoying themselves the participants learnt important values and etiquettes, which would be, used in their lives outside the private domain and this is what I plan to investigate. The symposium wasn’t just limited to Athens but also occurred in Sparta and other countries, showing that it was an important part of different cultures and societies. The term “symposium” literally means, “drinking together”, and would take place in the andron, which was a men’s room. In the andron the men would recline on couches head to toe with everybody facing into the centre giving the room a very communal and social feel. Our earliest reference describing the symposium comes from Alcman fragment 19 who says “Seven couches and to each a table bedecked with poppy-seed rolls”. From other evidence it appears as though this was the standard layout of drinking parties. What I intend to look at in this essay is what was the social significance of the symposium and was it intended to serve a greater purpose than a mere social event? In order to do this I plan to look at source evidence such as vases and poetry, which are useful in helping us to understand the social significance of the symposium, as well as looking at modern sources. As Murray says , the banquet scenes on the vases show symposium scenes being depicted as an activity belonging to the daily life and the private domain. This appears to be true as shall be seen as the vases show daily and private aspects of Greek life such as sacrificing to the Gods, battle scenes, and sex. But these sources are also a bit confusing as we are not completely sure that what we are viewing is what actually happened at every symposium or whether in actual fact they were designed as an ideal, which the symposium tried to copy. This is because the vases, which depict scenes of drinking, revelry, actual and mythical scenes and symposia sex, were intended to reflect the taste and inclinations of the aristocracy for whose banquets they were designed . The poetry that shall be looked at later was written with the intention of being performed during the symposium whilst the men were reclining. Poetry was a very common aspect and it was in this way that myth and wars would be retold. They also used poetry to praise the winners of games and discuss love and drinking, so they were a very important part of the symposium, and there study is crucial for our understanding of drinking parties. Indeed it is assumed that the ideal symposium involved sexual gratification with prostitutes or guests, public dancing in the streets and public proclamation of the drinking group’s solidarity. However, as shall be seen, I believe that while the vases and poetry do depict the ideal, it is quite likely that what we are viewing did actually occur although we will never definitely know for certain that this was the case. The number of men who participated in the symposium would range from between 15 to 30, but no more than 30 were allowed as otherwise such a large number would isolate members of the group thus showing that it was intended to be a very social occasion. The men at the symposium were the aristocratic elite of society and by partaking in this activity they were showing their higher status and maintaining their common bond. Many scholars see that the symposium/communal drinking after the meal has a much broader sense than one might consider, as they believe that the drinking together and such a social institution was an expression of the aristocratic mode of life in the archaic city . It is evident that the symposium was a place apart from the normal rules of society and in actual fact it had its own strict code of honour, which was opposed to that within the polis. At the Symposium there would be singing, poetry, drinking, games and sexual activities with mostly young boys (but sometimes women - particularly in the late archaic period). From the poetry we get a good description and idea of what occurred at the symposium as Alcaeus fragment 70 says “But the lyre still plays its sportive part at the symposium”. Further evidence of the symposium’s activities comes from Anacreon fragment 415 who mentions, “Slinging the Sicilian kottabos”; this was a popular drinking game where drinkers would sling wine-dregs from their cups at a target. Whilst this game was intended to be fun, it was also very competitive and the winners could increase their status within the group, showing the competitive nature that was associated within the drinking groups. In addition to the poetic evidence, we also have evidence from the vases; these can be seen on page 11 figures 1 and 2. These show that the playing of lyres and playing kottabos were common features of a symposium. Although the men drank they didn’t get drunk and would mix their wine with water to the ratio one-third wine to two-thirds water. The reason for this was that they believed that only barbarians drank their wine neat as well as the fact that they did not want to offend the Gods by excessive drinking. As is already apparent Symposia were very social events where the elite could meet and socialize. However, this was important as it enabled the aristocrats to distinguish themselves from the rest of the polis, I believe this statement to be true as the aristocrats were very conscious of themselves and their status, so would look for any aspect which could separate themselves from the lower classes. One way in which they did this was by practising homosexuality as this was seen as a purely aristocratic hobby. Previously they had differentiated themselves through Homeric feasts, which were engaged in by warrior men’s associations . But as lower class men were allowed into the army the elite had to look for other ways to define themselves, which they achieved through the symposium. This change is also apparent in the funerary art as from it we can see the change from a military aristocracy to one of leisure . As I have already suggested the symposium was not just purely a social event but through eating and drinking men were able to reinforce the social system and create and maintain a variety of cultural values and discuss myths, war and politics. This was important for aristocrats, as they liked to learn about past Homeric heroes and the Gods and follow their attributes in their own lives. For example Homeric heroes were seen as brave competitive warriors who respected the Gods. This was a model that aristocrats tried to follow, so by discussing it at the symposium with like-minded individuals it enabled them to put those attributes to use in their own lives. Therefore it should be considered that the symposium was where men would go and get an education about history and myths, things that aristocrats used to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population. As Levine says the symposium was the place of education for the citizen preparing him to take part in public life as both inside and outside the drinking party one must learn from the good and avoid the bad. Therefore it would appear that the symposium was a place where young men would learn how to behave positively, behaviour which they could then take with them into the polis. This means that they were not purely for social meetings but had a much greater importance which was to turn out young educated men into society who would be able to partake in politics knowledgeably and behave in the proper conduct that their status required which in turn would benefit the state as a whole. In addition to this by feasting and sacrificing to the Gods during the symposium they were learning about religion and how important the Gods were in everyday life. This was important; as it was believed that good men had the Gods on their side by behaving well and sacrificing to them. It was also a Homeric feature to regularly sacrifice to the Gods in the correct manner as books such as the Iliad and Odyssey show, and aristocrats copied Homeric values by learning the correct way to sacrifice to the Gods; they were also learning key Homeric features, which would enable them to stand out above the rest of the polis. Therefore there is a very significant link between the symposium and the polis as both go hand in hand, showing that it was much more than just a social occasion. It would also appear that the symposium was a place where men could go and form bonds with other men whether political or for marriage. This is also important as it shows that not only were the symposia used for educational purposes but they were also a place where men could network and form alliances with other men. This again shows how the symposium benefited the polis as the alliances that were made at the drinking party would be taken into the polis and used to increase the individual’s status whether through political office or marriage bonds. Therefore it can be seen that they used these opportunities to further their own careers and wealth. An example of this comes from Theognis who says “Hold fast always to the men of worth, drink among them and eat and sit with them and seek their favour.” This is a very good example of what sort of activity occurred at the symposia with people using the opportunities they are given to network and to enhance their status. This is something that goes on today through dinner parties and so forth so there is no need to presuppose that the Greeks did not do the same thing. Another topic that the men would learn from the symposium was the art of moderation and order, which could be learnt through the drinking parties, as at the parties there was a set structure of events, which would take place in turn. For example the proceedings would start off with a cleansing ritual, distribution of garlands, and a libation to the Gods. After this they would then recline on the couches and talk to one another as can be seen on page 12 figures 3 and 4. From the vase evidence we can see that the men would recline on the couches whilst the boys would sit (see figure 1 page 11) which was designed to show the boys’ inferior status within the symposium. As is evident from the two vases showing the men reclining they are both extremely similar in their presentation. This again highlights the problem of whether they are representing an ideal or showing what the symposium actually looked like. Whilst as I have suggested we will never know for sure, it is quite likely that this is what they looked like, because as the vases were designed for use at the symposium it is likely that by having them in their view, they would copy the image presented to them. By doing this it was teaching the men the importance of putting things into order, and by regulating the amount of wine that they drank, thus enabling them to learn the importance of moderation whilst stressing the dangers of disorder and excess through drunkenness. All these aspects were important in daily life, showing that not only did the symposium give the men a rounded education on past heroes, wars etc but it also taught them the need for moderation, all of which would be useful for them in the future in their political careers which in turn would benefit the polis as a whole. While I believe it has been shown that the symposia were important for the aristocratic men who participated in them, I also believe that they benefited the young boys who would be at them and would play the lyre whilst singing songs about Gods, myths and wars and would also perform sexual acts with the men. The reason I believe this is because presumably the boys who would be in attendance at the symposium would later as men partake themselves. However, even if they did not, the very fact that they were mixing with aristocratic men of wealth and power, and listening to their conversations would presumably have increased their intellect and knowledge of history, which would have stood them in good stead in the polis. There is evidence from the poetry of Theognis, which suggests that my view that the boys benefited from mixing with aristocrats is correct. As Theognis says “I’ll give you good advice that as a boy I learned from men of worth. ”. This suggests that the boys would learn from the men and when they came of age, they could pass on the advice that they had learned to the new group of boys who over time would take their place. We can also see that pederasty took place at the symposia. Pederasty was where one of the older men would take a young boy under his wing and would give him gifts in return for sexual acts. This is evident from a vase fragment we have (see fig 5 page 13) where we can see a man having sex with a young boy in exchange for a gift. By having vase evidence it strengthens the case that such goings on took place at the symposium and were an important part of it. The reason that it was important is because by allowing the young boy into the symposium it enabled the adults to prepare them for adult life and war in particular. I think it is important to just quickly explain that a young boy would be the passive partner in the relationship. However when he became an adult he became the active partner. This suggests that the symposium benefited everybody who was participating in it, and also shows that perhaps the group was a close knit community and, to advance, one had to start at the bottom of the ladder being the lyre boy and performing sexual acts on the men before moving up into their role. From the symposium we also see the importance of gift giving which helped to weave social relations between members of the aristocracy. Such events were important as it allowed the opportunity for speeches and civic praise, which all members of the aristocracy craved. Through giving gifts it also allowed the members to learn about the importance of equal distribution and redistribution on which the basis of all social relations in the archaic city was founded. This shows that the symposium had many beneficial features that taught the members skills that were required in the polis. By giving gifts it enabled them to define, recognize and express their citizenship, which were all key factors if the men were to excel in the polis. I think as is evident the symposium played a major role socially in the archaic period as it taught the young boys and men values which they could take into the polis. Indeed many scholars see the symposium as a microcosm of the political world showing just how significant they were in producing well rounded educated individuals. In fact the symposium was one of the model points of Greek social life as at the parties, as has become evident, men and boys would gather in the andron and would sing elegiac, iambic and lyric poetry. In addition to this they would sort out their sexuality and social hierarchy over male and female slaves, prostitutes and servants. The men at the symposium would also sort out political allegiances and form friendships, which could all be taken into the polis and made to benefit the individuals. As we have seen from poetry and vases of the archaic period we have seen what the symposia looked like and who attended them. However, we also see through the sources, symposia that have turned into chaos and violence although this is rarely depicted. This is due to the members lacking moderation, which was a virtue that was taught at the symposium, as without it violence could occur, which could affect the polis. Such evidence is seen in the pottery (see fig 6 page 13) where we can see that presumably due to too much indulgence in wine the symposium has turned into a brawl. This is also evident in poetry as Eubulus says in fragment 93 “Three bowls only do I mix for the temperate - one to health, the second to love and pleasure and the third to sleep”. This shows us that one of the aims of the symposium was to teach moderation, otherwise as Eubulus says “the ninth to vomiting. The tenth belongs to madness and throwing furniture”. This is proof that the Greeks saw drinking too much wine as barbarous and uncivilized, two things that the symposium didn’t want to be associated with. It is also evident that when the symposium breaks down it is linked to the breakdown of the polis showing how closely linked the two are viewed. This can be seen by Solon fragment 4 where he says “with the unprincipled mob leaders, who are set to suffer badly from their great misdeeds. They know not how to prosper modestly, enjoy in festive peace the happiness that they have”. Solon is comparing the lack of political equilibrium in the city with the incompetence in organizing the pleasures of the banquet. Therefore it can be argued that if one is able to organize a good symposium then one will be able to lead political stability. Unfortunately it appears as though when banqueting and war lost their significance for mature adults due to strategic and political changes, adults lost interest in the traditional education of adolescents, so it would be interesting to see what effect this had on Greek society in the classical period, because it would help us to gauge how important the social significance of the symposium was. However, as it is, I believe it is clear from the evidence from the poetry and vases of the archaic period that the symposium had a major social role during the archaic period, as it is evident that it taught both men and young boys about myths, wars, past heroes as well as religion and the importance of praying and sacrificing to the Gods which they did during the feasting. In addition to this it was a place where men could form political and marriage bonds, which they could use in the polis and also taught them about the importance of gift exchanging and moderation - all things that were extremely useful in the outside polis. Therefore I think that it is possible to link the symposium with the polis as through their learning inside the symposium men were able to translate these skills into the politics of the polis, showing how socially significant the symposium was during the archaic period as a place for pleasure and education. The symposium was also a place where status could be identified and exploited, as from it we see that at the top were the aristocrats and below them in status were young boys, prostitutes and slaves, so by defining their status inside the symposium it allowed them to distinguish their higher status outside as well. Their significance can be summed up by anonymous Theognidea in his poem where he describes the symposium in a fitting manner “Let lyre and pipes play on, voicing the holy song, while we with due libation to the Gods keep drinking, making pleasant talk among ourselves ”. I also think that the modern scholars such as Murray, Levine and Neer are correct in their analysis and recognition that the symposium was a central part of the polis and helped its development. But I think it went further than that as I believe there is overwhelming evidence to show that the symposium was not only a place of leisure, education, and religion but also alliance-making, which was very significant for the outside polis.

Vase Evidence:

Fig 1: a young boy playing the lyre

Fig 2: A man playing Kottabos

Fig 3: Men reclining at the Symposium

Fig 4: Three men reclining at the Symposium

Figure 5: Pederastic lovers

Figure 6:Brawling at the Symposium


Ancient Sources:

Greek Lyric Poetry, trans.West.L.M. (Oxford) 1993

Bibliographical Reference List:

Levine,B, Symposium and the Polis,in T.Figueira and G.Nagy (eds.), Theognis of Megara. Poetry and the Polis: 176-196. 1985

Miller, M.,Foreigners at the Greek Symposion,in W.J.Slater (ed.), Dining in a Classical Context: 59-81.1991

Murray,O, Early Greece,(Glasgow) 1980.

Murray,O,Sympotica. A study of the Symposion, (Oxford), 1990.

Neer.R, Style and Politics in Athenian Vase Painting. The craft of Democracy c.530-460B.C. Chapter 1,1990.

Slater.J.W. (ed.) Dining in a Classical Context. Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press,1991,

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