Symposium: An Important Part of Ancient Greek Culture

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

A symposium was a drinking party held in a private home in a semi-formal setting. The symposia ranged from intellectual discussions to rowdy get-togethers, depending on the guests present. They were an integral part of ancient Greek culture—read on to learn more about them.

The image shows a painting of men reclining on couches at a symposium.
A symposium was a drinking party. At a symposium, the men reclined on couches, which they shared with other men. (Image: BlackMac/Shutterstock)

Life in Ancient Greece

Life in ancient Greece was a very relaxing one. The days were usually spent in socializing, nourishing the mind, and attending to the body. In the evenings, after a day filled with various activities, the ancient Greeks used to go to the taverns. However, the taverns were primarily patronized by the down and out. The richer Greek men preferred to drink either at home or at the home of one of their friends in a semi-formal setting known as a symposium or drinking party.

The Greek writer Plutarch described a symposium as “a passing of time over wine, which, guided by gracious behavior, ends in friendship”. A great deal about what used to happen at symposia is known because there is a lot of literary and pictorial evidence. It was the setting for numerous scenes depicted on luxury pottery items that were used at such gatherings.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Plato’s Symposium

The image shows a depiction of Plato's 'Symposium'.
In his dialogue Symposium, Plato recorded events at a famous symposium held at the house of the poet Agathon in 416 B.C. (Image: Anselm Feuerbach/Public domain)

A famous symposium, or drinking party, was held at the house of a young tragic poet called Agathon in 416 B.C. in celebration of his victory in a dramatic contest. The event was recorded by Plato in his dialogue known as the Symposium.

Plato told that Agathon was a wealthy man, and like many wealthy men, he had a special room for holding symposia, known as an andrôn or andrônitis. The word literally means ‘men’s quarter’. Rooms of this sort were easily identifiable in the archaeological record because they had an off-center doorway in order to accommodate the couches that were set against the walls. People did not sit on chairs at a symposium. Instead, men reclined on a couch which they shared with two other men, propping themselves up on their left elbows. In front of the couch, there used to be a three-legged table where snacks were laid out and where the men could rest their cups.

At a Greek symposium, everyone had to drink exactly the same amount. The guests were not allowed to help themselves to wine. Instead, at periodic intervals, a wine-pourer circulated and refilled the cups of all the guests. He ensured that everyone got the same amount. In addition, it was his job to dilute the wine with water. The wine-pourer diluted the wine in a vase called a kratêr, meaning a mixing bowl. This was done because no self-respecting Greek drank neat wine. They feared that it would make them go insane, and believed that it was something that only barbarians did.

The image shows a krater that was used in a symposium to mix wine and water.
A kratêr was a mixing bowl in which wine and water were mixed before being served to the guests at a symposium. (Image: Sisyphus Painter/Public domain)

Plato, in his Symposium, pointed out that Agathon owned a very expensive set of symposiastic ware that included not only a kratêr, but also a psychtêr or wine cooler, an oinochoê or jug for pouring out the wine, plus a number of very elegant two-handled drinking vessels known as kulikes.

During the symposium at Agathon’s, apart from Plato, the guests included Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Socrates. Plato wrote that Eryximachus asked everyone to deliver an impromptu speech in honor of Eros, the god of love. They all participated, including Socrates, and Plato claimed that his speech was considered to be the best by everyone.

Later, he mentioned that some gatecrashers broke in, and then they all started downing immense quantities of wine. The party continued till dawn, by which time everyone was drunk, except for Socrates and Aristophanes, who were still discussing and arguing.

Learn more about being Greek.

Types of Symposia

However, not all symposia were the same by any means. They could take a variety of forms, depending on the temperament, age, social class, proclivities, and mood of the guests. A symposium could, for instance, take the form of a highly cultivated discussion, like the one Plato described, or it could take the form of a thoroughly rowdy and dissolute gathering, where the drink overflowed and the guests indulged in sexual intercourse. If sexual activity did take place, it would not, however, involve freeborn Athenian women. The women who were invited—or rather hired—were the ‘female companions’, or hetaerae. Some were hired for their conversational skills, others as flute players, others as dancers, and still others as prostitutes.

The image shows a statue of Dionysus, holding a cup.
Dionysus, whose Roman name was Bacchus, was the ancient Greek god of wine. (Image: Gilmanshin/Shutterstock)

However, even when the men were relaxing, they did not forget that they were citizens. They would have a civic consciousness that would govern their conduct. In addition, every symposium began and ended with prayers to the gods, particularly to Dionysus, the giver of wine, and to Agathos Daimon, the good demon or spirit.

Another important point to note is that the symposia used to be a vehicle by which culture was transmitted. For instance, to be a good symposiast, one had to be a dab hand at the ‘capping game’. One version of this was as follows: one man quoted a line of poetry and the person next to him had to cap it by giving the next line. Or, a man would quote a line of poetry and the next person had to quote a line that began with the last letter of the line previously quoted. Games of this sort helped foster familiarity with the works of the poets. Of course, there were other, more rowdy games as well, like kottabos. Kottabos involved flicking drops of wine at a small bronze statue with the aim of making it topple over.

Politics also used to feature at the symposia. Many of the songs that the drinkers sang were politically inspired. One of the most famous was a kind of Athenian national anthem—it celebrated the murder of a man called Hipparchus, who was the brother of the tyrant Hippias, in 513 B.C. The Athenians were extremely proud of the fact that they had kicked out their tyrants and established democracy.

Since it was a male-dominated institution, there is little doubt that the atmosphere of the symposia fostered homosexual attachments between younger and older men. In fact, such attachments were an important component of an aristocratic education, particularly in the 6th and early 5th century B.C., although they lost favor later on.

Thus, the symposia provided the wealthy men of ancient Greece a further opportunity to relax and indulge in mentally and physically stimulating activities.

Learn more about relaxing Greek style.

Common Questions about Symposium as Part of Ancient Greek Culture

Q: What is the meaning of symposium in ancient Greek?

In ancient Greece, a symposium was a drinking party that was held in a semi-formal setting at a friend’s place.

Q: What happened at a symposium in ancient Greece?

A symposium in ancient Greece could be a highly cultivated discussion or it could be a thoroughly rowdy and dissolute gathering where the drink overflowed and the guests indulged in sexual intercourse.

Q: Why was the symposium important in ancient Greece?

The symposium was an important part of ancient Greek culture. It used to be a vehicle by which culture was transmitted.

Q: Who wrote Symposium?

Plato wrote Symposium. He wrote about a famous symposium, or drinking party, that was held at the house of a young tragic poet called Agathon in 416 B.C.

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