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March 21 , 2005
A few drinks between friends
Peter Bing is associate professor of classics.
Say the word “symposium” today, and people usually think of an academic gathering. In its origins, however, the term was anything but academic. It derives from the ancient Greek word symposion, which means an occasion for “drinking together,” or a drinking party.
For some years I have taught a course called “The Ancient Drinking Party,” which looks at what people did when they gathered to drink together, mainly in Classical Greece. Its title never fails to elicit sly smiles from students (and the desire to know if the course includes a practicum). Among colleagues from other disciplines it raises eyebrows, and they express surprise that one could teach a whole course on ancient drinking customs.
Yet scholars who study the convivial customs of different societies, contemporary or past, know how revealing they can be of a people’s values and preoccupations, its social order and beliefs. In most societies, the consumption of alcohol is rich in cultural significance.
As it happens, the symposium was not just one of the most central but arguably the best attested social institution of ancient Greece. It was the occasion for which poets composed most of the lyric song that survives, and its activities often formed the subject of that song. It is described in numerous ancient histories and forms the setting and theme of many philosophical works—preeminently Plato’s Symposium and that by Xenophon, central texts in the class.
Ancient clay drinking ware survives in quantity, often painted with scenes of sympotic activities (several outstanding examples are on view in the Carlos Museum). Finally, archaeology has uncovered the remains of many private and public drinking rooms, giving us a clear impression of the space in which the ancients drank. We can thus approach the symposium from a rich variety of sources and form a remarkably comprehensive picture of its workings.
First of all, the ancient symposium was the indisputable preserve of aristocratic males. Citizen women were strictly excluded, the only female participants being hired musicians and dancers who often performed sexual services, as well. The men reclined on couches, a custom taken from the Near East toward the end of the eighth century B.C. Bolstered by pillows, they propped themselves on their left elbows, their right hands free for gesturing, putting down their cups on the small three-legged table in front of each couch, and reaching for snacks. The parties were intimate, typically with seven couches arranged along the four walls of the room, one or two men to a couch, all oriented toward each other, with nothing behind them to distract from their counterparts across the room—an ideal space for sophisticated discourse.
And what did people drink? The beverage of choice was wine, always mixed with water. This mixture set a Greek apart as Greek, for to drink wine straight was thought uncivilized; only a barbarian would do so (the monstrous Cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey is a paradigm of uncivilized drinking for gulping down quantities of the unmixed wine Odysseus offers him). Consequently a large mixing bowl (or krater) held a special place in the room. Often crowned with garlands, it was considered a stand-in for the patron divinity of the symposium, Dionysus, who was embodied in the wine itself.
What was the proper proportion of wine to water? This topic was hotly debated. The didactic poet Hesiod soberly suggests three parts water to one of wine, while Alcaeus, an aristocratic poet from Lesbos, demands something stronger:
Let us drink! Why do we wait for the lamps? There is only an inch of day left. Friend, take down the large decorated cups. Dionysus gave men wine to make them forget their sorrows. Mix one part of water to two of wine, pour it in brimful, and let one cup jostle another.
It was the declining power of the aristocracy that gave the drinking party its particular importance in Greek society. Faced with the rise of the Greek city-state (or polis) in the seventh century B.C., which greatly restricted their power, aristocrats retreated into the clubby private world of the symposium, creating there a kind of anti-polis.
In that setting, and with alcohol as their social glue, they could strengthen ties that bound their class together, sing songs and play games that expressed group values, and complain about the wretched state of the world. Sometimes they went further and formed conspiracies, sealed by oaths sworn over wine, to overthrow the government and return to power.
In this they mostly failed. Yet from the perspective of the state, such private gatherings were always a source of fear. Fifth century B.C. Athenian democracy tried to co-opt sympotic practice through state sponsorship but was unable to prevent aristocratic clubs from meeting in private. These gatherings remained hotbeds of political opposition, an ongoing threat that lay beyond the regime’s control.
Aristocratic groups did nothing to dispel that image. At the end of a symposium, it was customary for inebriated partygoers to file out into the night in a riotous ritual procession known as the komos. Taking wine and cups with them, they paraded noisily through the streets, insulting citizens, vandalizing property and generally demonstrating that their group was above the law. Members of a group might even make a “pledge” to undertake some particularly heinous act; its aim was little more than to bind the conspirators together through the very outrageousness of their deed.
This belligerent aspect of the sympotic group hit home with special force last fall as the Pi Kappa Alpha (“Pike”) fraternity was expelled from Emory for its members’ persistent involvement in brawling and anti-social behavior. It was uncanny to read in the Emory Wheel of a frat brother condemning “the tyranny of Emory’s . . . regime,” with its oppressive, “un-American administration,” just as ancient members of sympotic brotherhoods railed against the tyrannical state that tried to rein them in.
But solidarity in the ancient brotherhood was fostered in other, more constructive ways, as well. One of the most striking was through a mentoring relationship between mature adult members of the sympotic company and its younger participants. These relationships sought to instill in the youths the ideals of the group, not the least how to behave in a civilized manner at drinking parties. Here moderation is a recurrent theme, as we see in a passage from the poet Euboulos:
Three kraters only do I mix for the temperate—one to Health, which they empty first. The second to Love and Pleasure, the third to Sleep. When this is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth krater is ours no longer, but belongs to Hybris: the fifth to Uprour, the sixth to Drunken Revel, the seventh to Black Eyes. The eighth is the Policeman’s, the ninth belongs to Biliousness, and the tenth to Madness and Hurling-the-Furniture.
Between the youths and their older counterparts, there arose deep bonds of friendship, which frequently included an erotic component. This sexual bond, which was encouraged in aristocratic circles, has been termed “pedagogical pederasty.” Frequently celebrated in poetry and depicted in vase-painting, it received its most memorable theoretical validation in Plato’s Symposium, where the love of an older lover for his youthful beloved is seen as inciting both of them to virtuous action.
Students explore these and many other aspects of the symposium in the course of a term. They also compare the sympotic practices of the Greeks with those of different cultures, for instance the Kwakiutl potlatch of the Pacific Northwest, or aristocratic student drinking parties at fraternities in Nazi Germany. In the process, they gain insight into the drinking culture of their own place and time.
This essay first appeared in the February/March 2005 Academic Exchange, and is reprinted with permission.