The Art of Drinking Together, or the Symposium

The Practice of Drinking Together in Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks were serious party goers, as it is witnessed by the many vessels in ancient Attic pottery depicting symposium scenes. Symposium literally translates to “to drink together” and it was the part of the banquet after the meal, when men would gather and drink for pleasure and entertainment while listening to music, dancing or having conversations. It was a key feature of Hellenic life and symposiums could be held in aristocratic families to debate and plot, or simply to revel or also to celebrate the introduction of young men into society. This kind of gathering could also happen to celebrate a victory in athletic or poetic contests.

Attic Kylix with Symposium Scene
Attic Lekythos with Geometric Decoration
Finely Decorated Greek Attic Black-Figure Kylix

The Master of Ceremonies

Rules for the preparation and consumption of wine were set out and there was a designated ‘symposiarch’, the Master of Ceremonies, who had to decide the quantity and strength of the wine for the evening, based on whether the symposium had in program serious debates or it was simply a delightful indulgence between men. Wine was indeed very different from what we drink today. It was a very strong spirit, which prior to consumption had to be diluted and could also be mixed with honey and spices.

Finely Decorated Greek Attic Black-Figure Kylix
Attic Kylix with Symposium Scene

How did the Greeks drink their wine?

It was considered extremely uncivilized and a habit of barbarian people to drink it pure and it had to be prepared accordingly before consumption. The pure wine was poured from amphorae into kraters, where the mix was made and then poured into kylix vessels, through oinochoe for consumption on the comfortable reclined couches, klines. During these banquets, some formalities had to be respected, for instance the libations in favour of the gods or dear dead ones had to be performed in a certain way.

Symposiasts and Kottabos

Symposiasts, the men attending the symposium, would chat, listen to music, enjoy hired entertainment or also play games. Kottabos was one of the games that men could enjoy playing during a symposium and it consisted in swirling the wine dregs in their kylix and then flung them towards a target. The prize for the winner was a fruit, more wine or a kiss from the loved one. The pottery used in these social occasions usually had symposium related decoration, such as dancers, musicians playing music and the god of wine himself, Dionysus.

By ancient art manager,

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