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The Rules of an Ancient Greek Symposium

Symposium. Credit: Egisto Sani. CC BY-2.0/flickr

An ancient Greek symposium was a wine-drinking banquet that took place after a meal, with one of many purposes being the introduction of young people into aristocracy through debating, plotting, and boasting.

At these banquets, which were underlain by certain rules, the drinking of wine was accompanied by music, dancing, recitals, and conversation. Plutarch, the ancient Greek philosopher and historian, described symposiums as “a passing of time over wine, which guided by gracious behavior, ends in friendship.”

It was customary for the host of a symposium to etch the names of his guests into a wax tablet, along with the day and hour marked for the event, then hand the tablet to a slave who would make the rounds of the guests’ houses.

Generally, the number of guests was nine. However, in fourth century BC Athens, symposiums grew so large that a commission was appointed to ensure the number of guests did not exceed the legal limit.

The rules of an ancient Greek symposium

A symposium would be overseen by a symposiarch, a guiding figure who would decide how strong the wine for the occasion would be and enforce the rules of the banquet. The strength of the wine would typically depend on whether the group met for serious discussion or pleasure.

The ancient Greeks would serve their wine mixed with water, as the consumption of pure wine was considered to be the habit of uncivilized people. The wine would be drawn from a krater, a large, two-handled vase carried around by two slave boys. It was served from a wine jug known as an oenochoe.

A number of formalities were observed throughout the evening, the most important of which were libations, the pouring of a small amount of wine in honor of various deities or those who had passed away.

In addition to determining the strength of the wine, the symposiarch would decide how many cups were to be drunk; there was usually a limit. That way, all attendees could reach roughly the same level of inebriation.

The other major rule of a Greek symposium pertained to those who were allowed to attend. Women were not permitted to join the drinking parties. However, male guests would hire high-class female prostitutes (hetairai) and entertainers to perform, consort, and converse with them.

The Romans also held symposiums, though those looked a bit different from the ones in ancient Greece. At Roman symposiums, known as conviviums, wine was served before, during, and after the consumption of food, and women were permitted to join. In a Greek symposium, wine was only consumed after dinner.

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