The symposium was an essential part of male civic life in Ancient Greece. It was an event akin to a dinner party, where men would gather to discuss matters (with a particular focus on the philosophical), to enjoy music, dancing and female company, and, crucially, to drink. It was a key institution as far as the social elite of the Hellenic civilisation was concerned, to the extent it was often a part of a young man’s initiation into aristocratic society.
What did a Symposium look like?
We can get a sense of what kind of things might have been discussed in Plato’s Symposium. The participants would lie on couches to enjoy food and wine. These were usually arranged against the three walls of a room – a tradition inherited by the Romans, hence the Latin word ‘triclinium’ for dining room, literally meaning ‘three couch room’. There would be a variety of entertainments provided by the host – from aulos-players to high-class female courtesans. In the Roman imperial period, the entertainment, food and drink provided at these gatherings became increasingly lavish – as famously mocked in the Cena Trimalchionis episode of Petronius’ Satyricon (published in the late 1st Century AD).
Visual representation of Symposia
Symposia are often depicted on Attic pottery. This was a natural choice for the Greeks – where better to visually celebrate the pleasures and virtues of the symposium than on a vessel that could be used in a sympiotic context? All kinds of vessels were used at the symposium – oinochoai (wine jugs), kylikes (wine cups) and kantharoi (another type of wine cup). Often, we see either direct depictions of or allusions to the god Dionysus on such vessels – rather fitting given his position as the god of wine.