The Symposium in Classical Cultures

What was a symposium?

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

snapshot of a greek lekythos with symposium scene
Attic Black-Figure Terracotta Kylix

What did a Symposium look like?

According to Plato’s Symposium, the participants would enjoy food and wine by lying on couches that were usually arranged against the three walls of a room – 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 imperial period, the entertainment, food and drink provided at these gatherings became increasingly lavish.

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.

Attic Black-Figure Terracotta Kylix

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By Virginia,

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