Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Symposium in Ancient Greece

The Greek symposium was a male aristocratic activity, a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere. Bedecked in garlands, participants reclined—one or two to a couch—in a room designed to hold seven to fifteen couches with cushions and low tables (21.88.74). Many such rooms have been identified archaeologically in domestic settings, although the best representation is perhaps the painted Tomb of the Diver at Paestum.

By the late sixth century B.C., there was an established repertoire of symposium vessels that included wine coolers, jugs, various drinking cups, and mixing vessels, many of which were decorated with scenes of drinking parties or of Dionysos and his followers (31.11.11). Water was mixed with wine in a large central krater to a strength determined by the symposiarch (master of ceremonies). The mixture, usually three or four parts water to one part wine, was served by slave boys who filled pitchers from the krater and poured the drink into each participant’s cup (1993.11.5).

The men conversed, often about specific topics, as in Plato’s Symposium, and some recited poetry or played music. Jokes, gossip, and games of skill and balance enlivened the evening, as did professional musicians (24.97.28), dancers, and courtesans. The well-conducted symposium was a center for the transmission of traditional values, as well as an event that provided liberation from everyday restraints within a carefully regulated environment.