In ancient Greece, symposia were convivial meetings for drinking, conversation, and intellectual entertainment; they were all-male, upper-class drinking parties that beginning ca. 600 B.C. were held following the evening meal.
After pouring libations to the gods, the guests—usually ten or twelve—began to drink wine diluted with various amounts of water. Often garlanded and perfumed, they reclined usually two together- often erastes (lover)and eromenos (beloved)—on couches propping themselves up on one arm while servants brought round the calyx, the common drinking cup filled with watered wine. Though some did not drink, others became riotous. Besides drinking and conversing, they told riddles and fables and sang drinking songs (often ribald and pederastic) and recited verses, whether archaic (the most popular being those of Theognis) or of recent composition. Athenaeus preserved a collection of scolia, as the drinking songs were known, from the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. Each sang in turn when he was passed the myrtle branch. Having wrestled nude with his boy in the gymnasium, a gentleman might recline with him in the evening on a couch at a symposium sippingwine together and exchanging glances and singing love songs. Flirtation was the rule, and sometimes kisses and embraces. Going farther in public with one another was considered indecorous, although young girl and boy slaves were often pinched and pummeled, and attending musicians, often slaves themselves, were available and often fondled and groped by intemperate guests, and hetairai (female companions] often attended. But ladies, after 600 B.C., were shut away in the gynaecea (women's quarters), and children were formally excluded from these parties. They were held in the men's chamber that each greater house possessed, often furnished with stone couches upon which pads and pillows were placed. One of the more popular games was kottabos (winethrowing) in which, reclining on their left elbows on the couches, the guests threw the last drops of wine from the calyx into a basin set in the middle of the room without spilling any.
In the seventh century, first at Crete, then at Sparta, lawgivers founded men's houses (andreia), where upper-class males messed together. The institution was imported to Athens and the rest of Greece after 600 B.C., along with gymnasia, pederasty, and the seclusion of women, but in Athens the eating clubs, often bound together by pederastic relationships, met only occasionally for dinner parties and symposia, many of which became very intellectual. Some ended in komoi, drinking processions revelling through the streets to serenade an eromenos outside his house. Heroes and others whom the state wished to honor, such as the descendants of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, were dined at public expense in the Prytaneum, but most upper-class men outside of Crete and Sparta, normally dined en famille. The symposia fulfilled the need of educated Greeks for relaxation and stimulation, as restaurants and night clubs did not exist. They could, however, also degenerate into drunken orgies that brought out the mutual hostility of the participants.
Plato, Xenophon, and many others set dialogues in symposia, which became a recognized literary form that allowed the author toramble over his choice of barely related themes. Prominent in this genre is the Deipnosphistae of Athenaeus, who had a most artificial arrangement, with 40 guests and a three-day banquet. Vase paintings preserve a vivid picture of the proceedings at such affairs. Crude Roman imitations of the Greek banquets were satirized, more in literary form, by Petronius in the Cena Trimalchionis, the banquet episode of the Satyricon. Christian hostility to such centers of pederasty and intellectual analysis, as well as the loss of wealth and leisure beginning with the third century, led to their decline. In the late fourth century Libanius complained that at Antioch banquets had degenerated, citing an egregious case in which a father regularly prostituted his son.
A survival of the symposium is the Jewish Passover meal, where the guests are formally required to recline in the manner of upper-class Greeks, proving that they are no longer slaves after being delivered from bondage in Egypt. Also, a ceremonial part of the meal is the aphikoman, hornHellenistic Greek epicomon, the final course of the banquet.
English colleges created their own, more sedate versions of the symposia. The common room and dining hall arrangements with sheny, port, and other wines, where a variety of opinions are expressed, parallel those of antiquity. Tutorials, though one-on-one, traditionally end with the quaffing of a glass of sherry.
William A. Percy