History : Jan-Feb 2017
50 JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2017 and a young slave filled the krater each time. During the symposium guests nibbled on snacks called tragemata—dried fruit, toasted beans, or chickpeas—which both absorbed the alcohol and built up a thirst for more. Wine, Women, and Song Plato’s account of his symposium is probably the distillation of many evenings spent in the company of the classical world’s most brillant and learned men, drinking and talking until late. Most symposia, however, would have been of a somewhat less philosophical intensity. Its guests typically chatted, telling each other riddles or drawing caricatures of one another. Once the evening’s earlier rituals of proper dress and robust conversa- tion had passed, plenty of records show that good behavior often deteriorated over the course of the night. The third-serving rule seems to have been breached regularly. The most common after-dinner activity was the singing of skolia, sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. These short songs typically celebrated friendship or the pleasures of wine, recounting historic events or exalting the social values of the aristocracy from whose ranks most guests were drawn. The word skolion means“sideways” in ancient Greek, a reference to how the guests took turns to sing, afterward passing a myrtle branch to the man reclining next to him who was to sing next. One of the most popular games was known as kottabos. After finishing his cup, the guest picked it up by the handle and flicked the dregs at a target, usually another cup. As he did so, he uttered the name of his beloved, as it was believed that hitting the target boded well for his love life. There were more elaborate variants of the game: In one of them, the guests tried to sink small clay vessels floating in a large cup; in another, they shot at a saucer balanced on a metal bar. Xenophon writes how in 404 b.c., Theramenes, an aristocrat who had been con- demned to death, proved his sangfroid by paro- dying the kottabos ritual with the cup of hem- lock he had been forced to drink. According to Xenophon, he cried out: “To the health of my beloved Critias” (the name of the man who had condemned him to die). Female flautists, known as auletrides, were brought in for the later stages. Pictures of sym- posia on vases show these women performing semi-naked between the reclining guests who, HANDLING THEIR CUPS One of the cups used to drink watered- down wine at symposia was the kantharos, with two raised handles and a tall base. The vessel below portrays a woman with African features. Villa Giulia Museum, Rome SCALA, FLORENCE AKG/ALBUM A HOST MIGHT INVITE GUESTS TO A FEAST AFTER BUMPING INTO THEM IN THE PUBLIC MEETING PLACE OF CLASSICAL ATHENS KNOWN AS THE AGORA, RECONSTRUCTED IN THIS ILLUSTRATION.
March April 2017