Originally, the term symposium referred to a drinking party; the Greek verb sympotein means "to drink together". The term has since come to refer to any academic conference, irrespective of drinking. We have literary depictions of symposia in the sympotic elegies of Theognis of Megara, as well as in two Socratic dialogues, Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium.
Symposium as Greek Social Institution
Greek symposia were a key Hellenic social institution. They were a forum for men to debate, plot, boast, or simply to party. They were frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society, much like debutante balls today. They were also held by aristocrats to celebrate other special occasions, such as victories in athletic and poetic contests.
Symposia were usually held in the men's quarters of the household. Singly or in pairs, the men would recline on couches arrayed against the walls of the room. Food, wine (usually mixed with water and served by nude young men), and entertainment was provided, and depending on the occasion could include games, songs, flute-girls, slaves performing various acts, hired entertainments, and coincidentally, parasites. A symposium would be overseen by a symposiarch who would decide how strong or diluted the wine for the evening would be, depending on whether serious discussions or merely sensual abandon were in the offing. Certain formalities were observed, most important among which were the libations by means of which the gods were propitiated.
One of the more popular games at symposia was kottabos, in which drinkers swished the dregs of their wine in their kylices (platter-like stemmed drinking vessels) and flung them at a target. Also popular at symposia were skolia , drinking songs of a patriotic or bawdy nature, which were also performed in a competitive manner with one symposiast reciting the first part of a song and another expected to finish it.
What are called flute-girls today were actually prostitutes or courtesans who played the aulos, a Greek woodwind instrument most similar to an oboe, hired to play for and consort with the symposiasts while they drank and conversed.
Symposiasts could also compete in rhetorical contests, for which reason the term symposium has come to refer to any event where multiple speeches are made.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04