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A female aulos-player entertains men at a symposium on this Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 420 BC Symposium scene Nicias Painter MAN.jpg
A female aulos-player entertains men at a symposium on this Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 420 BC

In ancient Greece, the symposium (Greek : συμπόσιονsymposion or symposio, from συμπίνειν sympinein, "to drink together") was a part of a banquet that took place after the meal, when drinking for pleasure was accompanied by music, dancing, recitals, or conversation. [1] Literary works that describe or take place at a symposium include two Socratic dialogues, Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium , as well as a number of Greek poems such as the elegies of Theognis of Megara. Symposia are depicted in Greek and Etruscan art that shows similar scenes. [1]


In modern usage, it has come to mean an academic conference or meeting such as a scientific conference. The equivalent of a Greek symposium in Roman society is the Latin convivium. [1]

Setting and social occasion

Plato's Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach Plato's Symposium - Anselm Feuerbach - Google Cultural Institute.jpg
Plato's Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach
Banquet scene from a Temple of Athena (6th century BC relief). Banquet Assos Louvre Ma2829.jpg
Banquet scene from a Temple of Athena (6th century BC relief).

The Greek symposium was a key Hellenic social institution. It was a forum for men of respected families to debate, plot, boast, or simply to revel with others. They were frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society. Symposia were also held by aristocrats to celebrate other special occasions, such as victories in athletic and poetic contests. They were a source of pride for them.

Symposia were usually held in the andrōn (ἀνδρών), the men's quarters of the household. The participants, or "symposiasts", would recline on pillowed couches arrayed against the three walls of the room away from the door. Due to space limitations, the couches would number between seven and nine, limiting the total number of participants to somewhere between fourteen and twenty seven [2] (Oswyn Murray gives a figure of between seven and fifteen couches and reckons fourteen to thirty participants a "standard size for a drinking group"). [3] If any young men took part, they did not recline but sat up. [4] However, in Macedonian symposia, the focus was not only on drinking but hunting, and young men were allowed to recline only after they had killed their first wild boar.

Pietro Testa (1611-1650): The Drunken Alcibiades Interrupting the Symposium (1648). TestaAlcibiades.jpg
Pietro Testa (1611–1650): The Drunken Alcibiades Interrupting the Symposium (1648).

Food and wine were served. Entertainment was provided, and depending on the occasion could include games, songs, flute-girls or boys, slaves performing various acts, and hired entertainment.

Symposia often were held for specific occasions. The most famous symposium of all, described in Plato's dialogue of that name (and rather differently in Xenophon's) was hosted by the poet Agathon on the occasion of his first victory at the theater contest of the 416 BC Dionysia. According to Plato's account, the celebration was upstaged by the unexpected entrance of the toast of the town, the young Alcibiades, dropping in drunken and nearly naked, having just left another symposium.

The men at the symposium would discuss a multitude of topics—often philosophical, such as love and the differences between genders.


A slave attends to a vomiting symposiast. Nationalmuseet - Cophenaghen - brygos vomiting1.jpg
A slave attends to a vomiting symposiast.

A symposium would be overseen by a "symposiarch" who would decide how strong the wine for the evening would be, depending on whether serious discussions or sensual indulgence were in the offing. The Greeks and Romans customarily served their wine mixed with water, as the drinking of pure wine was considered a habit of uncivilized peoples. However, there were major differences between the Roman and Greek symposia. A Roman symposium (convivium) served wine before, with and after food, and women were allowed to join. In a Greek symposium, wine was only drunk after dinner, and women were not allowed to attend. [5] The wine was drawn from a krater , a large jar designed to be carried by two men, and served from pitchers (oenochoe). Determined by the Master of Ceremonies, the wine was diluted to a specific strength and was then mixed. Slave boys would manage the krater , and transfer the wine into pitchers. They then attended to each man in the symposium with the pitchers and filled their cups with wine. [6] Certain formalities were observed, most important among which were libations, the pouring of a small amount of wine in honour of various deities or the mourned dead. In a fragment from his c. 375 BC play Semele or Dionysus, Eubulus has the god of wine Dionysos describe proper and improper drinking:

For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more – it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

In keeping with the Greek virtue of moderation, the symposiarch should have prevented festivities from getting out of hand, but Greek literature and art often indicate that the third-krater limit was not observed. [7]


Symposiums are often featured on Attic pottery and Richard Neer has argued that the chief function of Attic pottery was for use in the symposium. [8] An amphora was used as a jug to hold the wine and usually one single cup was passed amongst the men. [9] Cups used at symposiums were not as nearly intricate as amphoras. Pottery used at symposiums often featured painted scenes of the god Dionysus, satyrs, and other mythical scenes related to drinking and celebration. [10]


Kottabos player flinging wine-dregs (Attic red-figure kylix, c. 510 BC). Cottabos player Louvre CA1585.jpg
Kottabos player flinging wine-dregs (Attic red-figure kylix, c. 510 BC).

Poetry and music were central to the pleasures of the symposium. Although free women of status did not attend symposia, high-class female prostitutes (hetairai) and entertainers were hired to perform, consort, and converse with the guests. Among the instruments, women might play was the aulos , a Greek woodwind instrument sometimes compared to an oboe. When string instruments were played, the barbiton was the traditional instrument. [11] Slaves and boys also provided service and entertainment.

The guests also participated actively in competitive entertainments. A game sometimes played at symposia was kottabos , in which players swirled the dregs of their wine in a kylix, a platter-like stemmed drinking vessel, and flung them at a target. Another feature of the symposia were skolia, drinking songs of a patriotic or bawdy nature, performed competitively with one symposiast reciting the first part of a song and another expected to improvise the end of it. Symposiasts might also compete in rhetorical contests, for which reason the word "symposium" has come to refer in English to any event where multiple speeches are made.

Etruscan and Roman drinking parties

Banqueting scene from the Etruscan Tomb of the Leopards. Tarquinia Tomb of the Leopards.jpg
Banqueting scene from the Etruscan Tomb of the Leopards.
Paris - Louvre - Sarcophagus of the Married Couple Paris - Louvre - Sarcophage.jpg
Paris – Louvre – Sarcophagus of the Married Couple

Etruscan art shows scenes of banqueting that recall aspects of the Greek symposia; however, one major difference is that women of status participated more fully in this as in other realms of Etruscan society. Women were allowed to drink wine and recline with men at feasts. Some Etruscan women were even considered "expert drinkers". [12] Additionally, Etruscan women were often buried with drinking and feasting paraphernalia, suggesting that they partook in these activities. [13] The most apparent distinctions between Greek and Etruscan drinking parties appear in Etruscan art. Etruscan paintings show men and women drinking wine together and reclining on the same cushions. [13] The Sarcophagus of the Married Couple, [14] found in the Etruscan region dating to 520–530 BC, depicts a man and women lounging together in the context of a banquet, [15] which is a stark contrast with gendered Greek drinking parties.

As with many other Greek customs, the aesthetic framework of the symposium was adopted by the Romans under the name of comissatio. These revels also involved the drinking of assigned quantities of wine, and the oversight of a master of the ceremonies appointed for the occasion from among the guests. Another Roman version of the symposium was the convivium. Women's role differed in Roman symposia as well. Roman women were legally prohibited from drinking wine as a matter of public morality. [13] Men were expected to control their own wine consumption, but women were not given this authority. Women seemed to have a greater presence at drinking parties in the early years of the Roman Empire, until they were prohibited from drinking wine during the Republic Period.

Related Research Articles

<i>Symposium</i> (Plato) Philosophical text by Plato

The Symposium is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It depicts a friendly contest of extemporaneous speeches given by a group of notable men attending a banquet. The men include the philosopher Socrates, the general and political figure Alcibiades, and the comic playwright Aristophanes. The speeches are to be given in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. In the Symposium, Eros is recognized both as erotic love and as a phenomenon capable of inspiring courage, valor, great deeds and works, and vanquishing man's natural fear of death. It is seen as transcending its earthly origins and attaining spiritual heights. This extraordinary elevation of the concept of love raises a question of whether some of the most extreme extents of meaning might be intended as humor or farce. Eros is almost always translated as "love", and the English word has its own varieties and ambiguities that provide additional challenges to the effort to understand the Eros of ancient Athens.


In the material culture of classical antiquity, a phiale or patera is a shallow ceramic or metal libation bowl. It often has a bulbous indentation in the center underside to facilitate holding it, in which case it is sometimes called a mesomphalic phiale. It typically has no handles, and no feet. Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, particularly in the context of Etruscan culture, phiale is more common in reference to Greek forms, and patera in Roman settings, not to be confused with the Greek (Πατέρας) Patéras or Father.

Kottabos Target game played by ancient Greeks and Etruscans

Kottabos was a game of skill played at Ancient Greek and Etruscan symposia, especially in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. It involved flinging wine-lees (sediment) at a target in the middle of the room. The winner would receive a prize, comprising cakes, sweetmeats, or kisses.

Kylix Ancient Greek or Etruscan drinking cup

In the pottery of ancient Greece, a kylix is the most common type of wine-drinking cup. It has a broad, relatively shallow, body raised on a stem from a foot and usually two horizontal handles disposed symmetrically. The main alternative wine-cup shape was the kantharos, with a narrower and deeper cup and high vertical handles.

Exekias Ancient Athenian vase painter

Exekias was an ancient Greek vase-painter and potter who was active in Athens between roughly 545 BC and 530 BC. Exekias worked mainly in the black-figure technique, which involved the painting of scenes using a clay slip that fired to black, with details created through incision. Exekias is regarded by art historians as an artistic visionary whose masterful use of incision and psychologically sensitive compositions mark him as one of the greatest of all Attic vase painters. The Andokides painter and the Lysippides Painter are thought to have been students of Exekias.


A krater or crater was a large vase in Ancient Greece, used for the dilution of wine with water.


A psykter is a type of Greek vase that is characterized by a bulbous body set on a high, narrow foot. It was used as a wine cooler, and specifically as part of the elite sympotic set in the ancient Greek symposium. The psykter, as distinct from other coolers, is a vase which has a mushroom-shaped body, and was produced for only a short period of time during the late-sixth to mid-fifth centuries, with almost all of this type dating to between 520 and 480 BCE.

Ancient Greek cuisine was characterized by its frugality for most, reflecting agricultural hardship, but a great diversity of ingredients was known, and wealthy Greeks were known to celebrate with elaborate meals and feasts.

Geometric art is a phase of Greek art, characterized largely by geometric motifs in vase painting, that flourished towards the end of the Greek Dark Ages, c. 900–700 BC. Its center was in Athens, and from there the style spread among the trading cities of the Aegean. The Greek Dark Ages lasted from c. 1100 to 750 BC and include two periods, the Protogeometric period and the Geometric period, in reference to the characteristic pottery style. The vases had various uses or purposes within Greek society, including, but not limited to, funerary vases and symposium vases.

<i>Sarcophagus of the Spouses</i>

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is considered one of the great masterpieces of Etruscan art. It is a late sixth-century BC Etruscan anthropoid sarcophagus from Caere, and is in the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome. It is 1.14 m high by 1.9 m wide, and is made of terracotta which was once brightly painted. It depicts a married couple reclining at a banquet together in the afterlife, and was found in 19th-century excavations at the necropolis of Cerveteri. The portrayal of a married couple sharing a banqueting couch is distinctly an Etruscan style; in contrast, Greek vases depicting banquet scenes reflect the custom that only men attended dinner parties.


Klinai, known in Latin as lectus triclinaris, were a type of ancient furniture used by the ancient Greeks in their symposia and by the ancient Romans in their somewhat different convivia.

Etruscan art

Etruscan art was produced by the Etruscan civilization in central Italy between the 10th and 1st centuries BC. From around 750 BC it was heavily influenced by Greek art, which was imported by the Etruscans, but always retained distinct characteristics. Particularly strong in this tradition were figurative sculpture in terracotta, wall-painting and metalworking especially in bronze. Jewellery and engraved gems of high quality were produced.

Tomb of the Leopards

The Tomb of the Leopards is an Etruscan burial chamber so called for the confronted leopards painted above a banquet scene. The tomb is located within the Necropolis of Monterozzi and dates to around 480–450 BC. The painting is one of the best-preserved murals of Tarquinia, and is known for "its lively coloring, and its animated depictions rich with gestures."

Food and dining in the Roman Empire

Food and dining in the Roman Empire reflect both the variety of food-stuffs available through the expanded trade networks of the Roman Empire and the traditions of conviviality from ancient Rome's earliest times, inherited in part from the Greeks and Etruscans. In contrast to the Greek symposium, which was primarily a drinking party, the equivalent social institution of the Roman convivium was focused on food. Banqueting played a major role in Rome's communal religion. Maintaining the food supply to the city of Rome had become a major political issue in the late Republic, and continued to be one of the main ways the emperor expressed his relationship to the Roman people and established his role as a benefactor. Roman food vendors and farmers' markets sold meats, fish, cheeses, produce, olive oil and spices; and pubs, bars, inns and food stalls sold prepared food.

Tomb of Hunting and Fishing

The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, formerly known as the Tomb of the Hunter, is an Etruscan tomb in the Necropolis of Monterozzi near Tarquinia, Italy. It was discovered in 1873 and has been dated variously to about 530–520 BC, 520 BC, 510 BC or 510–500 BC. Stephan Steingräber calls it "unquestionably one of the most beautiful and original of the Tarquinian tombs from the Late Archaic period." R. Ross Holloway emphasizes the reduction of humans to small figures in a large natural environment. There were no precedents for this in Ancient Greek art or in the Etruscan art it influenced. It was a major development in the history of ancient painting.

Bryn Mawr Painter

The Bryn Mawr Painter is the name given to an Attic Greek red-figure vase painter active in the late Archaic period.

Ancient Greek art Art of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek art stands out among that of other ancient cultures for its development of naturalistic but idealized depictions of the human body, in which largely nude male figures were generally the focus of innovation. The rate of stylistic development between about 750 and 300 BC was remarkable by ancient standards, and in surviving works is best seen in sculpture. There were important innovations in painting, which have to be essentially reconstructed due to the lack of original survivals of quality, other than the distinct field of painted pottery.

Polyphemos reclining and holding a drinking bowl

Polyphemos reclining and holding a drinking bowl is a Late Classical terracotta figure that was created in Boeotia, Greece in late 5th- early 4th century BCE. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston purchased the statue in December 1901 from E.P. Warren, who bought the terracotta figure in Paris, in 1901, from a vendor who acquired it in Thebes.

Calyx-Krater by the artist called the Painter of the Berlin Hydria depicting an Amazonomachy

The calyx-krater by the artist called the "Painter of the Berlin Hydria" depicting an Amazonomachy is an ancient Greek painted vase in the red figure style, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is a krater, a bowl made for mixing wine and water, and specifically a calyx-krater, where the bowl resembles the calyx of a flower. Vessels such as these were often used at a symposion, which was an elite party for drinking.

Ancient Greek funerary vases

Ancient Greek funerary vases are decorative grave markers made in ancient Greece that were designed to resemble liquid-holding vessels. These decorated vases were placed on grave sites as a mark of elite status. There are many types of funerary vases, such as amphorae, kraters, oinochoe, and kylix cups, among others. One famous example is the Dipylon amphora. Every-day vases were often not painted, but wealthy Greeks could afford luxuriously painted ones. Funerary vases on male graves might have themes of military prowess, or athletics. However, allusions to death in Greek tragedies was a popular motif. Famous centers of vase styles include Corinth, Lakonia, Ionia, South Italy, and Athens.


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  2. Literature in the Greek World By Oliver Taplin; p 47
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Further reading