The Symposium

This animation shows ancient Greeks at a drinks-party, or symposium (‘symposion’ in Greek).

It was developed for the University of Oxford Faculty of Classics using a cup from the Ashmolean Museum.

about symposiums

At symposiums, groups of adult citizens gathered to enjoy each other’s company or to celebrate special occasions.  Non-citizen men, and women who were professional entertainers or companions, might also attend.  Guests usually reclined on couches facing towards each other and used a range of vases to mix, serve, and drink watered wine.  The guests might have had dinner together beforehand.  A symposiarch, or symposium leader, presided over the evening, pouring offerings for Dionysus, regulating the drinking, and managing the activities.  It was their responsibility to set the tone of the evening and, in theory, to see that everyone behaved properly.

Like many things in ancient Greek culture, symposiums had a competitive aspect.  Many of the evening’s activities would be arranged as competitions, whether it was debating, telling jokes and riddles, performing music, or playing games.  This animation depicts a popular game called kottabos, in which people competed in flinging the sediment (lees) from their wine-cup at a target.  People sometimes competed for the attention of potential lovers at symposiums and games could be included in this – players might dedicate their kottabos throws to the person they were interested in or request a kiss as a prize.  As Marek Wecowski puts it, light-hearted but merciless rivalry of peers and eroticism are what drives sympotic entertainment.’ (p.55).

'For [the symposiasts] tried very hard not only to hit the target, but also to perform each part of the game beautifully (καλώς).  One had to recline on his left elbow and make a supple arc with his right arm to throw the latax; for that is what they called the liquid that fell from the kylix.  Thus some people took more pride in playing kottabos well than others took in their ability to hurl the javelin.'

Dicaearchus (=Ath.4790), quotation from Scaife (1992) p.30.

Hosts competed with each other in having an impressive selection of vases, the most accomplished professional performers, or the most influential guests.  As these were private events, the choice of guests and hosts was a way for people to show who they liked and who they thought was important.  Because of the association with elitism, this could sometimes be troubling.  The raucous behaviour at symposiums of the 5th century politician and general Alcibiades worried other Athenians; all these rich young men getting drunk together and disrespecting other citizens looked a lot like contempt for democracy – perhaps even an interest in re-establishing oligarchy.  (See e.g. Plutarch, Alcibiades, 4.4+)  At their most profound, symposiums pushed the boundaries of philosophy and culture, at their least, they could result in people drinking too much and causing trouble.

Above:

Guests at a symposium, as depicted on a 5th century cup by the Triptolemos Painter

(Staatliche Museum, Berlin, F 2298).

Right:

Music features in many symposium scenes. Here’s another example from a 6th century cup now in the British Museum (1836.0224.211).  This cup has a similar vine theme to The Symposium vase, but this design is painted round the outside rather than the inside.

Several ancient authors have left us versions of conversations held at symposiums.  They tend to be quite idealised examples of philosophy in action.  They include:

Plato, Symposium.  This is probably the most famous piece of symposium literature.  It contains playful elements as well as exploring serious ideas.  A group of Athenians, including politicians, play-wrights, generals, and philosophers, gather to celebrate their host’s victory in a drama competition.  The discussion turns to love, and the guests compete to define what love is.  While this demonstrates the sort of philosophical dialogue that could take place at a symposium, it’s also a medium through which Plato could express ideas.  Plato wrote this in the early 4th century BCE, describing events in the late 5th century.

Plutarch, Symposium of the Seven Sages.  This is an imaginary account of a symposium attended by some of the most brilliant minds of antiquity at the court of a Greek tyrant.  Plutarch wrote this in the late 1st – early 2nd century CE, describing events in the early 6th century BCE.  Symposium culture was around for a very long time!

You may also enjoy Plutarch’s On the Genius of Socrates.  This unusual text, set in the 4th century BCE, features an account of rebels in Thebes meeting for a symposium while planning a revolt from Spartan occupation.  Their discussion of the occupation is combined with an exploration of the nature of divinity and the parameters of piety.  Philosophy, politics, wine – a classic symposium - followed by a bit more bloodshed than usual!

about the animation

The most famous Gorgon was Medusa, who could turn people to stone with just one look from her petrifying gaze.  This animation plays with that idea by having the figures on the vase still when the Gorgon is awake and moving when she closes her eyes.

Much of what is known about symposiums comes from the symposium scenes painted on ancient Greek vases.  This animation makes use of lots of the small details from the original symposium scene.  The guests (or symposiasts) recline on their left sides.  Rather than using couches, they seem to be lying on the ground in a vineyard.

They are leaning on cushions, naked from the waist up with beautiful, patterned skirts around their legs.  The cushions have delicate patterns on them.  These had to be restored during the preparation process so that the pattern would appear all the way up the cushion when the characters sat up and revealed more of the cushion below them.  The animation draws attention to the vineyard setting by having one of the characters picking grapes from the vine.  Because they’re reclining, the symposiasts hold their cups in their left hands and have to pass the cup to their right when they want to drink.  The cups have been carefully painted in several different styles.  In the original scene the youngest man at the symposium (the only one without a full beard) offers his cup to the man beside him; this is typical of the flirtation and romance of the symposium.  The animation picked up this cue and has them sharing a drink together.

 

The busiest person in the animation is the small figure serving the drinks.  This would be a household slave.  It was common for ancient Greeks to have slaves, and male slaves would usually serve at symposiums.  It was a convention in Greek vase painting to make slaves look smaller than citizens; that was not realism but an expression of difference in status.

It is very common to see people in symposium scenes depicted singing or playing musical instruments.  This vase depicts one man playing the aulos; he can be seen in the animation rocking slightly and blinking, which both indicate the difficulty of playing these tricky double-pipes.  Because the vase is black figure, the blink shows up very clearly flashing red when he re-opens his eyes.  The man beside him reaches out to take the lyre.  He begins to tune it but doesn’t have a chance to play before the gorgon awakes.

In the animation, the symposiasts begin playing kottabos.  The game of flinging wine lees to knock down a target originated with Greeks living in Sicily, but quickly became popular all over the Greek world.  In the comedy play, Acharnians, there’s a joke in which the character Dikaiopolis says that the Peloponnesian War was started by the antics of young men μεθυσοκότταβοι - drunk from playing kottabos (Aristoph. Ach. 524-529).  The animation represents the flying wine as if it was painted with a dilute slip.  A lot of care had to be taken to enable the characters to pick up their cups properly and for the player to be able to loop his finger into the cup handle at just the right angle.

This vase showing a game of kottabos suggests the romantic element of the game – Eros is holding up a prize crown for success.  Playing strip-kottabos wasn't unheard of at livelier symposiums.

 

(British Museum calyx-krater, 5th century, by the Chequer Painter, BM1772.0320.34).

storyboard

music

The music on this animation is played by Barnaby Brown.  The track is called ‘Apollo and the Python’.  It's played on a replica of the Louvre Aulos, a set of double pipes based on an ancient pair.  The aulos (or ‘auloi’ plural) was a bit like a modern oboe, played with a double reed but always with two pipes.  For more on ancient music, visit this Panoply interview and Barnaby’s website:  https://barnabybrown.info/

Above:  Barnaby Brown playing at the event where ‘Apollo and the Python’ was recorded.  This was a British Museum Friday Music event, with performances from the Workshop of Dionysus presented by Oxford University’s

Dr Armand D’Angour.

vase details

The vase featured in The Symposium is an Athenian black-figure footed cup (kylix) made c. 500 BCE, museum reference AN1974.344.  Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

The interior of the cup depicts a vine with grapes around the outer band, a symposium scene around the middle band, and a gorgon’s head in the central tondo (the round area in the middle).

Gorgon faces were a popular decoration for inside symposium cups. You may remember this one from the Medusa animation:  Late Archaic kylix, c.525-500.  Ure Museum (39.9.3)

This cup from the Getty Villa (JPGM 87 AE22) features a similar design to the Ashmolean The Symposium kylix, with an outdoor symposium scene in the cup’s interior and a gorgon tondo.

Each side of the exterior of The Symposium cup features a satyr’s face looking out from between two male eyes (the exaggerated tear duct indicates that they are men’s eyes). The base of each cup handle is decorated with a vine and grapes, creating a connection between the outside and the inside.  The foot-handle at the base of the cup is in the shape of a man’s privates. This would have added to the homoerotic vibe that symposiums’ often had and was probably meant as a bit of fun.

acknowledgements

This animation was generously funded by the Oxford University Knowledge Exchange Fund, for the Classics in Communities project, based at the University of Oxford Faculty of Classics.

follow-up viewing

1)  More Gorgon trouble:  Medusa

 

2)  An animated red figure symposium scene:

The Love of Honour

Right:  A professional musician entertains guests in this scene from a classical bell-krater by the Nikias Painter.

 

 

 

 

 

National Archaeological Museum, Madrid (11020).

further reading

Symposiums in Focus: A Panoply interview with Oxford University's Dr Thomas Mannack

On Symposiums and Vases: A Panoply interview marking the creation of The Symposium with Prof Sir John Boardman

J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes.  The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, (Harper Collins, 1997)

F. Lissarrague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet:  Images of Wine and Ritual.  Trans. A. Szegedy-Maszak (PUP, 1990)

R. Scaife, ‘From Kottabos to War in Aristophanes' Acharnians’, in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 33.1 (1992) (open-access journal at:  http://grbs.library.duke.edu/ )

K. Topper, The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium (CUP, 2012)

M. Wecowski, The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet (OUP, 2014)

follow-up activities

1)  It can be hard to see everything happening in this animation with just one view.  Watch it with your class a few times and then ask them to write a paragraph describing what happens.

 

2)  This Key Stage 2-3 downloadable worksheet shows the vase with a blank space where the symposium guests go.  Ask your pupils to add in new pictures of their ideal symposium guests.  Who are they and what are they doing?

 

3)  This Key Stage 2-3 downloadable worksheet has a blank space for symposium guests and a blank space in the middle for a new gorgon face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4)  How many different cup shapes can your class count on this vase?

 

5)  Print of the image of the vase and ask your pupils to label the items they can see.  This Beginners' Ancient Greek activity sheet contains key symposium vocabulary.  Ask your pupils to label items in Greek or to write sentences using the symposium vocab.

 

6)  Using this Key Stage 3-5 storyboard activity sheet, challenge your pupils to plan a new animation based on this vase.  What will happen?  What are the key scenes?  Our Guide to Storyboarding may be helpful here.

 

7) This Key Stage 1-2 worksheet is a gorgon face drawing activity.  Pupils can copy the examples and draw on the sheet.  If you'd like, get them to draw the gorgon faces on paper plates and hang them up as a scary display.

Pupils from Fairstead House School, Newmarket, drew their ideal outdoor parties.

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