Chapter 4. Banquet and Sumposion

The symposium (sumposion) was an essential moment in the social life of ancient Greece. A circle of friends gathered to enjoy the pleasures of wine, generally after having shared those of the table (deipnon), the two being distinct moments. [1]
The time of the symposium is when the guests experience wine, a beverage linked to Dionysus and loaded with his ambivalent and dangerous powers, for the individual as for the social order. The symposium constitutes a socially regulated framework, a framework that makes it possible to share that liminal experience as a group without being subjected to its risks, to touch upon the experience of alterity without losing his own identity. The drinking is part of a social ritual where the pleasures of conversation, song, poetry, games, and eros have the task of moderating the effects of drunkenness in a fabric of gestures, attitudes, and rules that place everyone under the gaze of all the others, and under the control of the symposiarch, the master of the symposium. Domesticated in this way, wine reveals every individual’s truth and allows a temporary and controlled evasion from the prescriptions and prohibitions of ordinary life. A successful symposium, Lissarague states, is the locus of “good mixing”: mixing of the wine, which, in principle, was never consumed pure, but cut with water; mixing of the guests, whose conversation, jokes, and games had to guarantee the harmony of the meeting, the pleasure of all and of each and every one.
That social universe is reflected in the iconography of classical Attic pottery, and especially in the vases that were used to mix the wine (krātēres) and on the drinking cups. The wine drinkers saw themselves constantly reminded of the rules of the game they were playing, and the risks to which they exposed themselves if they broke those rules. The literary testimonia complete the picture: first of all symposium poetry, where the pleasures of wine and of love find expression together with the circulation of song and speech within the circle of drinkers, but also the tradition of literary symposia, [2] which use that frame as the setting of an erudite or philosophical conversation. Plato’s Symposium, Xenophon’s Symposium, and Plutarch’s Banquet of the Seven Sages and Symposiacs count among the best examples of that literary tradition, which reaches down to Athenaeus himself, and continues with Macrobius’ Saturnalia.


[ back ] 1. For a good introduction to that fundamental social practice, see Lissarague 1987. On the practice of public banquets in cities, see Schmitt-Pantel 1992.
[ back ] 2. See Dupont 1994, esp. the first section, “La culture de l’ivresse: chanter pour ne rien dire.”