Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.13


O. Murray, Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Pp.xii, 345; 24 plates. $96.00. ISBN 0-19-814861-5.


Reviewed by Richard Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College.

This is the long-awaited publication of the 1984 Oxford symposium on symposia, which already belongs to a history it in part created. As the editor notes, "the bibliography of relevant articles has [since] expanded by as much as a third." One of the twenty-three essays has now become a book, and a second symposium on symposia held in Ontario in 1989, with three of the same speakers, has now been published. Still, the essays have now been given final form, and their uniformly high quality justifies the delay, if not the high price. A general bibliography (by the editor?) assures the volume permanent value as a reference work.

In his introductory essay, "Sympotic History," Oswyn Murray begins broadly: "culture ultimately derives from the various modes of the ritualized use of an economic surplus." He distinguishes four general types of rites of consumption ("commensality") in Archaic Greece -- festival, military mess, public honorific banquet and symposium -- noting that it was "essentially an all-male activity, which privileged drink over food, especially in the symposium, whose painted pottery and poetry most clearly reveal the mental world of the archaic Greeks. The habit of reclining, with its spatial requirements ("an andron will normally hold between fourteen and thirty persons"), "had an important effect on the nature of the group loyalties and the formation of the hetaireia. The symposion became in many respects a place apart from the normal rules of society" with its homosexuality, its hetairai and its "forms of ritual exhibitionism and violence in the komos at the end of the session." M ends with a survey of sympotic scholarship, marking its modern beginning in 1969 at Urbino with the study of the context of archaic poetry and in 1971 with a series of (mostly) French iconographic studies.

Pauline Schmitt-Pantel, "Sacrificial Meal and Symposion: Two Models of Civic Institutions in the Archaic City?" offers a powerful challenge to the separation of public and private, sacred and profane. First she analyzes the imagery of twenty-three commensual scenes on archaic vases, finding "a collage of different times and gestures, which precludes any realistic interpretation" and which disallows defining any one of them as a symposium. She then turns to archaic poetry, noting the prominence given to the dais, the meal based on sacrificial distribution, as a model of civic equality. She concentrates on Pindar's odes, where she finds "three broad groups centered around [sic] dais, xenia and symposion," to none of which Pindar gives primacy, "as if all had equal importance within the city." Thus we should speak not of "the Archaic aristocratic banquet" but of "rituals of conviviality," which are civic institutions, all having a sacred element. Finally, in response to vigorous reaction to her initial presentation, she clarifies what she means by denying that the symposium was "private": the symposium has a restricted group but "does not belong to the private sphere" since "the groups practicing this form of sociability are the very groups which comprise the civic body of the Archaic city"; the Classical dichotomy between agora and banquet does not yet exist, nor is "the political" yet an autonomous category. One might dismiss S's imagistic "collage" as reflecting an iconographic problem not a social one and label her treatment of the Pindaric material incomplete (ignoring as it does the current debate on performance, see e.g., Carey AJP 1989.545), but one must applaud both her insistence on looking at coherent groups of information -- and looking at them in detail -- and her willingness to find a negative answer (sympotic imagery is not unitary; Pindar does not prefer one form of commensality over another). We should be encouraged by this essay to study sympotic vocabulary, visual and verbal, more completely and more systematically.

These two theoretical (and opposed) essays are followed by four archaeological studies of actual dining rooms, two accepting and two opposing the communis opinio.

Birgitta Bergquist in "Sympotic Space: A Functional Aspect of Greek Dining-Rooms," catalogues and analyzes the dimensions of Greek dining-rooms, beginning with the canonical ones having square shape, specific internal wall-length and (frequently) modular construction, which come in a seven-couch variety (6 ex.) and an eleven-couch variety (16 ex.), the latter more frequent and longer-lived. She then turns to the rectangular dining-rooms to see "what spatial properties are compatible with a sympotic atmosphere." She divides her examples into those of the eleven-couch variety "the internal short sides of which do not exceed the three-couch wall-length" (c. 6.5 m.) and those which exceed it. On the basis of the "impressive consistency" of short side wall-length in the former group she hypothesizes a dividing of the rooms into two more or less equal parts for double symposia, to the left and right of the door if it breaks the long wall ("broad-room shape"), to the front or back if it breaks the short wall ("long room shape"). The latter group provides more of a challenge to B's quest for balance, but B notes that in most cases the entry way breaks its wall into "the wall-length of up to three couches," and she therefore reconstructs sympotic spaces in each of the corners. B's catalogues of dining rooms (complete with bibliography) are certainly useful, but because they lack measurements for both the square shape and "private dining rooms" it is difficult to tell how consistent the various wall-lengths are. The numbers given for short sides of both non-square groups seem to me to range themselves in pretty much of a continuum from 4.4 to 10.95 m.; the posited gap between 6.7 and 7.2 does not seem, by itself, to warrant the division into two groups, and I cannot tell what other criterion might have been applied. Was roofing a limiting factor? Also, it is worrisome that sympotic space is the governing concept even when some of the examples predate the introduction of reclining, and their range in length of short-wall does not seem to be remarkably unlike the later examples. Finally, if the entry-way divides the space into two equal parts, it seems logical for it to be in the center, and sometimes this is clearly so, but why only sometimes?

The revealing essay by Frederick Cooper and Sarah Morris, "Dining in Round Buildings," joins archaeological and textual evidence to recover several round buildings along the model of Fehr's Didyma tholos, a permanent circular stone base temporarily roofed by a tentlike canopy during festivals. They find three: at Nemea a small tholos with "tell-tale posts nearby," at Eretria sixty-two stone bases to hold wooden posts surrounding a tholos and at Thasos a tholos with stone bases for wooden posts nearby. On the other hand, another, larger Thasian tholos with a large rectangular stone table shows that not all round buildings were dining-rooms. The famous Athenian Tholos, also called Skias ("tent"), "must have recalled those temporary dining-shelters that crowded Greek sanctuaries at festivals." At the same time, since the Tholos, 17 meters in diameter, had to feed at minimum the fifty prytaneis, the occupants cannot (all) have reclined, and the authors suggest that the Athenian democracy chose sitting because it avoided the suggestion of wealth and luxury inherent in sympotic reclining, making the building "perhaps the first politically designed building in Western architecture." As for the other tholoi, some required sitting and none is obviously provided for reclining, but this does not mean that all seated dining took place in round rooms and all reclining in rectangular ones or that all the tholoi were used for dining (only that dining should not be limited to couch rooms). Beside social implications ("the proletarian aspect of seated dining"), one must consider gender: women never recline (not that women always feasted at festivals). "Gender, age and class can only be attested as significant distinctions under specific, not universal circumstances." This impressive essay has recently been enhanced by Uta Kron's article, which provides two ceramic illustrations of stibades at festival (OpAth 38 [1988] 139-41 fig. 4, 5) and further discussion of tents.

As Nancy Bookidis shows in "Ritual Dining in the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth: Some Questions," extensive dining facilities at Corinth provide some striking challenges to the expected pattern well described by Bergquist. The fifty-two dining-complexes (at least thirty being in operation in the late fifth century) stand in sharp contrast to those of the nearby Asclepeion with its three eleven-couched rooms each with stone tables and small central hearth: in the Demeter sanctuary "there is no fixed number of couches per room"; the number ranges from five to nine, and "the individual couches range in length from 1.77 to 2.42 m." There is one bench-room, which may be thought to be for women (who would sit, not recline), but the votive offerings suggest "a stronger presence of women" than just this one room, and the room may have been too narrow for both people and tables. Since the Andanian inscription suggests that dining was not segregated by gender in first century Messenian mysteries, the same may be true in the Demeter sanctuary. Turning finally to food, B argues from the remains that "the food consumed consisted almost entirely of fruits and cereals, boiled or raw"; they drank wine and perhaps a barley drink or beer, to judge from the popularity in fourth-century levels of spouted feeders with strainer -- unless these were for children.

R.A. Tomlinson, "The Chronology of the Perachora Hestiatorion and its Significance," retracts his late (ca 300 BC) date for the hestiatorion, which he would now date to the sixth century, along with the Delphic hestiatorion (aka 'priests' house'). This allows "a more intelligible sequence": before the standard eleven-couch room evolved "with standard dimensions for rooms and couches alike by a date no later than 500 BC," there were earlier non-standard rooms, suggesting that "reclining at banquets -- and reclining at feasting in religious sanctuaries -- is already a feature in the seventh century." The 200 phialai found in the "sacred pool" nearby need not be part of an oracular ritual but can belong to the hestiatorion, for which there seems to be a parallel at Gordion, and their large number "suggests provision for people eating outside as well as those on couches and, presumably under cover." This raises "the possibility of separate lines of influence: of private, domestic, aristocratic symposia ... and of the al fresco picnicking of the masses at religious festivals" -- a possibility that dovetails nicely with the Cooper-Morris banquet tents.

Two essays from the Ashmolean discuss the representation of symposia on vases, from opposite viewpoints and with contrasting styles of argument.

Michael Vickers, "Attic Symposia after the Persian Wars," argues engagingly but confusingly against the common view that Athens' post-war condition was one of relative penury until the Ephialtic reforms of the late 460s. His arguments are the now-familiar ones associated with his name, the pervasive use of silver and gold service at symposia and the downward revision of the chronology of Attic pottery. First the establishment of the canonical chronology is given, then his own views summarized: the two crucial destruction levels on the Acropolis, instead of being the Tyrannenschutt of 510 or 508 and the Persian sack of 480, become the Persian sack and Ephialtic "cultural revolution" of 462. Thus the "archaic smile" of the Acropolis korai is 5th C.; Heracles has no relation to the Peisistratids but represents the Thessalian Medizers just as the Centaurs, Amazons and Giants represent the oriental foe. "Athenian history begins with Marathon." Once the red figure pottery is downdated (its compressed development attributed to the metalwork of which it is a poor imitation), sympotic scenes make sense: no longer do "flute-playing, cock-fighting and sodomy ... appear in Athenian art long before their time." [The evidence for this is weak: aulos-playing "had been encouraged in an earlier period, it is true, but had died out"; "cock-fighting is not attested historically before the Persian Wars"; "homosexual eroticism was discouraged by tyrants."] "It is to Platea that we must now turn in order to discover a possible source of inspiration for elaborate symposia at Athens... The flagrant enjoyment of the city's new-found wealth ... led in less than twenty years to revolution." V's wealth argument is almost certainly right; his red figure/metal argument almost certainly wrong; his chronology -- which has already elicited response (Cook, JHS 1989.164) -- has at very least the salutary effect of making scholars re-think their premises and evidence.

John Boardman, "Symposion Furniture," complicates the question of the origin and significance of reclining at banquet by consideration of the kline. On the one hand we seem to have a clear development: Geometric klinai are shown only as biers, Homeric heroes sat to eat and drink and the kline was not one of the "several different words for bed" in Homer whereas in 7th C. Alcman we find seven klinai at a banquet, "the standard number for a small andron in later Archaic architecture," and the klinai now show finely articulated legs. On the other hand, it is only in mid-sixth century that the kline acquires a raised head-end (i.e., becomes a couch for feasting rather than sleeping), at which time a different kline type also appears (flat legs, raised head-end decorated with volutes). There are further complications: "in the Classical period the nuptial bed is a kline"; in death scenes the kline "is presented not so much as a death-bed but as a symposion couch" and sometimes functions more as a throne than a couch; the Eastern influence on the symposium is not limited to the kline but includes the symposium's metal dippers and strainers, the wearing of the mitra, turban and ear-rings by men and other trappings of the Anacreontic vases, all of which date to the sixth century. The process of assimilation, then, takes some time. B does not stress the implications of these observations, some of which may be purely stylistic. Reclining at banquet is agreed to have been adopted from the East so I suppose the issue is why, or perhaps why the kline is universal in sympotic scenes whereas the other Eastern trappings only occasional.

Jan N. Bremmer, "Adolescents, Symposion, and Pederasty," gives an overview of the symposium as a social phenomenon, combining recent iconographic studies with Murray's model that derives the Archaic form of both Spartan syssitia and Athenian symposia from the earlier warrior men's associations. As B notes in his brief survey of sociological studies of the Männerbünde, Murray's contribution is to look for vestigial traces not of initiation rituals but of common meals and political activities. It is odd, then, that B looks not to political activities but to the education of the young -- the central theme of initiation rituals. "Firstly, was the symposion, like the common meal in Sparta and Crete, a place for instruction of boys and adolescents? Secondly, was there a status differentiation between adults and adolescents at the symposion?" Both topics receive the familiar answer ("yes") and a review of the familiar evidence, poems addressed to youths and boys singing to the lyre for the former, boys not allowed to recline and limited to serving wine, for the latter. As for girls as wine-servers (Hebe, Periander's Melissa) "the passion for boys caused girls to be almost completely replaced by male adolescents in the course of the Archaic age." On the vases we find a rise in pederastic scenes in the second quarter of the sixth century, which parallels the rise in athletics: "pederasty became, next to sport, one of the main areas in which the competitive spirit of the aristocracy could realize itself" once " hoplite tactics had deprived the warrior élite of its prominent position in battle." Hence arms and armor disappear from vases after 510 [connected oddly by B to the Peisistratids rather than the new democracy]. "Athletes and courtesans now invade the banquet, and komos scenes become more frequent ... boy wine-pourers now took over from adolescents ... the stage of the courtship started to become the palaistra... Both adults and ephebes were now entering a new era where democracy was on the rise and the first schools already loomed on the horizon. The world of the Archaic symposion had irrevocably passed away." I am surprised that B considers komos scenes proper only to the late, degenerate form of the symposium, and I wonder whether he would call the hetaireiai in late 5th C. Athens apolitical. In line with his panoramic scope, B draws his evidence from all over Archaic and Classical Greece and so mixes rather different political environments and social situations, and his treatment of Attic vases depends on recent French studies, which are suggestive rather than definitive (see Schmitt-Pantel, above). Still, this is a useful introduction to some of the major sympotic themes now being studied.

Oswyn Murray, "The Affair of the Mysteries: Democracy and the Drinking Group," returns politics to the center of the symposium: "we can trace a line of descent from the activities of the synomotai of Alcaeus ... through to the late fifth-century political and aristocratic groups... The tolerance of the demos for these groups is remarkable ... but until 415 BC, they can scarcely have seemed to present a serious threat ... the hetaireia is as much concerned with deipna, komoi and auletrides as it is with archai." He first notes how Wasps shows that "to the fifth-century Athenian audience the symposion is an alien world of licence and misbehavior" and then turns to the mutilation of the herms, which shows that "hetaireiai and drinking groups in general are not definable strictly in terms of kinship" and, more importantly, that "a drinking group might commit widespread sacrilegious damage solely for the sake of an unmotivated pistis." [Yet we cannot assume it was unmotivated simply because we do not know of any motivation.] M thinks that the profanation of the Mysteries should be taken very seriously: they were profaned repeatedly; they were not parodied but performed -- "the ritual was followed accurately"; it "was performed in the wrong place and by the wrong people ... much more seriously it also involved revealing the Mysteries." This was clearly not typical sympotic behavior; nor were the profanations political. Rather they were meant to reveal "an undemocratic contempt for the laws" a group bravado found now in the officers' mess. The Medmenham Monks of eighteenth century England provide a parallel: "here too extremist politics and club mentality were combined with a desire to live dangerously, and a contempt for religious conventions was engendered by rationalism." This is all very persuasive but still leaves both mysteries and mutilations dangerously political. Also, I wonder if a stronger counter-argument could be constructed, beginning with M's own remarks in "Sympotic History" about "ritual exhibitionism," especially in light of the following discussions by Pellizer, Fehr and D'Arms.

Louise Bruit, "The Meal at the Hyakinthia: Ritual Consumption and Offering," considers the foods other than meat consumed at a sacrifice in three "types of celebration," the Spartan Hyakinthia, the Athenian Pyanepsia and the Athenian Thargelia, in all of which the food is "neither poured out nor burnt, but rather abandoned to the gods." Her aim is ultimately to construct "a matrix for the ritual usage of human foods" in which to fit the "complex of practices which coexist without contradiction with the system of distribution which dominates the practice of the Classical city." More immediately useful is her contrast of aspects within two of the festivals, the ritual meal (kopis) aspect and communal meal (phidition) aspect of the Hyakinthia, and the eiresione and panspermia of the Pyanepsia -- "many a ritual may be found to be loaded with multiple meanings." Thus "the meal sacred to Hyakinthos, though it may be perceived as a meal of mourning, also curiously recalls in its sobriety and restraint ... one of the fundamental characteristics of the phidition... As for the festival dinner which follows the spectacle of the Hyakinthia, which empties the city and associates foreigners and slaves in convivial abundance, it corresponds to the kopis." Turning to the actual food, she finds a similar contrast in the Pyanepsia: "the panspermia ... presents a homogeneous whole, in the guise of an immediately consumable dish, suggested in addition by the use of a chytra, the earthenware pot, a familiar kitchen utensil, to contain it. In opposition to this, the eiresione is a suppliant branch to which is attached a collection of samples of products which seem to be significant through their very diversity." Yet she finds that this simple opposition breaks down if we argue on the basis of the panspermia of the very similar Thargelia that the panspermia of the Pyanepsia likewise was "an offering intended for the god and not as a ritual dish consumed by the participants." [The rather different aition for panspermia given in the testimonia to the Chytroi is not mentioned.] "What is consumable need not be correspondingly consumed." All this is a salutary reminder of the danger of arguments from analogy: "the ritual aspect of the food derives from its insertion into a complex of gestures and patterns of behaviour, and not from its intrinsic nature."

Ezio Pellizer, "Outlines of a Morphology of Sympotic Entertainment," first defines symposium as "a psychological and cultural micro-universe" which privately reproduces the characteristics of a festival while in addition being itself a specific celebration (e.g. of a victory) with a ludic quality. Three aspects are delineated: (1) wine -- "the disciplined use of wine allows an interference in the axiological articulation of the social microcosm concerned, orientating the euphoria-dysphoria opposition so as to produce a balanced expression of individual psychological dynamics within a communal gathering." (2) Sympotic logos -- competitive, filled with deictic terms, invoking either the symposium of the hetaireia or the symposium of tyrants. (3) Eros -- "the real spectacle which the symposion offers unto itself is a disciplined display of individual and collective passions, in search of a norm to regulate the epithymiai and social tensions at the same time as it offers them an outlet." For the less theoretical reader, there is the claim that symposia "must have been practised also in wider strata of society such as the mercantile, artisan or peasant classes" [which contradicts the positions of Murray, Bremmer and probably most of the participants of the gathering] and the salutary reminder of "the distance there could be between 'literary' symposia ... and the reality of the symposion in everyday life" [though the contrast between Plato's and Xenophon's symposia seems as great].

Two further essays on the visualization of symposia follow, again with rather different methods.

Burkard Fehr, "Entertainers at the Symposion: The Akletoi in the Archaic Period," offers a brilliant and provocative reading of the "padded dancers" as the "uninvited" (akletoi) participants at a symposium, whose role "as men who lack every basis for an accepted achievement and a respectable social existence" allows them to perform improvisational buffoonery that "makes the invited guests laugh and assures them of their superiority." [An important refinement of Svenbro's "belly madness" and also perhaps a description of the ubiquitous satyrs.] Examples such as Odysseus and Iros in the Odyssey and (perhaps) Hephaistos in the Iliad are confirmed by Philippos in Xenophon's Symposium, whose ostentatious hunger and awkward dance mimicking the beautiful young slave also provide a suitable model for the Corinthian padded dancers, with their prominent bellies and deformed feet. These dancers are contrasted on the vases with dancers of normal proportions, and one can identify one of their dances as "the scuffle" -- grabbing an opponent's leg and dragging him away, as Odysseus does to Iros. Although these dancers appear "almost everywhere in the Greek cultural world regardless of its [sic] social and political regional differences," F attempts to pin down a fundamental development in the Kleisthenic symposium of the early sixth century. Here he is less convincing: "the agrarian crises of the Archaic period must have forced many impoverished peasants to become akletoi at the banquets... Competition between the akletoi and the improvised character of their performances must have encouraged variety and innovation. In such a situation the younger members of the aristocracy especially must have been tempted to begin to go beyond what was allowed by the ancient norms... Hippokleides may be an extreme example ... but his faux pas was probably symptomatic of those changes in the traditional moral world to which Kleisthenes and men of his sort were opposed." [Reclining and klinai being marks of decline, but since King David also loses face by obscene dancing we may wonder if this is not a timeless folk motif.] The Attic symposia about twenty years later have only normally proportioned dancers and lack the "heroic" element of armor in the background suggesting "that Athenian banqueters were inclined toward a less 'Kleisthenic' mentality than the Corinthian or Sicyonian conservatives." Post-Archaic akletoi are not pictured; they become the more verbally defined parasitos and kolax of Comedy. F dates the decline to early 6th C., but Bremmer placed it at the end of the 6th and Vickers in the 5th. Further study of differences in space and time may allow us to decide.

François Lissarrague's essay, "Around the Krater: An Aspect of Banquet Imagery," is primarily a demonstration of the possibilities offered by a thematic as opposed to stylistic reading of Greek vases. The method is basically structuralist, mediation of binary opposition: motion vs rest; wine vs water; meat vs wine; man vs god; nature vs art; center vs periphery. For students of social history the most important claim is that the krater marks not only the symposium but the subsequent komos, although "its presence in the komos is not self-evident," to say the least. The "key" is a fragmentary cup in Erlangen (inv. 454) whose interior shows a young man holding a lyre and cup saying "I go making the komos to the sound of the flute" while the exterior shows "on one side a krater lifted up by a komast and on the other a krater set on the ground amid the dancers: the krater thus appears within the komos, as an object both mobile and portable, and fixed, set on the ground." One might challenge L's reading by interpreting the exterior as dancers at a symposium manipulating the krater (as in the rf cup Louvre G71, shown in plate 18a), but the walking stick by the raised krater signifies a komos and ties this scene to that of the interior, for the one object not mentioned in L's description of the interior is a walking stick, in the field. Evidently, then, the komos need not be a post-party rout but -- at least visually -- can be a trip to the party, bringing the essential ingredients of wine, youths and song. Many of L's illustrations can be read this way: fig. 19 showing Dionysus and his retinue of satyrs with pipes and krater (Cabinet des Médailles 539); plate 17c, servant carrying krater behind wreathed and booted piper (London E 351); plate 23, satyr komos with krater, amphora, rhyton, pipes, wineskin (Fogg Art Museum 1960.236). The question remains how this fits with the literary presentation of the komos. Also, some account now needs to be taken of the cultic Rauschfest supposed to inform these vases by I. Peschel, Die Hetäre bei Symposion und Komos in der attisch-rotfigurigen Vasenmalerei des 6.-4. Jahr. v. Chr. (Frankfurt am Main 1987).

The following three essays focus on the literary presentation of Archaic symposia and share the same goals, assumptions and definitions.

W.J. Slater, "Sympotic Ethics in the Odyssey," extends his earlier study of sympotic hybris and hesychia, which he here summarizes, to the Odyssey where he explains the odd double banquet on Odysseus' second day among the Phaeacians as "the antithesis of the good and the bad banquet," the latter being "the perfect sympotic setting for Odysseus' tale." Once the bad symposium has been annihilated by force, song and laughter "Odysseus must now speak openly without disguise if the evening is to be a success." He does and so we see "how the charis of song and story triumphs in the ideal symposion over strife, how civilized decency can be achieved through the medium of paidia and laughter." One might note S's passing observation that Odysseus' bow when it be longed to Heracles was involved with killing at xenia as it will be again. Does S's discussion mean that we have symposia in the 8th C. or earlier? "No one normally looks at the Odyssey for symposia, because there are strictly speaking no symposia there... An archaizing Homer could have known the habits of the Classical symposion and deliberately concealed them." Or, it could be that we do not define the symposium very exactly. We should recall that women were present at the Phaeacian symposium and the group was very large.

E. Bowie, "Miles Ludens? The Problem of Martial Exhortation in Early Greek Elegy," argues persuasively for a sympotic setting for the martial elegies of Callinus and Tyrtaeus, thereby correcting West's interpretation of the setting as an impending battle. He harmonizes the two testimonia describing singing Tyrtaeus at the tent of the Spartan king (Philochoros FGH 328 F 216; Lycourgos In Leocr.107) and ends with a martial epigram he finds embedded in the Theognidea showing that "all martial elegy was intended for performance either at an ordinary civilian symposion or -- at Sparta -- at a similar institution." I am not sure why he begins with the assertion that elegy was almost always accompanied by the aulos since neither testimonium mentions music, but I wonder what Attic sympotic iconography has to tell us, for there are several vases showing the singing of elegy to the lyre. Would the painters not be of the proper social level to know what transpired at a symposium? If the gathering of all the Spartan warriors at the king's tent is a symposium, what is not?

Wolfgang Rösler, "Mnemosyne in the Symposion," also continues his earlier work showing the symposium "as the central place for the creation and performance of poetry." Beginning with texts describing sympotic poetry (Xenophanes fr.1; Anacreon fr.eleg. 2 West), R concludes that "the memory of brave behaviour in battle, either in external or in civil war, must have been a strong element of sympotic mnemosyne." He then extends this to include "not merely remembering but also eliciting memories from others" including "praise of the achievements of others" and "intellectual dialogue with authorities of the past" and finally "collective memory of the group" in "texts which record history." This leads him to the striking conclusion that "sympotic mnemosyne is clearly one of the roots, hitherto little recognized, of the growth of historiography in the fifth century." R's essay is important in challenging the common assumption that sympotic poetry is the opposite of epic -- here battles and mnemosyne are on the side of the former -- but I remain sceptical about the larger claim about history. Can the same function of mnemosyne be found in non-sympotic poetry?

These last three essays clearly belong together as the latest installments in a collective effort to define sympotic poetry. The question remains: if this is sympotic poetry, what is not sympotic poetry? Much of what Slater and Rösler claim for the symposium could involve the whole community (depending on how one defines community). Also, it is hard to fit this simple model with the complexity of the archaeological record.

The following three essays look at later authors to see what they tell us about the history of the symposium. In each case, the material proves somewhat intractable.

Manuela Tecusan, "Logos Sympotikos: Patterns of the Irrational in Philosophical Drinking: Plato Outside the Symposion," surveys Platonic symposia outside the Symposium (though indeed that figures in the later discussion) and finds a striking contrast between the positive valuation of sympotic practice of drinking in the Laws and its negative valuation earlier, where it is commonly the antithesis of philosophical activity. The portrayal of the symposium in the first two books of the Laws is discussed at length under a variety of headings: sympotai, wine, the archon (identity, neos, phronimos, athorybos), nomoi sympotikoi and aims. The portrayal of the earlier "good" symposium in Protagoras provides a contrast: there music is banished and sympotic conversation predominates; wine is peripheral; there is no archon; the outcome depends on the company. The new attitude especially to wine in the Laws is "a sign of Plato's change toward the irrational." These contrasting portrayals are convincingly delineated and the opening survey of symposia in Republic, Theatetus, Symposium, Protagoras and Timaeus is useful. In between comes an extended discussion of the Laws, which is robbed of obvious context by being treated in isolation from the syssitia to which it is opposed (and at least formally resembles the opposition in earlier dialogues between normal and philosophical symposia). Nor is any of this made to provide much insight into late Classical practice, and, as T notes, Plato mentions mixing wine only once (Rep. 562d2).

Alessandra Lukinovich, "The Play of Reflections between Literary Form and the Sympotic Theme in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus," describes how the dialogue form of the Deipnosophistae allows the author to "play upon the links which he establishes between the two levels: the banquet as context for the discourse and the discourse as concerning the banquet." "Athenaeus' true passion is not for the banquet itself, but for the theme of 'the banquet' in literature and in conversation." Numerous examples are given of poikilia ("variety, novelty, and expense") both in food and in conversation, metaphor ("words become dishes"), and mimesis ("directly after a speech about the lemon the guests start greedily to eat of this fruit"). This is apparently the first literary study of Athenaeus in over half a century.

M.L. West, "The Anacreontea," bravely attempts to place the Anacreontea in a real context, as "something recognizable, and something convincingly Greek ... somewhere on the way between the age of Anacreon and the age of the bouzouki." "The picture is idealized, but there are details drawn from real life." But many of the details have a long literary history: attendant Eros recalls Sappho (even if his tunic fastening is Hellenistic), as does "the myrtle and lotus-grass strewn on the ground" and the general setting of "the drinker in solitary beatitude, drenched in perfume, laden with rose-garlands" while "the girl who dances as a Bacchant" is found already in Plato's Laws (815c). Better is W's answer about what is missing: "we miss any reference to 'ritual' elements such as the washing of hands, the singing of the paean, the passing of the myrtle branch, and the performance of skolia. There is music, but only from lyres... One does not feel that these people are likely to play at kottabos when we are not looking." One might usefully return with these differentia to the earlier discussions of archaic symposia and add some nuance to the definition of symposium.

Although the last three essays move us outside the Greek orbit, the first two explicitly work from a Greek norm while the third returns us to an underlying question -- how to define symposium.

Annette Rathje, "The Adoption of the Homeric Banquet in Central Italy in the Orientalizing Period," describes how well the archaeological finds of the eighth century in Central Italy fit with the "Homeric style of life," especially the banquet, but stresses "the influence from the Near East was also strong." Many of these oriental imports "belong to the equipment for the banquet. They are prestige objects." Differences in banquet equipment seems to reflect hierarchical distinction: somebody got the best wine. As for reclining, in the Phoenician sphere we find both reclining and sitting but in Central Italy only sitting, "so it could be claimed that the sitting banquet also is a 'sign of the acceptance of the Orientalizing style of life' as has been claimed for the reclining banquet." What archaeology needs to concentrate on is what exactly was eaten: "what distinguishes the banquet from the symposion is the combination of drinking with eating of meat ... what is needed now is a comparative animal-bone analysis from the various sites."

Nevio Zorzetti, "The Carmina Convivalia," seeks to reconstruct the prehistory of Roman poetry as "an age of sympotic lyric" beginning with the few references to Roman carmina convivalia. These Z rescues from destruction by the "hypercritics," who find them contradictory (although his defense depends on an unobvious reading of Varro fr.84) and from appropriation by the Romantics as popular poetry. At first, along with "an anonymous oral tradition of a convivial character" which was "the culture of the vates, "there were the poetic traditions of the gentilician sodalitates such as the carmen Saliare which seem to have been "born as a reaction against a preceding age of epic" just as in Greece. These aristocratic traditions become "theatralized," as they "become the property of the state and of the people." "As the memories of the people become codified and were finally written down, the memories of the sodalitates began to disappear." CJ 86.4 (1991) has two responses to a more recent reconstruction by Z. T. Cole, while expressing "general agreement and admiration," thinks the Cretan and Spartan syssitia provide a better model than the archaic symposium and that Z "needs to be more precise about the level of importance ... not simply its level of sophistication" (381) Robert Phillips finds Z's theoretical position important but criticizes some of the evidence and wants more work on its implications -- which Greek city provides the appropriate model and when? "Scholarship has tended to amalgamate all the evidence" (386).

John D'Arms, "The Roman Convivium and the Idea of Equality," looks carefully at the supposed contrast between Domitian's public feasts with "diners segregated according to rank and hierarchy, a penchant exhibited for spectacle and lavish display," as opposed to private convivia, with equality and friendship promoted by the lowering of social barriers, the relaxing of social conventions. Considerable evidence supports this distinction but much of it is questionable: "our chances of penetrating Roman convivial realities will improve if we discard the notion of equality altogether... The truly remarkable feature of convivia was that the old Greek form could be enlarged to accommodate such an astonishingly wide social range of participants."

The collection ends with a useful seven page index and an even more useful eighteen page bibliography, arranged in approximately the same categories as the talks (General; The Archaeology of the Symposium; The Iconography of the Symposium; Social Forms; Sympotic Pleasures; Literature and Thought; The Symposium as Literary Form and its Nachleben; From Symposion to Convivium).

Individually and as a whole, these essays are extremely impressive. At the same time, they leave us with even more questions than before. If we return to Murray's introduction, we find that, while a number of the essays have extended the model (particularly on the literary side), many of the essays have raised important questions about one or another of the three "causative factors" of archaic symposia: (1) "all-male activity" -- Corinthian votive offerings suggest the percentage of women was higher than the percentage of dining rooms not fitted for reclining (Bookidis); the Odyssey presents what seems to be a symposium, but women are present (Slater); (2) drinking privileged over eating -- this distinction is hard to find in archaic vases or poetry (Schmitt-Pantel); (3) reclining replaces sitting -- but sitting seems to be equally privileged in contemporary Italy and Phoenicia (Ratje) and in the Athenian Tholos (Cooper-Morris) while reclining appears in a number of contexts (Boardman). Murray's description goes on to speak of another key factor: small size, which caused the symposium to become "a place apart from the normal rules of society," and the many ramifications of this have been described well in this volume, from Fehr's padded dancers to D'Arms' dining with "a penchant for spectacle and lavish display." But with that comes the obvious question -- how do we distinguish sympotic spectacle from other forms of entertainment? Do padded dancers come from the symposium or from Dionysiac ritual (as Seaford has been arguing for a decade). Do Anacreontic vases belong to the symposium or, as S. Price has recently argued (GRBS 1990), the theater. Also, why does Murray go on to exclude the profanation of the Mysteries? Finally, I missed discussion of what used to be standard items of sympotic entertainment: kottabos, riddles, dancing girls. Do Athenian symposia differ from others? At a particular time? The differing chronologies of Bremmer, Vickers and Fehr show how fluid definitions are. With all these questions, it is no wonder that there has already been another symposium on symposia and such a dramatic increase in the bibliography, to Murray himself will continue to add in his forthcoming book on the subject.