BMCR 1991.07.07

Dining in a Classical Context

, Dining in a Classical Context. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. 217 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 0472101943.

This collection of eleven essays comes from a symposium on symposia held at McMaster University in 1989, modeled on and responding to a similar symposium at Oxford in 1984 (published in 1990, reviewed in BMCR 2 (1991) 300-312). W.J. Slater begins with an elegantly brief introduction telling us about dining and symposia (not to be distinguished strictly here), alerting us to the absence of theory and of a Greek font and summarizing the contents of these mostly Canadian (mostly Ontario) essays.

In the first essay, “Oriental Symposia: Contrasts and Parallels,” Walter Burkert surveys archaic drinking parties of all sorts from Asia Minor. Many of these he dismisses, including the Mesopotamian scenes of couples sipping beer from a vessel with a tube (“the very opposite of a Greek symposium”) and the Near Eastern commercialized form of drinking, the inn (“conspicuously absent from reputable archaic Greek society”), though he draws a parallel between the Hammurabian law against an ale-wife allowing outlaws to congregate in her establishment and the story of Empedocles bringing to court both host and symposiarch of an Akragantine symposium for plotting tyranny. The OT story of Samson is preferred to Esther (of controversial date and “not even in an Israelite context”) for Samson challenged the thirty “friends” attending him at his wedding banquet to solve a riddle, which “comes very close to what we understand a Greek symposium to have been: a group of young men similar in age who find their identity in communal drinking, and the ritualized agon in the form of language play.” [This sounds like Seaford’s controversial Dionysiac thiasos, supposedly the matrix for Dionysiac tragedy.] Closer to the Greek was the marza’u, ceremonial feasting and heavy drinking by pre-Greek Ugaritic men in the worship of a specific god, as well as the story of the “Sons of Rechab” invited by Jeremiah to the banquet halls in the precinct of the Temple at Jerusalem, in which he had set up cups full of wine. [Both of these might be meant to recall the chapter’s beginning, describing the 2800 stemmed cups found packed in one magazine of the southwest wing of the palace at Pylos apparently used for “huge drinking bouts … in connection with sacrificial banquets”.] The Jewish banquet halls, as they appear in Ezekiel’s vision (called lishkah), parallel the so-called Knidian Lesche at Delphi in terms of topography, architectural design, function and name and lead Burkert to a theory explaining reclining at banquet (which has nothing to do with Hebrew lishkah or Greek lescha): at outdoor sacrifices at sacred places “people would naturally lie down on stibades. With the establishment of communal temples in the eighth century … there was a new form of ‘space’ for the sacred… With the new oriental luxuries introduced, lying on couches within the temple may have partly replaced the stibades… As communal sacrifice with the extensive meat courses moved from private homes to the temple, the ‘feast’ in the private house was mainly confined to drinking.” But how often do Greeks feast in a temple?

Noel Robertson, “The Betrothal Symposium in Early Greece,” describes a hypothetical custom, the “betrothal symposium” in which “eligible bachelors ask for the girls of their choice… The occasion is a festival, which allows the young men to compete in various games… The festival is … the same in any part of Greece: a spring festival of Apollo… After the games, the sacrifices, and the feasting comes the drinking party at which suitors are chosen and girls are betrothed.” We begin with Cleisthenes of Sicyon, whose bride-contest and betrothal symposium are directly attested although the Apolline festival has to be conjectured from the Sicyonian Pythia founded by Cleisthenes. On a bridge of bold speculation that the Sicyonian hero Adrastos, whose tragic choruses “must have formerly belonged to the festival of Apollo,” is himself “a projection of Apolline ritual,” we move to the wrestling match of Tydeus and Polyneices that led Adrastos to give them his daughters in marriage. Here the contest is “not a professed bride-contest” and follows, not precedes, the feast (which is only dinner). Again an Apolline festival is lacking but is supplied in the late account of Statius (no symposium mentioned), where spring is supplied by the storm preceding the quarrel, which Robertson identifies as a spring storm. A third example: the king of Megara “promises his daughter’s hand to the man who kills the lion [that killed his son] … [Alcathous] declares he has killed the lion, but the claim is disputed by his rivals; he then produces the lion’s tongue… After sacrificing to the gods, the king at the very last placed the tongue upon the altar.” The altar suggests a festival and Apollo was the chief god of Megara so, though we lack symposium and springtime, we have much of the pattern. Fourth, in a Hellenistic epigram Apollo is asked to “turn the darts of love toward young men so that they will fight bravely for their homeland” Schoenus, near Thebes. Robertson rejects a reference to the Theban Sacred Band on the grounds that both lovers and beloved are young, contrary to custom, and assumes reference “to a local custom of arranging marriages at the festival of Apollo.” To comfortably refute this interpretation one would need to know more than I do about Apollo as Cupid, about the age of the Sacred Band and about battle rhetoric, but I sense something inherently implausible. In any case we have no festival, no contest, no symposium. Atalanta, daughter of Schoenus, attests another bridal contest in the area, but this time the implicit festival is of Aphrodite, called by Lycophron Schoineis. Also the awkwardness of having the bride as one of the contestants far outshadows the absence of a symposium. Robertson stretches the pattern even more when he considers Heracles at Oechalia (“a burlesque variation”), Apollo and Marpessa (“the mortal suitor Idas outdraws him with the bow”) and Admetus and Alcestis. He then turns to “love stories of later times” where “the ritual background emerges much more clearly”: boy meets girl at Apolline festival. The pattern is undeniable and for once we have no doubts about festival, god or time of year, but the similarity between this group and the earlier bride-contests is hard to see and Robertson’s efforts to retroject the stories into archaic betrothal ritual are not persuasive. He ends with his best case, Penelope, and his task is to establish the Apolline festival as a spring one. Only here do we have fused what seem otherwise to be two patterns (bride-contest; boy meets girl at Apolline festival), and it will require a sophisticated method to determine whether that is accidental.

Margaret Miller in “Foreigners at the Greek Symposium?” neatly disposes of two common types of explanation of the floppy Oriental hat ( kidaris) shown in sympotic scenes on twelve early/mid-5th C. vases (most of which are illustrated here). The hat does not identify its wearer as Scythian, Persian or Thracian from all we know about representation of these nationalities (which is not very much) nor does it mark a generic barbarian since “all the symposiasts have bare chests and some are totally nude. Both details are inconsistent with Greek stereotypes for Orientals.” Secondly the hat does not “stand for the presence in the Greek symposium of some institution ( sumposiarchia) or practice (Scythian drinking) that the Greeks associated with foreign culture.” The former is not monarchical; the latter refers “primarily to uncouth behavior … rather than excessive drinking per se” [really?] and most of the hatted symposiasts “sedately engage in the same range of activities as their fellow drinkers.” The answer more likely is that the hat is a prestige-item, an example of “the deliberate adoption of a select range of Oriental objects by wealthy Athenians as an effective statement of elitism.” This seems utterly convincing but needs testing against the full range of sympotic “costumes” (do Anacreontic “booners” overlap chronologically with this group? What about other sorts of non-Greek headgear as on the red-figured hydria by the Nikoxenos painter, Sammlung P. Drerichs 1981 #56?).

Oswyn Murray’s essay, “War and the Symposium,” extends some familiar themes into a bold and witty synthesis: just as the hoplite army represents a break from the Homeric warrior group so the “orientalizing-style symposium of pleasure” transforms traditional rituals of commensality. “Two ways of development were opened up. Either the symposium became an agent in the withdrawal of a traditional elite from its public functions into a private world of pleasure, or it had to accept the control of the polis as it rearranged and employed traditional forms of commensality.” The former is found in Athens, the latter in Sparta. Murray begins with broad consideration of alcohol as creator of friendship (“most societies that use alcohol are virtually free o alcohol-related troubles”) and the basic importance of drinking rituals for the formation of military virtues (“gin, rum and brandy were the foundation of western supremacy on the battlefield”), while study of the police shows that “drinking customs relate to power structures” (uniformed police “do not drink on duty”; detectives “drink as often as possible”). These principles are then grounded in Classical Greece via Plato Laws 637D, from which the major conclusion is that “the opposition that Plato sets up between the [Spartan] syssition of courage and the [Athenian] symposium of pleasure is a false one”: “Spartan rituals are indeed designed to display the proper use of alcohol” (“a society that expected all its members to consume as a minimum the equivalent of four pints of beer a day, in a ritual setting that ensured that the process would take several hours, is not one oblivious to the pleasures of alcohol”). Moreover, the Spartan phidition is much like the Athenian symposium: it “was a meal taken in the reclining position” and “at Sparta there was a clear distinction between the communal meal, or aiklon, and the subsequent session of drinking”. In addition the Spartan military institutions (sworn bands, groups of thirty, dining companions) “have multiple connections with the world of the Greek symposium… The recurrent numbers fifteen and thirty are significant, for they imply a military organization based on the characteristic size for the Greek symposium.” Thus “the syssitia and symposia of the class of hoplites … are variant developments from the same type of institution … the warrior feasts of the Homeric age”. Murray ends with two problems about the poetic genre of the warrior symposium, elegy: why does epic instruct through memory and indirect example while elegy works through direct exhortation; why in military elegy is there “no appeal to group loyalty … no recall of the ties of sympotic companionship such as exists in elegy elsewhere”? A tentative answer: “their poetry is public poetry, emphasizing loyalty to the community rather than to the group; their rewards and penalties are in terms of public honor.”

As if in answer to Murray’s essay, Alan Booth, “The Age for Reclining and Its Attendant Perils,” sketches the dangers of the symposium, where “eating, drinking and sexual indulgence constitute an intimate and unholy trinity,” and the bulk of the essay consists of passages warning against or describing the licentious behavior of young adults. More important is Booth’s attempt to define the ancient “drinking age”—”the age at which license freely to participate in the symposium and convivium, license to accept invitations there to recline, was to be granted.” In Rome “assumption of the toga virilis was on the one hand recognized to bestow freedom to recline and on the other to render desirable some restraint and guidance.” This does not mean children were excluded from parties, just that they did not recline for “in proper imperial practice, before assumption of the toga virilis, princes did not recline but sat, and they did not participate fully in the convivium.” [Yet the distinction between sitting and reclining is never explicit in the testimonia and sometimes contradictory: according to Suetonius Gaius and Lucius sat at the foot of Augustus’ couch, as did Claudius’ children, but Suetonius has Britannicus poisoned as he reclined beside Titus before receiving the toga virilis (Tacitus has him seated at a separate table). It is clear from Quintilian 2.2.14 that even seated boys can be seduced.] Among the Greeks “donning the ephebic cloak was regarded as equivalent to the assumption of the toga virilis… the new Greek adult would be exposed to homosexual advances as he reclined.” Thus Aeschines claims Timarchus prostituted himself because he continued to do as a meirakion what he had done as a pais [but this shows that homosexual advances began before he was an ephebe, and nothing has been said about a symposium—also K.J. Dover ( Greek Homosexuality 85) notes that the junior/passive partner of a homosexual liaison is by definition called a pais ]. On the basis of Alcibiades’ famous attempted seduction of Socrates described in Plato’s Symposium Booth argues that “if such potential access was considered improper before the beloved had reached majority, then the age of eighteen should have been considered the youngest acceptable age for reclining” [but nothing has been said about anyone’s majority and the impropriety is clearly the younger seducing the older]. Callias shows great propriety by inviting to his symposium the father of his beloved as well as his beloved [but the impropriety here would be the lack of escort not the presence at the symposium]. Booth’s strongest evidence is Aeschines’ claim that “so long as the boy is not his own master … the law teaches the lover self-control” [even here we need to consider contrary evidence such as Pausanias’ speech in the Symposium arguing that there should be a law requiring that one love only mature males, which implies there is no such law. There is considerable evidence that the ideal eromenos was supposed to be beardless, and this is supported by visual evidence.]. In all of these passages we are asked to accept the equation love=symposium without argument. Also I would like to know something about the ubiquitous lover’s cloak (vs. ephebe’s cloak?) and what it implies in terms of the physics of sympotic lovers.

Katherine M.D. Dunbabin’s meticulously documented and illustrated “Triclinium and Stibadium” begins by considering the difference between Greek and Roman dining rooms: the classical Greek “nearly square andron separated from the main living rooms of the house” which disappears as a distinct, unique and single-purpose unit in the Hellenistic house; and the Roman triclinium of three couches around a single central table. The latter are sometimes done in masonry but otherwise identifiable by their layout as defined by wall-paintings and pavement which “often distinguish clearly between the forepart of the room, for reception of the guests, service, and entertainment, and the inner part for the couches.” Such triclinia are also found outdoors, for summer dining, almost all with masonry couches, both in private houses and in taverns and attached to tombs for memorial banquets. In the High Empire triclinium mosaics take two forms: U-shaped, with a central rectangular panel surrounded on three sides by a rectilinear area for couches, and T+U-shaped, which adds a horizontal bar to the central panel marking the entrance. (Numerous examples from Antioch and North Africa are discussed in some detail.) In late antiquity the triclinium is generally replaced by the stibadium, a semi-circular sigma -couch, again often identifiable by the mosaics. Although the earliest sigma-couches show up only in late 2nd century, literary references are found as early as the 1st. This may suggest a contrast “between the fashions adopted by Martial and his smart set at Rome, and normal middle-class habits in the provinces,” but Dunbabin argues it is more likely, judging from the visual evidence, that “the stibadium -form may be primarily intended for outdoor banquets” but then gradually took over perhaps because “it left a wide space open in the room in front, which could be used for entertainment” and seemed less formal than the triclinium with its strict seating order. By the late Empire we begin to see diners seated at a rich and formal dinner instead of reclining though before “sitting at table had long been the normal practice for those of inferior social position and in taverns.” The argument is enhanced by 36 figures, some published, I think, for the first time.

Two purely literary studies follow. John C. Yardley, “The Symposium in Roman Elegy,” surveys three erotic topoi (secret signals, wine-writing, cup-kissing) showing that although the details of symposia are rarely mentioned the elegiac poets commonly situate their love-triangles at symposia. Since the same topoi are found in later Greek erotic literature, Greek comedy is the likely source and this supports the increasingly common argument that “the elegists were directly influenced by Roman comedy.” George Paul, “Symposia and Deipna in Plutarch’s Lives and in Other Historical Writings” concentrates, as do his sources, on discordant behavior, which he catalogues in terms of increasing disorderliness: disorderly conduct, display of excess, treachery and plotting, murder and decapitation. This particularist pendant to Booth’s theoretical presentation echoes other papers in its details: we meet Hippocleides again and the equation of marshalling a line of battle and presiding at a symposium; Amos reappears and so does cross-dressing. Attention is given to the infiltration of folktale motifs into historical accounts (even in Thucydides), most strikingly in the motif of “the display of a severed head” with which the catalogue ends.

Trimalchio’s cena is central to the two following literary-sociological pieces. John H. D’Arms, “Slaves at Roman Convivia” catalogues the jobs slaves did: making the invitation list, seating the guests, serving the food (and sweeping up the diners’sputa; Trimalchio’s ministri“make no fewer than thirty-five separate entrances”). He then balances the benefits (eating leftovers, catch the master’s eye) and risks (from beating to mutilation and murder) to conclude “domestic service in a grand urban house did not guarantee an easier life for slaves.” Christopher P. Jones, “Dinner Theater,” catalogues the entertainment offered both at private parties and at public banquets, which are “complementary aspects of the same system of benefaction … in many periods of history the private acts of certain individuals have been very much public events.” We begin with a full discussion of Trimalchio’s entertainment and its parallels (including “a charming sketch of a rope walker” on an unpublished graffito at Aphrodisias) and then have two pages on the few attested earlier parties (Xenophon’s Symposium; the Macedonian wedding in Athenaeus) before we turn to the imperial period, “where the evidence for dinner theater becomes abundant, and at last we can begin to feel confident that we are dealing with history and not fiction.” We find that theatrical entertainment was common in the circles of both the wealthy littérateurs and the emperors (the comoedi mentioned by Pliny are often whole plays of New Comedy, which suggests Roman aristocrats saw more Menander than we had realized). Jones ends his survey with some instances of “‘theater-dinner,’ meals given in theaters and similar buildings and accompanied by visual entertainment.”

Jeremy Rossiter, “Convivium and Villa in Late Antiquity,” continues Dunbabin’s account of stibadium dining by supplementing her description of 4th C. practice on the basis of mosaics and paintings with a discussion of several villas and then considering the fate of the stibadium in the 5th and 6th C. Stibadium dining “remained popular among the Roman aristocracies of fifth-century Italy and Gaul” as we can tell from literary sources but “when Roman dining protocol is seen to survive under Gothic or Vandal rule, the context is very often revealed as a building of earlier Roman date” and in fact “the reaction of the Gothic rulers of Italy and Gaul to Roman dining practices seems to have been mixed.” In the sixth-century we find that outside the Gothic court, “there is little evidence for new investment” in the Roman custom but in the eastern Empire the aristocratic stibadium continued “well into the sixth century” ending with Justinian’s rebuilding of the Hebdomon palace, at which point the Roman custom seemed to the envoy Luitprand of Cremona to be “a novel and eccentric imperial ritual.”

This collection is a useful and important complement to the Oxford Sympotica, extending its range both backwards to the earlier East and forwards to the Roman West. Vintage essays by the masters of the field, Burkert and Murray, give us sufficient theory (despite Slater’s disclaimer), while the imperial period, almost totally absent in the earlier collection, is fully represented in both literary and archaeological studies, the centerpiece of which must be Dunbabin’s encyclopedic study of the mosaic evidence for seating arrangements. The numerous illustrations are an important addition to the collection and, miraculously, seem not to have affected the reasonable price.