[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
What is a Greek symposium, and how do you recognize one? According to Oswyn Murray,
The symposium was a male and aristocratic activity…. Citizen women were excluded. It was a centre for the transmission of traditional values and for the homosexual bonding of young males; it could provide the organization for political action…; kottabos [a drinking game] was a favourite pastime; professional entertainers were hired. Dionysus was accompanied by Aphrodite and the Muses, in the form of female slave companions ( hetairai) and monodic lyric poetry, which was composed for performance at symposia….
In other words, the Greek symposium was not just a drinking party but a special kind of one, analogous to the difference between a seder and a dinner party. Murray adds:
The male participants wore garlands, and libations and prayers began and ended the proceedings. The Greeks adopted the practice of reclining on the left elbow (one or two to a couch); from this evolved a characteristic shape of room [the andron ], and a standard size for the drinking group of between fourteen and thirty…. Water was mixed with the wine in a central crater to a strength determined by the president…it was served by slave boys. Equality and order in distribution were maintained… At the end of the session a procession ( komos) in the streets would demonstrate the cohesion and power of the group. … The artistic and cultural importance of the symposium declined during the Classical age, but it remained important in social life well into the Hellenistic period. 1
Any recognizable representation of a symposium in progress should, then, include most of these elements. Ideally, it would also show the 14–30 reclining men discoursing on politics or philosophy, flirting, or playing kottabos, and doing so inside the special room, the andron, in which symposia were held.
If so, then these (irreducible?) elements make the modest book under review both interesting and puzzling—puzzling because it reveals that not a single example of a symposium appears anywhere in Greek or Roman comedy. Instead of symposia proper, the most we can speak of are “sympotic themes” or “motifs” or “parodies,” rather than the real deal. The book thus implicitly raises an interesting question: How many elements of Murray’s definition can you subtract or distort and still know a “symposium” when you see it?
Arising from a study day held in Trento and Bolzano in May 2018, “The Symposium in Greek Comedy” collects revised versions of four talks on that theme by experts in Greek comedy, two in German and two in Italian, each with its own bibliography and a brief abstract in not-quite-idiomatic English. The book also includes a triple-sized fifth paper in Italian on the musical elements of Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis (which, oddly, is not a symposium, or Greek, or a comedy). The book ends with indexes of passages, characters, ancient authors, and modern scholars cited in the text. In theme, origin, size, and ambitions, the book resembles the volumes in the Lecturae Plautinae Sarsinates series produced annually by the University of Urbino, many of which have been reviewed in BMCR (e.g. here and here). Greek is generously quoted and sometimes translated. The book is well produced; typos are rare and pose no problems.
The middle three essays form a unit. They examine Old, Middle, and New Comedy in turn. As Taufer acknowledges in his introduction, all three amount to footnotes to a comprehensive 2005 paper by Ioannis Konstantakos, a paper that established the fundamental negative conclusion about symposia in comedy.2 Indeed, the first two, by Michele Napolitano and Christian Orth (“Symposium and Old Comedy: a reconsideration” and “The Symposium in the fragments of late Old Comedy,” respectively), could have been published in The Journal of Negative Conclusions, if such an outlet existed.
As Konstantakos had shown, there are scenes of onstage drinking parties in Plautus’ Asinaria, Mostellaria, Persa, and Stichus —none of which, I emphasize, fits the narrow definition of a symposium—but nothing like them in Aristophanes or Menander. Konstantakos argued that traces of onstage symposia could, by contrast, be found in the fragmentary Greek material that came between those two poets, and “further that at least in the 4 th century they seem to have been a fairly common type of comic scene, part of the stock repertoire of comic poets” (p. 185). Napolitano and Orth revisit the evidence Konstantakos gathered—in some instances, their discussions overlap—and they confirm that for the earlier period, (1) there are no secure references to a staged symposium in Aristophanes or the fragments of Old Comedy up to c. 400 BCE, and (2) only a few references that theoretically could refer to one, whether staged or reported. (In his discussion, Orth relies too much on the titles of lost comedies to divine their contents, which, as he knows, is a no-no.3)
Why did Old and early Middle comedy avoid the symposium? Both scholars emphasize the obvious limitations of the three-actor rule (too few for a symposium), the chorus (too many), and the convention whereby indoor scenes had to be represented outdoors. Everyone points out that the scene-shifting ekkyklema (wheeled platform) might have been used to get around the last point, but there is no evidence that it was. Napolitano goes a step beyond, though, and offers the interesting speculation that in the 5 th century, the symposium may have been still seen as too elite an institution to find a home in popular comedy.
In the richest contribution in the book, “Sympotic characters and situations between Middle and New Comedy,” Francesco Paolo Bianchi walks through the relevant fragments of Greek (but not Roman) comedy in which characters are either drinking wine or talking about it; he calls them “sympotic situations” (59). Like Konstantakos, he concludes such scenes were probably staged. He also revisits Konstantakos’ idea that the famous opening scene of Menander’s Synaristosai (“Women at Brunch,” which Plautus turned into Cistellaria) is a parody of a symposium. This could be right, of course, but as we know from mosaics as well as texts, the three characters drinking wine are women, they are seated rather than reclining, they are discussing not philosophy or politics but private life, and they seem to be at brunch (hence, I assume, Synaristosai rather than Symposiazousai). It is hard to decide whether Greeks would have inevitably seen this scenario as a kind of symposium, though of course some may have.
In the book’s first essay, “Plato’s Symposium and Comedy,” Bernhard Zimmermann rereads Plato’s dialogue in the light of Thucydides 1.22, concentrating on the keywords saphes (clarity) and ōpheleisthai (benefit). He emphasizes the many removes at which Plato’s narrative is recounted, and concludes that Symposium is a new literary form. On his brief but persuasive analysis, the dialogue emerges as an amalgam of tragedy, comedy, dithyramb, epic, historiography, and encomiastic oratory. To my disappointment, however, Zimmerman says very little about comedy or Aristophanes’ speech within the dialogue, and nothing at all about the intriguing possibility that Plautus’ Stichus (based on Menander’s first Adelphoi) is a parody of Plato’s Symposium.4
At the end of the book, in “The discordant symposium: music and sounds in the Cena Trimalchionis,” Daniele Lutterotti analyzes the many references to music and sound in that part of the Satyricon. He concludes that all the cacophony highlights just how grotesque and dystopian is the inverted “symposium” to which Trimalchio has invited his guests.
What can we conclude overall? For some reason, Greek and Roman comedians chose not to stage symposia as Murray defines that word. They did mention and stage scenes of people drinking wine in groups, and often using implements—tables, vessels, and so on—that scholars today associate with the symposium. Whether the original audiences made that same association, however, is impossible to tell. Maybe that sort of notional extension of the symposium proper is what was happening in real Hellenistic life, much as some Christians today now hold their own “Christian Passover seders.” Or maybe not, and we are mistaking a plain old get-together for a cultural-ritual gathering that it never was. With this book, readers can review the evidence and decide for themselves.
Authors and titles
1. Bernhard Zimmermann, “Platons Symposion und die Komödie,” 13–26
2. Michele Napolitano, “Simposio e Archaia : una riconsiderazione,” 27–39
3. Christian Orth, “Das Symposion in den Fragmenten der späten Alten Komödie,” 41–56
4. Francesco Paolo Bianchi, “Personaggi e situazioni da simposio tra commedia di mezzo e nuova,” 57–81
5. Daniele Lutterotti, “Il simposio dissonante: musica e suoni nella Cena Trimalchionis,” 82–133
1. Murray, O. 1996. ‘Symposium’. In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, third and later editions.
2. Ioannis M. Konstantakos. 2005. “The Drinking Theatre: Staged Symposia in Greek Comedy.” Mnemosyne 58:183–217. Konstantakos does not put his conclusion in negative terms because in that paper, he uses “symposium” as a synonym of “banquet” or “drinking party,” rather than in the technical sense of the citizen-male-only affair that Murray uses it.
3. See S. D. Olson. 2015. “Athenaeus’ Aristophanes, and the Problem of Reconstructing Lost Comedies,” in S. Chronopoulos and C. Orth (eds.), A Fragmentary History of Greek Comedy (Heidelberg: Verlag-Antike), 35–65.
4. D. D. Leitao. 1997. “Plautus, Stichus 155ff.: A Greek Parody of Plato’s Symposium ? Mnemosyne 50:271–80.