Wherein the Greeks know the best philosophical discussions include singing, wine pong and courtesans.
Some scholars and professors—at least ones who are not at all like me—find one of the highlights of their profession to be academic conferences. For those of you who’ve never indulged in such unrelenting excitement, let’s lift the veil on modern academic symposia by quoting the description for one of the main upcoming conferences in my field, The American Academy of Religion:
There will be more than 1,000 events, including a plethora of academic sessions, workshops, meetings, receptions, and tours. The Annual Meeting Exhibit Hall will feature more than 100 publishers, and you’ll be able to pitch ideas, connect with others, and review the latest publications within the field.
Nothing screams ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time like sitting in “a plethora of academic sessions, workshops, (and) meetings” and reviewing publications. Party hardy!
For the record, despite laughing at academic conferences, I’m well aware of the value of getting together to exchange information. I’ve sat through many sessions, presented my share of papers, and even once (to my great chagrin) chaired a session at a conference. At the same time, I would have relished the opportunity to do a follow-up on a paper where I sang a song rhyming “bishop of Uchi” with “hoochie coochie” while trying to write “Augustine” with wine. And that’s how I know that modern symposia can’t hold a courtesan-carried candle to an ancient Greek symposium.
If You Didn’t Come to Party, Don’t Bother Knockin’ on My Door
Symposia were drinking parties in which men (originally aristocrats, but eventually symposia were convened among lower social classes) gathered to drink, converse, sing, play games and sometimes have sex. A particularly successful symposium, like ones held during the Greek festival of Anthesteria, could even move outdoors in an ongoing traveling party.
These drinking parties were held (at least until everyone moved outside and staggered down the street in a komos) in a special room (andron) with a waterproofed floor where everyone reclined on couches (klinai) (a surviving example of an andron can be seen in Brauron in Attica). Wine—carefully mixed with water in a special vessel (krater)—was served in deep cups (kantharos) and shallow bowls (kylix) decorated with vivid images (frequently of mythology or daily life, but sometimes with images of symposia themselves, including one of a man vomiting while a slave holds his head).
The thought of watching someone barf naturally leads to the other main feature of symposia beyond drinking: entertainment. For example, Xenophon, in his fifth-century BCE Symposium, describes a wide array of performers brought to a symposia hosted by Callias. Invited singers might also perform skolia, songs about gods or heroes that were improvisationally changed to suit the occasion. As the party really got going, attendees might play kottabos, a drinking game involving flinging wine either to write the first initial of a person’s name or, in an ancient equivalent of beer pong, flinging it across the room into a floating saucer in order to sink it.
The only women allowed in a symposia were heterai, courtesans who played music, engaged in educated conversation and, when demanded, provided sex for the male attendees. The Getty Museum, in its description of an Attic cup’s illustration of a man having intercourse with a courtesan, drolly notes, “The scene thus conveys what a young Athenian man might expect—or hope for—in attending a symposium.”
I’ll Discourse My Life Away
While a young Athenian man undoubtedly looked forward to a night of booze, wine pong and sex, in reality the most notable form of entertainment was frequently…steady yourself…philosophical discussion. While you’d expect Plato’s Symposium to emphasize philosophy—and Socrates unsurprisingly holds his own in a discussion on eros after everyone refused to turn the party into a “tipsy affair,” which for some people might have been like being invited to a drunken orgy only to sit through an old army STD film—the historian Xenophon also describes a symposium in which Socrates and philosophical conversation is the focus (in Xenophon’s version Socrates again convinces everyone to stay sober).
Then as now, politics was also a common topic for conversation. According to the historian Thucydides, the Athenian coup of 411 (in which the democratic government was temporarily overthrown by an oligarchy known as the Four Hundred) was conceived and organized during discussions taking place in aristocratic symposia.
Parties Weren’t Meant to Last
I’ve been to modern symposia, and I’ve been to parties, and as I indicated before: the two seldom join today in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, I hold out hope that someday we’ll have philosophy classes—with female faculty and students, but without artistically-trained prostitution—in which we need to waterproof the floors so that the jugglers and puking drunks do not make too much of a mess as the professor lectures on Plato’s presentation of eros.
Image: Statuettes of Three Banqueters (550–525 BCE) (Source).