Based on a podcast featuring Professor James Davidson and Dr David Fearn, Department of Classics and Ancient History
Published August 2011
The evenings started off very respectably. Groups of men (and they were nearly always men) gathered for a banquet, probably with no wine at all, and had their hands washed by slaves following their meal. The room was then splashed with perfume, garlands were presented for the participants to wear and the floor with all the debris was swept away. It was time to start drinking.
Says Prof Davidson, “One of the reasons why there’s so much fuss about the symposium, or drinking party, in Ancient Greece is that it’s the centre of a lot of culture. It does seem to have been a formal way of drinking which is very different from the way we drink nowadays”. The ritualistic element of the parties, with their rules and customs, played a great part.
Anything less than 50 per cent water is considered extremely dangerous and intoxicating.
Men lounged on couches around the edge of the smoky room. Wine was served to them and all were expected to drink at the same pace. To begin with they would drink a specific number of toasts to divinities. “Then the wine is mixed in a great mixing bowl: the banqueters have to decide how much water they’re going to put in. Anything less than 50 per cent water is considered extremely dangerous and intoxicating.”
Not that that men didn’t get intoxicated, they merely waited until later on in the evening. First, there was the entertainment to be had. Dr Fearn explains: “one of the reasons the symposium is so important in Ancient Greek culture is that it’s the place where people perform a great range of different kinds of lyric poetry. Originally they may have made up songs themselves and performed them but probably what most often happened was that individual Greeks re-performed the big hits – the great pop records of the day.”
The Greeks performed two kinds of songs. The first was broadcast - easy popular songs sung by the whole group in turns either line by line or couplet by couplet – and the second was narrowcast. This type of song was much more introverted and on the subject of suffering and love. The singer would usually accompany himself on the lyre, hence the term ‘lyric’. The narrowcast song is “almost like a mask. It’s something you put on, don in order to play a role”.
The broadcast songs were accompanied by a ‘flute girl’ who played a double piped and reeded instrument. Rather than being hired for her musical expertise she “was supposed to be very sexy, good looking, perhaps someone you might be able to persuade to accompany you home that night. She didn’t necessarily wear many clothes, if any.”
As the evening went on, the wine had gone around the room in a particular order and so had the songs, the members became progressively drunker. This was when the flute girl “was liable to be groped by the men”. According to Prof Davidson and Dr Fearn, “we don’t know when they stop singing but certainly they get drunk. They talk about banqueters as if they are fellow voyagers on a ship and gradually the sea gets more and more turbulent and they start to get seasick or throw things out of the window, break furniture and grope the flute girl. Eventually they will emerge from the house in a kind of festival conga, go to another house with the flute girl accompanying them and try to cause riots there as well.” It was an out of control pub crawl.
The symposium was initially for the elite in society. Peasants and labourers would go to bars which were extremely ubiquitous especially in democratic cities. “It seems that in oligarchic cities they tended to suppress this kind of activity. In Athens, however, there were lots of neighbourhood taverns where normal people went to drink. Women and slaves were said to go to drink there, so there was a much more promiscuous atmosphere.”
Vases and drinking cups from the period all show images of people drinking.
Sympotic culture entered the taverns. Pottery found in these buildings, or what looks like an inn or brothel, have all the paraphernalia of the symposium such as mixing bowls, jugs, little cups and wine coolers. “It does seem as if commercial drinking was imitating the practice of the aristocrat.”
Drinking was central to Greek culture, from the drinking party’s poetry to the festivals of Dionysus, the god of wine. Vases and drinking cups from the period all show images of people drinking. “In a way, the study of the classics is the study of the consumption of alcohol” Dr Fearn and Prof Davidson conclude.
Listen to the full podcast of Prof James Davidson and Dr David Fearn in discussion with Dr Peter E Pormann. Leave your thoughts on drinking cultures below.
Dr James Davidson works on Greek social and cultural history and historiography. He has written articles on Polybius, Greek public bars and Dido and child-sacrifice. His first book, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens was published in 1997. He has just published The Greeks and Greek Love for Weidenfeld and is currently working on a translation of some Attic speeches for Penguin Classics.
Before coming to Warwick Dr David Fearn held Junior Research Fellowships at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Jesus College, Oxford. Both in his teaching and in his research he investigates the relation between Greek literary texts and their socio-political contexts of production - from archaic Greece and the Homeric poems through to Alexandrian poetry in Hellenistic Egypt, via Classical Greek literature and politics.