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Symposium scene
(Fresco from the Tomb of the Diver, 475 BC)
Paestum National Museum, Italy
Five symposiasts are shown reclining on couches, l to r: the first is calling the symposiarch to refill his cup, the second is playing kottabos, the third is calling to the fourth and fifth figures.

Symposium originally referred to a drinking party (the Greek verb sympotein means "to drink together") but has since come to refer to any academic conference, or a style of university class characterized by an openly discursive format, rather than a lecture and question–answer format. The sympotic elegies of Theognis of Megara and two Socratic dialogues, Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium all describe symposia in the original sense.

Symposium as a social activity in antiquity

The Greek symposium was a key Hellenic social institution. It was a forum for men to debate, plot, boast, or simply to party with others. They were also frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society. Symposia were also held by aristocrats to celebrate other special occasions, such as victories in athletic and poetic contests.

Symposiast in typical singing pose, accompanied by a flautist playing the aulos. The text reads "The boy is beautiful." Fifth century red-figure kylix by the Colmar painter.

Symposia were usually held in the andrōn, the men's quarters of the household. The participants would recline on pillowed couches arrayed against the three walls of the room away from the door. Due to space limitations the couches would number between seven and nine, limiting the total number of participants to somewhere between fourteen and twenty seven[1] (Oswyn Murray gives a figure of between seven and fifteen couches and reckons fourteen to thirty participants a "standard size for a drinking group")[2]. If any young men took part they did not recline but sat up.[3] Food was served, together with wine. The latter, usually mixed with water in varying proportions, was drawn from the krater, a large jar designed to be carried by two men, and served from pitchers. Entertainment was provided, and depending on the occasion could include games, songs, flute-girls or boys, slaves performing various acts, and hired entertainment. A symposium would be overseen by a symposiarch who would decide how strong or diluted the wine for the evening would be, depending on whether serious discussions or merely sensual indulgence were in the offing. Certain formalities were observed, most important among which were the libations by means of which the gods were propitiated.

Symposia often were held for specific occasions. For example the most famous symposium of all, the one immortalised by Plato, was being hosted by the poet Agathon on the occasion of his first victory at the theater contest of the 416 BC Dionysia, but was upstaged by the unexpected entrance of the toast of the town, the young Alcibiades dropping in almost totally drunk and almost totally naked, having just left another symposium.

In keeping with Greek notions of self-restraint and propriety, the symposiarch would prevent matters from getting out of hand. The playwright Euboulos, in a surviving fragment of a lost play has the god of wine, Dionysos himself, describe proper and improper drinking:

For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more - it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

A game sometimes played at symposia was kottabos, in which players swirled the dregs of their wine in their kylikes (platter-like stemmed drinking vessels) and flung them at a target. Another feature of the symposia were skolia, drinking songs of a patriotic or bawdy nature, which were also performed in a competitive manner with one symposiast reciting the first part of a song and another expected to improvise[citation needed] the end of it.

Etruscan symposium scene

What are called flute-girls today were actually prostitutes or hetaera who played the aulos, a Greek woodwind instrument most similar to an oboe, hired to play for and consort with the symposiasts while they drank and conversed. When string instruments were played, the barbiton was the traditional instrument.[4]

Symposiasts could also compete in rhetorical contests, for which reason the term symposium has come to refer to any event where multiple speeches are made.

As with many other Greek customs, the framework of the symposium was adopted by the Romans under the name of comissatio. These revels also involved the drinking of assigned quantities of wine, and the oversight of a master of the ceremonies appointed for the occasion from among the guests.


  1. ^ Literature in the Greek World By Oliver Taplin; p47
  2. ^ The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (ed. Hornblower & Spawforth), pp.696-7
  3. ^ Xenophon, "Symposium" 1.8
  4. ^ Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.16 of Alessandro Iannucci, La Parola e l'Azione: I Frammenti Simposiali di Crizia. Bologna: Edizioni Nautilus, 2002[1]

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Up to date as of January 22, 2010

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SYMPOSIUM (Gr. 6vgrrovcov, a drinking party, from cm/naval), to drink together, (rim, with, and Iriveu', to drink, root 7ro, cf. Lat. potare, to drink, poculum, cup), the convivial drinking which took place after a great banquet, accompanied by intellectual or witty conversation, and by music or dancing performed by slaves or attendants. The term has been applied in modern usage, due to Plato's Symposium, to a collection of opinions of different writers on a given subject.

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also symposium



Symposium n. (genitive Symposiums, plural Symposien)

  1. symposium

Related terms

  • Symposion

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