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SYMPO´SIUM (συμπόσιον, comissatio, convivium), a drinking-party.


The συμπόσιον, or the πότος, must be distinguished from the δεῖπνον: for though drinking almost always followed a dinner-party, yet the former was regarded as entirely distinct from the latter, was regulated by different customs, and frequently received the addition of many guests, who were not present at the dinner. For the Greeks did not usually drink at their dinner, and. it was not till the conclusion of the meal that wreaths of flowers and wine were introduced, as is explained under CENA [Vol. I. p. 394 b]. Thus we read in the Symposium of Plato (p. 176 A) that after the dinner had been finished, the libations made, and the paean sung, they turned to drinking (τρέπεσθαι πρὸς τὸν πότον).

The enjoyment of Symposia was heightened by agreeable conversation, by the introduction of music and dancing, and by games and amusements of various kinds: sometimes, too, philosophical subjects were discussed at them. The Symposia of Plato and Xenophon give us a lively idea of such entertainments at Athens. The name itself shows that the enjoyment of drinking was the main object of the Symposia: wine from the juice of the grape (οἶνος ἀμπέλινος) was the only drink partaken of by the Greeks, with the exception of water. For palm-wine and beer [CEREVISIA], though known to many of the Greeks from intercourse with foreign nations, were never introduced among them; and the extraordinary cheapness of wine at Athens [VINUM] enabled persons even in moderate circumstances to give drinking-parties to their friends. Even in the most ancient times the enjoyment of wine was considered one of the greatest sources of pleasure, and hence Musaeus and his son supposed that the just passed their time in Hades in a state of perpetual intoxication, as a reward of their virtue (ἡγησάμενοι κάλλιστον ἀρετῆς μισθὸν μέθην αἰώνιον, Plat. Rep. ii. p. 363 D). It would appear from the Symposium of Plato, that even the Athenians frequently concluded their drinking-parties in rather a riotous manner, and it was to guard against this that such parties were forbidden at Sparta and in Crete. (Plat. Min. p. 320 A; cf. Aristoph. Wasps 1253, and the speeches of Dem. in Conon. and Lys. in Simon.) It is curious that a distinction is preserved in the words μεθμστικός, applied to men, and μέθυσος to women, a usage which, as Mr. Rutherford remarks (New Phrynichus, p. 240), probably originated from an ethical cause: in the man it was more habitual, in the woman more accidental.

The wine was almost invariably mixed with water, and to drink it unmixed (ἄκρατον) was considered a characteristic of barbarians (Plat. Leg. i. p. 637 E). Zaleucus is said to have enacted a law among the Locrians, by which any one who was ill and drank of unmixed wine without the command of his physician, was to be put to death (Aelian, Ael. VH 2.37); and the Greeks in general considered unmixed wine as exceedingly prejudicial to physical and mental health (Athen. 2.38). The Spartans attributed the insanity of Cleomenes to his indulging in this practice, which he learnt from the Scythians (Hdt. 6.84). So universal was it not to drink wine unless mixed with water, that the word οἶνος is always applied to such a mixture; and whenever wine is spoken of in connexion with drinking, we are always to understand wine mixed with water, unless the word ἄκρατος is expressly added (τὸ κρᾶμα, καίτοι ὕδατος μετέχον πλείονος, οἶνον καλοῦμεν, Plut. Conjug. Praec. 20).

The proportion in which the wine and water were mixed, naturally differed on different occasions. To make a mixture of even half wine and half water (ἴσον ἴσῳ) was considered injurious. (Athen. l.c.), and generally there was a much greater quantity of water than of wine. It appears from Plutarch (Symp. 3.9), Athenaeus (x. p. 426), and Eustathius (ad Od. 9.209, p. 1624), that the most common proportions of water to wine were 3 : 1, or 2 : 1, or 3 : 2. Hesiod (Op. 596) recommends the first of these, but it was generally regarded as weak (ὑδαρής>) and fit βατράχοις οἰνοχοεῖν (Athen. 10.430 e), and 3 : 2 was the usual proportion for not intemperate drinkers.

The wine was mixed either with warm or cold water: the former, which corresponded to the Calida or Calda of the Romans [CALIDA], was by far the less common. On the contrary, it was endeavoured to obtain the water as cool as possible, and for this purpose both snow and ice were frequently employed. [PSYCTER] Honey was sometimes put in the wine (Athen. 1.32 a), and also spices (Id. p. 31 e): in the latter case it received the name of τρίμμα, and is frequently mentioned by the writers of the New Comedy (Pollux, 6.18). Other ingredients were also occasionally added (Athen. 2.66; Lucian, Nigrin. 31; Aelian, Ael. VH 12.31).

The mixture was made in a large vessel called the κρατήρ [CRATER], from which it was conveyed into the drinking-cups by means of οἰνοχόαι or κύαθοι [CYATHUS]. The cups usually employed were the κύλιξ, φιάλη, καρχήσιον, and κάνθαρος, of which an account is given in separate articles. The ῥυτόν, or drinking horn, was also very commonly used [RHYTON]. We find several craters on vases representing drinking scenes. (See, for example, Mus. Borbon. vol. v. t. 51.)

The guests at a Symposium reclined on couches and were crowned with garlands of flowers, as is explained under CENA A master of the revels (ἄρχων τῆς πόσεως, συμποσίαρχος or βασιλεὺς) was usually chosen to conduct the Symposium (παιδαγωγεῖν συμπόσιον, Plat. Legg. i. p. 641 A), whose commands the whole company had to obey, and who regulated the whole order of the entertainment, proposed the amusements, &c. The choice was generally determined by the throwing of astragali or tali; but we find in Plato (Symp. p. 213 E) Alcibiades constituting himself Symposiarch (in Plaut. Stich. 5.4, 15, he is called strategus). The proportion in which [p. 2.741]the wine and water were mixed was fixed by him, and also how much each of the company was to drink, and also the size of the drinking vessel. Upon those who disregarded his authority he imposed penalties, often absurd acts of buffoonery to make the victim ridiculous (Lucian, Saturn. 4): sometimes he ordained similar absurdities on the company generally, or special members of it with a specified penalty in default of performance (Plat. Symp. 1.4, 3). To such cases the “leges insanae” (Hor. Sat. ii. 6, 69) refer, and it is not surprising that Plato, in the passage cited from the Laws, desires νήφοντά τε καὶ σοφὸν ἄρχοντα as Symposiarch. The servants (οὶνοχόοι and οἰνηροὶ θεράποντες), usually young slaves, who had to mix the wine and present it to the company, were also under his orders; but if there was no Symposiarch, the company called for the wine just as they pleased. The dexterity of a well-trained cup-bearer in presenting the (φιάλη, held ἐπὶ τῶν δακτύλων ἀκρῶν, is noticed by Poll. 6.95; cf. τοῖς τρισὶ δακτύλοις, Xen. Cyrop. 1.3, 8. This method of holding the φιάλη ὀμφαλωτὸς is explained on p. 350 a, and is shown in the following woodcut, bat it applies only to the φιάλη. Other cups, such as the κύλιξ, were often similarly filled at the crater and handed round, as may be seen in vase-paintings (Panofka, 34.2 = Guhl and Koner, fig. 201): but the more usual practice was that the guest held the cylix and the slave filled it with a small wine-jug (οἰνοχόη) which he had dipped in the crater and carried round the table (Od. 9.10; Athen. 10.420; Xen. Symp. 2.2. 7; Mon. Inst. 3.12).

Before the drinking commenced, it was agreed upon in what way they should drink (Plat. Symp. p. 176, A, B), for it was not usually left to the option of each of the company to drink as much or as little as he pleased, but he was compelled to take whatever the Symposiarch might order. At Athens they usually began drinking out of small cups (μέτρια ποτήρια, Athen. 10.431 e), but, as the entertainment went on, larger ones were introduced (D. L. 1.104). In the Symposium of Plato (pp. 213, 214) Alcibiades and Socrates each empty an immense cup, containing eight cotylae, or nearly four English pints; and frequently such cups were emptied at one draught (ἀπνευστὶ or ἀμυστὶ πίνειν, ἀμυστίζειν, Athen. 10.431 b; Lucian, Lexiph. 8; Suidas, s. v. Ἀμυστί).

The cups were always carried round from left to right (ἐπὶ δεξιά), which Latin writers express by “a summo” (Plaut. Pers. 5.1, 19; Asin. 5.4, 1), and the same order was observed in the conversation and in everything that took place in the entertainment (ἐπὶ δεξιὰ διαπίνειν, Plat. Rep. iv. p. 420 E; ἐπὶ δεξιὰ λόγον εἰπεῖν, Symp. p. 214 B; Athen. 11.463 e). The company frequently drank to the health of one another (προπίνειν φιλοτησίας, Lucian, Gall. 12; Athen. 11.498 d), and each did it especially to the one to whom he handed the same cup. (Compare Cic. Tusc. 1.40, 96, “Graeci in conviviis solent nominare, cui poculum tradituri sunt.” ) Great men on great occasions often made the cup a present to the guest who so received it (Pind. O. 7.5; Athen. xiii. pp. 575, 576), whence the word προπίνω acquired a new meaning.

Music and dancing were usually introduced, as already stated, at Symposia, and we find few representations of such scenes in ancient vases without the presence of female players on the flute and the cithara. Plato, indeed, decidedly objects to their presence, and maintains that it is only men incapable of amusing themselves by rational conversation, that have recourse to such means of enjoyment (Protag. p. 347 C, D; Symp. p. 176 E); but this says nothing against the general practice, and Xenophon in his Symposium represents Socrates mightily pleased with the mimetic dancing and other feats performed on that occasion. The female dancers and the players on the flute and the cithara were frequently introduced at the Symposia of young men for another purpose, and were oftentimes actually ἑταίραι [CHETAERAE], as we see clearly represented on many ancient vases (see for example Mus. Borbon. vol. v. t. 51). Respecting the different kinds of dances performed at Symposia, see SALTATIO The σκόλια were indeed a more refined and intellectual kind of music, as they were usually sung only by selected guests who were known to be skilled in music, and often in poetical composition. The song being started by one singer, was continued by any other to whom he handed the lyre and myrtle bough (Aristoph. Wasps 1219; Athen. 15.694 f; Müller, Lit. of Ancient Greece, i. p. 249).

Representations of Symposia are very common on ancient vases. Two guests usually reclined on each couch (κλίνη), as is explained in Vol. I. p. 393, and illustrated by the following cut

Symposium, from a vase-painting.

from one of Sir W. Hamilton's vases, where the couch on the right hand contains two persons, and that on the left is represented with only one. which does not appear to have been the usual practice. The guests wear garlands of flowers, and the two who are reclining on the same couch hold a φιάλη in the right hand.

Sometimes there are four or five persons on one couch, as in the following woodcut, taken from Millin (Peintures de Vases Antiques, vol. ii. pl. 53). Three young and two older men are reclining on a couch (κλίνη), with their left arms resting on striped pillows (προσκεφάλαια or ὑπαγκώνια). Before the couch are two tables. Three of the men are holding a calix or κύλιξ suspended by one of the handles to the forefinger, the fourth holds a (φιάλη, and the fifth a φιάλη in one hand and a ῥυτὸν in the other. [CALIX; PATERA; RHYTON.] In the middle Comos is beating the tympanum.

Respecting the games and amusements by which the Symposia were enlivened, it is unnecessary to say much here, as most of them are described in separate articles in this work. Enigmas or riddles (αἰνίγματα or γρῖφοι) were [p. 2.742]among the most usual and favourite modes of diversion [AENIGMA]. The Cottabos was also another favourite game at Symposia, and was played at in various ways [COTTABOS]. The other games at Symposia, which require mention, are the ἀστραγαλισμὸς and κυβεία, explained

Symposium, from a vase-painting.

under TALT and TESSERAE; the πεττεία, spoken of under LATRUNCULI; and the χαλκοσμός. The latter consisted in turning round a piece of money placed upright on its edges, and causing it suddenly to stop while moving by placing a finger on its top (Pollux, 9.118; Eustath. ad Il. 14.291, p. 986).

Lest some of the details above given should convey the idea that a Greek Symposium was a mere drunken revel, we must point out that, as Blümner remarks (Leben und Sitten der Gr. 2.42), it differed in its essential nature from the drinking bout “of the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century” (we might put it later); for the main object and usual result was intellectual conversation, as described by Plato, Xenophon, and later writers, although it might sometimes end in excess and disorder. On the other hand, the extreme on this side also must be avoided; we must not suppose that the high philosophic level of Plato's Symposium was universal or indeed anything but exceptional. Socrates was not always of the party, and besides it must be recollected that Plato's scene is designed to introduce philosophy, not primarily to leave an exact picture of manners. On this point there is a chapter by Professor Mahaffy (Social Life in Greece), in which he suggests a University supper-party as the standard; and there is much truth in this, for at the universities too we have in an intellectual centre among diverse sets of people all degrees of social converse,--high philosophy, literature, aestheticism, sporting topics (as various as from Olympic games to quail-fights), and sometimes also the riotous ending. (See also Becker-Göll, Charikles, 2.335 ff.; Blümner, Privatalt. 245 ff.; Mahaffy, Social Life in Greece, ch. xi.) [W.S] [G.E.M]


That this word (doubtless connected with κῶμος) was the strict equivalent at Rome to the Greek symposium (i. e. that it was a wine-party quite distinct from the cena which preceded it) is clear from several passages. In the Mostellaria Callidamates, who has dined elsewhere, says, “me ibi male convivii sermonisque taesum est, Nunc comissatum ibo ad Philolachem;” and so also Demetrius in Liv 40.7. at the end of the cena, says, “Quis comissatum ad fratrem imus?” (cf. Id. 40.9.) The above passages relate to Greek life, and it must be observed that this going after dinner from one house to another for the wine-party seems to have been a Greek custom, rather than Roman (it appears, however, in Petron. 65): but at Rome also the distinct break between the cena and the comissatio is noticeable, so that there, might be the one without the other, as in Suet. Dom. 21, “convivebatur . . . nec ut postea comissaretur;” and there is a passage of St. Ambrose (de El. et Jejun. 13) which is worth quoting as a description of manners precisely the same at a much later date, “Cernas poculorum diversorum ordines, vasa exposita aurea et argentea: deinde procedente potu longius contentiones et certamina quis potu praecellat: nota gravis si quis se excuset, si quis temperandum forte vinum putet: et haec donec ad mensas perveniatur secundas: at ubi consummatae fuerint epulae, et putes jam esse surgendum, tune de integro potum instaurant et cum consummarunt tune inchoare se dicunt: tune deferuntur phialae, tune maximi crateres: mensura proponitur, certatur sub judice; sub lege decernitur.” Besides the regular term comissatio, Cicero uses sometimes the word compotatio; and convivium, being a general term, for any “convivial” meeting (Cic. de Sen. 13, 45), may signify the wine-party as well as the dinner, unless it is contrasted with comissatio: it is used in this sense in Cic. Tusc. 1.40, 96.

It is not certain how far comissatio was a genuine Roman custom and how far borrowed from the Greeks. The passage of Cic. de Sen. 14, 46, implies a custom of social conversation over wine after dinner in old times, but does not, as Marquardt rather fancifully argues, imply a magisterium of the wine-party; for Göll is certainly right in saying that the two sentences refer to totally different things. There is, as will be seen, a slight indication of a magister bibendi in early times, but not a certainty. The probable account is that the Graecus amos brought in the regular organisation of the comissatio, on much the same lines as the Symposium [p. 2.743]described above. We may therefore venture to set down as the “Graecus mos bibendi” at Rome (1) the wreaths and perfumes [CORONA; UNGUENTUM], which were not as a rule worn during dinner, but marked the beginning of the συμπόιον or the comissatio (Plut. Symp. 3.1, 1; Athen. 15.685 d; Mart. 10.19), and were Greek in origin. The gradual rise of this custom is perhaps marked in Pliny's notice of two persons punished for wearing flowers towards the end of the Second Punic War (H. N. 21.8). (2) The appointment by the dice of one among the company as president, = the Symposiarch, and called rex (Macr. 2.1; Hor. Od. 1.4, 18), arbiter bibendi (Hor. Od. 2.7, 25), and magister (Varro ap. Non. 142, 8; cf. Hor. Sat. 2.2, 123). From this passage of Varro we may perhaps infer, what is natural enough, that the older Romans had some such president of the party; but the magister here also, like the magisterium of Varro, L. L. 5.122, may possibly refer only to a “publicum convivium,” and we shall probably be right in regarding as mainly derived from Greece the duties of this post described in the first part of the article--settling the proportions of wine to water, making rules for the entertainment and enforcing penalties (Cic. Ver. 5.11, 28); while at those parties which had no such ruler appointed, any guest could follow his own fancy as to drinking much or little, being, as Horace expresses it, “solutus legibus insanis” (Sat. 2.6, 69: the same absence of Symposiarch is signified by the “culpa magistra” of Sat. 2.2, 123). (3) In particular the method of drinking healths (propinatio), which is specially noted as Graeco more bibere (compare Cic. Ver. 1.26, 66, and Ps.-Ascon. ad loc., with Cic. Tusc. 1.40, 96). This consisted in naming some person, and then, after touching the wine with the lips, handing the cup to him to drain. Before the general propinatio there was a custom, whether widely prevalent or not, of naming some deity. We see this in Plaut. Asin. iv. 1, 35, and connected with it is probably the “da Lunae propere novae” of Hor. Od. 3.19, if we reject the very ingenious, but, as it seems to us, too fanciful interpretation which Mr. Verrall (Studies in Horace) has given to that passage. In imperial times there was the formal toast to the emperor (Ov. Fast. 2.637; D. C. 51.19); and then the propinatio of different persons according to the fancy of individual guests.

There are, however, some intricate questions connected with the Roman health-drinking which need discussion, especially as regards the number of cyathi. There is, of course, no doubt that the rex or arbiter fixed the proportions of wine and water just as in the Greek symposium; but it is probably an error to understand the passages, which mention such and such a number of cyathi, as referring to this proportion: it is, we have little doubt, more correct to explain them as specifying the amount of the mixture, whatever its strength, which each cup was to receive. If the drinking was to be hard, large cups were called for (Cic. Ver. 1.26, 66; Hor. Sat. 2.8, 35; Plaut. Curcul. 2.3, 81), so that whatever number was imposed might be received by each guest in his cup and drained either at one draught (like the Greek ἀμυστὶς) or not, according to the injunctions of the “leges insanae” (cf. Plin. Nat. 14.145). Accordingly we find the specified numbers ranging from one cyathus (Mart. 1.106) upwards; and when a man drinks a “septunx” (Mart. 3.82) or “septeni cyathi” (Plaut. Pers. 5.1, 19), it means that he had seven cyathi, i. e. a little over half a pint, poured into his cup at once: if he drinks a “bes,” it means that he has 8 cyathi in his cup, and so forth. Marquardt has declared for this view, and Göll inclines to it: it appears to us that it should be adopted for the following reasons:--1. The other theory would involve a perpetual change of the mixture in the crater for each name that was proposed. 2. In this case the proportions of wine and water would be regulated by the proposer of the toast, instead of, as is commonly believed, by the rex. 3. It involves us in difficulties of numbers: is it conceivable that when Martial speaks of drinking “one cyathus” he means a mixture of which 11/12 was water? (and if he does, what is the use of adding “diluti” ?) and again in Id. 11 of Ausonius, which well illustrates a vexed passage of Horace:

Ter bibe, vel totiens ternos; sic mystica lex est,

Vel tria potanti, vel ter tria multiplicanti Imparibus novies ternos contexere cubum,
the suggestion of 27 cyathi as a possibility excludes the idea of fractional numbers where the unit=12 cyathi. No doubt it is seldom that the number does exceed 12, but, as 12 cyathi = about 1 pint, it is natural that the amount allowed to each cup was generally much less: the poet in Hor. Od. 3.19 prefers 9 (rather under a pint) for each draught, the moderate man only 3. In Ovid, Ov. Fast. 3.532, this is expressed by “ad numerum bibunt;” and the suggestion (of course a poetical exaggeration) that in drinking ages of the guests they might arrive at Nestor's (i. e. 90 cyathi) strengthens the argument drawn above from Ausonius.

Similarly, in the fanciful adaptation of the number of cyathi to the name mentioned in each toast, as many cyathi are ordered as there are letters in the name (see Mart. 1.71; 11.36, where Gaius gives 5 cyathi, Julius 6, and Proculus a bes=7 cyathi); or the different names of the same man taken singly or combined, in the nominative or the vocative, might allow great variety, “Det numerum cyathis Instantis litera Rufi,” &c. (Mart. 8.51).

[For the vessels used, and the means of cooling or warming, see CALDA, COLUS, CRATER, PSYCTER.] The amusements at these parties are mentioned under CENA in Vol. I. p. 397 b: that the Romans, as a less witty and refined people than the Greeks, depended more on such amusements and less on conversation, is certainly the case; but it is a matter of degree: the only essential difference lay in the fact that at Rome wives and children might possibly be present at these entertainments, which were often unedifying orgies (cf. Cic. Ver. 1.26, 66; Plut. Quaest. Conv. 7.8, 4; Sen. Ep. 95; Juv. 6.425). See further on this subject Marquardt, Privatleben, 331-340; Becker-Göll, Gallus, 1.203-211.


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  • Cross-references from this page (28):
    • Aristophanes, Wasps, 1219
    • Aristophanes, Wasps, 1253
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    • Xenophon, Symposium, 2.2
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    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.19
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    • Martial, Epigrammata, 8.51
    • Ovid, Fasti, 2
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    • Aelian, Varia Historia, 12.31
    • Aelian, Varia Historia, 2.37
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