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SYSSI´TIA (συσσίτια). The custom of taking the principal meal of the day in public prevailed extensively amongst the Greeks from very early ages. It existed not only with the Spartans and Cretans, amongst both of whom it was kept up till comparatively recent times, but also at Megara in the age of Theognis (v. 309), and at Corinth in the time of Periander, who, it seems, abolished the practice as being favourable to aristocracy (Aristot. Pol. 5.11 = p. 1313 a, 41). At Athens the practice survived in the public meals for official persons, for which see PRYTANEUM Nor was it confined to the Hellenic nation: for according to Aristotle (Aristot. Pol. 7.10=p. 1329 b, 7) it prevailed still earlier amongst the Oenotrians in the south of Italy, and also at Carthage, the political and social institutions of which state resembled those of Sparta and Crete (Pol. 2.11 = p. 1272 b, 26). The origin of the usage cannot be historically established; but it seems reasonable to refer it to infant or patriarchal communities, the members of which, being intimately connected by the ties of a close political union and kindred, may naturally be supposed to have lived together almost as members of the same family. But however and wherever it originated, the natural tendency of such a practice was to bind the citizens of a state in the closest union; and accordingly we find that at Sparta Lycurgus availed himself of it for this purpose, though we cannot determine with any certainty whether he introduced it there, or merely perpetuated and regulated an institution which the Spartans brought with them from their mother-country and retained at Sparta as being suitable to their position and agreeable to their national habits. The latter supposition is perhaps the more probable. The Cretan usage Aristotle (Aristot. Pol. 7.10 = p. 1329 b, 6) attributes to Minos; this, however, may be considered rather “the philosopher's opinion than as an historical tradition:” but the institution was confessedly of so high antiquity, that the Peloponnesian colonists may well be supposed to have found it already existing in Crete, even if there had been no Dorian settlers in the island before them (Thirlwall, Hist. Gr. 1.287).

The Cretan name for the Syssitia was Ἀνδρεῖα or Ἄνδρια (Aristot. Pol. 2.10 = p. 1272 a, 3; Ephor. ap. Strab. x. p.483). This title affords of itself a sufficient indication that the public meals were confined to men and youths (cf. Plat. Legg. vi. p. 780 E, 781 A); the women and children were supported out of the same revenues, but at their own homes (Aristot. Pol. 2.10 = 1272 a, 17; Dosiadas ap. Ath. 4.143 b; cf. Thumser, Staatsalterth. p. 143 n.). In some of the Dorian states, however, though not in Crete, it has been inferred from an allusion in Pindar that there were syssitia of the young unmarried women (Pind. P. 9.35; Hoeck, Kreta, 3.123). All the adult citizens among the Cretans partook of the public meals: the companies or messes (ἑταιρεῖαι) into which they were distributed for this purpose were likewise called ἀνδρεῖα (Ath. l.c.). These companies were perhaps originally confined to persons of the same house and kindred, but afterwards any vacancies in them were filled up at the discretion of the members (Hoeck, 3.126). The divinity worshipped under the name of Ζεὺς Ἑταιρεῖος (Hesych. sub voce) was considered to preside over them. These ἑταιρεῖαι are mentioned in inscriptions (Cauer,2 121; Gilbert, Staatsalterth. 2.225 n.; Thumser, Staatsalterth. p. 142, n. 5); see further COSMI, Vol. I., p. 555 b.

According to Dosiadas, who wrote a history of Crete (Ath. l.c.), there were in every town of the island (πανταχοῦ) two public buildings, one for the lodging of strangers (κοιμητήριον), the other a common hall (ἀνδρεῖον) for the citizens. In the latter of these the Syssitia were given, and in the upper part of it were placed two tables for the entertainment of foreign guests (ξενικαὶ τράπεζαι),--a circumstance deserving of notice, as indicating the extent to which the Dorians of Crete encouraged mutual intercourse and hospitality. Then came the tables of the citizens. But besides these there was also a third table on the right of the entrance dedicated to Ζεὺς ξένιος, and perhaps used for the purpose of making offerings and libations to the god.

The Syssitia of the Cretans were distinguished by simplicity and temperance. They always sat at their tables, even in later times, when the custom of reclining had been introduced at Sparta (Cic. pro Mur. 35, § 74). The entertainment began with prayer to the gods and libations (Pyrgion ap. Ath. 4.143 e). Each of the adult citizens received an equal portion of fare, with the exception of the “Archon,” or “Master of the Tables,” who was perhaps in ancient times one of the κόσμοι, and more recently a member of the γερωνία or council. This magistrate received a fourfold portion: “one as a common citizen, a second as president, a third for the house or building, a fourth for the furniture” (τῶν σκευῶν, Heraclid. Pont. 3.6 = Müller, Fragm. Hist. 2.212): an expression from which it would seem that the care of the building and the provision of the necessary utensils and furniture devolved upon him. Haase conjectures τῶν συσκήνων for τῶν σκευῶν, and thinks that the president was enabled, by means of this portion, to confer an honour on any of the members of the mess at his discretion (Schömann, Antiq. 1.309 n.). The management of all the tables was under the superintendence of a female of free birth ( προεστηκυῖα τῆς συσσιτίας γυνή, Ath. l.c. 143 d), who openly took the best fare and presented it to the citizen who was most eminent in council or the field. She had three or four male assistants under her, each of whom again was provided with two menial servants (καληφόροι, or wood-carriers, Ath. 143b). There was a προεδρία of strangers, which seems to imply that they were also helped first (Heracl. Pont. l.c.; Ath. 143c ). On each of the tables was placed a cup of mixed wine, from which the messmates of the same company drank. At the close of the repast this was replenished, but all intemperance was strictly forbidden by a special law (Plat. Minos, p. 320 A).

Till they had reached their eighteenth year, when they were classed in the ἀγέλαι, the youths accompanied their fathers to the Syssitia, where orphans also were provided (Hoeck, 3.185); and the boys waited upon the men [p. 2.750](Ephor. ap. Strab. x. p.483). Sons were seated near their fathers on a lower bench, and received only a half portion of meat: the orphans appeal to have received the same quantity as the men but without any condiments (ἀβαμβάκευτα, Pyrgion ap. Ath. 4.143 e). The boys, like the men, had also a cup of mixed wine in common which however was not replenished when emptied. During the repast a general cheerfulness and gaiety prevailed, which were enlivened and kept up by music and singing (Alcman ap. Strab. p. 482 = fr. 22, Bergk4). It was followed by conversation, which was first directed to the public affairs of the state, and afterwards turned on valiant deeds in war and the exploits of illustrious men, whose praises might animate the younger hearers to an honourable emulation. To each ἀνδρεῖον there was a παιδονόμος, who controlled the behaviour and manners of the youths (Ephor. l.c.; cf. PAEDONOMI).

In most of the Cretan cities, the expenses of the Syssitia were defrayed out of the revenues of the public lands and the tribute paid by the Perioeci, the money arising from which was applied partly to the service of the gods, and partly to the maintenance of all the citizens, both male and female (Arist. Pol. 2.10 = p. 1272 a, 17); so that in this respect there might be no difference between the rich and the poor. From the statement of Aristotle compared with Dosiadas (Ath. l.c.), it appears probable that each individual received his separate share of the public revenues, out of which he paid his quota to the public table, and provided with the rest for the support of the females of his family. This practice, however, does not appear to have prevailed exclusively at all times and in all the cities of Crete. In Lyctus, for instance, a colony from Sparta, the custom was different: the citizens of that town contributed to their respective tables a tenth of the produce--of their estates; a practice which may be supposed to have obtained in other cities, where the public domains were not sufficient to defray the charges of the Syssitia. But both at Lyctus and elsewhere, the poorer citizens were in all probability supported at the public cost.

In connexion with the accounts given by the ancient authors respecting the Cretan Syssitia, there arises a question of some difficulty, viz. How could one building accommodate the adult citizens and youths of such towns as Lyctus and Gortyn? The question admits of only two solutions: we are either misinformed with respect to there being only one building in each town used as a common hall, or the number of Dorian citizens in each town must have been comparatively very small.

The Spartan Syssitia were in the main so similar to those of Crete that one was said to be borrowed from the other (Aristot. Pol. 2.10 = p. 1271 b, 22; 1272 a, 3). They were anciently called ἀνδρεῖα, as in Crete, but later φιδίτια (Aristot. l.c.; Alcman, l.c.). Of this celebrated name three possible etymologies are hinted at by Plutarch (Plut. Lyc. 12): (1) That the true form was φιλίτια, “friendly feasts;” this was long accepted as the right explanation (Müller, Dor. 4.3.3; Hoeck, 3.123; Göttling on Aristot. Oecon. p. 190; L. and S., ed. 7): (2) from φειδώ, “frugal feasts;” but the first syllable is short (Antiphan. fr. 44 M.; Cobet, Nov. Lect. p. 728): (3) from ἔδω, to eat, the φ representing a lost digamma; this is the simplest and best (Bielschowsky, p. 12; Gilbert, Staatsalterth. 1.71 n.; Thumser, Staatsalterth. p. 185 n.). To these Schömann adds a conjecture of his own: (4) from ῾ίζω, root ἑδ, “sittings” (Antiq. 1.271, 545 E. T.). It will be seen that (3) and (4) agree in substituting a labial for a lost digamma, about which there can be no difficulty; βαγὸς is connected with ἄγω, ἀπέλλα with ἀολλής. The Spartan Syssitia differed from the Cretan in the following respects. Instead of the expenses of the tables being defrayed out of the public revenues, every head of a family was obliged to contribute a certain portion at his own cost and charge; those who were not able to do so were excluded from the public tables (Aristot. Pol. 2.10 = p. 1271 a, 35; HOMOEI). The guests were divided into companies generally of fifteen persons each, and all vacancies were filled up by ballot, in which unanimous consent was indispensable for election. No persons, not even the kings, were allowed what was called an ἀφίδιτος ἡμέρα (Hesych. sub voce), or excused from attendance at the public tables, except for some satisfactory reason, as when engaged in a sacrifice, or a chase, in which latter case the absentee was required to send a present to his mess (Plut. Lyc. 12; Agis, c. 10). Each person was supplied with a cup of mixed wine, which was filled again when required; but drinking to excess was prohibited at Sparta as well as in Crete. The repast was of a plain and simple character, and the contribution of each member of a mess or (φιδίτης was settled by law (Thumser, p. 188; Plut. l.c.). The principal dish was the μέλας ζωμὸς or black broth, with pork (Ath. iv. p. 141 b). The ἐπάϊκλον or second course (from the Doric ἄϊκλον, a meal) was however more varied, and richly supplied by presents of game, poultry, fruit, &c., and other delicacies which no one was allowed to purchase. Moreover, the entertainment was enlivened by cheerful conversation, though on public matters (Xen. Rep. Lac. 5, § 6). Singing also was frequently introduced, as we learn from Alcman (l.c.), that “at the banquets and drinking entertainments of the men it was fit for the guests to sing the paean.” The arrangements were under the superintendence of the Polemarchs.

The use and purposes of the institutions described above are very manifest. They united the citizens by the closest ties of intimacy and union, making them consider themselves as members of one family, and children of one and the same mother, the state. They maintained a strict and perfect separation between the higher and the subject classes both at Sparta and in Crete, and kept up in the former a consciousness of their superior worth and station, together with a strong feeling of nationality. At Sparta also they were eminently useful in a military point of view, for the members of the Syssitia were formed into corresponding military divisions, and fought together in the field, as they had lived together at home, with more bravery and a keener sense of shame (αἰδὼς) than could have been the case with merely chance comrades (Hdt. 1.65). Moreover “they gave an [p. 2.751]efficacy to the power of public opinion which must have nearly superseded the necessity of penal laws” (Thirlwall, vol. i. p. 289). With respect to the political tendencies, they were decidedly arranged upon aristocratical principles, though no individual of a company or mess was looked upon as, superior to his fellows. Plutarch (Quaest. Symnpos. 7.9, p. 714 B) accordingly calls them συνέδρια ἀριστοκρατικά, or aristocratical meetings, and compares them with the Prytaneum and Thesmothesium at Athens.

The simplicity and sobriety which were in early times the characteristic both of the Spartan and Cretan Syssitia, were afterwards in Sparta at least supplanted by luxury and effeminate indulgence. The change was probably gradual, but the kings Areus and Acrotatus (B.C. 300) are recorded as having been mainly instrumental in accelerating it. The reformer Agis endeavoured but in vain to restore the old order of things, and perished in the attempt. Yet Cicero says that in his time the Lacedaemonians reclined only, upon wooden couches, without cushions ( “quotidianis epulis in robore accumbunt,” pro Mur. 35.74). Athenaeus, on the other hand, quotes Phylarchus for the luxury, which may have been confined to special occasions (4.141 extr., 142: Phylarchus lived about B.C. 215).

Authorities.--Hoeck, Kreta, 3.120-139; Müller, Dorians, 4.3; Thirlwall, 1.288, 331; Grote, pt. ii. ch. 6 = 2.146; Schömann, Antiq. 1.269 ff., 306 ff. E. T.; A. Bielschowsky, de Spartanorum Syssitiis, Vratislav. 1869; Gilbert, Staatsalterth. 1.71, 2.225; Thumser, Staatsalterth. in Hermann-Blümner, § § 22, 28.

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  • Cross-references from this page (9):
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1271a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1271b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1272a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 5.1313a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 7.1329b
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.65
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 5
    • Cicero, For Lucius Murena, 35
    • Plutarch, Lycurgus, 12
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