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
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.
The Cretan name for the Syssitia was Ἀνδρεῖα
(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,
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
). 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,
2.225 n.; Thumser,
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
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
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,
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
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,
Pont. 3.6 = Müller, Fragm. Hist.
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 (ἡ προεστηκυῖα τῆς
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.;
). 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
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
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
there was a παιδονόμος,
who controlled the behaviour and
manners of the youths (Ephor. l.c.;
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
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
). Of this celebrated
name three possible etymologies are hinted at by Plutarch (Plut. Lyc. 12
): (1) That the true form was
“friendly feasts;” this was long accepted as the right
explanation (Müller, Dor.
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.
(3) from ἔδω,
to eat, the φ
representing a lost digamma; this is the
simplest and best (Bielschowsky, p. 12; Gilbert,
1.71 n.; Thumser,
p. 185 n.). To these Schömann adds a
conjecture of his own: (4) from ῾ίζω,
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,
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
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
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;
). 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
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
7.9, p. 714 B) accordingly calls them
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
35.74). Athenaeus, on the other hand, quotes
Phylarchus for the luxury, which may have been confined to special occasions
142: Phylarchus lived about B.C. 215).
4.3; Thirlwall, 1.288, 331; Grote,
pt. ii. ch. 6 = 2.146; Schömann, Antiq.
306 ff. E. T.; A. Bielschowsky, de Spartanorum Syssitiis,
Vratislav. 1869; Gilbert, Staatsalterth.
§ § 22, 28.