Symposia, Then and Now

Some time back, it was proposed to me to give a talk of some sort for students at the Culinary Institute of America's Feasting and Foraging event, a day devoted to discussion, demonstration, and even some experiential learning focused on ancient ways of food production and everything that went with that.  I brainstormed through several topics that might fit the overall theme -- Aristotle's discussion of modes of food production and the ways of life they make possible, the still-controversial thesis that fermentation of alcoholic beverages was a major motive for early agriculture. . . . and then decided to propose a talk about drinking parties -- symposia -- a term which we now associate with rather stolid, well-organized, academic affairs.

I proposed, they accepted, and then fortuitously things came together -- one of the instructors at the culinary, a specialist in the history of alcoholic beverages -- had decided to brew up a batch of hard apple-maple cider, and it was determined that we would have a bit of a "drinking-party" (in which the of-age students could participate).  Towards the end of the day, we'd all gather, there'd be a tasting (well, more than simply a tasting, since there turned out to be enough cider for everyone to have several small glasses), and I'd give a fairly informal, interactive talk focusing on what Greek symposia were really like, and contrasting our present-day, academic symposium with the ancient symposium.

Feasting and Foraging:  The Day.

Before summarizing some of the keynotes of my talk -- if you're really impatient to get to it, I'm inserting the video right here -- I'd like to mention some of the other enjoyable and engaging portions of the day -- some feasting to be sure, supplemented by workshops and demonstrations.

Long before we got there, students and faculty had dug an open fire pit, placed some stone slabs, and butchered a whole smallish pig with stone knives -- that's right:  stone, specifically flint knives.  One of the workshop leaders, at the job all day -- the students were very interested in this, and I even got in to ask him a few questions -- specializes in neolithic toolmaking, in particular in flint-wrapping.

All day long, the scent of pork, lamb, and salmon wafted through the crisp cusp-of-summer-and-fall air -- aromatically setting the tone of feasting. 

Students sliced the meat into manageable chunks and rib sections with the same stone-age tools, and participants ate finger-food style all throughout the day, chatting, moving from demonstration to demonstration, enjoying the atmosphere.  Students had also engaged in a foraging workshop on the Culinary grounds, led by a local expert, and later in the day, they got to try throwing spears with and without the aid of an atl-atl, watch raw honey extraction (which drew a small crowd of local bumblebees and yellow-jackets, so it was a good thing the demonstration was held inside a tent.  After that, we moved closer to the river, where the apple-maple cider was waiting, and settled in for the talk.

What Were Symposia Back in the Day?

I don't say "originally," because is at least one sense of that term, the question would be unanswerable in any less-than purely imaginative manner -- and I'm no Rousseau, content to fantasize up what things "must" have been like in the beginning.  Instead, we can talk about "back in the day," and we have to draw largely upon the literary monuments from antiquity still remaining to us.

Symposia weren't just people getting together to get themselves blitzed -- as now, back then, if that was your game, it was easy enough to do on your own.  And, really, when it comes down to it, even drinking parties on our own time only become memorable when there's more than just an emphasis on imbibing.  They tended to feature several common elements which were not mere adjuncts to the alcohol.  There would be some sort of entertainment -- musicians and dancers were quite popular.  A premium was also placed upon conversation, and not just sets of simultaneous side-conversations, but open discussion, even short speeches given or stories told by participants.

These were mainly all-male sorts of affairs, held in a portion of the house devoted to those sorts of gatherings and pursuits.  Guests would recline, dine, drink, be entertained, and converse, lying or sitting upon vast couches designed to comfortably seat and suit several occupants.  Potent wine would be mixed in proportions to water by the symposiarch, and then doled out to the party-goers, sipping from large vessels traveling round the room from drinker to drinker.

Jokes, jibes, and jests -- the kind of on-the-spot, personally-focused humor -- also played a key role in these gatherings, understandable enough given that the guest-list tended to include people who were already familiar with each other, often notables or intellectuals from the town.  This was an element important enough that later on, Plutarch devotes a good bit of discussion to it, attempting as best one can to set down some guidelines for what sort of jesting or "raillery" remained within the zone of the acceptable and prudent, and what risked disrupting the party.  You see some gentle joking in Plato's Symposium, and considerably more serious poking, teasing, and wit-battling in Xenophon's

Literary Monuments of Symposia

We know what we do about Greek (and later Roman) symposia largely through two kinds of sources. One of these is the vast amount of artworks, not least drinking vessels of various sorts doubtless used for at least one of these small festivals.  These are quite depictive visually, but for all their number, remarkably mute on the matters we might desire to know more about -- they are like a box full of someone else's snapshots, the sorts of images that could tell us a lot, if we just knew where they were taken, who the people were, why they posed like that . . .

The other source are written texts -- the kind of documents that we can call literary monuments.  On this subject, pride of place is accorded to two, both of them by students of Socrates and featuring him centrally in the dialogues and discussions.  Plato wrote a Symposium , which is really more than a dialogue -- it incorporates, down to mimicking their characteristic styles -- speeches about Love delivered by seven different people at a drinking party when, after heavy drinking the night before they decide to take it easy and provide their own entertainment.

Xenophon also produced a Symposium (available in Conversations of Socrates) , recounting a different night, setting his at Callias' house rather than Agathon's.  In his, there are shorter speeches, considerably more dialogue, shifts in topic, and narration of the quite remarkable entertainment. Love and beauty remain central topics of conversation, but Xenophon recounts much more joking around on the part of the guests in his Symposium.  It's common to compare Xenophon unfavorably with Plato, both in terms of style and sublimity of topic -- but I tend and prefer to read these authors, and these particular texts, as complements to each other.

We know from other later authors that these two were not the only writers of works entitled "Symposium."  From Diogenes Laertes' Lives of the Philosophers, centuries later, we learn that Aristotle and Epicurus both composed works by that title.  Incidentally, we can also see by the listing that Laertes provides that much of Aristotle's writings have actually been lost, and nearly all of Epicurus'.  In fact, it is due to Laertes copying out three of the latter's letters and his Principal Doctrines, that we possess any more than fragmentary writings by Epicurus!

Plutarch, much later, writes a considerably longer work, called the Symposiacs.  Here the symposium has become much more self-referential -- these are a series of table-conversations, at different times, with different participants.  In many of these they are occupied with discussing various aspects of, or questions about symposia.  In others, they are engaged in hammering out various other topics, many of them what in the ancient period would be called "physical problems" -- why salt water dries quicker than fresh, for instance.

There are other works and authors of interest if one wants to explore further fringes of this topic (drinking, dining, joking, as vitally interconnected with intellectual life), but this strikes me as a good topic to explore more fully in a later post, so I'll just close by mentioning a few of them, setting down a perhaps-enigmatic litany of Greek and Roman names:  Athanaeus, Cicero, Lucian, Juvenal, and of course Diogenes Laertes.  There are doubtless many more who ought to spring to mind as well. . . I may have turned up soil for some new, additional talks, writing, and research.