In ancient Greek times, the life of male aristocrats was centralized around a single, and the most important, event: the symposium. Nearly every aspect of the aristocrats’ lives revolved around this event, and every step in the young life of a male aristocrat was one further in preparing him for this event and other related future endeavors. The ability of an aristocrat to host a successful and well-attended symposium often reflected on his wealth and societal status. Often times, however, it wasn’t only aristocrats that attended the symposium, and it was not uncommon to find social-marginals, such as hetairai, present at symposia. Occasionally, though their tenets denounced such a lifestyle, cynic philosophers would attend and take part in symposia. In order to understand the conventions of behavior that governed aristocrats, and social marginals, in a symposium, as well as the principles of cynic philosophy, we will analyze the fundamental concepts of an aristocratic lifestyle and of cynic philosophy through excerpts from ancient Greek literature.
We must first understand the concept of a Symposium. In Greek, the word symposium roughly translates into “drinking party.” Symposia took place in the “men’s gathering room” of an aristocratic mansion, known as the andron. The andron was typically the largest room in the house, often with immediate access to the street, and always the most lavishly decorated. The agenda of a symposium included drinking, a multi-course meal that included meat, and entertainment: comedians, music and multiple philosophical discussions on diverse topics. During ancient times, an individual would have meat only when it was available for sacrifice, which was typically three or four times per month. Thus, having meat at the symposium symbolized that it was an important celebration worthy of sacrifice. The structure of this event, the symposium, immediately projects its importance not only as an event, but as a physical location as well. The fact that symposia always took place in the andron gives us the understanding that the most significant events to be held in an aristocratic household took place in the form of a symposium. We find, for example, that in Lucian’s “The Dream, or The Rooster” Eucrates has invited Micyllus to a birthday party. In this case, we find that the reason for the feast or symposium is a birthday celebration for Eucrates’ daughter. We also find more significant events taking place in the form of a symposium in other literature, such as in Lucian’s “The Symposium, or The Lapiths” in which the reason for the symposium was the engagement of Cleanthis, daughter of Aristaenetus, to Chaereas. Thus, we understand that generally, symposia took place as celebration for a specific cause, such as marriage.
When we analyze these examples of the symposium in ancient literature, we find that the driving force for the behavior of aristocrats at symposiums was their desire to boast about their wealth. It is for this reason that the rooms in which symposia took place were always the most luxurious and lavish in the household. Furthermore, the guest-list often included some of the most intellectual individuals of its time so as to make the symposium a more extravagant event. The following statement by Philo from “The Symposium, or The Lapiths” clearly reflects these matters: “A virtual shrine of the Muses… this symposium of the foremost wise men… I praise Aristaenetus because he deemed it fitting, when celebrating the most-prayed-for festival, to entertain the wisest men… by adorning this festival with the chief representative of every school and discipline, not some and not others, but all together.”
We can reemphasize the fact that an aristocrat individual’s best opportunity to display his wealth to others was by hosting a symposium to celebrate an important festival; in the case of Aristaenetus, the most important festival was the marriage of his daughter, Cleanthis.
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