THE PLEASURES OF THE SYMPOSIUM

Daniel B. Levine (University of Arkansas)

at the

2005 Annual Conference

of the

Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association

Raddison Hotel, Fayetteville, Arkansas

March 4, 2005

 

 

Introduction

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am honored to address you at the end of the 2005 Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association Annual Conference -- and after a fine lunch. I am particularly grateful to Professor Steve Langsner, who invited me to speak today, and who gave me his lecture notes on Leisure in Ancient Greece. He has taught me. I have learned that the Greeks loved religious festivals, and that even at their sacred athletic festivals they included music, poetry, and theater. Children as well as grownups strove to have a balance of excellence in mind, body, and spirit, and leisure and recreation were an integral part of that combination. "Leisure, according to Aristotle, provides the opportunity for intellectual development, provides a way of relaxing the soul, and enhances the enjoyment of life." I say, Amen. Thank you, Professor Langsner. And this is where my speech should end, but I feel obliged to offer some more entertainment and edification, in the hopes that I can relax your souls and enhance the enjoyment of your lives through intellectual development. Or maybe I'll just lull you into a post-prandial nap with some stories from ancient Greece.

 

Schmoozing Greeks

Ancient Greeks loved to gather together to socialize. Publicly, they did it in the market place, where men gathered daily as much to talk as to do business. In fact, the word we usually translate as 'marketplace', Agora, is basically the city's forum, or civic center, and generally means any assembly of people. It comes from the verb ageiro, which means to gather together. The fifth-century comedian Aristophanes informs us that Athenians of his time liked so much to hang out together in the Agora, that many of them had to be forced to leave there to attend meetings of the Ecclesia (Athens' democratic assembly) by slaves who carried a stretched rope covered with paint through the Agora in the direction of the assembly. Any Agora slacker who preferred to chat rather than to do his civic duty would then be caught with paint on his person or clothing and would have to pay a fine, a penalty for inveterate schmoozing.

 

The Symposium

For private conversational pleasure, the quintessential Hellenic institution was the Symposium. Literally, a "drinking together," this was a party which took place after the evening meal, and was dedicated to wine and entertainment. It began with a libation to the gods, a sung hymn, and continued with conversation and merriment. Participants would choose a "Symposiarch" (symposium-leader), who would determine the extent to which the wine would be diluted with water, and who would decide the topic of conversation and procedures. Those present would wear garlands in their hair, and many wore perfume. Sometimes the guests would tell riddles and fables, or recite lines from recent plays. They played a game called kottabos, which involved throwing the wine dregs from their cylikes at a target. They sang drinking songs called scolia, which often involved one person singing a verse, and passing the song to the next person, who had to sing a continuation. Even at Athenian public dinners in the Prytaneum, the practice existed: a singer would hold a myrtle branch while singing his part, and when he had finished his song, would pass the branch to the next man, indicating that it was his turn to sing (see Aristophanes Wasps 1216ff.).

 

Symposium Literature

The symposium was such a basic part of Greek life that it gave birth to a whole literary genre called "Symposium Literature," consisting of made-up texts of conversations at symposia. Probably growing out of descriptions of banquets in Homeric epic, this literary form is best known from Plato's Symposium, with its "series of contrasting speeches on a single philosophical topic diversified by exchanges of dialogue and the arrival of an uninvited guest" (Michael Coffey, OCD 2). Plato's contemporary Xenophon also wrote a Symposium, as did Aristotle, a generation later. His was entitled Peri Methes ("On Strong Drink, or Drunkenness"). Aristotle's younger contemporary was Epicurus, the father of the Epicurean philosophy, which promoted pleasure and friendship as virtues in themselves. It is not surprising, then, that he too wrote a Symposium. A later writer (Athenaeus) criticized it as lacking artistry. We cannot judge its merits, for this work does not survive.

Others used the sympotic dialogues to expound particular ideas or to explore special themes. Aristotle's pupil Aristoxenus wrote a Symposium on musical problems, and in the first century BCE, "the most important empirical physician of antiquity" (William David Ross, OCD 2) Heraclides of Tarentum, wrote a Symposium, whose participants discussed "the medical effects of food and drink (Athenaeus 64a)" (Michael Coffey, OCD 2). Even the great first- century BCE Roman patron Maecenas wrote a Latin Symposium, in which he had Virgil, Horace, and others of their generation discuss the art of poetry (Servius on Aeneid 8.310). In the second century CE, Plutarch wrote the Banquet of the Seven Sages, a symposium at which the traditional wise men of Archaic Greece discuss one another's well-known clever sayings. Sometime around the year 200, Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt wrote a mammoth work in Greek entitled Deipnosophistae, or The Learned Banqueters, in which 24 characters discuss a wide range of topics, cite 1,250 authors, and quote more than 10,000 lines of poetry. This dialogue now consists of 15 books, but perhaps was twice as long in its original form. Two hundred years later, around 400, a man named Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius wrote a Latin work in 7 books called Saturnalia, as an educational text for his son. Set as an academic symposium, it contains important criticism of Vergil's poetry, with parallels from Homer, Ennius, Lucilius, and Lucretius. It also contains discussions of fishes, indigestion, dancing, and drunkenness.

 

Luxury in Book 12 of Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae

I choose today to share some observations on Book 12 of Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae, both because it is not well studied, and because it preserves many interesting anecdotes and ancient sources. In addition, its theme is most relevant to this gathering: it is a sympotic discussion of pleasure and luxury. We can learn much about what the ancients considered exempla of these things by perusing its pages.

Book 12 discusses people who were famous for living in luxury (tryphe) and sensual pleasures (hedupatheia). The work quotes a work called "On Pleasure" (Peri Hedones) by Heracleides of Pontus, who says that tyrants and kings put pleasure in the first rank of all the good things in life, "for indeed all those who honor Pleasure and who choose to live luxuriously are great-souled and of great majesty" (megalopsychoi kai megaloprepeis, 512b). The poets Simonides and Pindar both praise pleasure (512 c-d), and the greatest of poets, Homer, expresses through the words of his Odysseus what the wise diners consider the definitive description of pleasure (Odyssey 9.5-11):

"For I say that there is nothing more full of grace than when good cheer holds sway over all the people, and the banqueters throughout the house listen in order to a singer, and the tales beside them are full of food and meats, and a wine-pourer drawing off strong wine from a mixing bowl presents it and pours it out into the cups. This I consider in my heart to be the most lovely thing that exists." (Translation by D. B. Levine)

The text then singles out many peoples who were notorious for pleasure, including the Persians, whose kings live in different places, according to the seasons, wear crowns made of fragrant-smelling materials, have golden stools, and sleep all day so they might party all night. These kings walk upon carpets only, and take their concubines with them everywhere, even when they go hunting. The Lydians, says Athenaeus were so addicted to luxury that they actually made female eunuchs to use in the place of male eunuchs. In addition, they created gardens with shade all around, in order never to have to be in the sun. They became so effeminate in their souls that they actually got a woman tyrant for themselves, Omphale, who was herself a woman of unbridled passions, and actually punished the Lydians by making the mistresses sleep with their slaves. The Lydians were the first ones to invent special foods, such as the spiced gravy called Karyke, and the special dish called Kandaulos, which came in three varieties, "so exquisitely equipped were they for luxurious indulgence". This was a kind of pilaf that contained boiled meat, grated bread, Phrygian cheese, anise (anethos), and fatty broth (zomou pionos).

But the Etruscans, too were known for their luxurious ways. Their slave girls strip bare to wait on men at table, and "When they get together for companionship or in family parties they do as follows: first of al, after they have stopped drinking and are ready to go to bed, the servants bring in to them, the lamps being still lighted, sometimes female prostitutes, sometimes very beautiful boys, sometimes also their wives; and when they have enjoyed these, the servants then introduce lusty young men, who in their turn consort with them. They indulge in love affairs and carry on with these unions sometimes in full view of one another, but in most cases with screens set up round the beds; the screens are made of latticed wands, over which cloths are thrown. Now they consort very eagerly, to be sure, with women; much more, however, do they enjoy consorting with boys and striplings. For in their country these latter are very good-looking, because they live in luxury and keep their bodies smooth" (517f-518a; All translations from Athenaeus are by C. B. Gulick, in the Loeb edition of Athenaeus: 1933).

The Sybarites were the eponymous heroes of pleasure, whose name now means voluptuary. Legend is that they loved their daytime sleep so much that they forbade roosters, and all the noise-producing crafts within their borders. Once a Sybarite watched a farmer work in his field. He told his friend that he got a rupture just seeing that labor. His friend told him that simply hearing the story gave him a pain in his side. The Sybarites wore only clothes of Milesian wool, covered their roads so that they could travel out of the sun, and had wine cellars on the coast, to which they sent wine in pipelines from their estates. They invented hot steam baths and chamber pots.

The Sybarites trained horses to dance at feasts when they heard the pipe. Their enemies used this against them, for when the Sybarite cavalry came out against the men of Croton, the latter simply played flute music, and the Sybarite horses got up on their back legs and danced, throwing their riders. So advanced in luxury were the Sybarites that they actually were the first to allow cooks to patent unique recipes. Furthermore, they gave tax-exempt status to people in the luxury trades, such as those who import and work with purple dye, and those who fish and sell the most exquisite of foods: eels.

 

Fat Men of Antiquity

Finally, Athenaeus discusses the luxury of famous individuals, including the famous barbarian king Sardanapalos, who stayed indoors all the time, and thus became effeminate and spent all of his time with women, doing womanly tasks. Sagaris the Maryandinian "in his luxurious indulgence was fed until he was an old man at the lips of his nurse, not wishing to take the trouble to chew, and .. he never carried his hand down lower than his navel (ou popote de ten kheira katotero tou omphalou proenegkasthai). After a long list of other luxurious livers, the books turns to famous fat people, whose over-indulgence in foods made them grotesque in appearance. Dionysios the Tyrant of Heracleia was so fat... he was so fat that he put a box in front of his body when he talked to people, so they could only see his face. Ptolemy VII Euergetes was so fat... he was so fat that his belly was too big to measure with one's arms, and so he covered it with a tunic which reached to his feet and which had sleeves reaching to his wrists, and never went out without a staff to support him. His son Alexander was so fat... he was so fat that "he could not even go out to ease himself unless he had two men to lean upon as he walked." Magas, the king of Cyrene was so fat... he was so fat that he "was weighted down with monstrous masses of flesh in his last days; in fact he choked himself to death because he was so fat, never taking any exercise and always eating quantities of food." Python, the orator of Byzantium was so fat... he was so fat that he made a fat joke with a political point. When civil strife threatened the stability of Byzantium, he exhorted his fellow citizens to reconcile by saying, "You, fellow-citizens, can see what my body is like; but I have a wife who is much fatter even than I. When, then, we are of one mind, even an ordinary narrow bed can hold us; but if we quarrel, the whole house isn't big enough" to hold us (550f).

 

Thin Men of Antiquity

Indeed, the text then turns to the most famous thin people of antiquity. Sannyrion was so thin... he was so thin that he wore a leather reinforcement under his clothes to make him appear to have some meat on his bones. Cinesias was so thin... he was so thin that he "got a board of linden-wood and fastened it by straps around himself in order not to be bent in two by his height and leanness" (551d). Philitas, the poet of Cos, was so thin... he was so thin that "he had to wear on his feet balls made of lead to keep him from being upset by the wind" (552b). Philippides was so thin... he was so thin, that the expression "to be philippidized" became common to mean "to be very thin." There follows a section devoted to the luxuriousness of anointing feet with perfumes (Athen. 12. 553a-e), preserving several quotations from 4th century comedians which and revealing the erotic pleasure which men attain from young women rubbing their feet with scented unguents.

 

Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks

In conclusion, Athenaeus tells us, "The people of those days were so attached to their sensual pleasures that they even went so far as to dedicate a temple to Aphrodite Kallipygos: Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks, for the following reason. One upon a time a farmer had two beautiful daughters. One day these girls, getting into a dispute as to which one had a more beautiful backside (was more beautiful-buttocked [kallipygotera]), and went onto the public street. And by chance a young man was passing by, the son of a rich old man. They showed themselves to him, and when he saw them he voted in favor of the older girl. And in fact, falling in love with her (eis erota empeson), when he got back to town, he took to his bed and told his younger brother everything that had happened. And the younger brother also went to the country and saw the girls, and he fell in love with the other daughter. And so when the boys' father tried to get them to marry someone of the upper classes, he couldn't persuade his sons, and so he brought the girls in from the country, with their father's permission, and married them to his sons. And so these girls were called Callipygoi (Fair-Rumped) by the citizens, as Cercidas says in his Iambic Verses: "There was a pair of beautiful-buttocked girls (kallipygon zeugos) in Syracuse." And so these girls, when they got wealthy and famous, founded a temple which they called the Temple of Aphrodite the Fair-buttocked goddess (Kallippygon ten theon), as Archelaos tells us in his Iambic Verses." (Translation by D. B. Levine)

 

Conclusion

I conclude with two Greek words: Meden Agan "nothing in excess". Enjoy our parks, recreation opportunities, and leisure activities to the max, but always in moderation. Don't schmooze too much, don't eat too much or too little, don't become enervated from your pleasures, and always root for those Hogs.

Thank you.


Bibliography:

Oxford Classical Dictionary, Second Edition

Athenaeus The Deipnosophists (Loeb Classical Library, translated by Charles Burton Gulick, London/New York, 1933).

 

www.uark.edu/campus-resources/dlevine/Vita.html