If the Bacchanalia created a blueprint for our most depraved debauches,
the ancients also bequeathed us its more elegant counterpart: the
learned drinking party or symposium. Like the Algonquin roundtable of
1920s New York, it was a brilliant excuse for all forms of excess: In
classical Athens, A-list philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and
Socrates loved to gather for wine-fueled intellectual bouts,
during which they would recline on sumptuous couches, sip wine from
ornate goblets, be entertained by beautiful lute girls and handsome
dancing boys, and throw themselves into scintillating debate. In fact,
Plato’s fundamental tract, The Symposium, is based on a real
party in 415 B.C. Athens, attended by a revolving cast of artists,
thinkers, and politicians, including the playwright Aristophanes and
the dashing, up-and-coming general Alcibiades. The wine was mixed with
water in a bowl called a krater, then passed amongst the
guests in a communal cup engraved with erotic drawings; the food was
simply prepared, with plenty of olives, honey, feta, and freshly
grilled fish. Plato says the boozing and philosophizing went on all
night, until everyone except Socrates fell asleep in a stupor.
Many other symposia were far less dignified. The fourth-century B.C. poet Eubulus describes a typical evening in Athens, when the bright conversation degenerated as the wine cup was passed around. While the first few drinks inspired moments of brilliance, he writes, “the fourth libation belongs to Hubris; the fifth to Shouting; the Sixth to Revel; the seventh to Black Eyes; the eighth to Summonses; the Ninth to Bile; and the tenth to Madness.” After the parties, philosophers and their golden-haired boys would run around the dark streets, scribbling graffiti under sophomorish pseudonyms like Sacred Erection, and squander their inheritances on the beautiful and talented Greek courtesans, called heiterai, who lay in wait.
After conquering Greece, the Romans adapted the symposium tradition for their own more civilized banquets frequented by poets and great minds. Around 200 A.D., one of the unsung classics of Western literature, Deipnosophistae — “The Drunken Professors” — was penned by the bon vivant Athenaeus, a Greek-born author who grew up as a scion of the Roman Empire. Set at a fictional dinner party, it is basically a compendium of anecdotes about great moments in the history of food, wine, and entertainment, drawing on the whole Greco-Roman world. Of course, the issues that were mulled by these boozed-up professors are still fascinating at social gatherings today, and it could be said that this column is a direct descendant of Athenaeus’ noble project. • 18 August 2008
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Casson, Lionel, Travel in the Ancient World, (Baltimore, 1977); Plato, The Symposium (trans. Christopher Gill, London, 2003).