Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pottery at the Symposium

Symposium was an ancient Greek drinking party (sympotein means "to drink together”) typically held by men of means to celebrate special occasions, such as the coming of age of their sons. They also served an important social function in the Polis because they brought groups of men together for debate, argument, and political strategizing.

Symposia were held in the part of a Greek house that was for men only. Guests would enter, recline on couches, and talk while they were served food and wine. After the meal was finished, wine continued to be served as the participants were entertained by singers, musicians, slaves, or hired performers.

One person, designated as the Symposiarch, was responsible for keeping the revelry under control. He managed the servants and the dilution of the wine. Greeks never drank wine full strength because they thought only drunkards and people of low quality would do so. The typical dilution was 1:3 wine to water.

Three types of pottery were used at these events:

The Kylix was a drinking vessel used to drink water or wine. When the Greeks copied drinking vessels from the orient, they added handles and a base. The handles were held when drinking, the base when toasting. The Kylix had an image painted in the bottom (often erotic) so as the drinker empted the vessel, the image would be revealed. It was also used in a game called kottabos where the wine residue was tossed from it to a target.

The Psykter was used to hold wine during the festivities. It was placed inside a Krater filled with ice or snow to keep the wine cool. Servants would ladle wine out of the Psykter and pour it into a Kylix.

The Greek playwright Euboulos listed Dionysus’ rules for proper drinking at a Symposium:

For sensible men I prepare three Kraters: one for health, one for love
and pleasure, and the third for sleep.

After the third one is drained, wise men go home.

The fourth Krater is not mine because it belongs to bad behavior.

The fifth is for shouting, the sixth for rudeness and insults, the seventh
for fights,

The eighth is for breaking the furniture, the ninth for depression,

And the tenth for madness and unconsciousness.


Primvs Pilvs said...

Good post. I would like to make a few clarifications. The role of the psykter is not quite clear. It is believed that either the psykter held the wine and the krater the ice or cold water, but perhaps vice versa. Also, don't forget about the oinochoe. Wine would have been ladled out of the krater/psykter into an oinochoe from which the slave or servant would distribute it to the guests.

Mike Anderson said...


Good observation. I read about the use of the oinichoe as an intermediate vessel for serving the wine, but also that it wasn't always used.

The psykter must have been used to hold the wine in some cases because Boardman has a drawing on page 251 showing a ladle adapted to its narrow neck.

The drawing also shows a slave pouring into the Kylix.

But all of this is hair-splitting. I'm sure all of these variations were used from time to time.