In ancient Greece, the symposium (Greek: συμπόσιονsymposion or symposio, from συμπίνειν sympinein, “to drink together”) was a part of a banquet that took place after the meal, when drinking for pleasure was accompanied by music, dancing, recitals, or conversation. Literary works that describe or take place at a symposium include two Socratic dialogues, Plato‘s Symposium and Xenophon‘s Symposium, as well as a number of Greek poems such as the elegies of Theognis of Megara. Symposia are depicted in Greek and Etruscan art that shows similar scenes.
The Greek symposium was a key Hellenic social institution. It was a forum for men of respected families to debate, plot, boast, or simply to revel with others. They were frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society. Symposia were also held by aristocrats to celebrate other special occasions, such as victories in athletic and poetic contests. They were a source of pride for them.
Symposia were usually held in the andrōn (ἀνδρών), the men’s quarters of the household. The participants, or “symposiasts”, would recline on pillowed couches arrayed against the three walls of the room away from the door. Due to space limitations, the couches would number between seven and nine, limiting the total number of participants to somewhere between fourteen and twenty seven (Oswyn Murray gives a figure of between seven and fifteen couches and reckons fourteen to thirty participants a “standard size for a drinking group”). If any young men took part, they did not recline but sat up. However, in Macedonian symposia, the focus was not only on drinking but hunting, and young men were allowed to recline only after they had killed their first wild boar.
Food and wine were served. Entertainment was provided, and depending on the occasion could include games, songs, flute-girls or boys, slaves performing various acts, and hired entertainment.
Symposia often were held for specific occasions. The most famous symposium of all, described in Plato’s dialogue of that name (and rather differently in Xenophon’s) was hosted by the poet Agathon on the occasion of his first victory at the theater contest of the 416 BC Dionysia. According to Plato’s account, the celebration was upstaged by the unexpected entrance of the toast of the town, the young Alcibiades, dropping in drunken and nearly naked, having just left another symposium.
The men at the symposium would discuss a multitude of topics—often philosophical, such as love and the differences between genders.