Two institutions—the club and the drinking party, or symposium— were at the center of social life in ancient Greece. Feasting and wine drinking were important features at the gatherings of each.
Associations, Festivals, and Feasts. By 600 B.C. several different types of voluntary associations, or clubs, existed in Greece. Most associations were founded on shared religious beliefs, and members belonged to the same religious cults*. As city-states* developed, the Greeks based their associations on other relationships as well, including kinship, political interests, occupation, and neighborhood. Different classes of society had different types of associations, and many clubs restricted their membership to men.
Associations gave people a sense of belonging, and some provided economic assistance—most often funeral benefits—to their members. The Greeks valued the social benefits of associations. Associations frequently held festivals and feasts, often for the entire community. For example, religious cults usually had an annual festival to honor their god or goddess, and participants shared in a feast of the sacrifice*.
Hellenistic* kings generally paid for public festivals, and some began new festivals to honor themselves or their families. The most spectacular royal festival was the Ptolemaia, which was started in the 270s B.C. by Ptolemy II in honor of his father. The Ptolemaia was held in the Egyptian city of Alexandria every four years and was attended by guests from throughout the Greek world. The festival lasted for many days, and each day was filled with special activities. The festivities included athletic, musical, and dramatic contests; a lavish parade; and a colossal feast for everyone in the city. Although other royal families supported lavish festivals with public feasts, they were rarely on the same scale as the Ptolemaia.
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and rts surrounding territory
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
The Symposium. Because the symposium was often the topic of essays and other writings, including works by the historian Xenophon and the philosopher Plato, much is known about the Greek drinking party. The symposium developed in Greek cities during the Archaic* period and quickly became a major focus of Greek social life, continuing as such for many centuries.
Only men from the wealthy aristocratic* classes participated in symposia. They were the only people who had the time and money needed to host the elaborate dinners that accompanied the drinking. For aristocrats, the symposium was the center of social life, a place where they could relax and enjoy time spent with friends.
* Archaic in Greek history, refers to the period between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
One detailed work from the Hellenistic period describes a lavish Greek symposium. It was hosted by a nobleman who was eager to show off his great wealth. The symposium began with the host and his guests reclining on luxurious couches, where they were served a grand meal of rich and exotic foods. The showpiece of the meal was a large roast pig that was stuffed with eggs, oysters, scallops, and several different species of birds. Wine drinking accompanied the feast, as it always did at symposia. Entertainers—musicians, dancers, jugglers, and fire-eaters—appeared one after the other. The host and his guests continued drinking while they discussed philosophy* and literature. The sound of a trumpet marked the end of the feast.
The symposia held by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great and his successors were especially elaborate. They often lasted all night, featured a variety of entertainments, and involved much wine drinking. The tradition of literary and philosophical discussions at symposia was maintained by many rulers, who were important patrons* of the arts and sciences. The guests at royal symposia typically included 60 or 70 noblemen and friends, and many more for special occasions. In addition to relaxation and fun, symposia offered an opportunity for the king and his companions to renew their relationships. The king gained support from the nobility for his policies, and the nobles sought favors from the king. (See also Banquets; Class Structure, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Food and Drink; Greece, History of; Social Clubs and Professional Associations.)
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
* patron special guardian, protector, or supporter