‘Symposium’. How were the feast dinners in ancient Greece.

The daily diet of ancient Greeks consisted of a simple light breakfast, a quick midday lunch and a rich after sunset dinner. Moreover, there was also a meal known as "Symposium", etymologically meaning men drinking together, but it actually was a banquet where men gathered and discussed philosophical and political issues or recited poetry.

Plutarch (ancient biographer and author) said that eating alone meant that you simply have filled your stomach as animals do, which supported the ancient Greek belief that eating alone was simply miserable. Furthermore, this gathering introduced a whole new literary trend; both Plato and Xenophon wrote an oeuvre named Symposium, Plutarch wrote The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men and Athenaeus wrote the Deipnosophistae (the Dinner of Sophists/Philosophers); all masterpieces belonging to this particular category. Symposiums are often featured on Attic pottery which was for use in these situations since an amphora was used as a jug to hold the wine.

Symposiums were held on various occasions and gathered attendees from various social class depending on their hosts’ spiritual level. Their aim was to have fun and open philosophical discussions while drinking wine and not having a simple lunch. Particularly, during the 5th century BC, when Athens reached the pinnacle of its glory, Symposiums became grandiose offering exquisite cuisine.

Symposium’s first phase; The Dinner

As depicted on classical Attic pottery, guests at the various Symposiums were expected to follow unwritten rules and rituals (imagine them as a Savoir-vivre of Ancient Greece); upon the attendees arrival, slaves undertook them in order to spruce them up, placing an ivy crown on their heads, driving them towards couches which they shared with other two or three guests where low tables were placed beside them to facilitate food distribution. First they washed their hands and then wine was served to mark the banquet’s debut. A symposium would be overseen by a "symposiarch" who would decide how strong the wine for the evening would be, depending on whether serious discussions or sensual indulgence were in the offing. The Greeks customarily served their wine mixed with water, as the drinking of pure wine was considered a habit of uncivilized people. A large variety of appetizers, dishes filled with poultry, chopped meats and seafood covered the tables along with carafes of wine while the host announced the Ancient-Greek menu.

Besides having spoons to eat thick bean soup and knives to cut up meats, food was eaten bare handed in Ancient Greece. Sometimes even bread crust served as a spoon. The dinner came with libations (a pouring out of wine), mainly in honour of god Dionysus. When the guests finished eating, they’d clean their hands by wiping them on pieces of bread, which they then tossed to the dogs who patiently waited roaming among the couches, throughout the Symposium, for their share. The slaves then removed the tables, cleaned the floor and brought water and scented oil to spruce up the guests once again.

Symposium’s second phase; The Wine

Libations marked the passing from dinner to the wine drinking phase which was the main part of the Symposium, and paeans (hymns) were sang. Tables were cleared and set up again with dried fruits, nuts, pies, cheeses and sweets as tid bits to accompany the guests’ drinking and philosophical conversations. The wine flowed abundantly, watered down this time at a ratio that was defined by the Toastmaster, who was randomly elected. Dancers, musicians and acrobats entertained the attendees while they toasted, sang and conversed up to the early morning hours.

The guests also participated actively in competitive entertainments. A game sometimes played at symposia was kottabos, in which players swirled the dregs of their wine in a kylix, a platter-like stemmed drinking vessel, and flung them at a target. Another feature of the symposia were skolia, drinking songs of a patriotic or bawdy nature, performed competitively with one symposiast reciting the first part of a song and another expected to improvise the end of it. Symposiasts might also compete in rhetorical contests, for which reason the word "symposium" has come to refer in English to any event where multiple speeches are made.

(With information from visitgreece.gr)