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Bring back the Greek Symposium!

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My friend Ryan Flinn, who is Bloomberg News’ San Francsco correspondent, alerted me to this article describing research done by a professor on “wine drinking cups over a 500-year period in ancient Athens” and how “[c]hanges in cup form and design point to political, social and economic shifts.” It’s a fascinating bit of original research, part of what seems to be new interest on the part of scholars in the culture of wine (think of that exhibit at San Francisco MOMA on How Wine Became Modern).

In the study of wine drinking cups (they weren’t called wine “glasses” because most of them were made of clay or metal), the professor, Kathleen Lynch, focused especially on the Symposium. Lovers of the classics will recognize the Symposium as the name of one of Plato’s philosophical books, but the word “Symposium” referred to a specific Greek practice that lasted “nearly a millennia”: an all-male drinking party.

In Plato’s Symposium, the men, who included Socrates, were required to drink (no teetotalers, please), and each in turn had to deliver a speech, in this case, in praise of love. The format seems not to have changed much over the centuries, but the kinds of wine cups the men employed did; and from an examination of them, Lynch is able to make inferences about shifts in the culture of “the ancient world’s ultimate cocktail parties, with established rituals and rules.”

The Symposium changed over time. At first, “The drinking gatherings (symposia) were reserved for the elite,” but over time, “the democratization of the political and social arenas” led to “the democratization of the symposium.” Didn’t the same thing happen in more modern times? In the 18th, 19th and for most of the 20th century, fine wine was reserved for a thin upper crust that ruled society. By the end of the 20th century, the love of wine had permeated the middle classes, with the result that the America of 2011 can be described as a wine-drinking nation. But by the time of Alexander the Great, in the period that represented the end of classical Greek culture, “the [Symposium] practice was again the prerogative of the elites as a luxury and display of ostentatious consumption.” Interesting…

(Another feature of Greek drinking habits was that, as time went forward, “The overall number of wine-drinking vessels increased dramatically.” Think Riedel.)

Lynch, in her study, didn’t deal with one of my favorite parts of the ancient Greek Symposium: the game called Kottabos. Hugh Johnson describes it in Vintage: The Story of Wine. Symposium participants–suitably inebriated, one assumes–would throw the dregs from their wine cups, from some distance away, at “a special stand…with a tiny statuette on top with its arm held aloft. On the hand, precariously balanced, went a faintly concave bronze disc. Halfway up the stand [was] fixed a much larger bronze disc. The idea…was to dislodge the top disc [with the dregs], so that it fell and hit the lower one…which when hit rang like a bell…Kottabos became the rage,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for no less than 300 years…”.

I’m trying to find our modern day equivalent of the Symposium and having some problems. It’s not at all like the big wine and food dinners a lot of us get invited to, like at the World of Pinot Noir, or the Wine Bloggers or Wine Writers conventions, or meet the winemaker dinners at great restaurants, or the big, fancy auctions that end in a fabulous meal. Those are formal affairs; guests typically don’t know each other, and much energy is spent just breaking the ice. At these things, because people aren’t really friends, but simply find themselves at the same place together, there’s a tendency to keep the subject matter light and, one might say, irrelevant. That’s completely in contrast to the spirit of the Symposium, which was deep personal conversation.

We also gather to drink wine at family occasions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and while we all do know each other–oftentimes too well–these are hardly occasions for philosophical deliberation and relaxation. (The stress of these big family get-togethers is a staple of TV and radio psychology talk shows during the holiday season.)

In a way, the Symposium reminds me of the classical literary salon, defined here, at Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase their [sic] knowledge of the participants through conversation.” I always wanted to have a salon. In my fantasy, I live in a big house with a garden and terrace overlooking San Francisco Bay (I was in Gordon Getty’s mansion a couple times and that’s what I have in mind). My salon guests are stimulating, outgoing, thoughtful, intelligent, successful at their careers and amusing; among them would be a few chosen for their beauty. (Needless to say, the “men only” rule would be dispensed with!) I’d have the heat on if it was cold, so nobody had to overdress. We would relax on couches, and I–as host–would define the topic. “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to discourse on–” it could be anything. I’d have dainty little plates of tapas to munch, and only the greatest wines would be served (not by slaves, as was often the case in Greece). Around midnight, things would start getting interesting. We might even play Kottabos!


kottabos player about to toss his dregs

  1. Are all writers drawn to the idea of the salon?

    For me, it has always been the idea of Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris, entertaining the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and countless others. In fact, if I had the ability to go back in time just once to witness some facet of history, that might be my choice.

    Oh, the conversations held there! Sure, much of it would be the dregs of living poorly (literally) in post-war Paris — which would have merit in their own right. But the ideas that would flow. The passion! I wonder how many short stories or even novels were changed in some way by a conversation there.

    Love the idea of the Kottabos game. Sounds a bit like caps, but for wine. I imagine you’d have to drink some higher-end wine than they did in those days though to get the dregs going…

    Not a game for a house with white couches either.

    ~Graham

  2. Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald! Throw in Picasso, and you have the makings of a real salon.

  3. Many years ago when I lived in a different city, there were several friends would gather once a month one of the friends abodes.

    The host would supply the food for the evening and each guest was to bring one bottle of wine. The wines had a price range so no one would bring a $1.00 wine and the types were like this, Sauv blancs and Cabs, or Pinot Grigios and Italian reds. That way we had a balance. It not men only. We listened to music and ate and tasted wine and told stories and shared opinions. All of the wines were wrapped and taped into brown bags, so we tasted blind.
    The host wrapped the wines in secret.
    Rarely did someone bring a very expensive wine but when it happened it was fun to find out that someone did not like it.
    LOL

  4. gdfo, sounds like a lot of fun.

  5. If you’re looking for a modern day equivalent,

    Kattabos = beer pong

  6. The closest thing to the classic Symposium today is when like-minded folks gather around the volcano. And probably, like the ancient Greek version, today’s “Symposia” ar quite relaxing and philosophical explorations and speeches are common.

  7. I would just love to take part in a symposium (but in keeping with political correctness, with the participation of women and slaves too). :)
    Also what a great and fun use for the dregs! I quite often drink wine with dregs and have always thought of what a waste it was just to rinse them out. I don’t suppose anyone knows where one can get hold of a Kottabos statue these days?

  8. Fabio, from the description, you can build your own with parts obtained from a junk yard.

  9. Come to my tastings in Amador City!

  10. Steve,
    To be honest, I delayed reading this for a bit based on the title- I didn’t get it. Thought you were trying to save some sort of foreign entertainment venue or something. Just goes to show my limitations (aka: ignorance…).

    In the end this turned out to be another one of your more thought invoking posts… and to think, I learned me something abouts wine history at the same time.

  11. Michael Thomas says:

    Steve,

    As a classical archaeologist turned winemaker, I am happy to see some ancient historical content in your blog. One thing to note is that the “male-only” aspect of the symposium is not quite true. At some point in the evening the hetairai (prostitutes) would often show up. We have Greek wine cups that illustrate with explicit detail what these parties could turn into.

    The Greeks were actually aghast at the Etruscans, who allowed their wives to attend their version of the symposium. The Roman followed suit, allowing women to recline with men at dinner parties and consume wine (though we know the Romans had their share of Greek-style men only events as well and even enjoyed the occasional game of kottabos). Such Roman parties included conversations about politics, local gossip, theater, literature, philosophy and even wine itself—from my standpoint much more in line with the salon environment that appeals to you. Yes the Greeks covered the same topics, but without the women around to keep an eye on them, it seems that their symposia could often degrade in to something more akin to a frat party than an intellectual salon.

    Perhaps your salon model can be a new marketing ploy for naturally-made, non-filtered, wines…a good bit of sediment would certainly make for a better kottabos game.

    Michael Thomas Wrath Wines

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