What can we learn from the vases?
The wealth of information about symposia has been handed down to us in the form of painted vases made in the sixth and fifth centuries BC (although the debated origins of the symposium suggest it evolved in the 7th century BC, it did not became well enough established to figure in much art until the sixth century). The best known sympotic vases are those decorated in the red-figure style in Attica (the region in which Athens was located), where people were renowned for drinking out of ceramic cups. The vases provide information about how they were used in the drinking activities as well as some ideas about what the Greeks did and discussed at symposia.
Images of symposia are useful in helping us to understand the setting of the symposium. They show us the participants, sometimes with special costumes, as well as furniture, pots and other paraphernalia.
Yet we should take neither the images nor the words that decorate these vases as objective or documentary evidence for 'real' symposia. Like most works of art the images of symposia can be taken, at most, as artists' interpretations of these events, tailored to entertain their customers or audiences, whether the symposiasts themselves or foreigners who used these objects in other contexts (e.g. many of them have been found in Etruscan tombs).
Reclining on Couches
The simplest depiction of a symposium is of a man reclining on a couch or kline (sometimes just indicated by the pillows) with one or more cups; smaller attendants help to emphasise the status of the symposiast as a member of the elite.
Yet a symposium was not a lone pursuit: the couches, numbering from 7 to 15, were arranged in a square room called an andron, which literally means 'men's room', where the symposiasts could gather in private. The fact that it took place inside is sometimes indicated by the presence of baskets or other objects hanging on the walls.
The party started at dusk, and each guest was welcomed with a garland to wear on his head and some food to eat before the wine was served.
Types of Vases
A wide range of vases were used at the symposium. First wine, brought in amphorai or pelikai, and water, brought in hydriai, were mixed in krateres or (smaller) stamnoi, usually placed in the centre of the room. Sometimes the wine would be cooled in a psykter suspended within the krater.
The symposiarch, customarily the oldest member of the party, supervised the mixing of the wine with water, in proportions and amounts that would encourage conversation without debauchery (usually three or four parts water to one part wine). The drink was then ladled or poured by slave boys or girls into individual vessels:
- kylikes (shallow cups),
- skyphoi or kotylai (deep cups with horizontal handles),
- kantharoi (deep cups with high handles),
- or even rhyta (drinking horns).
Gods and Heroes
The vast majority of sympotic vases do not, however, show symposiasts at all, but cover a broad range of events and activities, with images related to wars, real or mythical that would have incited interesting conversations. While the gods and heroes were most often shown in the context of myth, we sometimes see them at symposia: Dionysos, the wine god, for example, was envisioned to enjoy his wine in exactly the same manner as mortal aristocrats.
By connecting himself with gods and heroes through the images, the male aristocrat at the symposium was reinforcing his status as a member of the ruling group of society. Meanwhile, Dionysos' followers, the satyrs, would play out these and other stories, imitating gods, heroes, or even symposiasts themselves, drinking or in sexual pursuit.