Monday, June 21, 2021

Symposia and drunken women

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.

Symposia were usually held in the andrōn - 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.  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.

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. In his play "Dionysus," Eubulus  has the god of wine Dionysus describe proper and improper drinking:

"For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more – it belongs to bad behaviour. The fifth is for shouting. The sixth is for rudeness and insults. The seventh is for fights. The eighth is for breaking the furniture. The ninth is for depression. The tenth is for madness and unconsciousness."

The Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans all held such gatherings but there were major differences between the Etruscan, Roman and Greek symposia. Both Etruscans and Romans  served wine before, with and after food, and women were allowed to join in. In a Greek symposium, wine was only drunk after dinner, and women were not allowed to attend.  Some Etruscan women were even considered "expert drinkers" and drinking and feasting paraphernalia have been found in the tombs of Etruscan women, suggesting that they partook in these activities. 

Although Roman symposia included women, scholars seem to disagree on whether  women attending such a drinking party could drink wine. Classicist Brigette Ford Russell, in her paper "Wine, Women, and the Polis : Gender and the Formation of the City-State in Archaic Rome" states early Roman Republican women were legally prohibited from drinking wine as a matter of public morality.  Apparently, they were perceived as too weak to control their impulses toward inappropriate behavior. 

She cites passages from Aulus Gellius writing in the 2nd century CE referring to statements by the 2nd century BCE moralist Cato the Elder. 

"Marcus Cato reports that women were not only judged but also punished by a judge no less severely if they had been guilty of drinking wine than if they had been guilt of unchastity and adultery." (NA 10.23.3)

The punishment according to Cato could be as severe as death.  So apparently, in addition to exhorting his fellow Romans to destroy Carthage, Cato the Elder railed against the dangers of drunken women.

This taboo was also recognized during the ritual of the Bona Dea.  Although the ceremony included a libation of wine to the goddess and, in all likelihood its consumption by the women present, Macrobius tells us that the wine was carried in a vessel called a honeypot and the forbidden wine itself was referred to as milk.

According to Plutarch, Bona Dea herself was the wife of the god Faunus, who caught her drinking wine and beat her to death for her transgression.

"Of significance also is the instrument of the interperate woman's punishment," observes Russell, "a branch of myrtle, the tree sacred to Venus, thus suggesting a connection between the woman's drinking and sexual impropriety."

Although society was content to let men use their own judgment to moderate their consumption of wine, women were thought, both in Greece and later Rome, to be less able to control their own unruly desires than were men.  Another classicist, Sandra Joshel, viewed this social control of women by men as an attempt at safeguarding the purity of the Roman state itself.

However, the archaeological record appears to contradict the enforcement of this restriction.  Like the Etruscan burials of elite females, burials excavated in Latium of the seventh century BCE contained such grave goods as wine mixing bowls on folding bronze stands and Punic amphorae containing imported Sardinian wine. These may symbolize the female's role as simply a hostess at sumptuous banquets but cast doubt on their own abstemiousness.

Even the legendary tale of the chaste example of a Roman matron, Lucretia, includes a description of the other women socializing at sumptuous banquets with their friends, sharing food, wine, and conversation. 

Another interesting aspect of this prohibition was the sanction to allow male relatives to kiss a woman on the lips to see if she was in compliance with the wine restriction. This "right to kiss" was known as the ius osculi. This custom (doubted by some scholars) allowed not only the husband, but the father, brothers and cousins (to the sixth degree) ​​of an “honest” woman to kiss her on the mouth upon greeting her to ensure that her breath did not smell of wine. By the late Republic, though, such hard-nosed conservatives  as Cato the Younger, in his "De Agri Cultura," began recommending wine consumption for both sexes as a health measure, even for slaves.

Two banqueters and an hetaera sitting on a klinê, detail. Terracotta from Myrina, Mysia, ca. 25 BCE now in the collections of The Louvre in Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Terracotta group of Hetaera and young man with a naked slave boy as cupbearer at a symposium 4th century BCE now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, courtesy Wikimedia Commons contributor Matthias Kabel.

A drunk man vomiting, while a young slave is holding his forehead. Brygos Painter, 500-470 BCE National Museum of Denmark. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Stefano Bolognini.

Sculpture of funerary banquet found in a the chamber tomb known as the "Banquet" in 1978 in Egnazia, Italy, 4th-2nd centuries BCE now in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Egnazia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Xinstalker. 
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Greek-Punic frescoed funeral shrine, with scene of a banquet. Roman imperial period, from Marsala. On the jambs, the symbol of the Phoenician goddess of fertility Tanit. The writing, which defines the deceased as "agathòs" (of good memory), is in Greek. Palermo Regional Archaeological Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto. (removed color cast)

A female aulos-player entertains men at a symposium on this Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 420 BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Banqueting scene in a burial chamber of the Tomb of the Leopards at the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia in Lazio, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor, AlMare.

Another Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti (House of the Chaste Lovers) (IX 12, 6-8) in Pompeii (PD

Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti (House of the Chaste Lovers) (IX 12, 6-8) in Pompeii. A man drinks from a rhyton. His female companion wears a sheer garment and a golden net over her hair. A female servant attends to the couple, proffering a small box. The table in front holds a set of silver vessels for mixing wine. The whole scene represents an idealized Greek drinking party, a pleasurable sight for the guests of this first century CE Roman household (PD)

Gravestone depicting a symposium. Sicily. Archaeological Museum of Syracuse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Statuette of a Banqueter (one of three) bronze, from northern Greece, 550-525 BCE, now in the collections of the Getty Villa, image courtesy of the museum.

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