Entertainment in ancient Greece
A symposium was a convivial meeting for drinking, music and intellectual discussion among the ancient Greeks. The word ‘sumposium’ comes from Indo-European ‘2. sem-‘, ‘one, together’ and ‘2. pō(i)- : pī-, and (from pō-), po-‘, ‘to drink’. In the beginning the symposium must have been a drinking party which expanded in ancient greece to involve entertainment and music but ultimately intellectual discussions and lectures. Flute girls and hetarae became a constant fixture of these parties but they did not seem to diminish the intelletual pursuits and in many cases enhanced them.
Plato, Protagoras [347c] “For it seems to me that arguing about poetry is comparable to the wine-parties of common market-folk. These people, owing to their inability to carry on a familiar conversation over their wine by means of their own voices and discussions—[347d] such is their lack of education—put a premium on flute-girls by hiring the extraneous voice of the flute at a high price, and carry on their intercourse by means of its utterance. But where the party consists of thorough gentlemen who have had a proper education, you will see neither flute-girls nor dancing-girls nor harp-girls, but only the company contenting themselves with their own conversation, and none of these fooleries and frolics—each speaking and listening decently in his turn,…”
There were many religious festivals, but it is not clear that these
should be considered entertainment. The most important form of entertainment was that provided by bards. These itinerant poets traveled from place to place and provided entertainment by reciting poems to groups of listeners. It was through this mechanism, which lasted for thousands of years, that we have the Greek myths that we value so highly. Next in importance was music, provided by the flute and the lyre. Both men and women became musicians and performed at events such as weddings and symposiums. The symposia were parties for men where they ate, drank, conversed on intellectual subjects, and listened to music. Women could be part of the entertainment and probably were the servants. Hetaerae could come, but wives were not invited.
The symposium had its religious aspect as reported by Plato in his Symposium, page 175e, “So Socrates drew up and had his dinner with the rest of them, and then, after the libation and the usual hymn and so forth, they began to turn their attention to wine.”
That the symposium is also an instrument of intellectual pursuits is revealed later in the same work by Plato, page 176e, “Very well, then, said Eryximachus, since it is agreed that we need none of us drink more than we think is good for us, I also propose that we dispense with the services of the flute girl who has just come in, and let her go and play to herself or to the women inside there, whichever she prefers, while we spend our evening in the discussion of a subject which, if you think fit, I am prepared to name.”
Symposia were an important mechanism for the development
of intellectual pursuits that have proved so beneficial for the later
development of philosophy, science, and literary arts that owe such a large debt to the ancient Greeks.
For the ancient Greeks philosophy was a form of entertainment and women were involved with philosophy in ancient Greece. The most
important were Arete of Cyrene, Aristoclea, Axiothea, Damo, Diotima, Elpinice, Hipparchia, Leontium, Perictyone, Theano, and Theoclea. Of these Diotima is the easiest to study because she is referenced by Plato in the Symposium. Kirk and Raven list the following quote about Theano from Poryrius: “After this his fame grew great, and he won many followers from the city itself (not only men but women also, one of whom, Theano, became very well known too) and many princes and chieftains from the barbarian
territory around. What he said to his associates, nobody can say for certain; for silence with them was of no ordinary kind.” (p 221) Because of the popularity of the symposium as a form of entertainment, even the hetaerae had to be familiar with philosophy because it was the kind of dialogue which the Greek men expected.
Some indication of the nature of the symposium can be gotten from Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, line 837: “the tables are already laid and loaded with the most exquisite dishes;  the couches are covered with the softest of cushions; the wine and water are already being mixed in the ewers; the slaves are standing in a row and waiting to pour scent over the guests; the fish is being grilled, the hares are on the spit and the cakes are being kneaded, chaplets are being plaited and the fritters are frying;  the youngest women are watching the pea-soup in the saucepans,”
Pictures of Symposia
- Symposium, Berlin F 2298
- Symposium, Berlin F 2298
- Man and boy at symposium, Boston 01.8034
- symposium with Herakles, Eurytos, and his children, Louvre E 635
- symposium, Louvre G 133
- symposium, Louvre G 133
- symposium, man and flute player, Louvre G 135
- symposium,three men and a flute player, Louvre G 355
- woman at symposium, Tampa 86.34
- woman at symposium,Tampa 86.34
- men and dogs, Louvre E 876
- men and dogs, Louvre E 876
- men and dogs, Louvre E 876
- men and dogs, Louvre E 876
- Three naked women at a symposium, St. Petersburg 644
- man and youth and cupbearers, Boston 01.8034
Symposia, Ancient Greek Entertainment
Questions and Answers
Question: Symposiums do we have conclusive evidence that women did not participate other than entertainers? ie Tampa 86.34 or Eurytos vase and depictions of the gods and goddesses together, however, the goddesses sit and don’t recline (tell me if you have other vase references as well). Cross culturally couldn’t nearby cultures influence duel sex symposiums of banquets of equal status such as the Etruscans? There are religious festivals were both sexes ate together and even slaves does this hold any weight? I also understand that male patronage of the arts and literature was
predominant except for a few, such as Sappho, so can we deduct that a) women participated with men? b) Among themselves and or between classes and or professions? Thank you! This information
will help fill out my 25-page paper on the Greek female symposium.
Answer: The custom was for a symposium to be a men’s intellectual drinking and dinner party. But hetaerae were trained in rhetoric and could entertain through their conversation. Diotima, in Plato’s Symposium could have presented her information at a symposium. The women of ancient Greece were well educated and I would not want to claim that they never participated in symposiums. Here are images of a woman at a symposium:
Here is a fragmentary banquet relief with a man and a women:
Women may have had their own parties.
The picture on this vase seems to represent a weaving party:
These women seem to be having a swimming party:
Most joint events with both sexes as customary participants have a
sexual purpose, such as a wedding, or a youth dance. The segregation of the sexes in Greece and the fact that marriages were arranged suggests that such events were of minor importance. The symposium, on the other hand, was a perculiarly Greek event and its intellectual content is unique among cultural events.
Sappho was not the only Greek woman to compete against men. Atalanta competed against men in races and wrestling. The Amazon women competed against men. There were numerous women poets and a few women artists. Agnodice had to compete with men to become a gynecologist. Cynisca and Euryleon sponsored chariots against men in the olympics. Artemisia was a military commander who commanded men in battle.
In general the women of ancient Greece could compete with men if they wanted to but generally they did not. Women did compete against one another in their own olympics involving running. Women also did weaving which must have involved some competition. Women had a very important role in religion
including being priestesses. Priestesses had high status and freedom and may have arranged meetings with other women. Unfortunately women were not as much involved with writing as men so we do not have as good a record of their activities.
Question: what games did the Greeks play at feasts or
Answer: They played the same athletic events that were held at the Olympics for the most part. In addition in Sparta there was a team sport played. There also was a game involving wine drops.
Question: Do you know the types of entertainment at the greek men dinner party?
- Food within easy reach.
- Conversation including Philosophy, Politics, Business
- Lectures by Sophists, Hetaerae, and others.
- Epics presented by Bards
- Music: Oulos, Flute
- Gymnastics and acrobatics.
- Sexual exhibitions using clothed or unclothed hetaerae.
Question: Do you know who served the meal in the greek men dinner parties?
Answer: High status slaves or servants of the family of the host. It
is likely that family members may have helped.
Question: Do you know where the greek men dinner party was usually held?
Answer: Wealthy citizens had a special room in their house built just
for this purpose. This room was in the public area of the house near the front door. In good weather the symposium might be held in the court of the house. Usually a guest would have to walk through the front door and through the court to get to the symposium room of the house.
Question: who served the meal
Answer: The meal was served by female relatives or servants of the host and owner of the property. The wife did not serve unless she was the only person available. The servants who served where trusted slaves who were well-treated by the family. Daughters were common as servants.
Question: what is private entertainment
Answer: A private party is a host and his specially invited guests. A
puplic party involves a host and paying patrons. A theater, restaurant, or bar provides public entertainment. A private party is usually held in the home of the host.
Question: what are the different forms of private entertainment in ancient greece
- A poetry recitation by a bard
- A wedding
- A symposium
Question: why did the greeks like pornography so much?
Answer: The Greeks knew nothing about pornography. Pornography is a concept that results from Christian morality. The Greeks had a different idea about the morality of sex. The Greeks did not feel that sex was evil. They felt that the gods wanted them to pursue sexual activities. They were strongly people and did have rules about sexual behavior, but these rules were quite different from ours. Public nudity was required of males in some circumstances, at the Olympics for example, and there were religious ceremonies performed in the nude. Men could freely engage in sex with other men and with special women called hetaera, even though they were monogamous. Wives were only allowed to have sex with their husband unless they did not get pregnant, in which case the husband arranged for them to have sex with another man.
The word ‘pornography’ comes from a Greek word that refers to a cheap prostitute. It means literally material that encourages the business of the cheap prostitute. But for us it means immoral. The Greeks did not encourage immorality. But they encouraged a different kind of morality that had very different ideas about sex.
Question: Did they play any board games?
Answer: Yes. See Click here. This game was similar to the game Parcheesi. They also had a board game similar to checkers. There is a famous vase in the Vatican collection showing Achilles and Ajax playing a game, perhaps a board game. There is also a Vase at the Getty museum (Malibu 86.AE.81 (Vase))
Question: what was the most popular way to entertain
Answer: Probably an evening with a bard was the most popular. This is the way they got their news.
Question: What kind of food was eaten at the symposia?
Answer: Wine, and finger foods. This would include Souvlakia (meat cooked on skewers, made with pork or lamb, herbs and spices, garlic, Olive oil, and cooked in wine), Maza (flat bread), various fruits and fresh vegetables including oranges, grapes, pomegranates, olives, Dolmas (rice, olives, olive oil, garlic, chickpeas, lentils, and herbs wrapped in grape vine leaves) and deserts similar to Baklava (a Mediterranean dessert made out honey, phyllo pastry, nuts and cardamom).
Question: What did the Greeks do for fun?
- Listen to a bard tell the news of the world.
- Eat tasty food.
- Listen to music and song
- Watch dancing, acrobatics
- Athletics and sports
- Gambling and Horse racing
Question: What did they do for watching games?
Answer: Games played in the symposium were more local. Dice and board games might have been played. Most popular, though, were games played with drops of wine as they fell out of the cup. They could only talk about atheletics in the symposium. To witness athletics they had to visit the stadium. The stadium was fitted either with bleacher seats made of stone or a sloped earth embankment. In the latter case the spectators sat on the ground.
Question: what was the name of the greek god honored by a theatrical festival
Question: were there any sort of rituals that had to be carried out before a symposium?
Answer: There was a washing ritual at the beginning to purify the place. Plato states in his Symposium, page 175e, “So Socrates drew up and had his dinner with the rest of them, and then, after the libation and the usual hymn and so forth, they began to turn their attention to wine.”
Question: where were syposiums held ?
Answer: In a special room in a rich man’s house called the andron, which was for the men of the house only. Of course serving girls, dancing girls, and hetaerae could go there. Only the wives and daughters were really excluded.
Question: what was the theatrical festival that honored Dionysus called?
Question: how many festivals for the Gods were there in one year?
Answer: The ancient Greeks did not have a weekly schedule as we do. They had a monthly schedule, with the time broken up by festivals. A typical month might have 6 festivals. The number varied from place to place and from month to month.
Question: what entertainment was at greek diiner parties?
- Dancing girls
- Juggling and acrobatics
- A bard reciting poetry
- A hetaera speaking
- A hetaera having sex
- A philosopher speaking
Question: I was told a story when I was in Germany that the Ancient Greeks and Romans would hold parties by invitation. That at these parties there was only one way in and one way out and the women would have to perform sexual acts to whomever was at the door to get OUT of the party. Can you tell me if there is any truth to this at all or if it’s just a story used to intimidate women of the country. I haven’t been able to locate any versions of this story since I made it back to the states, and I am just not sure if I am looking up the right stuff. Seems like a scary practice for women to have to undergo. Thanks.
There is some truth to what is said here. But there is untruth too. I know only what went on in ancient Greece and I cannot speak for Rome. In ancient Greece there was the custom of the Symposium. Each upper class house had a special room called an andron. The room was large enough for several beds (klines) to be placed along the outside wall. It seems like the average number of beds might be a dozen. This was the number of invited guests. Most of the guests were men but hetaerae might also be invited. For the party entertainment was provided. These entertainers were typically female and also slaves. Sometimes they would provide sexual favors as part of the entertainment. No such thing could be required of the hetaerae because they were not slaves, but the sexual favors that they gave were what made them popular. The entertainers could be required to provide sexual favors of the sort mentioned by their owner but it would be a great squandering of his wealth. No wives or family of any of the guests ever participated as far as I know.
If wives or family of the host were present sex would not be required of them. The story that is given is possible but unlikely. It seems like it might be a very rare but possible case. The symposia were more famous for the discussions that went on than for the sex. The Greek men were fond of sex but also of food and conversation. This was so true that some hetaerae were better known for their conversation than their sexual favors. The general opinion of women in ancient Greece was that they were put down and intimidated. But this seems more likely because of the division of labor by sex. Men and women did not have that much to do with each other. The result is that men wrote extreme statements about women. Unfortunately the women did not write so we do not have their side. But the play Lysistrata gives some inkling of the powers that were available to them. In general if your wife is unhappy your life is hell so you are going to do whatever she wants. Such scenes as you describe are not going to make very many wives happy.