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Wit and eroticism of the Greek Symposium, revealed

The average party in 2019 would look rather tame alongside a Classical Greek symposium. What the Greeks got up to on these boozy social occasions is the subject of an illustrated talk at the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities on 13 September.

‘Sappho, Satyrs, Socrates and Seduction’, presented by Associate Professor Patrick O’Sullivan of the University of Canterbury’s (UC) Classics department, will delve into the culture of Greek symposia. These indulgently sensuous drinking parties were thrown by members of the aristocracy in the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE.

It was a time when Dionysos, the god of wine, was revered. A lavish party provided the perfect occasion to reflect that reverence and an associated appreciation for life, fertility and creativity. Wine would have been drunk in liberal quantities, loosening tongues and encouraging the day’s budding poets and philosophers to wax lyrical on the nature of desire. The prevailing penchant for eroticism is also echoed in the literature and pottery of that time.

“We do know that sexual activity took place at a lot of these symposia, including male homosexual activity,” Associate Professor O’Sullivan says. “Most of the information we have focuses on the male experience and comes from male elite sources although there may have been also symposia for women.”

Some scholars have suggested that lyrical works composed by the great Greek poetess Sappho would have been recited at all-female gatherings.

Symposia were often held to celebrate athletic and other successes with entire families being fêted for the achievements of a champion in their ranks. Fathers would celebrate with their sons but respectable mothers and daughters tended to stay away.

“There was no handbook on all of this, but there were certain prescribed rituals and some were more highbrow than others. They might have started with poetry but once the drinking started and the female entertainers were brought in then things could turn to more earthy activities as well.”

Research over the past 40 years or so into aspects of sexuality in Classical Greek society has revealed their private lives were far from dull.

“Certainly, they did not put sexuality in the closet.”

Feasting traditions across the ancient Greek and Roman world are in the spotlight at the Teece Museum, with the latest exhibition, Fantastic Feasts, exploring festive dishes and food traditions.

“We’re delighted to be hosting this talk and giving people an opportunity to delve deeper into some of the material on display here so they can have an even more enhanced experience,” museum curator Terri Elder says.

“We have a striking array of drinking cups and kraters [vessels used for diluting wine with water] in the Logie Collection, and we currently have six Greek cups, which would have featured in symposia, on display. They’re very beautiful examples.”

Associate Professor O’Sullivan has published widely on Archaic and Classical Greek art, literature and culture. He is co-author of Euripides’ Cyclops and Major Fragments of Greek Satyric Drama (Oxford 2013) and is currently working on a book called The Rhetoric of Greek Art.

Sappho, Satyrs, Socrates and Seduction: Aspects of the Greek Symposium is at the Teece Museum, on Friday, 13 September 2019, 7pm-8pm. Restricted to those aged 16 years and over. Space is limited. Tickets are free, available via the UC events page.

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