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The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet

The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet

By Marek Węcowski. Pp. xxvi + 400, figs. 23, maps 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014. $175. ISBN 978-0-19-968401-4 (cloth).

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This welcome book is the English version of a monograph published in Polish in 2011. The author has been a significant voice in sympotic studies for more than a decade, and this project presents the full scope of his views on the early history and development of the symposion. It offers analysis and insight on far more than the title might suggest, including a thorough reconstruction of the components and sequence of events of the symposion in the Classical period as well as providing the author’s developed view on feasting in Homer and the social and cultural history of Dark Age–Early Iron Age Greece. Because it relies a great deal on material culture and the results of archaeological excavation, it represents an important stream in scholarship on ancient history that combines the use of texts, objects, public architecture, and tombs. The subject is of interest to all scholars of Dark Age through Classical-period Greece, and it is accessible to students at and above the advanced undergraduate level. Anyone who wants to be informed and to think deeply about this defining institution for Archaic- and Classical-period Greece must read this book. Every key interpretation of the origin and early history of the symposion is treated, and the author is disarmingly forthright about his findings, those he rejects and accepts, and why. At the same time, he makes the positive case for his own unique contribution, and the case is, on the whole, very convincing.

This book is one of several to appear over the past few years that focus on various aspects of the symposion (e.g., K. Lynch, The Symposium in Context [Princeton 2011]; F. Hobden, The Symposion in Ancient Greek Society and Thought [Cambridge 2013]; K. Topper, The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium [New York 2013]), but this monograph alone develops explicitly a comprehensive view of the origin of the institution. The thirst for investigating commensality represented by these recent publications began in the 1980s; in the ensuing decades of its prominence as a topic for interrogation, descriptions of its nature and explanations for the origin of the symposion have been proposed, discarded, and have evolved. This book represents a sweeping, thoroughgoing interpretation of its origins, its character as a mature institution, and its symbiotic relationship with the societies that produced and sustained it.

The author articulates clearly, directly, and unapologetically his stance on various questions. He does not relegate difference of opinion to footnotes, and while this practice can interrupt the flow of the work, it is abundantly clear exactly where he stands and why. Although Węcowski records great indebtedness to the monumentally influential work of Oswyn Murray, his analysis, extending the line of work developed by Benedetto Bravo, reaches different conclusions. He returns often to the theoretical work on commensality of Michael Dietler as well as the less frequently cited taxonomy of feasting of Claude Grignon. Overall, his discussion of the interrelationship and evolution of types of feasts is a worthwhile contribution. Because there is so little explicit evidence for Dark Age and Early Iron Age feasting and commensality, however, the author’s application of these theoretical constructs to the picture he builds of these periods necessarily yields less-certain and convincing results than for later periods.

Węcowski begins in part 1 with defining and describing the symposion as it appears in its fully formed state in the Archaic and Classical periods, and this careful investigation occupies nearly a third of the monograph. His goal in following this organization is to distill the key identifiers of the symposion that must be discovered in the prior material and literary record in order to locate its first appearance.

The arrangement of the sympotic space and the rules of engagement for drinking and interacting trump the reclining postures of participants as defining the essential character of the symposion for the author. Thus choosing not to use the act of reclining per se as a sine qua non, Węcowski posits instead the way participants are stationed in the room to enforce the definitive social dynamic of the event—equality; this equality is further enforced by the insistence on drink and speech moving around the room according to the principle of epidexia, where participants’ turns at speaking and drinking go always to the right. In addition to these two essentials, Węcowski notes that symposia separate eating and drinking, involve lengthy drinking sessions at night, exclude wives and daughters in favor of young boys and courtesans, and involve discourse that is superficially relaxed but always competitive. Unequivocally, the ultimate defining principle is embodied for the author in the rule of epidexia that enforces equality but prevents individual agendas from supplanting those of the group. Fostering balanced tension between competition and equality is the key feature of the sympotic ethos.

Węcowski relies primarily on literary evidence for this reconstruction, considering both lyric and epinician poetry as well as the literary symposia. At some points he brings in ceramic evidence, following in general the interpretive model developed by François Lissarrague along with other members of the School of Paris (also known as the Lausanne School). Readers will want to compare the critique of this approach with that articulated in Topper (2013). An illuminating novel discussion of the definition and characteristics of the “ancient Greek aristocracy” using the Polish-Lithuanian untitled nobility as a comparison begins this section.

Part 2 of the monograph (“The Symposion and History”) is organized somewhat differently, interrogating various categories of evidence, primarily the material record and the texts of the Homeric epics. It is confusing that the chapter 3 discussions of some early sympotic ceramic evidence (e.g., the “cup of Nestor” from Pithekoussai) and early sympotic architecture (e.g., foundations of permanent and temporary structures at sites on Naxos and in Euboea and Attica) with accompanying ceramic finds are separate from the discussion of tombs, some of those at the same sites, discussed in chapter 5 (“The Symposion and Archaeology up to the Seventh Century B.C.”). For example, the architecture and related ceramics from the “aristocratic quarter” at Eretria (183–87) and the lengthy discussion of contemporaneous Eretrian graves and grave goods discussed in chapter 5 (257–66), culminating in the discussion of a krater with convincingly sympotic imagery and syntax, are not integrated. Because the architectural remains from Eretria include rectangular and apsidal rooms, Węcowski believes that they serve as examples for the possible chronological overlap of seated and reclining commensality in the eighth century, making the reader eager for such an integrated discussion. Although it is not directly relevant to Węcowski’s argument, it would be very helpful to have measurements in all the plans of eighth-century architecture to see if dimensions of rooms in the various buildings have anything in common and whether the rectangular rooms have any similarity to those of later standard seven- and 11-couch dining rooms.

The single most important material object for Węcowski’s argument for the early appearance of the symposion is the “Cup of Nestor,” an inscribed kotyle from Pithekoussai. Węcowski reads the inscription as metrically sophisticated and authored by at least two different individuals. Most significant, he reconstructs vividly how the reading aloud of the inscription might have played out in the passing of the object from drinker to drinker, epidexia. There is great attention to exactly how the find context and associations of the cup relate to those of contemporaneous tombs, and Węcowski makes a plausible reconstruction for a developed sympotic culture by the third quarter of the eighth century. Almost as much attention is devoted to contemporary burials in Athens, but there is only a single mention of the so-called Dipylon jug (Athens, National Archaeological Museum, inv. no. 492), and it comes in the discussion of Homeric feasting rather than as part of the discussion of Geometric tombs in the Kerameikos and Dipylon cemeteries and the architecture and burials in the Athenian Agora. The reader is left wondering if the author dismisses the inscribed oinochoe as evidence for a similarly evolved culture of symposion (per K. Robb, Literacy and Paideia in Ancient Greece [Oxford 1994]) and whether it, too, reflects the principle of circulation epidexia along with the ghost of a dance competition. It would seem to buttress the claim that the symposion took root first in the region around Athens and Eretria, so the reason for its absence would be welcome.

Węcowski downplays the influence of the Near East in the origin and development of the symposion. He rejects the school of thought that finds its origin of symposion in marzeah, finding basic “functional and cultural differences” (158), while acknowledging that Greeks may have been in general inspired by what they saw or heard about Near Eastern banqueting and that the symposion was “Lydianized” in the mid seventh century. After laying out textual and iconographic evidence clearly, Węcowski states that “the similarities between the two institutions [marzeah and symposion] are limited to utterly trivial phenomena” (158).

Węcowski is unequivocal that the symposion he is talking about is an elite institution, the social purpose of which suited the fluidity of membership among the elite for several centuries in the early evolution of the polis—it allowed the newly rich to join by meeting its competitive standards and pushed out the newly poor once they could no longer compete. The symposion may have taken hold as it proved to be an effective instrument to integrate elites coming together through synoicism. It integrated well with the development of the polis, functioning as a kind of natural selection, with the fittest of the elite surviving. Overall, the author’s views may strike the reader as arbitrary in some cases, especially when discussing early periods, for which slight evidence must serve as the foundation for a big construct.

The final chapter of the book is delightful, if sometimes speculative, in view of the fragility of the evidence. It reiterates the chief findings made throughout and burnishes Węcowski’s case that the symposion was well established before the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed. Homer knew about the key identifiers of symposia, such as the principle of equality represented by the epidexia circulation of wine and conversation in key scenes, and he disapproved of it. Instead, Homer promotes a non-sympotic, ahistorical, hierarchical “heroic feast” as ideal. In this spirit, Węcowski’s final statement is endearingly bold: “in the history of Greek literature as well as in the history of Greek art … negative reactions to the symposion … proved as arresting and as fruitful as the … artistic outcome of this institution” (336).

Ann Steiner
Department of Classics
Franklin & Marshall College

Book Review of The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet, by Marek Węcowski

Reviewed by Ann Steiner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Steiner

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