The ancient Greeks loved to celebrate. As early as the archaic period symposia were held. Next to drinking, eating, playing music, discussing and arguing the gods were worshipped. In particular it was Dionysus, god of ecstasy and wine, who was venerated.
There are several theories on his origin. One of these myths tells us about the son of Zeus and his mortal mother Semele. Semele died before she could give birth to Dionysus, after Hera told her to ask Zeus to reveal his real, divine shape to her. When he turned himself into the lightning she perished, consumed in lightning-ignited flame. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh and a few months later he was born. To protect the newborn Dionysus from jealous Hera he handed him over to Hermes, who brought him to the nymphs at Nysa to raise him.
The Hermes of Olympus, also known as the Hermes and the Infant Dionysus is attributed to Praxiteles. In his missing right hand he was originally holding grapes for the little Dionysus.
In Attica the major festival for Dionysus were the big or urban Dionysia. In Athens they were held annual. During the time of Pericles they lasted seven days. Philochorus (FGrH I s.v. Philochorus Frg. 159) gives us some information about the Dionysia:
“On the Dionysia, after the Athenians had eaten and drunk, they went to the theater. They wore wreaths while watching the performances. During the whole festival they were offered wine and “snacks”. Wine was also given to the choirs before their performance and after they had left the stage they were offered wine again…”
The tragedies started at sunrise, while the comedies were performed in the evening.
Comic poets were allegorizing certain types of people to make the audience laugh. The most important representative of this “new comedy” was Menander (approx. 342-291 BC). The so-called Menander relief shows us the poet looking at masks. Perhaps it is an allegory for the process and inspiration of poetizing itself. In antiquity all forms of exercitation were valid as divine gifts, mediated by the Muses. For this reason the poet is depicted with “his” Muse. Votive offerings for the Muses and a scroll on a lectern are also on the relief.
With the help of a cult statue Dionysus was always present at theatrical performances. On festive days thousands of people came together in the theater to see these performances.
After such performances votive offerings were sacrificed, like this relief, dedicated by actors after a performance of Euripides tragedy Bacchae. At the top right of the relief Dionysus is resting on a couch. In his left hand he holds a bowl and a rhyton (drinking vessel) in his right hand. At the end of the couch a female figure sits opposite of him. In the left corner of the relief are three male actors, identified by the masks and tympana (drums) they are holding in their hands.
At these occasions symposia were held. Symposia were meetings for men with rhetoric competitions and intellectual conversations, but also with music, chant, wine and food. Those celebrations were accompanied by hetaera, ancient Greek courtesans, and young slaves serving food and wine. Illustrations and statues often connect these feasts with mythological figures out of Dionysus´ entourage, like Maenads and Satyrs.
Among all the preserved statues of Satyrs made by the sculptor Praxiteles, this one is for many beholders the most beautiful. It is a young Satyr pouring wine out of a jug in his right hand into a drinking horn or bowl. In contrast to our statue, Greek mythology often describes Satyrs as very voluptuous and ugly creatures.
Wine was imported from far away and also exported in many countries. In different regions, different sorts of grapes were cultivated. Huge amphorae transported up to 90 liter wine each. In antiquity wine was only drunk thinned with water.
The amphora is a bellied vessel with two handles and a narrow neck. The thin mouth made it possible to cork the vessel up and seal it with gypsum and pitch (resin). The five amphorae of our collection are without a footprint. They were leaned to walls or dug in earth. During shipping they were transported in fitting racks. Normally they were thrown away after single use. Sometimes they were stamped before firing and equipped with the origin, the name of the producer, the type of wine and the vintage.
Wine was very popular at festivals and served in special vessels.
The skyphos (a large beaker) was the common drinking vessel. It has two horseshoe-shaped handles and is sometimes denominated as kotyle. The skyphos of our collection contains about 2,5 liter, but other vessels of this kind can have a capacity up to 8 liter. The illustrations on forefront and backside show a young man with a lyre waiting for a hetaera to accompany him to a symposium.
On the inside of the cup is a long jumper. The naked athlete bends forward with both of his arms. In his hands he holds the so-called halteres, which are stone weights. The wreath on the head of the long jumper is a symbol for his victory. The long jump was one of the five events featured by pentathlon (five-competition) at the Olympic Games. The five events were: long-jump, javelin throw, discus throw, foot race and wrestling.
Wine is known over 8000 years and part of human life. Ancient sources inform us that the spiced wine in antiquity was only drunk thinned with water. Furthermore ancient recipes tell us, that the wine was sweetened with honey and flavored with spices like coriander, laurel and cinnamon:
“[…] Give 2 sextaries of wine and 15 sextaries of honey in a copper kettle, let it mix and bring it to boil under stirring on gentle fire. […] Now add 4 ounces of shredded pepper, 3 scruple of pistachios resin, one drachm nard leaves and saffron and 5 drachms of shredded, roasted stones of dates, which are steeped in wine until they are easy to process. […]” (Gavius Apicius, Kochbuch der altrömischen Kaiserzeit, Erstes Buch 1-9)
Wine was not only a semi luxury food, but was seen as staple food.
The krater was a mixing vessel for water and wine. Among other vessels a krater belonged to the equipment of a symposium. The column krater of our collection is one of the oldest preserved vessels of this kind. It first emerged in Corinth in the 7th century BC. It is a bellied vessel with a short neck and a flat mouth. Beside the column krater, there are volute kraters, calyx kraters and bell kraters.
Music played an important role in ancient Greece. As early as the philosopher Plato informs us about music as essential element of awareness-raising:
“[…] Therefore the music is the most important part of education. Rhythms and sounds penetrate the soul the most and rock it best. With the correct education good humans, otherwise bad ones are raised. […]” (Plat. polit. 398c-400c)
How ancient music sounded is only theoretical, because we do not really know about the practice of playing music. Pictorial sources for musical instruments are, among others, vases and figurines.
The vase in form of a female tympanum player may illustrate a Maenad out of Dionysus´ entourage. The dissolute cult of Dionysus made especially women go crazy. The Maenads and Satyrs were celebrating their god in glittering parties.
The tympanum was a popular musical instrument. The terracotta figurine raises the question, whether the vase is a fake or an original artifact. Where ancient potters able to produce a figurine like that? Only broad matrices and stoves were available to the artists. With these tools it was only possible to produce vessels with a minimal thickness of 5mm, but our tympanum player is, on the forefront, hardly 2mm thick. Nevertheless the used matrix could have been old, bent or dented, which would indicate that the vase is original.
The celebrating of symposia and festivals was an important part of the ancient world. As early as Homer’s epics and the late geometric period of vase painting (approx. 740/730 BC) tell us about meetings of men and symposia.
From 600 BC on, symposia were the favorite illustrations on Greek vases.
Also written sources inform us not only about the rules for symposia, but also describe symposia themselves. The most famous of these works are Xenophon’s “Symposium” and Plato’s “Symposium”. Performances of tragedies and comedies were not only one of the cultural highlights of the year, but part of the cult. Therefore a visit to the theater belonged to the ritual act.
The culture of the Greek aristocracy was, among other things, characterized by enjoyment, good wine and food.
(S.B. - A.G. - F.M. - O.P.)
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M. Bieber, The History of Greek and Roman Theater (New Jersey 1961)
C. Blümel, Griechische Bildhauerarbeit (Berlin 1927)
J. Boardman, Griechische Plastik. Die spätklassische Zeit (Mainz 1998)
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M. Lehner - T. Lorenz - G. Schwarz (Hrsg), Griechische und italische Vasen aus der Sammlung des Instituts für Klassische Archäologie der Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz (Graz 1993)
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