ST. LOUIS.- Organized in conjunction with Professor Susan Rotroff's course on ancient Athens offered through the Department of Classics, this exhibition presents a series of vases from the ancient Greek symposium--a highly choreographed, artistocratic, all-male drinking party that often drew to a close with a riotous parade about the shuttered streets of town. Yet intoxication was not the sole feature of these gatherings--frequently, as Plato's Symposium represents, a specific philosophical topic was hotly debated, poetry was recited, and music performed. During these vibrant affairs, guests reclined upon couches, dined, and lingered in conversation over their wine. Each vase fulfilled a specific function. By tracing this sequence, the display captures the flow of the ancient party while the decoration of the vases themselves mirror the festivity or express symposium themes of love, heroic courage, and Dionysiac mythology.
The ancient Greek symposium (from the Greek symposion) was a highly choreographed all-male drinking party that often drew to a close with a riotous parade about the shuttered streets of town. Wine, and the temporary self-abandonment it offered, was the chief ingredient of these gatherings; yet intoxication was not the party’s sum intent. Certain rules were devised under the auspices of a designated leader, the symposiarch or banquet master, who regulated the socializing of his guests. It was he who set the tenor of the party, defining how much wine was to be served, what poetry recited, and what music performed. As conveyed in Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical text on the nature of love, the symposiarch even determined the evening’s topic of conversation.
Befitting such choreography, the party took place within a very specific architectural space, the andron or men’s room. The exhibition attempts to recreate this milieu in the placement of its vases, positioned as they would have been in the ancient gathering. Typically quite small in size, the andron featured a row of couches placed against three walls. All participants reclined upon these couches and faced the center of the room. Here, in the midst of all the men, the krater, the mixing bowl that contained the wine and water to be serve, stood.
Accordingly, a bell-krater stands at the center of this exhibition, evocative of the original setting. In studying side A of this 4th century B.C. vase, one can readily observe a symposiast’s idealized version of himself in the heroic soldiers taking leave of their women. The soldiers, like the drinkers, depart from female society to participate in decidedly male action. The symposium is the peaceful inverse of battle; both define the society, one in fostering community and the other in defending it. The krater itself is emblematic of the symposium’s communal ideals. Its physical placement at the center of the room is analogous to its function. The krater’s imagery speaks to all viewers; its wine is offered in equal parts to all.
The serving and pouring vessels of the symposium fulfilled a comparable convivial function in presenting scenes for all to admire. Highly-decorated amphoras replenished the supply of wine in the mixing bowls, stamnoi and kraters. The Nolan amphora, set alongside the mixing bowls in this exhibition, depicts a scene of pederastic pursuit. The extended right arm of the older male painted upon the vase was visual shorthand for an erotic chase, an iconography readily read by the symposium guest. Such “legibility” implicated the viewer in the scene. It likely titillated and likewise inquired of the guest what his prospects for the evening might be. It probed the viewer’s role. Would he, spurred by the spectacle of the Nolan scene, exercise restraint or give himself over to passion? As drinking cups, kylikes and kantharoi, were raised and wine was poured from oinochoai, painted figures shifted before the eyes of the drinker. Bodies arched with the contours of the vase, flipping head over heel or sidelong with the movements of the vessel. These vibrant images—accompanied by young dancers, the music of flutes, and courtesans—pressed the question.
The kylix of the Elbows Out painter is more subtle in its imagery. The elegant cup is decorated by a simple red glaze band, and a series of birds, including roosters, strut along its frieze. To the modern observer, the birds perhaps appear charming though quite stylized. But to the symposiast, the roosters may have elicited a specific reaction. The rooster was once an exotic love gift, a pet proffered by an older man in the courting of a lover. Many vases depict scenes of love-bird exchanges, and while our vase is less literal in its depiction, certainly a guest warmed with wine would recognize the consummate symposiast motif, eros, erotic love winged.