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Greek Symposia

“Banquets of like-minded friends were called symposia. (The singular, symposium—the Greek original is symposion—means ‘a drinking together,’ that is, a drinking party.)…

There was plenty of tension in Greek life, since the Greeks, however many parties they threw, became as time went on even more bellicose than they had been in Homer’s day. These symposia may have been, as much as anything, occasions to release the pent-up anxieties of a society always at war—’the father of all, the king of all,’ ‘always existing by nature,’ as the Greek philosophers expressed it. Enough wine and one could forget about the war of the moment or, if not forget, reduce its importance at least temporarily. Thus this ditty attributed to Theognis, an early-sixth-century songwriter of airy facility who believed in good breeding, great parties, and lively romance, the Cole Porter of ancient Greece:

Strike the sacred strings and let us drink,
and so disport ourselves ’mid sounding reeds
that our libations gratify the gods—
and who gives a shit about war with the Medes

But as tends to be the case when drunkenness substitutes for thoughtfulness, the hilarity often ended badly… There’s sadness beneath the merriment. It is as if, no matter how much these revelers sing, dance, howl, recite their jokes, and screw one another, a constant, authoritative note of pessimistic pain sounds beyond all their frantic attempts not to hear it. Even Archilochus, a sensational athlete in his time and a master of the revels if ever there was one, cannot deny that none of these nighttime activities makes good sense. In his most thoughtful lines, he seems to remove the mask, denuding himself of his gruff and rollicking persona, and to counsel himself in the clear light of day not to excess but to sobriety—to balance, modesty, and even resignation:

O heart, my heart, no public leaping when you win;
no solitude nor weeping when you fail to prove.
Rejoice at simple things; and be but vexed by sin
and evil slightly. Know the tides through which we move.

The last sentence is quietly ominous. The tides through which we move—the highs and the lows, the peaks and the troughs—tell us repeatedly that nothing lasts… Let us temper our excitement and agitation, whether for the ecstasy of battle or the ecstasy of sex, whether over great achievement or great loss, and admit to ourselves that all things have their moment… If we live according to this sober knowledge, we will live as well as we can.”



From the closing of chapter 3 of Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter.

I wrote some comments about the above bust of Archilochus in a post yesterday. Check it out, as well as the sources (brought to my attention by Ted Rey) of the lines from Archilochus cited above.