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Classics Professor Digs Deep into Ancient Greek Culture in Her New Book

Associate Professor Kathleen Lynch lays out a detailed snapshot of life and culture in ancient Athens in her new book, "The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora."

Date: 11/14/2011 8:00:00 AM
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-4190
Photos By: Kathleen Lynch
Lynch's new book goes inside Athenian culture by examining the wine drinking habits of ancient Athenians.

Kathleen Lynch, associate professor in the Department of Classics in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, recently published a new book, “The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora.” The book examines wine drinking habits in ancient Athens around the year 500 B.C. and what they tell us about Athenian culture during the Late Archaic period.

The title of the book is “The Symposium in Context.” What did a Greek symposium look like?

The symposium is an ancient Greek wine drinking party. It flourished from about 700-300 B.C. during the Archaic and Classical periods. Unlike most cultures, ancient Greeks focused on communal drinking not dining. Only men were invited to these parties that were intended for small groups of 10-15 participants. They did hire female entertainers and sometimes had female “escorts” called hetairai (companions). Drinking during the symposium was governed by social rules, something like the way that formal dinner parties today have rules about which fork to use for which course. They mixed their wine with water in a big punch bowl called a krater, and each man received an equal portion of wine. Songs were sung with each man singing a verse, or stories were told with each man weighing in on a theme. The goal of symposia was group definition. The activities, especially the inevitable drunkenness, created bonds among men, and these bonds would carry over into their political, commercial, and family relationships. Wine lowers inhibitions, and as the Archaic poet Alcaeus reminds us, “Wine is a peephole into man.”

What originally attracted you to researching the wine drinking habits of Athenians during the Late Archaic period?

What’s fascinating is that the clay cups, storage jars, and jugs that the Athenians used in their symposia have figural decoration painted on them. I began this research because I wanted to know more about the choice of scenes Athenians made for the pottery they used in their own homes. So often these vases, which are decorated with black figure or red figure designs, are studied without consideration of how they were used. Traditionally, there is more interest in determining which pots were painted by the same painter or how the story is told visually. Instead, I wanted to do a study of pottery from a house in order to understand what kinds of scenes real Athenians chose for their own household entertaining.

In this book you take a contextual approach to interpreting the material. Can you describe what's different about your method of interpretation when compared to more "traditional" archaeological scholarship?

Typically figured pottery—Athenian black-figure and red-figure—is studied for its artistic or iconographic qualities. Less attention is paid to the shape or original use of the objects. In this book, I establish that the pottery originated in an Athenian house, then I consider what the pottery tells us about how it was used by the household. It turns out that this household owned more than one set of pottery for drinking wine. Each of the sets represents a different kind of drinking or social circumstance, so there is the expected set of symposium cups (kylikes) but there is also a pair of exceptional, intentional red kylikes, which suggest a more exclusive occasion. Knowing the context of use also leads to the conclusion that Athenian homeowners chose their pottery carefully. The scenes on the pots interrelate, and they carefully avoid some subjects. For example, there are no erotic scenes and surprisingly only one mythological scene. The pattern that emerges from this and other contemporary deposits from Athenian houses is that some Athenian pottery was made for the home market, but others for the export market. We cannot assume that all Athenian-made pottery was used by Athenians.
A kylix dating to ca. 500 B.C. found in the Athenian house studied by Lynch. Courtesy of the ASCSA Agora Excavations.
A kylix dating to ca. 500 B.C. found in the Athenian house studied by Lynch. Courtesy of the ASCSA Agora Excavations.

You studied one particular household. Can you describe how the household’s pottery portrays the drinking habits or even the household itself?

This is the first study of a sympotic drinking set from an Athenian house, and since the house and its trash deposit was well-excavated, I can even say something about the household’s investment in entertaining. It turns out that almost 50% of the house’s pottery was dedicated to group drinking. This number includes both decorated and undecorated cups, jars, and jugs whose primary use was in the symposium. There were sets of drinking cups in two different shapes and three different decorative schemes. This indicates to me that wine drinking in the house took different forms, including general everyday drinking, the true symposium, and a very special event that required only two cups with outstanding artisanship. The decoration on the set of true symposium cups was simple, but the scenes tended to be funny. Instead of fancy mythological scenes, this house chose cups with scenes of winemaking, a man going to a symposium, an owl, and a cart wheel. The cart wheel has no known parallels, but you can imagine a drinker draining his cup to see the wheel on the bottom. The more he drank, the more it must have spun! On one side of a wine storage jar there is a man probably going to a symposium. He holds a lyre and sings a tune. On the other side of the same jar is a younger man, who is—hopefully—on his way home from a symposium. He leans on a walking staff, holds his head in agony, and forces himself to vomit, which comes out as a stream of red (they drank red wine, you know!). These must have been funny to the homeowner who chose them and the symposium guests who viewed them.

Were there any pieces that really stood out or provided a greater degree of insight?

While there were important individual discoveries, the greatest insight is that the cups within a drinking set were not selected randomly. Instead, their style and date indicate that they were bought at one time, and there was thought put into the message the entire set would send to its users.

Fast-forward 1,500 years. If a researcher discovers some household accessories from our culture, what might some of those accessories be, and what might they say about our habits?

Wow, this is a good question! One thing I have in common with the ancient Athenian household is that I have several different “sets” of drinking cups in my cupboards, and I think many modern homes have the same. So, there is a “set” of coffee mugs, and while these don’t match, they do share a common form: a deep, cylindrical body with a single handle. In other words, its shape relates to its function of holding hot liquids. The decoration on these is highly reflective of our interests. I have Starbucks mugs from Ankara, Athens, and the United Arab Emirates, which represent my travels over the years. You may have “The World’s Greatest Dad” mug or the like, which says something about you. Most of us have another set of glasses for drinking water, and many of us have at least one set of wine glasses. Each one of these sets represents a different kind of drinking and a different social setting. You usually drink your coffee by yourself or with your family, but the wine glasses are used for dinner parties. Some people have two sets of dinner ware, one durable set for everyday and another fine set for fancier occasions. Just like us, the ancient Athenians distinguished drinking events by the cups they used.

Where can readers buy a copy of your book?

The book is available through David Brown Book Co and Amazon.

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