Getting a Glimpse of Ancient Greek Society from a Drinking Vase

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In ancient Greek society people carefully followed the social rules of good behaviour. Women had to be good mothers. Kids and youths went to school, to the gym and were trained to be brave warriors. The elder ones inspired the new generations with their wise advice. And everyone prayed to the gods during the religious festivities. There was a time though, when almost everything was allowed and when social rules of good behaviour could be forgotten: the symposium. Museums are filled with vases showing symposiasts having fun and playing, precisely because the Greeks, like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Chinese and the Anglo-Saxons, often buried their dead with games (or scenes of games), in order to allow them to have fun during their afterlife.

Scene of Symposium in Ancient Greek Society
A slave attends to a vomiting symposiast, 500-470 BC, National Museum of Denmark

1. What a Vase Can tell Us About Ancient Greek Lifestyle

Among the many drinking vessels at the British Museum, there is one of particular interest. It’s a red-figured Stamnos showing Greeks playing a drinking game called ‘Kottabos’ (and is, of course, one of our Fun and Games treasures). During the game, players had to throw dregs of wine at a target. It was a bit like darts, but harder because the dregs had to stick together mid-air before reaching the target. The protagonists of the scene are ephebes, Greek male adolescents training to become soldiers. All ephebes are well dressed (or half-dressed!), sometimes wear ivy-wreaths, and drink and sing, while a girl in a beautiful garment plays the flute.

Glimps of ancient Greeks society in the scene of a vase
Greek Stamnos with symposiasts at the British Museum, 475-425 BC

2. Gender Roles at the Symposium

All the males in the scene were part of the wealthier part of the population. Only the richest and most educated men were allowed to have fun at the symposium, after all. But what was the role of women at the party and in ancient Greece? The girl represented was probably a hetaira (a slave prostitute). Hetairai constituted a social class of their own in ancient Greek society. In their daily life, they were trained to serve as the companions of wealthy men (while their wives were secluded at home).

The role of women in ancient Greece
Hetaira playing Kottabos, 500 BC ca, Getty Villa Collection

3. The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Society

Historians and archaeologists don’t often know much about Greek Women and their stories. For sure we know that Greek men were freer than women. The hard duties of men’s daily life could in fact be eased at their drinking parties, where rules didn’t exist. Some suggest that the hetairai, the women entertaining them during the symposium, were more influential than the women of the upper class. During their training, they were taught philosophy and politics so to be able to converse with all men. While they were, of course, little more than sex slaves, it seems clear from the evidence at our disposal that hetairai did participate in the intellectual life of ancient Greece and that the symposiasts often took them as their personal advisors.

The role of Greek women at the symposium
Drinking cup with naked women folding their garments, The Met

4. A Vase or a Book?

It is incredible how much we can learn from the scene of a vase! Greek vases are almost books, often recounting stories of real life and social behaviour and allowing us to enter the fascinating world of ancient Greek society. For more on Greek art and architecture, read about The Parthenon and don’t forget to check our posts on Egyptian art, giving away other bonus answers, here and here! Are you also in love with Greek art and its hidden messages? Book a hunt at either the British Museum or the Louvre where you’ll find plenty of Greek art! If you liked the saucy theme of this blog post, have a look at the most interesting love stories of the past: Cupid and Psyche, The Ain Sakhri Lovers, Thetis and Peleus, and Priapus.

Just a heads up: some of the things in bold might be answers to bonus questions on your Fun & Games hunt, whose First ever Version in Italian will be on Friday April 3rd at 5.30 pm.

One Comment on “Getting a Glimpse of Ancient Greek Society from a Drinking Vase

  1. Pingback: Learning About Ancient Greek Athletes from a Roman Statue - THATMuse

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