Thursday, October 29, 2015


Marek Wecowski, The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xxv, 400. ISBN 9780199684014. $175.00.

Reviewed by Adam Rabinowitz, The University of Texas at Austin (

Version at BMCR home site


It is hard to write a book that says something new about the symposium: the scholarly landscape continues to be dominated by the work done by Oswyn Murray over the three decades since his publication of a series of foundational articles in the early 1980s. Hard, but not impossible, as recent works have demonstrated1—yet these suggest that it is even harder to say something new about the symposium while escaping the gravitational pull of late Archaic and Classical Athens. Marek Wecowski is to be commended, therefore, for accomplishing both of these difficult feats. The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet considers the role of commensality in the formation of the early Greek political community, and concludes that communal drinking practices provided a critical context for the integration and assimilation of new members into the ranks of the elite. Wecowski's work differs from existing treatments of the symposium in significant ways: it finds the central elements of the institution—in particular, an emphasis on equality and turn-taking—already hidden behind the 'Homeric banquet'; it examines not only literary and iconographic but also archaeological evidence for Early Iron Age drinking; and, building on recent theoretical discussions (especially those of Michael Dietler and Alain Duplouy), it argues that social status was fluid and contested in early Greece, and that communal drinking was an arena for the resolution of the resulting tensions.

Before discussing the structure of the book, two notes about its coverage are necessary. First, the title is somewhat misleading. Wecowski is in fact primarily concerned with the drinking occasion we (and he) generally call the symposion; the "aristocratic banquet", with its evocation of the Homeric feast, turns out to be the symposium in disguise. Second, while the introduction and the first two chapters are primarily concerned with literary and iconographic evidence from the Archaic and early Classical periods (part I), the bulk of Wecowski's argument focuses on the Early Iron Age (part II), where he places the emergence of the "aristocratic banquet" that gives the book its title. Readers looking for a treatment of the institution across a linear chronological arc, or for the contextualization of the symposium in the seventh or sixth century BCE, should bear this in mind.

The reverse chronological arrangement is a deliberate strategy, and it underlines one of Wecowski's central claims: that the most important aspects of the symposium can be read backwards from the rich textual evidence of late Archaic and Classical Greece onto the more fragmentary record for the more distant past (7). He therefore undertakes to define the most significant characteristics of the symposium in part I, and then, in part II, searches for signs of those characteristics in both Homeric poetry and archaeological evidence from the Early Iron Age (in practice, mainly the eighth century BCE). Although this approach takes the reader back and forth in time, it is easy to follow the flow of the argument, which builds logically across a series of chapters that present variations on a central theme.

That theme is male equality: equality among the group of drinkers and equality within the body of a political community in which the definition of "aristocrat" had been significantly expanded. The symposium allowed the tension between this ideology of equality and the spirit of competition to be channeled into symbolic acts, and thus served to integrate upwardly-mobile landowning farmers with a traditional warrior elite in a "true aristocracy" (333).

The centrality of equality to the symposium is established in part I. After an introduction in which Wecowski summarizes recent scholarship and offers a preliminary definition of the symposium as "a culture-oriented drinking occasion for Greek élites" (11), he turns to the identification of those élites in chapter 1. Here he acknowledges Duplouy's critique of the idea of an early Greek hereditary "aristocracy",2 but argues that the term is still an appropriate description for the group of "more equal" people who possessed greater political and economic power in a given community (p. 23). Importantly, however, Wecowski does not believe that this was a stable status. Instead, it had to be performed and backed by sufficient resources, leaving the door open to claims to "aristocratic" status by rising "commoners".

Wecowski turns at this point to a detailed description of the behavior and practices associated with the symposium. This description, drawn for the most part from Classical literary and iconographic sources, emphasizes the performative nature of the symposium and the cultural knowledge that would have been required for successful self-presentation. Fellow drinkers with the right training would have enjoyed equal status within this context, regardless of background. This ensured the evolutionary success of an aristocratic class by allowing upwardly-mobile new members in while gradually forcing out those who lost the economic or social resources necessary to participate (77).

Once chapter 1 has focused the definition of the symposium on the nominal equality of its participants, chapter 2 proposes a set of indices that could mark a Greek commensal occasion as a symposium. The main thrust of this chapter is the rejection of the kline and the reclining posture as formal criteria, and their replacement with the idea of circulation—of cups, of speech, of turns in drinking games. This circulation, always epidexia, "to the right", is for Wecowski a definitive marker of the egalitarian ethos that made a gathering a symposium (117-121).

The identification of a sympotic criterion based on practice, rather than posture, provides the organizing principle for part II. In chapter 3, Wecowski follows Murray in the identification of the famous "cup of Nestor" found at Pithekoussai as precocious evidence for the symposium, but goes further in his reading of the hexameter inscription as a sign of the circulation of the cup among a group of drinkers (135). On the basis of this reading, he argues that the cup must be the product of a developed sympotic culture. The next portion of the chapter is devoted to a refutation of the idea that the symposium was borrowed from the Levant, which makes two main points: the reclining position is not a defining feature of the Greek symposium until late in its development, and therefore the eighth-century testimony for the reclining banquet in the Levant has no bearing on its origins (147); and egalitarianism and the emphasis on circulation are fundamentally Greek elements (158). This is followed by a rather abrupt transition to a discussion of sympotic architecture in early Greece, which continues the general critique of couches as a sympotic criterion but also develops an argument for the location of early Greek drinking in public space (in sanctuaries: 175; in "élite dining halls": 178-185).3

Having argued forcefully that the symposium is both fundamentally Greek and early in its origins, Wecowski turns in chapter 4 turns to sympotic elements glimpsed behind the "heroic feasts" of Homeric epic. I found this chapter, with its thoughtful and exacting analysis of the dynamics of the Homeric banquet and the way in which the reality of the symposium periodically flashes through the idealized heroic dais (234), the most successful of the book. The chapter culminates in a compelling claim that both the Iliad and the Odyssey struggle with the tension between the idea of a "proper" hierarchical feast and a newer, egalitarian but potentially disorderly drinking ritual (246).

Newer—but how much newer? Chapter 5 sets out to identify the earliest recognizable symposia, a question thrown into relief by the rejection of the kline as a marker and the identification of sympotic elements in the epic poems. Here Wecowski returns to archaeological evidence, now drawn primarily from funerary contexts. He recognizes the difficulty of identifying a material index for the symposium, and looks instead for "sympotic patterns" on a contextual level (251). But he seeks these patterns among objects he has already associated with the symposium, such as the "cup of Nestor" or combinations of cups and oinochoai described as "sympotic" (256). It is thus a short leap to the interpretation of this material as evidence for the earliest manifestations of the practice. The boom in Attic Middle Geometric II drinking pottery allows Wecowski to place around 800 BCE his terminus ante quem for the birth of the symposium as he defines it (292-293).

I found this chapter less convincing than the others. The most promising section, on the puzzling phenomenon of "multi-storeyed vases" and the appearance of the strap-handled kantharos in the Middle Geometric ceramic repertoire, argues that these vases were meant both "to amuse the drinkers" and to test their "skill and experience" in handling awkward vessels gracefully. These are by far the best evidence for the ludic and circulatory elements that Wecowski proposes as indicia of sympotic behavior.4 The other vessels cited in this chapter seem to meet his definition only by the frequency of their appearance, and it is not clear why they should be understood to refer to the symposium rather than wine-drinking in general. Yet the dating proposed in chapter 5 becomes the linchpin for chapter 6, an extensive conclusion that provides a summary account of the historical circumstances that catalyzed the development of the symposium and an analysis of its role in the formation of the polis.

This book has many strengths. Wecowski brings to bear an impressive range of evidence, and his treatment of different sources is generally sensitive and nuanced. He lays out a particularly clear argument for the centrality of performance to the definition of the symposium, and I suspect his identification of circulation as an index of sympotic behavior will be widely adopted. His emphasis on social mobility, too, is a valuable addition to the literature on the drinking party. Most importantly, he makes a systematic attempt to combine textual and (non-iconographic) archaeological evidence, which allows him to break free of the tyranny of Classical Athens over sympotic studies.

As is natural for such an ambitious endeavor, however, there are areas in which the book falls short of its goals. On the whole, the treatment of the archaeological evidence is less sophisticated than that of the literary sources. I would have liked to see a more formal definition of the term "aristocracy", given its central role in the book. Wecowski clearly does not see the early Greek "aristocracy" as a hereditary class, but if it is simply "the group of people who had power in a community at a given moment", I am not sure why this is a better term than "élite", especially when it carries historical baggage. Sometimes the book tries to cover too much ground: this is most apparent in the appendices to the introduction and chapters 1 and 3, which contain issues the author wanted to address but couldn't fit into the flow of the argument, and in truncated attempts to deal with the broader Mediterranean context in chapters 3 and 5.

But these are only problems because of the book's intellectual scope, which otherwise makes it an important contribution to a growing body of revisionist scholarship on the symposium. The production value is high; there are very few typographic errors, and those are primarily concentrated in the bibliography.5 The illustrations are of high quality, although not all of them seem fundamental to the argument (by contrast, a drawing of the inscription on the cup of Nestor is not included, despite its importance for one of the book's central claims). The book as a whole is directed more at historians than at archaeologists, and it is geared to a specialized scholarly audience. Its broad coverage and the relative independence of its chapters, however, make it easy to excerpt for teaching purposes: chapter 3, for example, sparked discussion in a graduate seminar I recently taught on the archaeology of Greek colonization. The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet, with its wide-ranging new reading of the origins of the symposium and its thought-provoking interpretation of the dynamics of the early Greek community, will surely inspire many more such discussions.


1.   Especially K.M. Lynch. 2011. The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora. Princeton, N.J: American School of Classical Studies at Athens; and F. Hobden. 2013. The Symposion in Ancient Greek Society and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.   Duplouy, A. 2006. Le prestige des élites: recherches sur les modes de reconnaissance sociale en Grèce entre les Xe et Ve siècles avant J.-C. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
3.   I have made similar claims in my 2004 dissertation and in a 2009 book chapter (A. Rabinowitz. 2009. "Drinking from the same cup: Sparta and late Archaic commensality." In Sparta: Comparative Approaches, edited by Stephen Hodkinson, 113-192. Swansea: Duckworth and Classical Press of Wales), as has Lisa Nevett (L.C. Nevett. 2010. Domestic Space in Classical Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 62). Wecowski cites these works elsewhere but not here.
4.   See John Papadopoulos' discussion of the LG "Akrotione-Molione" oinochoe, which argues that this vase was a sympotic "joke" in the same vein (J. Papadopoulos. 1999. "Tricks and twins: Nestor, Aktorione-Molione, the Agora Oinochoe, and the potter who made them." In Meletemata, edited by P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur, and W-D. Niemeier, 633-640. Liège: Université de Liège).
5.   Most of these regard entries for books in languages other than English, but I noticed that my own chapter in Sparta: Comparative Approaches and the volume itself, published in 2009, were both cited as appearing in 2000.

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