Fragment of a statuette of a bearded reclining banqueter, circa 520BC Australian National University Classics Museum. On display at AD Hope Building, ANU, Canberra. About 2500 years ago, a small select group of elite men would gather in private for drinking parties. But these were no ordinary drinking parties. They were the ultimate networking opportunity; a get-together where friendships were forged and political alliances secured.
These gatherings, or symposiums, were an important cultural institution in ancient Greece. Participants would meet in a special room. They would recline on couches that had been arranged around the walls so all the men could see each other. Of course there was food and wine, often lots of it by some accounts.
The focus of the evening was poetry and discussion of philosophy, politics and current affairs. But there were also drinking games, jokes, gossip and entertainment.
Symposiums are widely referenced in Greek literature, theatre and the visual arts. Perhaps the best known is Plato’s The Symposium, featuring historical characters such as Socrates, Aristophanes, Alcibiades and Agathon having a discussion about the meaning of love.
Symposium scenes were often depicted in frescoes and on pots. But participants also were sculptured in clay, and one such example is on display at the Australian National University’s Classics Museum in Canberra. This statuette of a reclining male banqueter comes from a series of terracottas characteristic of the Spartan colony of Taranto, a centre for the manufacture of terracottas of human forms.
It is evident that the lower body, the right arm and the legs are missing. But, despite this, what remains is a beguiling example of the late Archaic period in Greece (700BC to 480BC). The face is dominated by protruding eyes, an Archaic smile and a beard. The chest is sturdy, with erect nipples, the body, broad-shouldered.
ANU classics professor Elizabeth Minchin says the function of this statuette is “a little bit hazy” but it may have been produced to serve a local cult worship of family heroes. She says this sculpture is curious for several reasons.
“It is thought that the head was created independently of the body,” she says. “If you look at it carefully it appears to have the kind of hairstyle that would have belonged to a woman. So a beard has been attached separately, as has the lovely garland around the head, to make it work for a male.
“But what I love about this figurine is the slightly mysterious Archaic smile. These are smiles that you see on all kinds of Archaic statues, a self-aware smile. It is always called a smile, but is it really a smile? I think Archaic heads and faces have a kind of formality and stylisation that you lose once you move into the classical and then into the Hellenistic world, where sculptures become realistic portrayals of real people.”
Minchin says there is much interest in seeing the form of an Archaic figure. “Our museum can’t afford to purchase a giant kouros figure such as the Getty Museum might have, but we can have a figure in miniature that illustrates just as precisely the same features: the smile, the eyes and the physique.”