Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Academia of Debauchery

Having, on frequent occasion, spent evenings like this past Saturday with friends who are also academics, collapsing political and lightly philosophical discussions in the early morning hours into creating the crudest possible limericks and converting those into salsa songs (Una dama que venía de Nantucket...), it is worth reminding myself on occasion of the noble roots of my calling.
If the Bacchanalia created a blueprint for our most depraved debauches, the ancients also bequeathed us its more elegant counterpart: the learned drinking party or symposium. Like the Algonquin roundtable of 1920s New York, it was a brilliant excuse for all forms of excess: In classical Athens, A-list philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates loved to gather for wine-fueled intellectual bouts, during which they would recline on sumptuous couches, sip wine from ornate goblets, be entertained by beautiful lute girls and handsome dancing boys, and throw themselves into scintillating debate. In fact, Plato’s fundamental tract, The Symposium, is based on a real party in 415 B.C. Athens, attended by a revolving cast of artists, thinkers, and politicians, including the playwright Aristophanes and the dashing, up-and-coming general Alcibiades. The wine was mixed with water in a bowl called a krater, then passed amongst the guests in a communal cup engraved with erotic drawings; the food was simply prepared, with plenty of olives, honey, feta, and freshly grilled fish. Plato says the boozing and philosophizing went on all night, until everyone except Socrates fell asleep in a stupor.

Many other symposia were far less dignified. The fourth-century B.C. poet Eubulus describes a typical evening in Athens, when the bright conversation degenerated as the wine cup was passed around. While the first few drinks inspired moments of brilliance, he writes, “the fourth libation belongs to Hubris; the fifth to Shouting; the Sixth to Revel; the seventh to Black Eyes; the eighth to Summonses; the Ninth to Bile; and the tenth to Madness.” After the parties, philosophers and their golden-haired boys would run around the dark streets, scribbling graffiti under sophomorish pseudonyms like Sacred Erection, and squander their inheritances on the beautiful and talented Greek courtesans, called heiterai, who lay in wait.

After conquering Greece, the Romans adapted the symposium tradition for their own more civilized banquets frequented by poets and great minds. Around 200 A.D., one of the unsung classics of Western literature, Deipnosophistae — “The Drunken Professors” — was penned by the bon vivant Athenaeus, a Greek-born author who grew up as a scion of the Roman Empire. Set at a fictional dinner party, it is basically a compendium of anecdotes about great moments in the history of food, wine, and entertainment, drawing on the whole Greco-Roman world. Of course, the issues that were mulled by these boozed-up professors are still fascinating at social gatherings today, and it could be said that this column is a direct descendant of Athenaeus’ noble project.


Olivier said...

This may not count as a learned drinking party, but the best description of ancient Roman ribaldry is Trimalchio's dinner in the Satyricon, Petronius' first-centry novel. It makes anything else you've ever read seem pretty tame.

MT said...

So between Donald Davidson and Carlos Castenada it's clear who's the phony.

Engraved Pens said...

The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Roman and Greek god Bacchus. Introduced into Rome from lower Italy by way of Etruria (c. 200 BC), the bacchanalia were originally held in secret and only attended by women. The festivals occurred on three days of the year in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men and celebrations took place five times a month. According to Livy, the extension happened in an era when the leader of the Bacchus cult was Paculla Annia - though it is now believed that some men had participated before that.

Livy informs us that the rapid spread of the cult, which he claims indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings, led in 186 BC to a decree of the Senate—the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Apulia in Southern Italy (1640), now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna—by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree (Livy claims there were more executions than imprisonment), the Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression.