Kottabos: the drinking game of ancient Greece
The ancient Greek symposium was primarily a drinking party. Kings and heroes had often enjoyed each other’s company over a few cups of wine during the time of Homer (8th century BCE) but it was only in the 600s BCE that the symposium acquired the form and context we now consider typical. It was the aristocratic event par excellence; it consisted of groups of men who came together in specially designated rooms on the host’s house to participate in an evening of drinking and intellectual discussion. Young male slaves attended the guests and served the wine; there were also female prostitutes or hetairai (courtesans), who danced, played music or offered sexual favors.
Games and singing
Despite its tendency to grow wild as more and more wine was served, early in the evening, the symposium was governed by rules. One of the drinkers was appointed symposiast (master of ceremonies) and decided on the sequence of activities. The guests reclined on couches (there could be as many as fifteen couches and thirty guests) and received their drink from the slaves; a large kratēr in the middle of the room was used to dilute the wine with water (one part wine to two or three parts water). As the night progressed, the mixture became stronger (less water, more wine) and the guests less reserved (eventually the female attendants ended up climbing on the couches). The philosophical and political discussions then gave way to competitive singing and drinking games.
The most popular game was kottabos. According to Athenaeus, the game originated in Sicily and the name (which roughly translates to “wine-dregs”) is itself a Sicilian word. At its most basic form, the purpose of the game was to take the wet substance left behind from the drained drinking cup and fling it into a basin or onto a target. It may sound simple, but it was a game that demanded both skill and elegance; the symposiast required a steady hand and a fine sense of touch, much like a “good flute player”. The successful competitor was more likely to be the one who could bend his wrist with the most elegance.
Depending on the target, kottabos had many variations. One version required small saucers floating in a basin of water that was set between the symposiasts; the goal was to use the wine dregs to sink the saucers. Another target could be a disk balanced flat atop a tall pole; much like in a modern Greek taverna, the disk would be knocked off by the wine and fall with a crash (OPA!). Other targets could be truly elaborate constructions; according to a red-figure cup by Apollodoros (ca. 490 BCE), the target consisted of a flat pan, on which stood a tripod that balanced a phallus-headed bird!
The phallus-headed bird highlights a crucial aspect of the game, its erotic nature. The wine dregs flying through the air were described as “Cyprian” or “Aphrodisiac”. The players declared for whom they were playing and claimed sexual favors as a reward for a successful cast. A symposiast in Sophocles’ Salmoneus established tickling and the peck of kisses as prizes of victory for the man who cast the kottabos most pleasingly. A successful cast also signaled success in love. The hetairai were also allowed to participate in the game. Sometimes they were free to choose their partner and they often cast their wine dregs directly at the men, rather than at the inanimate target. A red-figured psykter by Euphronios (ca. 520 BCE) depicts a naked woman named Smikra (The Little One) in the process of throwing her wine in honor of a man called Leagros.
There were also some drinking games that required the physical engagement of the symposiasts. During the evening, guests endeavored to perform various types of exercises that involved all parts of their bodies and a range of cups and vases. A drinker may squat and balance a cup in the crook of his elbow, while holding a pitcher with his other hand, with the purpose of pouring its contents into the cup. Another may try to carry his cloak and an amphora with his foot. A red-figure cup (from the 510s BCE) has a young man in a state of erection attempting to carry a krater on his belly. Thirty years later, another young man tried to hold his cup in his teeth while keeping his arms and legs extended.
All this wine-dregs tossing and bizarre juggling were not to everyone’s taste, of course. Many intellectuals rejected these drinking games as coarse and tasteless, preferring to entertain themselves with “challenges”. The premise of this pastime was that any symposiast could issue a challenge such as riddles or singing songs. Elegiac poetry was closely associated with the symposium; the guests would compose songs on the spot in elegiac meter (often using a stock of themes and phrases that circulated widely) and sing it in the accompanied of an aulos. Another challenge involved round of speeches on a selected topic (the most famous being the debate on the nature of love in Plato’s Symposium).
A symposium, therefore, offered a range of entertainment options, which made the role of the symposiarch even more important. According to Plutarch, his aim should be “to preserve an atmosphere of cheerfulness” and to “sponsor a mixture of serious and playful events suited to the individual characters of those present”. The frivolous guests would thus receive some much-needed education, while the more serious and reserved symposiasts would relax and forget their worries. And at the end of the night, if all went well, everyone would stumble home content and blissful.