Unbottling the drinking culture of the ancient Greeks

Written by Tom | 30th September 2020

This may not be the year for celebrating, but parties did once exist - although it feels like a lifetime ago. In fact, parties, and the drinking that accompanies them, have been part of everyday life for thousands of years. The ancient cultures of the world were partial to getting together for a drink and a bit of debauchery. We asked archaeology expert Peter Reynaers, to help us explore the drinking and party culture of ancient Greece via a few surviving artefacts

When studying ancient cultures, it's easy to overlook that celebration was a major part of their everyday lives. After all, we know the ancient Greeks for their philosophizing and fascination with the celestial. 

This kylix has been painted with the gods of merrymaking and partying on it.

But according to Peter, less is known about their more hedonistic tendencies. “Take rituals such as the Dionysian Mysteries in ancient Greece for instance. A cult following the god of the wine harvest–Dionysus or Bacchus–whereby those partaking would drink until they drop, so to speak, as a way of letting the god possess them”. Another ritual in Greece, known as The Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone, in part by drinking kykeon, a beverage, that for this ceremony was made with a fungus containing psychoactive properties. This was meant to heighten the experience of life and overcome the fear of death. 

Though some rituals were reserved for a select few, additional artefacts prove that revelry was by no means a private affair. 

The kylix and kottabos

No party can get going without the right drinking vessel and, in some cases, the right game. If kids had ‘spin the bottle’ in the 90s, then the Ancient Greeks had Kottabos (κότταβος in ancient Greek). To play, you needed a kylix. “The kylix is a band-cup, or a drinking cup for wine, from the 6th century BCE”, explains Peter. “This vase is painted in black on red —a technique that was common between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE that gave rise to a significant number of identifiable artists. On it, you’ll find Satyrs and Maenads, followers of the God Dionysus - the god of merrymaking and drinking”. 

As for the game Kottabos, the rules were fairly straightforward. “One simply had to throw the last remnants of wine out of a cup onto a target—usually a metal disc mounted on a large stand so that the disc rattled or a dish floating in wine until it sank”, Peter explains. Winners would likely receive another drink, however, the prize these days is actually finding a cup in good condition. “What’s notable about kylixes is the form they’re found in. Archaeologists often find them with their handles broken because they were used in this little game”. 

The krater


The ancient Greeks also had a different word for parties. These were known as symposia (drinking parties), or a symposium for the singular, and at any symposium, you were guaranteed to stumble upon a drinking vessel known as a krater. “The term 'krater' suggests a mixing-vessel and can be compared to the Greek word kerannumi, which means to mix. We know that the wine served at the symposium was mixed with water because undiluted wine was seen as too heavy and barbaric.” This says a lot about the Greeks’ view of the Romans and their drinking culture, who were known for drinking wine undiluted. The Greeks even had a system of dilution, determined by the type of occasion. For longer, meaningful conversations, one would mix a ratio of 1:3 wine to water. For more spirited times, 1:2, and if you were looking to get drunk, 1:1. The latter, however, was frowned heavily upon. 

Kraters often have designs depicting symposium scenes.

Records suggest that kraters were placed at the centre of the party for everyone to access. As large vessels, they become heavy as they fill up, so it made sense to ensure that these intoxicated revellers could easily reach them. “At any symposium, one participant was nominated to determine the ratio of wine to water,” explains Peter. “They would also determine when this changed as the party progressed and how often people had their cups refilled. This job came with responsibility, however, as they had to make sure the party didn’t descend into drunken chaos”. 

Kraters were placed at the centre of a room so as to be as accessible as possible.

Most kraters had a specific design, and it gives us a sense of how deeply the ancient Greeks valued celebration. Archaeologists have uncovered them at burial sites across the Mediterranean, sometimes used as containers for the deceased. Even in the grave, the celebration continues. “Most vases were decorated with symposium scenes, like this one which depicts Komos scene – a scene of half-drunk people after a symposium”, says Peter. “Uncovering objects like these help us see why antiquity is sometimes better than the present day. It’s a never-ending source of inspiration and lessons in how to live, even in the places you least expect it”. 


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