Banquets and revels in ancient Greece


9. Banquets and Revels Depicted on Pottery

A group of subjects which play an important part on vases of all periods, especially the height of the R.F. style, but which do not exactly fall under any of the headings so far enumerated, is that of scenes connected with banquets and revels, especially of Athenian ephebi. In the ordinary “type” of banquets at all periods (as in other branches of art) the participants recline on couches on their left elbows, the right arm being free to use, and that hand often holding a drinking-cup or other appropriate attribute. In this fashion the gods—such as Dionysos, Hermes, or Herakles after his apotheosis—indulge in the pleasures of the banquet and the wine-cup. There are scenes which represent the preparations for a banquet, or young men on their way thither; and in those depicting the feast itself a table is often placed before the couch, on which viands of various kinds are seen; or the krater (mixing-bowl) stands by, ready for the drinkers to replenish their cups. Vases are also filled by means of a funnel. The results of over-indulgence are sometimes realistically indicated on the R.F. cups. After the drinking-bouts come amusements of various kinds, notably the game of the kottabos. No instances of this occur before the middle of the R.F. period, and on the cups of that time it is usually only indicated by the manner in which the banqueters twirl their kylikes with a finger crooked in the handle, preparatory to throwing the remaining drops of liquid at the little figure on the top of the kottabos-stand, the hitting of which caused part of the apparatus to fall with a ringing noise. On the latest Athenian and many Apulian vases the stand is often represented as well, not only in position for the game, but borne along by revellers. It is also carried by Seileni, Maenads, or Eros, and used by Dionysos at his banquets.

Other amusements take the form of music and dancing. The banqueters themselves play the lyre or flute, or listen to male and female performers on those instruments, or a young girl dances for their amusement. The women jugglers, tumblers, and acrobatic sword-dancers who often appear on late vases no doubt often contributed to the entertainment of the “gilded youth” of their day. Sometimes a banqueter is represented reclining on his couch and singing, the words in one or two cases being inscribed as proceeding out of his mouth. Not only men but women are represented banqueting, as on the psykter by Euphronios at Petersburg, which has a group of courtesans. This character also appears on the R.F. vases at the men's banquets.

The κῶμος or revel is equally popular with the banquet. It usually takes the form of a procession of young and elderly men in various unrestrained attitudes, dancing, singing, playing the lyre, flute, or other instruments, carrying drinking-cups and other vessels, or balancing them in sportive manner. Frequently these κῶμος scenes are of a Dionysiac character, the god himself, Seileni, Satyrs, and Maenads taking part, and sometimes human beings are mingled with them. On a vase of the series connected with the comic stage a father is seen dragging a drunken youth home from a banquet; but these scenes of rioting are not always necessarily conceived as taking place before or after social festivities. On a red-figured cup at Petersburg the subject of the return from the feast of the Brauronian Dionysos is depicted in most realistic fashion, the revellers indulging in all sorts of buffoonery and fantastic actions, which suggest an Athenian counterpart of modern Bank Holiday amusements!

To turn to a subject of a quieter character, what may be termed “love scenes” are not uncommon on vases, especially of the later period. On the Apulian vases indeed such subjects are innumerable. The usual type, occasionally found on earlier vases, is that of a youth and a seated girl exchanging presents, such as mirrors, wreaths, baskets of fruit or jewel-boxes, Eros being frequently present.Scenes of this kind were originally interpreted somewhat fantastically, as having some reference to the Eleusinian or other mysteries, an idea which no one would now seriously hold. Similar scenes which have no particular import, such as groups of women, often with Eros, occur on many R.F. vases of the later fine style, especially the pyxides and lekythi. They are all clearly fanciful, and belong to an age when tastes resembled those of the eighteenth century in their artificiality. There are also some instances, especially on the R.F. vases, where the sentiment is more definitely expressed, and couples are seen embracing or caressing one another in amorous fashion. It is not necessary to make more than passing allusion to the many vases on which this harmless sentiment is replaced by coarseness and open indecency of treatment, some of which, however, belong to the very finest stage of red-figure painting.

Finally, we may mention here a few subjects of a genre  character which seem to defy classification, and yet are sufficiently definite to require separate mention. Such are the scenes so common on the interiors of R.F. kylikes, which represent ephebi in all kinds of attitudes, or carrying all sorts of objects, the great aim of the artist being to find the most suitable design to fill in the circular space. Thus we have such subjects as a youth putting on a greave or sandals, carrying a wine-amphora or a lyre,playing with castanets, or pursuing a hare; reclining at a banquet; armed with a club or a large stone; a man leading a leopard, and a man who seems from his gestures to be treading unawares on a snake; and others of an athletic or military character, of which mention has already been made. There are also many subjects which appear to have a meaning, yet are not mythological, and cannot be satisfactorily explained; such instances it would, however, hardly be profitable to describe in detail.