In modern usage, the word symposium has come to mean “a conference organized for the discussion of some particular subject,” “a collection of opinions, especially a published group of essays,” or “any meeting or social gathering at which ideas are freely exchanged.” The ancient Greek roots of the word have misled many into imagining that ancient symposiums resembled modern symposiums and were also primarily intellectual events.
Little could be farther from the truth. Ancient symposiums resembled drunken stag parties more than a modern symposium. As a rule, large quantities of wine were consumed, maybe a few poems were recited (more likely dirty little ditties making fun of one’s elders, opponents or rivals), politics might be discussed (not necessarily at a niveau above that of a modern pub) and then there was a lot of drunken singing, or the participants competed in such “elevated” activities as seeing who could throw their wine farthest, while being entertained and/or serviced by prostitutes and the ancient equivalent of strip-tease dancers, before staggering home too drunk to see straight and requiring (sober) slaves to ensure a safe arrival.
It was not uncommon for drunken bands of youth from rival symposiums to end up brawling in the streets, and the even a leading statesman such as Alcibiades could be accused of committing large-scale sacrilege with his friends after a symposium. In short, ideas and politics might have been discussed occasionally at some of symposiums, but a symposium was primarily about male indulgence in excessive drink and sex -- not intellectual exchange.
Anyone familiar with Spartan society will understand why the Spartans disdained such activities and why Spartan authorities instituted laws (like not being allowed to light a torch at night) to prevent their young men from being seduced into such activities. But there is another feature of Athenian symposiums which was equally un-Spartan: the exploitation of women.
As James Davidson makes clear in his seminal work on Athenian society Courtesans and Fishcakes, a good Athenian host boasted about the “beautiful girls” and “babes” he would offer his guests. Since no respectable woman (wife, mother or daughter) was allowed to show her face or set foot in a symposium, all the women present were sexual objects, and almost all were slaves. Yes, there were the occasional so-called “hetaere” that like Japanese geishas were trained to cater to a more sophisticated clientele by having a smattering of education and skills such as playing instruments or singing, but very few of these women were free. They too had to surrender all or some of their earnings to their owner (pimp). And hetaere were the “privileged” prostitutes, the “admired” prostitutes – what we might call “call girls” today or “courtesans” in the 17th and 18th century. But it only went downhill from here – to flute girl, household slave and “sex-worker” in a brothel.
As Anton Powell notes in Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC (London: 1988), prostitution was widespread, taxed, and consorting with prostitutes was considered perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible, even for youth of the upper-classes -- in Athens. The only social restriction on male intercourse with prostitutes was that it was considered bad taste for a married man to bring a prostitute into the house where his wife lived, or to spend the money he received from his wife’s dowry on expensive prostitutes. Powell also notes, however, that it was common for men to maintain concubines under the same roof as their legal wives, and that sex with slave girls did not even count as infidelity in the Athenian courts. Clearly, Athens was a paradise for the sexually active male.
The “pleasures” of Athenian society, and especially of symposiums, were restricted – as was democracy, intellectual achievement, and artistic creativity – to that half of Athens’ population that was male. Respectable women were excluded from the symposium, just as they were excluded from drinking wine, eating fish or meat, exercise, education and political rights. As for the women allowed to participate in symposium, with very few exceptions, they were slaves with no choice in where they went, who they serviced, or what they were asked to do. They did not even receive compensation for their services, since the high prices paid by the customers went to their male owners, enriching him, not them. For the women of ancient Athens, symposiums were torture chambers.
It is to Sparta's credit that no such abuse -- much less the glorification of the abuse of women and children as these symposiums represented -- was sanctioned or recorded in Spartan society.