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History

First, recall the exclusively aristocratic social context for the symposium as we’ve assembled it from the Archaic poets, and, for Athenian sexuality, review your lecture notes and Plato’s Symposium. (With the latter, don’t confuse Plato’s imaginary dinner party with the ‘real thing’ — consider what that dialogue tells us about Athenian views on sexuality, but don’t write about that dialogue in your narrative.) With the primary sources in mind, consider how aristocratic identities and sensibilities were re-negotiated at the symposium, the way it represented a place where the aristocrat could compete and boast and play the hero in a way that was unacceptable in public — picture the staid kouros in contrast with the dancing fools on vases depicting symposiasts.

Second, look through the symposium on flickr, where I’ve placed images of several archaic Greek vases, each of which may have been used in Athenian symposia. Choose one of the vases assigned to your cluster (or another one if you’re really keen on one assigned to different groups). Each subset of photos depicts one vase, some of which have well-preserved decoration on two surfaces; that is, two different scenes on the same vase. Figure out what each scene depicts…for example, the vase for groups Syracuse and Rome depicts the suicide of Ajax. Using the characters labeled here (find the relevant images, keeping in mind that your vase may include two scenes), look on wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet, in a book on mythology, whatever. Read about the characters and try to identify the particular scene that’s depicted on your group’s vase. Consider the questions listed in the companion instructions.

Finally, the writeup. Imagine that you are an Athenian attending a symposium at which this vase is part of the wine-serving apparatus. Be creative…you can choose any plausible character — adult male citizen, adolescent male, prostitute, female entertainer, slave serving food. Then, in the voice of that participant, write about his/her experience in attending the symposium as I’ve described it and with any other aspects you’ve found in your own research. What did men like best about this occasion? How did they play roles as mentors/pederasts? What was the experience of slaves and women? How did adolescent boys approach and experience the pederastic relationships in which they engaged at the symposium? What was ‘dangerous’ about the symposium to various participants?

Set the scene in this way, but don’t dwell too long on the generalities. I want your character to frame these issues with commentary on the vase that you’ve chosen to describe. Put that vase in the symposium, as a krater (vase types explained below) sitting in the center of the room or as a cup circulating through the crowd, for example, and write about how the vase and the mythological scenes depicted on it served to prompt competitive discussion and storytelling and singing. Start with the physical — write about how your character and others at the symposium interacted with the vase. Imagine an amphora or a krater standing in the center of the room holding the wine that drove the activity. How did people interact with it physically? What about a cup? What did people have to do to ‘read’ the scenes on these vases; where were the vases placed in the room; how were they handled? How did the story depicted function as a frame for an aristocratic gathering? Then move onto description of the scene…write about how a Greek would have identified this image — what non-textual attributes indicated ‘Herakles’ or ‘Artemis’ to the Greek viewer (think clothing, facial hair, weapons)? Describe the action and how it’s represented. Then write about the broader story that the scene implies…not just what’s going on at the moment depicted, but how that moment refers to a larger mythic structure, but as your character or other symposiasts would have re-told the story.

Remember that these elaborately painted vases were conversation starters…aristocrats would compete with each other to show how well they ‘understood’ the scene, and then sing songs about the scene and its broader storyline. Write about why this myth was good (or possibly bad) for party conversation/singing…how did the myth resonate with the crowd attending the symposium? Did the story say something about aristocratic identity, and in the process expose uncomfortable contradictions? About Athens, too? Aristocrats used the symposium as an opportunity to compete with each other in a way they couldn’t do in the public arena. Remember that though they could no longer be ‘heroes’ in public (unless aiming for tyranny!), they could compete for that kind of prestige in private, among other aristocrats. So the stories on these vases were not just passive entertainment, then; they were what engaged participants at the symposium. Each aristocrat wanted not only to identify the mythic story and tell/sing it himself, but he also wanted to use it to make a point about his ancestry or to use it to illustrate something about the ‘proper’ way to be an aristocrat in this private, heroicizing setting. Consider that the ‘danger’ of the symposium is hinted at in each of these scenes, that there was something discomfiting about the suicide of Ajax, about Actaeon’s punishment, about the death of Agamemnon, about Achilles falling in love with Penthesilea at the moment he killed her. Build all this into the conversations your character watches or engages in at the syposium.

5-6 pages…and again make it clear that you’ve read the primary sources.

vase types
amphora — storage vessel for wine
krater — large open bowl for mixing the wine with water (Greeks never drank wine straight)
drinking cup — large cups that would be passed around the symposium

cls 1500 vase painting myth hints for second narrativeDismiss cls 1500 vase painting myth hints for second narrative
(see project instructions first)

Following are specific questions to guide you through the myths and get you thinking about possible resonance with aristocratic experience and anxieties. We talked a lot about the erotic/romantic experience of Athenian aristocrats in class, but not every one of these scenes is primarily concerned with those issues. Recall what we’ve covered about social status and political tensions as well. Think also about the contradiction between boasting aristocratic ambition and the political incorrectness of tyranny, for example, or the tension between the expectation of emotional reserve in public and the emotional release offered by the symposium.

groups Carthage and Veii> Who’s the dead guy, and why is he being dragged off like this? How does this scene reinforce aristocratic privilege and ideas about death? What does Sarpedon gain in this myth that’s no longer available to aristocrats in Athens?

groups Rome and Syracuse> Why is Ajax preparing to kill himself (he’s planting his sword in the ground to jump on it)? Why does the artist show this precursor to the event rather than the suicide itself? Is this heroic? What ‘risk’ of behavior at the symposium does this myth allude to?

groups Athens and Sparta> How would the symposiasts recognize the goddess Artemis? What identifying markers would they ‘read’ here? How is the tale adjusted to make sense visually? And given that running afoul of a goddess isn’t a danger in the real world, what warning does this vase deliver to symposiasts in the midst of the boasting climate of the party?

groups Corinth and Delphi> What kind of figure is Herakles? Why is he wrestling a lion on one side, and stealing the sacred tripod of Apollo on the other side? In what ways would Herakles have served as both idol and warning to aristocrats at the symposium? What specific character flaw was alluring and risky at the same time?

groups Pergamon and Alexandria> What is the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos (Patrocles) in the epic tradition? How is it shown here, and why is that relevant for a symposium? How does the physical location of this painted scene on the vase itself matter in how symposiasts would ‘read’ it?

groups Antioch and Persepolis> What is happening at this moment? Can you see some interaction between Achilles and Penthesilea other than battle/killing…something that would be seen as dangerous to Achilles? In what way was that ‘danger’ exactly what aristocrats were pursuing and indulging in at the symposium?

groups Babylon and Akkad> Why might this myth be disturbing to Athenian men at the symposium? Though clearly an exaggeration, to what possible wifely power does this story allude? Note in particular an alternative version of this myth, in which Clytemnestra executes Agamemnon herself, in part justifying her action beacause her husband brought Cassandra (a Trojan princess) back home from Troy.

groups Knossos and Amarna> Why is Odysseus tied to his ship’s mast? How does the experience he’s pursuing echo what the aristocrats are doing at the symposium?

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Category: Sample Questions