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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Athenian Cookery and the Symposium













Page 15

Games and Entertainments


    By the time the craters are one third emptied the general conversation is beginning to be broken up. It is time for various standard diversions. Eunapius therefore begins by enjoining on each guest in turn to sing a verse in which a certain letter must not appear, and in event of failure to pay some ludicrous forfeit. Thus the bald man is ordered to begin to comb his hair; the lame man (halt since the Mantinea campaign), to stand up and dance to the flute player, etc. There are all kinds of guessing of riddles—often very ingenious as become the possessors of "Attic salt." Another diversion is to compare every guest present to some mythical monster, a process which infallibly ends by getting the "Parasite" likened to Cerberus, the Hydra, or some such dragon, amid the laughter of all the rest. At some point in the amusement the company is sure to get to singing songs:—"Scolia"—drinking songs indeed, but often of a serious moral or poetic character, whereof the oft-quoted song in praise of Harmodius and Aristogeiton the tyrant-slayers is a good example.[16] No "gentleman" will profess to be a public singer, but to have a deep, well-trained voice, and to be able to take one's part in the symposium choruses is highly desirable, and some of the singing at Proicus's banquet is worth hearing.

    Before the evening is over various games will be ordered in, especially the "cottabus," which is in great vogue. On the top of a high stand, something like a candelabrum, is balanced rather delicately a little saucer of brass. The players stand at a considerable distance with cups of wine. The game is to toss a small quantity of wine into the balanced saucer so smartly as to make the brass give out a clear ringing sound, and to tilt upon its side.[17] Much shouting, merriment, and a little wagering ensues. While most of the company prefer the cottabus, two, who profess to be experts, call for a gaming board and soon are deep in the "game of towns"—very like to latter-day "checkers," played with a board divided into numerous squares. Each contestant has thirty colored stones, and the effort is to surround your opponent's stones and capture them. Some of the company, however, regard this as too profound, and after trying their skill at the cottabus betake themselves to the never failing chances of dice. Yet these games are never suffered (in refined dinner parties) to banish the conversation. That after all is the center, although it is not good form to talk over learnedly of statecraft, military tactics, or philosophy. If such are discussed, it must be with playful abandon, and a disclaimer of being serious; and even very grave and gray men remember Anacreon's preference for the praise of "the glorious gifts of the Muses and of Aphrodite" rather than solid discussions of "conquest and war."


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