The Journey Back
The Journey Back
Symposia of the Past
Abstract and Keywords
Chapter 5 deals with mosaics that depict centaurs and floral patterns, imagery that is often considered purely decorative. This chapter suggests that the mosaics under consideration here refer to Classical notions of early (as opposed to contemporary) symposia: while the lush abundance of the floral mosaics resituate symposiasts in an idyllic golden era, centaurs recall a brutish, precivilized past, during which the civility of the ideal symposium was impossible. Unlike the figural mosaics discussed in the previous chapters, which facilitate the removal of the symposiast from the quotidian to a foreign or exotic landscape, these mosaics resituate the symposiasts temporally.
AT THE BEGINNING of his Life of Theseus, Plutarch describes the problem that such an ancient subject poses to the historian (1.1):
Just as geographers, O Socius Senecio, crowd on to the outer edges of their maps the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that “What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts,” or “blind marsh,” or “Scythian cold,” or “frozen sea,” so in the writing of my Parallel Lives, now that I have traversed those periods of time which are accessible to probable reasoning and which afford a basis for a history dealing with facts, I might well say of the earlier periods: “What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity.”1
It happens that the hazy terrain of Greece’s early history, into which, Plutarch decides, he must venture, is of interest to us in this final chapter, but his choice of metaphor is also an apt introduction to our subject. The geographer and the historian exist in a particular spatiotemporality: the here and now.2 The further their subject is from them, in space or time, the more difficult it is to access with precision. When he describes a land to which few (or none) have ventured—a “there” at the most extreme distance from the “here”—the ancient geographer is forced to deal with vague generalities, hearsay, or, even, (p.151) imagination. So, too, the historian’s distant “then” is veiled in rumor and myth. The location of these times and places at the edges of knowledge, their resistance to “probable reasoning,” and their susceptibility to exaggeration or outright fictionalization are issues that concern Plutarch more than us. But his metaphorical framing of history as a spatial phenomenon—of time as a topography to be traversed—beautifully illustrates the notion that distant “theres” and “thens” are somehow comparable.
In this chapter, I deal with two groups of mosaics: the first depicts abundant vegetation, including flora and vines, that extends across the andron floor; the second features centaurs, the infamous wine-loving half beasts of Greek mythology. Although quite different from one another, both of these subjects are connected to Greek conceptions of ancient, primitive landscapes. The relational space to which these mosaics contribute, then, is an imagined setting for the symposium away from the here and now: drinkers are resituated into a “foreign” (in time if not also in space) locale, where they might enjoy the fruits of nature’s bounty or confront the threat of a precivilized wilderness.
An andron mosaic from Sikyon, discovered during excavations in 1941 and probably dating to the end of the fourth century, presents a tapestry of vines and flowers that grow outward from a central rosette (figure 5.1).3 The tendrils and flowers wind in a pattern, some curling back in toward the rosette, others reaching the corners and sides of the room, ending in an array of floral forms. For clarity of description, these flowers might be divided into two concentric registers, an inner ring around the rosette and an outer layer that extends to the edges of the floor. Immediately circling the rosette are four unopened buds, each pointing toward one of the room’s corners. On either side of each bud, alternating pairs of four-petal flowers with a prominent red pistil and five-petal flowers with a smaller red pistil curl away. In the outer register, the flowers at the center of each side of the mosaic’s square are trumpet shaped with ten rounded petals and a red pistil at the center. At each corner, a flower having seven pointed petals with serrated edges is flanked by two blooms with eight petals, which curve away from the corner, opening toward the trumpet-shaped blossoms at the center. As this description suggests, although visually (p.152) dense, the mosaic’s tendrils and florals adhere to a pattern. The mosaic of the room’s threshold—which, at least in the museum display, is set at the middle of one of the sides, instead of its usual position off-center—features a griffin with two horns, its left front paw raised (figure 5.2). It is white, with black contour lines and patches of red on the wing, the interior of the front and back left legs, the right foreleg, and on the flank, over the ribs (behind the wing) and at the hip.
In his 1965 article on Greek mosaics, Martin Robertson associated floral tapestry mosaics like this one with a design invented by the painter Pausias, a student of Pamphilos at Sikyon.4 According to Pliny (HN 21.3, 35.125), Pausias (p.153) fell in love with a woman who invented the weaving of flowers and so, as a tribute to her, he imitated her garlands in paint. His contemporaries at the Sikyonian school included Apelles, who joined the court of Alexander, and this provides both a date for Pausias in the second half of the fourth century and a northern connection that might explain the appearance of so many mosaics of this design in regions under Macedonian influence. Robertson admits that “the story as a story is not convincing, but it surely implies the existence of pictures ascribed to Pausias in which a great variety of interwoven flowers was introduced.”5 The Pausian connection would seem to be underscored in the example at Sikyon, described above, which Robertson mentions in a postscript to his original article. But there are problems in his assumptions about the way in which painting influenced mosaics—a relationship that, in fact, we still do not entirely understand.6 Similar vegetal motifs are also common in relief sculpture and metalwork, and on fourth-century (p.154) South Italian vases, where they are sometimes paired with a female protome.7 As Dunbabin suggests, these parallels “attest to a common repertory, and a shared interest in vegetal ornament, rather than a direct influence from one medium to another.”8
In any case, the floral tapestry design, like the concentric frame arrangement or the wheel motif, is well suited visually to the space of the andron: it avoids privileging a particular viewing angle, it is readable even when aspects of the sightline are obscured, and it presents the potential for a complex, at times virtuosic, accumulation of visual detail. From the palace at Vergina, identified as the ancient Macedonian capital of Aigai, is a floral mosaic that likely dates to the late fourth or early third century.9 An ornate pattern of flowers and vines originates from a central rosette. Open, leafy flowers with curved petals form an inner ring of vegetation around the center, while in an outer ring the tendrils end in bursts of spiky leaves, curlicues, flowers with layers of petals and ornate pistils, and trumpet-shaped blooms whose stems twist around one another. Here, as at Sikyon, the floral tapestry is made even more visually dense by additional, elaborate details, but is nevertheless strictly organized. This pattern of vegetation is enclosed by a double circular frame of cross meander and wave patterns. In the corners between these circles and the outer square border are figures that have the upper torso, head, and arms of a woman, but a bottom half of tendrils that spread outward to either side. Gradations of color create the illusion of volume in its flowers and three-dimensionality in its spiraling vines.
Floral designs similar to the Sikyon and Vergina examples described here are relatively common in the pebble mosaic corpus—this may be in part because their flexibility, in addition to accommodating various viewpoints within a single room, also allows them to be easily integrated with other themes. Vines and flora may serve as the floor’s centerpiece, surrounded by figural scenes, as at the Sikyon mosaic discussed in chapter 2 (figure 2.10), or may themselves be a framing device, as in the stag-hunt mosaic from Pella’s (p.155) House of the Abduction of Helen (figure 1.3).10 The theme does seem particularly well represented, as Robertson noted, in the regions under Macedonian influence, although whether this reflects geographic or chronological preferences, or is an accident of preservation, is unclear. Also at Pella, for instance, is a mosaic that decorates a tholos, a round room, in the sanctuary of Darron. Evidently encircled by a trottoir, the mosaic features vines, anthemia, and various blossoms; on the threshold, a griffin and a spotted panther attack a stag (figure 5.3).11 And still another mosaic from this area around Darron’s (p.156) sanctuary, located in Pella’s canal district, also makes use of the floral design.12 As in the Sikyon mosaic discussed above, vines grow from a central rosette, blossom with flowers, and end with a full palmette at each corner and two half palmettes at the center of each side. The mosaic threshold of this room shows a centaur, usually identified as a centauress, presumably because of the absence of a beard and the rendering of nipples and breasts by means of a red pebble encircled by a pattern of white pebbles.13 She steps to the left (both her front and back right legs are raised slightly) toward a cave and holds a phiale and a rhyton in her hands. The cave’s rocky sides are rendered in white, and its triangular opening in black. To the right of the centaur is a tree with two limbs, the trunk and branches of which seem to have been trimmed. Given the inclusion of drinking vessels and the cave setting—both features included in the representations of precivilized drinkers in Attic vase painting—and its appearance with the floral design of the main floor, this is a tempting pair of images to pursue in our discussion of primitivist themes in andrones. But because of its apparent association with the sanctuary of Darron (a potential ritual context that has not, to my knowledge, been explored in depth), it may have been subject to different expectations or communal dining rituals. Because of this, I include it here only tentatively, but I do so in part because it brings us to our second group of mosaic subjects, the centaurs.14
Centaurs that appear in pebble mosaics take part in a variety of activities. At least one is a hunter, several appear to participate in a kind of ritual drinking, and, in some instances, they engage men in battle in scenes typical of the centauromachies frequently encountered in other media. Of these mosaic centauromachies, most are from uncertain contexts or from rooms that are not andrones, but at least one is securely associated with an andron.15 On (p.157) the threshold of the andron of House C10 at Eretria, a centaur attacks a nude Greek man, presumably a Lapith.16 The centaur, at the right, lunges forward, raising a branch aggressively overhead; the man extends his left arm in a defensive posture, and, in his right hand, raises a weapon of his own.
The mosaic from the andron (Room A) in House Δ on Rhodes, dating to the late fourth or first half of the third century, depicts a quieter scene (figures 5.4 and 5.5).17 Here a centaur, alone, is framed by a wave pattern. Rendered (p.158) in white with contour lines and details of the musculature in black, and set against a featureless background, the centaur strides to the right, his right foreleg and back left leg raised. The equine half of his body is depicted in profile, while the human torso twists, so that it is seen from the back. His right arm is extended, and in that hand he grasps the front legs of a white hare, whose back legs hang, splayed open. In his bent left arm, the bottom half of the forearm and hand hidden by his torso, the centaur cradles a lagobolon, a hunting stick with a curved end, thrown horizontally and used primarily in hare hunting.18 His face is in profile, although everything below his nose is obscured by his raised right arm, and he wears an ivy wreath, the leaves articulated with lead strips, in his hair.
Slightly older, probably from the middle of the fourth century, is a partially preserved mosaic, which was likely from an andron and which was found in 1938 in a vineyard east of the town of Vasilikon and near the church of St. Konstantinos at Sikyon (figure 5.6).19 Assuming that it was, when complete, a symmetrical composition, this mosaic features a rosette at its center, (p.159) surrounded by two concentric rings. In the preserved portion of the inner ring, griffins bound toward a speckled, antlered deer, and, in the outer ring are four centaurs. Three move to the left, while the fourth runs to the right. They are shown in a gallop, their back hooves touching the ground, while front legs are stretched out before them, their speed further reflected in their short hair, which flies behind them. Their horse bodies are rendered in profile, while their human torsos turn slightly to be seen from an angle. Their heads are depicted in profile; all are bearded. In the nearer hand (the left for the centaurs running to the left, and the right for the fourth centaur, facing right), each holds a long tree limb with between two and four branches extending from its upper end. The other hand, preserved in only two of the extant centaurs, varies in its position: one bends this arm at a right angle and spreads his fingers, another extends the arm forward, his hand seeming to point or reach toward the companion ahead of him. In each preserved corner of the room, between the circle and the edges of the floor, is an anthemion.
Centaurs appear as the subjects of two mosaics from Pella: one, the centauress in front of a grotto from the threshold of the andron in the building adjacent to the sanctuary of Darron, was described above; the other is from the House of Dionysos (House I.1) near the agora. The latter (figure 5.7) decorates the threshold of an andron, the main floor of which features a (p.160) lion hunt (figure 1.8).20 In this panel, two centaurs face one another. The one on the right is bearded, and he holds a shallow cup or bowl to his mouth. The one on the left is a female: the breasts are rendered similarly to those of the centauress from the Darron sanctuary, but the identification is further supported here by her jewelry. She wears a necklace, a bracelet on her right wrist, and possibly earrings, all rendered in yellow pebbles. She may have held another kind of cup or bowl. Terracotta strips are used to delineate details of contouring, of the male centaur’s hair, and of their tails.
Westgate discusses centaurs as part of the larger iconography of wild animals—including many we have encountered already: griffins, sphinxes, lions, panthers, and boars—in mosaics. She concludes that these types of animals and hybrid monsters embody qualities like aggression, courage, strength, and athleticism that recall for the fifth- or fourth-century viewer the ways in which (“aristocratic”) citizens of the Archaic sixth century defined their masculinity.21 Unlike other beasts, with the exception of the panther, the centaurs are also infamous for their love of wine, and Guimier-Sorbets underlines their susceptibility to drunkenness, which so often resulted in savage behavior in Greek mythology. She argues that their appearance in the andron presents the symposiasts with cautionary examples of the misuse of wine.22 Central to both Westgate’s and Guimier-Sorbets’s interpretations is the centaurs’ animalistic—or, one might say, barbaric—nature. Centaurs are, to use, as (p.161) Cohen does, Baudelaire’s description of another bestial aggressor, “à la fois plus et moins qu’un homme” (both more and less than a man), unable to control their passion for wine or for women, whom they frequently attempt to rape, often at the critical social moment of the wedding.23 Their animality, thus, “pervert[s] human activities” and requires the aggressive intervention of Greek men.24 Thus, in addition to suggesting the drinker’s capacity to become like the uncivilized centaur when wine is involved, images of centaurs in the andron may have given the symposiast a chance to imagine himself as a hero who confronts such beasts.
Imagining the earliest symposia
I suggest below that these mosaics, both the florals and the centaurs, situate symposia into landscapes of a primitive past. It is in this distant setting—the mytho-history out of which developed the civilized life of the polis—that the Athenians, at least, located the origins of convivial drinking. Topper has recently focused attention on this ancient understanding of the symposium’s development, which departs in important ways from the concerns of modern scholars, and so as a foundation for further discussion, I turn to a detailed look at her arguments in The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium.25
One of Topper’s starting points is the question of how to understand vase paintings that show symposia in which the participants are positioned on the ground or on cushions, rather than on couches.26 Some of these symposia without klinai are defined by the same kinds of activities that characterize those with couches: the attendees drink, they sing, talk, play games, and embrace their companions. And, notably, they recline. So it is specifically the absence of furniture, divorced in these images from the recumbent posture, that marks these events as different from “normal” sixth- or fifth-century symposia. As Topper describes, the modern view of “the symposium as an institution (p.162) that came into its own with the introduction of the dining couch provides no context for understanding” these images.27 That they do not simply represent alternative forms of contemporary symposia is suggested by the diversity of figures shown to recline on the ground, which include not only men, but also Dionysos, heroes, centaurs, and even women. Topper argues (successfully, in my view) that these images of symposia on the ground reflect an Athenian conception of the drinking party as it existed and developed in the ancient past—an idea also hinted at, for instance, in Plato’s Statesman (272b), where the earth supposedly provided soft grasses as couches for the earliest generations of men. According to this narrative, the symposium is an institution with a deep Hellenic history that underwent a civilizing evolution before reaching the form familiar to Archaic and Classical citizens. Over the course of this process, drinking, once solitary, became a group activity, and drinkers, who always reclined, moved from the ground to, first, cushions, and then eventually to couches. An Attic red-figure head kantharos in London supplies a useful example of how this might be worked out visually. On this vase, Dionysos himself appears twice: on one side, attended by two satyrs, he drinks alone, leaning against the rocky wall of a cave and holding a large cup in his left hand against his chest (figure 5.8); on the opposite side, the cave wall is gone, and the god (p.163) is joined by a male companion, who reaches to take the lyre offered by a satyr standing to the left (figure 5.9).28 In both images, the drinkers recline on the ground. Topper interprets the juxtaposition of these scenes as “two stages in a progression toward the civilized symposium, as the god moves out of the cave and acquires human companionship and music, two prominent features of civilized conviviality.”29 While one is further along in the civilizing process, both images nevertheless seem to depict early moments in the sympoium’s development, prior to the introduction of furniture.
That those who occupy caves exist in an “uncivilized (or precivilized) state that precluded the companionship the symposium fostered” is a premise of the comedic drinking party that Odysseus and Silenos arrange for Polyphemos in Euripides’ satyr play, Cyclops (536–589).30 This symposium, where Polyphemos drinks alone, is held on the ground in view of the (p.164) Cyclops’s cave (not inside it, presumably, because the mouth of the cave is part of the stage set), and his barbarism is underlined by additional abnormalities like the daytime setting, the extra-strong wine, and his threat to consume his guest. Here, in other words, reclining on the ground is one of a cluster of elements that signal the Cyclops’s primitive nature and, as in the earlier images of Dionysos above, the scene’s un- or precivilized setting. It is hardly a surprise that such a monster would pervert a convivial social event, but the sympotic practices of the hero Herakles suggest that his drinking habits, too, belong to a world that is not fully—or, at least, consistently—civilized. An early devotee of wine drinking, Herakles does sometimes make use of the couch in vase painting, but he might also recline, as he does on a red-figure kylix in Basel, on the ground.31 In this image, he is accompanied by the centaur Pholos, and dips his cup directly into a pithos of unmixed wine (figure 5.10). A stony surface at the right suggests that the pair is in a cave, and two (p.165) centaurs approach from the left, gesturing excitedly toward the drink. On the reverse of the same cup is the result of the beasts’ exposure to wine: wielding tree limbs and boulders, quintessential weapons of primitive men and beasts, the centaurs attack the hero. Although Herakles attempts, therefore, to recline in a companionable sympotic manner, this cup suggests that it is an impossibility in this “precivilized” moment, where his partner is half beast and the setting is a cave.32
Some images of symposia on the ground strike a different tone from the lone drinker in the cave, the Cyclops’s perverse banquet, and Herakles’ unsuccessful attempts at civil drinking with centaurs. These events are held outdoors, in the presence of animals and natural landscape elements. The interior of a black-figure cup at the Ashmolean Museum, for instance, features six men reclining on the ground underneath a vine laden with grape clusters (figure 5.11), and on a red-figure cup, also in Oxford, one man approaches (p.166) another, who reclines on a striped cushion, while a goat at the right looks on.33 On a black-figure skyphos from the Athenian Agora, three symposiasts, reclining on a long cushion, are flanked by tree stumps on which large birds perch (figure 5.12).34 While drinking alone in a cave or with a centaur reflects one notion of an ancient, precivilized Greece, these more idyllic outdoor settings resonate with another conception of Athens’s deep past—specifically, the early, innocent era of the city’s foundation. It is in a similar setting that Ferrari similarly understands vase paintings of well-bred Athenian girls at fountain houses. These images use the visual “language of genre” (specifically, the depiction of “ordinary” activities rather than specific events) to describe the city’s earliest years, a time before the introduction of violence necessitated the confinement of women to the household.35 In this time of primitive innocence, young women of citizen families could go about the city openly and (p.167) without fear of assault; they are sometimes joined by deer, animals that might also wander through primitive symposia and that “allude to a special closeness of the early city with nature.”36
These images suggest that concord with the natural world and peaceful, lawful existence characterize Athens’s earliest era. Although they are limited to the late sixth and first half of the fifth century, and while they do come from Athens, the vases seem to reflect a broader Hellenic notion of what the past was like. Their distinctive qualities, for instance, are shared by the earliest, golden race of Hesiod’s Myth of Races (Op. 109–120):
Golden was the race of speech-endowed human beings which the immortals, who have their mansions on Olympus, made first of all. They lived at the time of Cronus, when he was king in the sky; just like gods they spent their lives, with a spirit free from care, entirely apart from toil and distress. Worthless old age did not oppress them, but they were always the same in their feet and hands, and delighted in festivities, lacking in all evils; and they died as if overpowered by sleep. They had all good things: the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labors together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods.37
Unbothered by cares and the necessity of labor, and blessed by the gods, these men—not, technically, an era or age of men as in our modern thinking, but a race, genos, that happened to live in the past—feasted on food provided from the earth itself. They disappear, and are followed by the foolish and prideful silver men (127–142), then a race of bronze, lovers of war (143–155), and then the heroes—demigods more noble and righteous than those who came immediately before them (156–173). Succeeding the fortunate heroes is Hesiod’s own race of iron, plagued by labor, sorrow, disease, and death.
Other poets and philosophers, too, describe pasts whose inhabitants enjoyed similar lives of untroubled natural bounty. In a poem often called Purifications, the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedokles describes an ancient age in which men knew only the goddess Aphrodite and worshipped her with perfumes and honey, rather than with animal sacrifice, the “greatest (p.168) abomination” (DK 31B128 apud Porphyr. De abst. 2.20).38 Dikaiarchos, a peripatetic of the fourth century whose Life of Greece is partially preserved in Porphyry’s On Abstinence (4.2.1–9), describes life under the reign of Kronos, when men were intimates of the gods (4.2.1), “killed no animate being” (4.2.2), and lived without war (4.2.5). During this age, the earth “bore [to them] much fruit ungrudgingly” (4.2.2).39 Indeed, Dikaiarchos reasons, the earth must have naturally produced all they needed because the arts, including agriculture, were unknown to them, and their simple vegetarian diet must have kept sickness away, since none of them practiced medicine (4.2.4). These visions of a harmonious and plentiful past also appear in the passage of Plato’s Statesman mentioned above, in which the Stranger lays out the myth of the earliest men (271d–272b). Even animals of this era refrained from eating one another (271e), and for men there were “fruits in plenty from the trees and other plants, which the earth furnished them of its own accord, without help from agriculture” (272a).40 What is more, “the abundant grass that grew up out of the earth furnished them soft couches” (272b).
Such ancient landscapes, in which men feasted in happy concord with nature, enjoying the fruits of the earth and reclining on couches of grass, represent a way of thinking about the past that Lovejoy and Boas call “soft primitivism”—an existence of simple luxury in which nature acts as a “gentle or indulgent mother,” and from which the human condition declines.41 (As Theognis laments, “The violence of men, their base gains and insolence . . . cast us from prosperity into misery” [833–836].)42 In contrast to this softness is “hard primitivism,” a state of “material deprivation and physical suffering.”43 According to this latter conception, early men, “confused and brutish” (Eur. Supp. 198–199), lived like ants in underground caves (Aesch. PV 452–453) and suffered in sickness (Hippok. Off. 3.10–49) until a god raised them from this state with the gifts of reason and knowledge (of agriculture, medicine, construction, sailing, and the means to trade with one another).44 As for (p.169) the vase paintings discussed above, those in which the earliest symposiasts reclined on the ground in the company of friendly animals suggest a soft view of ancient Athens, while representations of the lone drinker in the cave and the uncivilized symposia with centaurs are closer to a hard primitivism. That said, while offering different lenses through which to imagine the distant past, these conceptions are not so directly opposed as they might appear: hard primitivism, for all its lack of comfort, could embody the admirable values of freedom and simplicity, while the ancient soft life lacked acquaintance with the arts and technologies that make modern life better.45
As Lovejoy and Boas lay out in their Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, further complicating the notion of primitivism is that it is understood chronologically and culturally, as both a temporal and a spatial condition.46 Topper’s concise explanation helpfully articulates how this works: “The further one moved in time or space from the presumed centers of civilization, the more likely one was to encounter people living in this state of relative innocence.”47 Thus, like certain ancient, precivilized peoples, the Skythians to Greece’s northeast, described in Herodotos’s Book 4, are hard-living. They are nomadic milk drinkers (2) without fortified towns (46); the weather is brutal, subjecting them to eight months of harsh winter (28); there are no learned men among them. Herodotos finds them to be admirable in one way only, and that is in their capacity to survive (46). Their life even seems to contain “hardened” versions of soft primitivist tropes: Skythians do not shed the blood of animals in sacrifice, but this is because they strangle the victim instead (60); they have fire, but, lacking timber, are forced to use bones as kindling (61); they have abundant gold, but bury it with their kings (71). In contrast, those rumored to exist even further afield than the Skythians, the races living at the mysterious edges of the earth or beyond them, enjoyed a life of soft luxury, comparable to that of the prehistoric golden race. The Hyperboreans and the Ethiopians of Homer, Herodotos, and Pindar live into extreme old age (Hdt. 3.23), free from disease (Pind. Pyth. 10.41–42); nature provides for them (Hdt. 3.18), and they survive without toil (Pind. Pyth. (p.170) 10.42); their intrinsic morality means there is no need for laws and justice (Pind. Pyth. 10.43–44; Hom. Il. 1.423: amymonas, blameless or noble, of the Ethiopians); the gods take special delight in their glorious, abundant feasts (Pind. Pyth. 10.34–36; Hom. Il. 1.423–424, 23.205–207; Hom. Od. 1.21–25, 5.281–287).48
Straddling, or, perhaps, eliding these geographic and chronological primitivisms are the Isles of the Blessed, also known as the Elysian Fields.49 These prosperous islands, where “the grain-giving field bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing three times a year” (Hes. Op. 172–173), are reportedly located at or beyond the shores of the far western Ocean at the edges (peirata) of the world (Hom. Od. 4.563; Hes. Op. 167–168).50 They are inaccessible, but are nevertheless conceived geographically. And yet, Elysion also has a complex temporal existence: Zeus sent the heroes to inhabit these islands after death, and so this landscape preserves an ancient race that no longer exists elsewhere in the world (Hes. Op. 170–173). The Isles of the Blessed thus resist spatiotemporal precision, resembling both a revival of the conditions of Hesiod’s bygone golden race (as a reward for the likewise bygone genos of heroes) and the geographically distant lands of the Hyperboreans and Ethiopians. Like these other far-off places, the Elysian Fields offer a constant springtime of gentle breezes, golden flowers, and glorious trees (Pind. Ol. 2.71–73) where it never snows or rains (Hom. Od. 4.566–568). Their inhabitants, it seems, enjoyed an eternal symposium. Plato, although he does not locate them explicitly in Elysion, describes the banquets rewarded to pious men (hosioi) in the afterlife (Resp. 2.363c–d). Wearing garlands and reclining, they drink wine together (after all, “the finest reward of virtue is to be drunk for all eternity”).51 It is impossible, here, not to mention Lucian’s second-century CE description of one of the Isles of the Blessed in his True Story (2.13–15). As far as it is outside of our chronological interests, it suggests the endurance of these themes, offering a sharp satire of a number of Golden Age (and paradisiacal afterlife) tropes, including trees bearing cups that fill instantly with wine when plucked!52
(p.171) The first-century Nile Mosaic from the sanctuary complex at Praeneste (Palestrina) likewise falls well outside of the lifetime of our mosaics, but it provides a useful example of one way in which the overlap of epochal and geographical primitivisms, so evident in the literature, might also be visualized.53 Divided, loosely, into three registers, the mosaic represents the landscape of Egypt during the annual flooding of the Nile. Occupying the lower third, the Delta is depicted as a densely populated urban space, in which figures in Greek dress enjoy feasts and festivities. Beyond, in the middle register, are older, Egyptian-style buildings. Far fewer figures are to be found here than in the bustling Delta scenes, underlining this landscape’s “remoteness and quaintness.”54 The upper third of the mosaic shows the Nile beyond the First Cataract, where manmade structures disappear entirely and the wild takes over. Indeed, here, a variety of real and mythical animals (the only figures of the mosaic that are named with inscriptions) dominate the landscape, and the only humans to be found are hunters. Emphasizing the horizontality of the mosaic’s original context of display—which was not, to be clear, related to dining—and the viewer’s position at its lower section, Ferrari reads it as I have described it here, moving from the modern, Graeco-Roman Delta nearest the viewer to the obscure sources of the Nile at the distant upper edge.55 Read in this way, she argues, the river’s course traces its way through successive stages of civilization “in an imaginary itinerary through time: from the empire of the successors of Alexander, through the venerable ruins of the Egyptian civilization, and across the threshold of culture into the timeless landscape of nature.”56 The familiar—the Hellenistic Egypt that is temporally, geographically, and visually closest to the viewer—appears here in abundant detail as a living space. As one’s eye “travels” upstream and away from the here and now, it confronts the remains of pharaonic Egypt, including sites and rituals that predated Alexander’s arrival. Then, in the part of the mosaic least accessible visually, is a precivilized land at the edges of the oikoumene, dominated not by men and their monuments, but, instead, by fantastic beasts. The mosaic presents, in other words, “a map of the progress of mankind.”57
(p.172) The integration of chronological and geographic (or cultural) primitivisms so effectively visualized in the Nile Mosaic is also evident in the representations of ancient symposia on Athenian vases, although it takes a different form. Certain symposiasts who recline on the ground may wear the eastern-style kidaris or hold foreign drinking vessels, elements that, Topper argues, “make sense as part of a worldview that conceived of the past as a time characterized by universal barbarism.”58 According to this way of thinking, contemporary foreign lands “were sometimes represented as timeless repositories of ancient customs and traditions,” while the Greeks themselves had progressed, leaving behind “humanity’s common primitive roots” in the development of their civilization.59 Visually, then, the symposia of an early, precivilized Athens could be represented not only through outdoor settings or the absence of klinai, but also by the inclusion of symposiasts who take on the “barbaric” attributes used in other images to represent non-Hellenic contemporaries. In other words, these elements mark a local past as “foreign” in that its stage of civilization was comparable to that of contemporary barbarian lands. The earliest moments of the Greek symposium’s long history, then, are conceived and represented in these images as at once foreign and familiar, distant and local.
It is of course the case that the Athenian understanding of their city’s earliest symposia does not necessarily reflect a pan-Hellenic way of thinking; the peculiar Athenian belief in their autochthonous origins and the political implications of this tradition may have provided a special impetus for imagining their ancestors’ early symposia on the ground.60 But certain other features that describe these events—the natural surroundings, lush vegetation, the incivility and disruptiveness of drunken centaurs, all explored above—are typical, as we have seen, of the ways in which primitive eras and landscapes are imagined in diverse sources, whose origins and influence extend well outside of sixth- and fifth-century Athens. In other words, while Athens conceived of its own past in a particular way, this conception seems, nevertheless, to depend upon notions of chronological and cultural primitivisms that existed more broadly. While the vases precede our mosaics, therefore, the salient point, to which Plutarch pointed us at the opening of this chapter, is that encounters with a fantastic landscape or with unfamiliar customs do not (p.173) necessarily happen only in the distant geographies of the current world. They are also possible through a confrontation with the past.
Past primitivisms in the andron
While the centaurs, to which I return below, point to a specific spatiotemporal moment in Greece’s own early mytho-history, the florals are more difficult to pin down. Guimier-Sorbets has proposed that the mosaic vines are connected to the chthonian aspect of Dionysos, who produces fertility in nature.61 Like the krater of wine, which places Dionysos at the physical and metaphorical center of the event, these mosaics also position the god, the divine source of vegetation and of the vine, as the core of the andron and of the symposium. This case would seem to be especially clearly made by a mosaic uncovered in 1973 at Maroneia in the Thracian Rhodope region of northern Greece (figures 5.13 and 5.14).62 Probably dating to the middle or second half (p.174) of the third century, this mosaic uses polygonal tesserae, shards of stone that are inconsistent in their outlines, but flat on their upper side, so that they produce a more even surface than the naturally shaped pebbles typical of the previous century. The Maroneia mosaic adheres generally to the vegetal theme described above, but features a specifically Dionysian twist. Its central motif, a four-petal flower enclosed by a square and circle, is surrounded by grapevines that grow out of two opposite corners of the central square. Yellow and green leaves and black, red, and yellow clusters of fruit hang from crisscrossing red vines. The exterior square frame of the mosaic floor, set apart from the inner panel by a bead and reel pattern, is decorated with continuous waves. Anthemia fill the corners between the circle of grapevines and the square frame, and on two sides there are a pair of small circles enclosing a cross—wheels, it would seem. Dionysos’s intimacy with lush flora—and particularly, of course, the grapevine—is widely attested, and may relate to the associations with death and rebirth that were likely emphasized in his mystery cult.63 The presence of abundant foliage in an andron, and the representation of grapevines in particular at Maroneia, surely does evoke the Dionysiac by symbolizing the god’s presence in some way. (p.175)
But the kind of natural splendor in which Dionysos delights and that he produces also characterizes the idyllic landscapes of the distant past and the edges of the world. According to the tropes of soft primitivism, the earth’s spontaneous production of flowers, fruits, and vines, and even, at times, of wine itself, goes hand in hand with the kind of landscape in which men, unburdened by worldly cares, enjoy true equity with one another and concord with nature. This is the kind of landscape that is the setting for both the unceasing feasts of the Isles of the Blessed and, if we follow Topper, for the earliest convivial drinking. And it offers an appealing setting for Classical symposiasts away from the here and now of the andron. I suggest, in other words, that the mosaic tapestries of vines and flora that spread over andron floors might prompt these men to imagine themselves reclining outdoors in similar remote, fecund landscapes. As Cazzato has discussed, early sympotic poetry sometimes does exactly this, describing the sights and sounds of the open air as a way of envisioning an “alternative setting to the andron.”64 In his poems, Alkaios watches the stars rise and hears cicadas chirping (347 V), a bird’s song announces the coming spring (367 V), and flowers blossom (347 V). “What are these birds that have come from Ocean, the limits of the earth?” he asks in one fragment, imagining the natural world into the sympotic setting (345).65 I suggest that, although they do so visually, the mosaics similarly conjure an outdoor setting of idyllic simplicity and abundance that is perpetually in the fresh bloom of springtime.
Such a setting has an obvious appeal: within the relational space of the andron, natural bounty, equitable leisure, and freedom from worry contribute to the evocation of a paradise that is understandably desirable, even if it cannot truly exist. Like those at sail in a symposium-at-sea, symposiasts encounter the joy, sumptuous spectacle, or simple rusticity of this space together, sharing in a remote location, far from the here-and-now cares of the oikos and the stresses of the polis, and participating in an event that was also enjoyed by occupants of the there and the then (fortunate ancestors, heroes, or, even, the mythicized, blessed races that live at the edges of the earth). One thing that does seem likely is that the wine cup’s movement from couch to couch does not play quite the same role here as it did in previous chapters, since, at least in my reading of these mosaics, its circulations do not help to imagine the symposium as another kind of experience altogether. The event remains a symposium, but one located in another place or at another time. Even so, the cup’s (p.176) circling epidexia, its rhythmic moving through relative space, still performs a crucial role. In addition to affirming the commensal nature of the gathering, as it does in all symposia, it may also help to locate more precisely the imagined setting of the event. The presence of this defining sympotic movement suggests that the symposium underway is not the lonely Cyclopean banquet of a precivilized world. Rather, it occupies an idyllic sweet spot, a moment at which a symposiast might experience the benefits of both nature’s abundance, visually laid out before him in the mosaic blooms, and the convivial company of men.
Other particulars of how this space might be imagined during the symposium—and how the men occupying it might have imagined themselves—are unclear, and indeed may have varied. Such a setting may encourage drinkers to follow a model of tranquil camaraderie that characterizes both the peaceful, prosperous past and the perpetual banquets of the most distant eschata. A symposium imagined to take place in a distant past might expand the event intergenerationally, so that drinkers are not only the beneficiaries of the natural landscape, but also become the companions of their remote ancestors, who practiced the symposium in its earliest form. A foreign shore suggests the possibility of feasting, like the blessed Ethiopians, with the gods themselves, while an Elysian-type setting introduces as potential drinking companions the greatest and most just men of previous eras. As Socrates wonders of this distant place in a quite different context, “What would any of you give to meet with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?” (Pl. Ap. 41a).66 It seems possible that, amid the role playing, poetics, singing, and repartee that made up the fourth-century symposium, the setting evoked by the floral mosaics might allow the drinkers to do just this.67 Even so, it is worth remembering that, idealized as a primitive paradise away from the here and now may be, it remains a fragile space. The setting is still subject to the men who occupy it, and they present the same dangers here that they do in every symposium—drinkers may be inclined to excess consumption, to disruption, hubris, or violence, any of which might shatter the bucolic fantasy. Even in an imagined golden era, then, there may be threats to the sympotic ideals of balance and commensality.
While grounded in Archaic poetry, Cazzato’s analysis of the trope of the symposium en plein air points us toward still another potential tension (p.177) in the imagined removal of later symposia from the andron to the rustic outdoors. For Cazzato, the juxtaposition of the simple setting (which she primarily refers to as agrarian, avoiding association with the landscapes of the past) and the intellectual sophistication of sympotic poetry presents an “ironic mismatch between the more primitive agrarian symposion conjured up by the imagery and its implied context of performance.”68 In our mosaics, too, there is the potential for similar irony: the mosaics visualize the lush carpet of flowers and vines that, in an imagined Golden Age setting, would spring naturally from the earth; in reality, however, they are wholly artificial, a self-conscious, distinctly manmade, ordered, and organized tapestry. While the mosaics facilitate the imagination of a natural setting, they simultaneously highlight the unnatural opulence and luxury of the andron itself.
If floral carpets might resituate the symposiasts in a past idyllic paradise or a distant Elysion, the centaurs present them with a relational space characterized not by its abundance and peacefulness, but by its rusticity and its potential for brutality. Because of their insistence on inserting themselves (unsuccessfully) into human social institutions, centaurs are positioned at a specific, if delicate, mytho-historical moment, one at which (Greek) humanity is moving forward toward the civilized society of the polis, while the composite beasts of the precivilized past are still an influential presence. In this way, the centaurs’ primitivism (their “fierce . . . insolent, lawless” nature, as described by Sophocles’ Herakles in Trach. 1096) is conceived temporally, at a point of transition between the world as it was and the world as it is now. It is also, like the soft primitivism of the idyllic paradise, conceived spatially. These half men are creatures of the wilderness. Even the noblest among them lived on mountains and in caves (Cheiron on Mount Pelion, for instance), as opposed to the city.69 The centaurs’ unsuitability for civilized life, in other words, is defined by both their temporal and spatial distance from the Classical polis, which, as the here and now, operates as both a physical and chronological marker of the “center.” That their behavior is incompatible with polis life is even suggested by Theognis, who fears “lest this city be destroyed by pride like the centaurs that devoured raw flesh” (541–542).70
(p.178) A symposium imagined as happening in a setting in which centaurs run wild, or hunt, or do battle with men (or even, like those at Pella, drink quietly), is a symposium imagined as happening at a moment and in a landscape where potential conflict and savage behavior are close to the surface. It presents to the symposiasts the potential of moving forward and inward toward the civilization of polis life, or of falling away into primitive wilderness, where civil and civic commensality dissolve. In this way, the specific moment evoked by the centaurs might serve as a kind of spatiotemporal metaphor for the fragile balance that is at the core of every symposium: those gathered confront both the promise of a civilized, commensal ideal and the threat of disruption—a return to an uncivilized primitivism—under the influence of hubris, excessive drunkenness, or even violence.
As Tilley describes, narratives are crucial for the conceptual mapping of landscape because they “introduce temporality, making locales markers of individual and group experiences.”71 They operate, in other words, in Harvey’s relational space, endowing both the absolute and the relative—respectively, the physical landscape and the relationships of bodies in and movements through that landscape—with cultural meaning. The mosaic images we have encountered in this chapter work in a way that is perhaps comparable to the verbal act of narration. Like a narrative, the image of a centaur or of abundant vegetation introduces temporality, marking the andron as the kind of landscape that existed in the past or that could only exist in the present at geographical locales so extreme as to be inaccessible—a place at a spatiotemporal distance, in any case, from the drinker’s here and now. And this distance provides a lens through which to read the relative experience of the group. Surrounded by the soft primitivism of a golden paradise, the commensality of the symposium extends to include ancestors or heroes, positioning the symposiasts as not just recipients of, but participants in a long-standing cultural tradition. In the context of a harder past, they confront the possibility that the ideal commensality of the event may be threatened by primitive, bestial behavior. Like the edges of the earth, the distant past is a place of men and monsters, of familiar traditions and foreign customs; there, the symposiasts may banquet among heroes and renowned ancestors, but any one, giving in to excess, might work against a civilized end. (p.179)
(1.) Trans. Perrin 1914 (LCL 46).
(3.) The mosaic is 2.86 x 2.81 m. Orlandos 1947, pp. 59–60, figs. 3, 4; Amandry 1942, p. 240, fig. 7; Walter 1943, p. 313; Votsis 1976, pp. 583–584, figs. 11, 12; Salzmann 1982, p. 112, no. 118, pls. 20, 21. For the date, I follow Ciliberto 1991, pp. 18–19.
(7.) Salzmann 1982, pp. 16–20; Pfrommer 1987, pp. 125–141. The combination of florals, vines, and a female head in three-quarter view appears in a fragmentary mosaic from Dyrrhachion (at Durrës in Albania), often compared to the mosaic from Vergina, discussed below. Since the context of this fragment—that is, whether it was included in an andron and even the original measurements—is unclear, I will not pursue it further here. See Praschniker 1922–1924, pp. 203–214; Salzmann 1982, pp. 14–16; Anamali 1986; Guimier-Sorbets 1993, with additional bibliography.
(9.) The mosaic is 6.70 x 6.70 m. Andronikos et al. 1961, pp. 21–22, X:2, XVI, XVII; Andronikos 1964b, p. 7, fig. 14; Kottaridi et al. 2009, pp. 65 and 135–137 for plates; Kottaridi 2011, pp. 302–303, fig. 36.
(12.) Measurements are unavailable. Lilimpaki-Akamati 1987a, 1987b; Ginouvès (1993, pp. 129–131, fig. 117) identifies the mosaic as belonging to the “South House.” Lilimpaki-Akamati and Akamatis (2003, p. 24) do not discuss the floral mosaic floor, but do assign the threshold mosaic of a centauress to “a public building in the area of Darron’s sanctuary.” See also Akamatis 2011, p. 405.
(14.) The same conditional consideration holds for the tholos mosaic, also associated with Darron's sanctuary.
(15.) At least four pebble mosaics that feature centaurs are either not from an andron or are without sufficient context to identify them as belonging to an andron: (1) A mosaic fragment found in the area near the Arch of Hadrian in 1950 depicts a hero, probably Herakles, who raises his club in his right hand and grasps the hair of a centaur (perhaps Nessos, or perhaps one of unruly companions of Pholos) in his left; see Robertson 1967, pp. 134–135; Salzmann 1982, pp. 86–87, no. 20, pl. 41:1. (2) A fragmentary mosaic from the court (Room 4) of Building A.VI.3 at Olynthos, found in 1931, features a centauromachy; see Olynthus V, p. 7, pls. 4:A, 13:B; Salzmann 1982, pp. 99–100, no. 79, pl. 15:2. (3) The mosaic from the court (Room h) of the House of the Comedian at Olynthos (whose andron, Room j, was decorated with a mosaic floor featuring a wheel and discussed here in chapter 4) includes a battle between a Greek and centaur on the south side of the frame with other scenes including griffins attacking a stag, a lion, and boar confronting one another, and a hunting scene; see Olynthus V, p. 12, pls. 9, 17:B; Olynthus VIII, pp. 64–65, 288, 290, no. 11; Salzmann 1982, p. 101, no. 86, pl. 12:2. (4) From an unknown context at Sparta is a mosaic featuring a battle between Greeks and centaurs in the frame around a central square, which contains a triton in the center and dolphins on either side; see Oikonomos 1918; Salzmann 1982, p. 125, no. 169, pls. 82:1–3, 102:5, 6.
(16.) This threshold mosaic is 1.25 x 0.90 m. The mosaic may date to the second half of the third century; at the center of the andron is a rosette of 16 petals. Choremis 1972; Salzmann 1982, p. 92, no. 41, pls. 49:2, 50:1.
(19.) The mosaic is 2.80 x (est.) 2.80 m. Orlandos 1939, p. 123, fig. 3; Robertson 1939, p. 198, pl. 13:c; Luce 1940, p. 239; Votsis 1976, p. 582, fig. 8; Salzmann 1982, pp. 111–112, no. 117, fig. 22:1.
(25.) I depend primarily on Topper (2012), and particularly on her chapters 1 (“Ancient Visions of the Sympotic Past,” pp. 13–22), 2 (“Symposia of the Primitive,” pp. 23–52), and 4 (“The Symposium and Its Foreign Pasts,” pp. 86–104), although her argument runs throughout. Topper (2009) anticipates some of these arguments.
(26.) For the association of reclining with luxury practices, see, e.g., Athen. 10.428b; Murray 1983a, p. 263; 1983b, p. 198; 1983c, p. 50; 1994, pp. 48, 53; Boardman 1990, pp. 124–126, 129–130; Burkert 1991; 1992, p. 19; Morris 2000, pp. 182–184; Hobden 2013, p. 9; O’Conner 2015, p. 102.
(28.) London, The British Museum E786 (Attic red-figure head kantharos, Toronto Class, ca. 470): ARV2 1537.3.
(29.) Topper 2012, p. 37. See, in contrast, Cazzato, who identifies the rusticity of outdoor symposia in poetry as “an imaginative foil with which the user of the cup could compare his own manner of drinking” (2016, pp. 192–206, quote from p. 192). I am not convinced, however, that Cazzato’s conclusions exclude or contradict Topper’s. See also Yatromanolakis 2009, pp. 428–445; and, for solitary drinking, Villard 1992.
(31.) Basel, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig BS 489 (Attic red-figure kylix, Carpenter Painter, early fifth century): ARV2 454. The image of Herakles and Pholos drinking appears elsewhere, although they do not always recline; in fact, much more frequently they are shown standing on either side of a pithos, as on a red-figure stamnos in Tarquinia: Tarquinia, Museo Nazionale Tarquiniense 711 (red-figure stamnos, attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, early fifth century): ARV2 187.59, 1632.
(33.) Oxford, Ashmolean Museum 1974.344 (Attic black-figure kylix, in the manner of the Andokides Painter or Lysippides Painter, latter half of the sixth century): ABFV, pp. 107–108, fig. 177; Oxford, Ashmolean Museum 516/G262 (Athenian red-figure cup, Oltos, ca. 525–475): ARV2 1600.23, 63.92, 1622.
(40.) Trans. Fowler and Lamb 1925 (LCL 164).
(42.) Trans. Gerber 1999 (LCL 258).
(44.) Trans. Kovacs 1998 (LCL 9); see lines 198–213 for the divine gifts. See Aesch. PV 436–506, for the catalogue of Prometheus’s gifts to humankind. Hippokrates, in contrast to Dikaiarchos, mentioned above, asserts that in their primitive state humans were constantly suffering from disease because they ate like animals, while the current diet reflects the accumulated knowledge of what foods harmonize best with their constitution.
(45.) See Lovejoy and Boas 1935, pp. 192–194; Blundell 1986, p. 204; Topper 2012, pp. 43–47. Utopias are a common subject for comedic skewering; see, e.g., Konstan 1995, pp. 15–90; 1997; Hubbard 1997, pp. 25–27; Ceccarelli 2000; Ruffell 2000.
(51.) Trans. Emlyn-Jones and Preddy 2013 (LCL 237).
(53.) The bibliography on the Nile Mosaic, currently in the Museo Nazionale Prenestino, Palestrina (5.85 x 4.31 m) is extensive, but see, for instance, Gullini 1956; Whitehouse 1976; Steinmeyer-Schareika 1978; Meyboom 1995; Ferrari 1999.
(58.) Topper 2012, p. 86. The kidaris has also been interpreted as a sign of the symposiast’s barbarian behavior (as, e.g., in Osborne 2007, p. 38) or as an adoption of foreign objects as signs of elite status (as, e.g., in Miller 1991).
(61.) Guimier-Sorbets 2004, pp. 912–919. She depends on Metzger (1944–1945) concerning the chthonian identity of Dionysos. In an earlier essay, Guimier-Sorbets (1999, pp. 23, 27, 30–31, 33–34) posits a connection between the foliage and eastern iconography, focusing on a possible connection between the hybrid woman with foliage base (e.g., at Vergina) and the more ancient Anatolian “Mistress of Animals” motif.
(65.) Trans. Campbell 1982 (LCL 142).
(66.) Trans. Fowler 1914 (LCL 36).
(70.) Resonating with Theognis’s comment here and hinting at the centaurs’ adherence to primitivist tropes in their behavior is Pholos’s banquet, at which he serves Herakles cooked meat, while eating his own raw (Apollod. Bibl. 2.5.4).