The Symposium is Plato’s most literary text. In the context of a dinner party for the elite of Athenian society, Plato plays out complex discussions on the relationship between literature and philosophy, the nature of education, and the pursuit of true wisdom.
This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades disrupting the Symposium
One of the key characters within this text is Alcibiades. Alcibiades was a skilled war general who secured many key victories for Athens. He was charismatic and popular, but his career was one of scandals after he was exiled from Athens for mocking religious rituals and defacing statues of the god Hermes. In exile he defected to Sparta, the enemy of Athens, and served with them for several years before allying with Athens again. The Symposium is set before any of this took place, when Alcibiades was still the pride and joy of his city, but there is a strong sense of the reckless nature that would be his downfall.
Ancient Greek sexuality is a fascinating topic. In the Symposium the great philosopher Plato explores the nature of love, and one form of love he particularly admires is that between two males.
The scene is the Greek Symposium; a drinking party where the Athenian male elite would discuss philosophy and perform poetry. The distinguished guests decide that at this Symposium they will discuss the topic of ‘Love’, and so in turn each man gives a speech about what he considers love to be.
Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.
The speech I have focussed on here is that of Aristophanes, the famous Athenian comic playwright. True to his profession it is a very funny speech, at least in an Ancient Athenian sort of way, but it is also incredibly charming, and very interesting in its portrayal of homosexual relationships.