The Symposium, depicted above, was in fact a drinking party that was organized by the tragedian, Agathon, in Athens, around 410BC. Tragedians were in great demand and so were the Greek tragedies they wrote, their theme invariably being about some incredibly gifted, powerfully handsome militarily heroic Arnold Schwarzneggar-meets-John Lennon kind of guy, who has everything going for him, except one tiny fault which proves his undoing, in the end. Like Achilles’s heel did, in the Iliad.
The party happened before Plato’s time but he recorded a philosophical account of it, since his mentor, Socrates had been there as one of the honored guest speakers. Oh yeah, those days everybody was inviting Socrates over to just speak and he would come in and hold forth on anything that caught his fancy for the moment.
Ancient Greeks had not yet come upon the concept of distillation and therefore, those days there was no hard liquor, only wine (mostly around 10% v/v alcohol) and beer, though beer was for the untermenschen, the hoi-polloi. The elite, such as the folk who got invited to these parties, drank wine. Lots of wine. See the pitcher in the foreground? That would be the reclining guy’s personal quota.
Like any parties where men get zapped out of their minds, the topic of discourse in these Greek parties invariably turned to sex and the concept of Love (Eros) and how to make it. And these were not ordinary men, mind you. They were men who would be remembered and written about for the next 2500 years and beyond.
Since the old windbag, Socrates, was one of the most eloquent at Agathon’s party, it was inevitable that the conversation would turn to pederasty, the practice of adult males having sex with pubescent boys. Socrates could get it on only with young boys. He asserted that there should be no distinction between pederasty, homosexual or heterosexual sexual practices. They were all Aphrodisia, simply love and as love, they were equally acceptable, as per Socrates. If you visit a Roman Catholic priest in his chambers and you’ll find a framed photo of Socrates on the wall above his bed. Don’t go visiting in there alone please, if you care about the continuing welfare of the end of your alimentary canal.
The above scene was painted by the 19th century German artist, Anselm Feuerbach. It depicts Agathon as he welcomes the drunken Alcibiades to the party.
Historians place the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire at around 285AD. The empire had grown so far-flung by then that it was no longer feasible to govern all provinces from Rome. Internal dissent, churned up the emergence of Christianity and external pressures, such as incursions by those Germanic tribes that were generally known as the Barbarians, were tearing the empire apart.
That was when the moderately successful emperor, Diocletian, decided to do some out-of-the-box thinking, changing the way the empire was governed.
Diocletian split the empire in two halves, each ruled by a Senior Emperor (otherwise known as an Augustus) and a Junior Emperor( a Caesar), the senior emperor’s designated heir. He named one of his trusted confidantes, Maximian, as the other senior emperor, though he left no doubts as to who the real boss was.
Diocletian had chosen wisely. Maximian was a brilliant military man who agreed to leave the politics to Diocletian. Given his disinclination to rebel, Maximian was indeed an appealing candidate for co-emperor. The fourth-century historian Aurelius Victor described Maximian as “a colleague trustworthy in friendship, if somewhat boorish, and a man of great military talents”. Maximian was a Peter Clemenza to Don Corleone or a Georgy Zhukov to Joseph Stalin.
Diocletian took charge of the Eastern Roman Empire, with his son-in-law Galerius as the Junior Emperor, while Maximian took over the west, adopting his nephew Constantius Chlorus, as Junior Emperor. While Maximian ruled out of Rome, Diocletian made Byzantium , present-day Istanbul, his seat of power.
A Diocletian bust, on display at the Museo Archeologico, Istanbul. Usually, a bust was just the head and a bit of neck and I don’t understand why it was always called a bust. Don’t we know what a bust is? And the hair on these guys, it was always curly and short, in neatly arranged, matted curls. Maybe wearing all those laurel wreaths had something to do with it
Seemingly efficient, with a designated heir in place in both halves, it appeared that the Roman Empire was finally getting it’s act together. The two halves continued to prosper for another decade or two, until 306AD when Constantius Chlorus (Maximian’s junior emperor) died and the Western empire dissolved into a bloody civil war for succession. Maximian’s son Maxentius claimed the throne as the rightful heir. For just a while.
Maxentius was a tyrant who liked to call himself Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius Augustus. Yeah, those days, guys who usurped the throne at Rome, believed that just by naming themselves after other successful emperors like Marcus Aurelius or Augustus, they would get to rule for years and years. Unfortunately most of them turned out to be richard-heads and didn’t last beyond two years on an average.
Maxentius was one such gold-plated schmuck and he hated Christians. Even though it had made inroads, Christianity was still a minority religion at that point in time. If you said you were a Christian during old Max’s rule, there was still a good chance you would be found with a pilum (a kind of javelin) up your tutsitoo.
In 312AD all that changed. A Roman tribune (something like a modern-day Lt. Colonel) by the name Constantine, rebelled against Maxentius’s rule and declared war on him. Constantine also happened to be Constantius Chlorus’s son and thought he, not Maxentius, held a legitimate claim to the throne.
Constantine was initially ambivalent about Christianity but legend has it that, on the night of the final battle against Maxentius, he was visited in his dream by an apparition that seemed to be a cross in the sky like some kind of a celestial hologram. Under the cross were the words, “In hoc signo vinces”.
Latin speakers will tell you that the words meant under this sign, thou shall conquer, but wait. I’ll translate that from Latin with my Spunkybong translation service. The words actually meant, “ Go ahead, son, kick butt. I’ll see to it that you win, unless you manage to make an absolute ass of yourself. And listen, after you get to be emperor, stop kickin’ Christian butt, okay? They are good folk, even if they have only one God – me.”
Constantine and his kick-butt dream. After Augustus, the first Roman Emperor who ruled for 40 years, came Constantine’s reign – 31 years. We all know him as Constantine the Great, the first Holy Roman Emperor (‘Vision of the cross’ – a fresco at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, by the students of Raphael, AD1520)
Constantine took the apparition as an omen. That’s another thing about ancient times – monarchs used to be superstitious like you won’t believe men could ever be. They were literally prisoners to omens, strange apparitions, visions, dreams and those scrawny, bearded half-naked old soothsayers, though a soothsayer’s job was a high-risk one. If you said sooth and whatever sooth you said didn’t transpire, you needed to book a one-way galley ticket to Timbuktoo and real fast, before those brutish praetorian guards got to you with that pilum.
After he won, Constantine reunited the Roman Empire one last time, his rule marked by stability and prosperity and the sudden growth of Christianity as a major religion. Temples and idols were destroyed and anyone who didn’t convert to Christianity was…remember the pilum I was just referring to? It was the same pilum but a different butt, Roman butt this time. Say you were a Roman heathen, worshipping an idol of a big-breasted Mae West-like bronze Goddess. Sorry bud, you had to melt her down pronto if you wanted to live.
In case you are wondering what all this has to do with male Greek adults and their little boy toys, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for Part-2.
Trust me. I’ll find a connekshun. I always do.
Hic. Ugh, these damned beer chasers.
Thud ***head hits the table, passes out***