The existence of ancient Greek drinking games (including kottabos and the skolion game) is undisputed, but our sources do not paint a clear picture of how and why these games were played. However, we can start to understand how these games functioned by drawing on a range of texts that can loosely be described as “symposiastic literature” -- a broad category within which I include literature written about symposia, such as Plutarch's Quaestiones Covivales and Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae, as well as works set at a symposium, such as Plato's Symposium or Xenophon's work of the same name, as well as lyric poetry. A thread that runs through texts about drinking parties is the sense that the lowered inhibitions that accompany drinking create the ideal situation to see a person’s true character (cf. Plato Laws 652a on symposia as offering τὸ κατιδεῖν πῶς ἔχομεν τὰς φύσεις). Authors are acutely aware of the risks of having their own characters revealed though, and this tension is the backdrop against which drinking games were played.
In this paper, I examine the mechanics of the skolion game in light of the most recent work on how it would have operated (Collins 2004, Pistone 2014), which posits a more expansive and fluid gameplay than previous scholars have acknowledged. Using these more dynamic models, I explore how the game itself provides an opportunity to amplify the characteristic mockery and playful abuse that we find throughout the rest of the symposium (σπουδογέλοιον, σκώπτειν, λοιδορεῖν/λοιδορεῖσθαι). By displacing this anxiety about status and authenticity from an implicit context to the explicitly and overtly agonistic context of a formal game, the skolion game allows participants to display their intellectual prowess and their proficiency with different poetic genres while also displaying elements of their character (the ability to dish out the appropriate amount of λοιδορία and to receive it without taking offense). The addition of alcohol only heightens the stakes and the perceived legitimacy of the “self” that is revealed by a player in these games.
I also draw comparisons to more modern linguistic and literary games that are common in symposiastic settings (status-conscious social gatherings that are likely to have an agonistic element, and often alcohol) to understand the interpersonal dynamics that would have contributed to the high-stakes “play” of the skolion game in antiquity. I conclude that the skolion game offers us a microcosm of the competitive (homo)social world of aristocratic Greek men that can illuminate our understanding both of the culture of symposia and of the broader interpersonal relationships among these types of men.
Learning the Rules: Games and Education in the Ancient World