The company received their invitation to banquet with Kleisthenes in his house that evening. Though they had often dined individually or in smaller groups in their host’s house, it had been rare for all the suitors to be invited together. The presence of his young son Aiskhines was also not usual; it gave the appearance of a family affair. They all sensed that Kleisthenes intended to make a long-awaited announcement.
The men began preparations for the dinner early, most of them more silent than usual. Some of them took to the dromos and ran some sprints, while others wrestled in order to work up a sweat. All of them were massaged with olive oil, which was then scraped off with a bronze stlengis, producing a tingling feeling and healthy looking skin. They then paid close attention to their long hair, braiding them in the manner each man thought was most flattering. As they felt the formality of the occasion, most of them wore a himation of various hues and patterns, draping the rectangular wool cloth over a short, sleeveless khitôn, fastening the corner at one shoulder and along the open end which hung down same side of the body.
The party that evening was given in a large room set at the back of Kleisthenes’ house and built especially for the large company. All the invited suitors reclined on their assigned couches. The wealthy Smindyrides was there, son of Hippokrates of Sybaris in Italia; and the wise Damasos, the son of Amyris of Siris. Amphimnestos son of Epistrophos had come from far-off Epidamnos; and Males had come from Aitolia. From mighty Argos there was Leokedes son of Pheidon; as well Amiantos son of Lykourgos from Trapezos and Laphanes the son of Euphorion from Paios in Azenia. There too was Onomastos Agaios’ son from Elis and Lysanias who had come from Eretria on the long island of Euboia. From Thessalia there had come Diaktorides of Krannon, scion of the famed family of the Skopadai, and Alkon of the Molossoi had come from Epeiros in the far northwest. Finally from Athenai in Attika there were the two countrymen: Hippokleides the son of Teisandros and Megakles, son of Alkmaion.
The symposion – a drinking party – was an occasion regulated by tradition and marked by ritual. A master of ceremonies, named the basileus, “king”, was designated. The basileus governed the party and fixed the order of proceedings. He also decided on the appropriate mixture of water and wine during the course of the evening. At his instruction, water and wine were mixed in a large kratêr bowl which stood in the middle of the room. Servants dipped ladles into the large mixing-bowl and served wine to guests who typically reclined on couches placed around the walls. The basileus was closely regarded by the guests, who were quick to criticize if the wine were too weak or strong, or if he allowed proceedings to break down. His task required tact, manners and a clear head. The symposion was therefore an excellent occasion to observe men’s character, especially when too much wine and a loose tongue might betray some flaw.
The repast that evening was especially magnificent, and the nervous expressions on many faces soon gave way to merriment as wine made its way along the reclining diners. To the surprise of the other guests, Kleisthenes had designated Hippokleides as basileus. It seemed a sure sign of Kleisthenes’ favor. Most of the company applauded the choice, while many stole amused glances at Diaktorides whose face revealed his displeasure, although he made an effort to cover it up. Hippokleides meanwhile gave instructions: servants frequently filled the diners’ bowls, mixing the strong wine at first with a good measure of water (though the amount of water would typically diminish in the course of the evening). The conversation and laughter became as animated as always and the mood lifted even more when musicians entered the chamber and began playing.
Kleisthenes reclined on his couch between two guests he had never seriously considered, deliberately placing the two Athenians some distance from himself where he could better and more unobtrusively observe them. Megakles was polite and modest as always. He had a pleasant manner and friendly wit, but never boisterous. He knew also to drink enough so as not to reproach his fellows with his own sobriety, but never so much as to lose control of his reason. The tyrannos saw that the others respected him and deferred to him when cool judgment was desired. In contrast, Hippokleides was different tonight. He was usually the center of attention, either as the butt of good-natured joking or as the source of a particularly hilarious remark or story. This evening, however, he was unusually loud and forward. He was also drinking more than normal. Was he uncomfortable? Nervous? Whatever it was, Kleisthenes was not pleased. It was generally known that, despite all the various contests in which the suitors had competed, they were judged most of all for their manner and deportment among their peers. The banquets which Kleisthenes attended were therefore another – perhaps the most important – contest.
Once the diners finished eating and the food had been removed, their host called upon the suitors to play music and sing, as he had many times before. During past banquets the guests had done so with light good nature, choosing their performances spontaneously and deprecating their own talents. Tonight however, each one seemed to have prepared his performance, choosing his song with special care with themes more serious than had been usual.
Alkon of the Molossoi chose to praise a famous hero whom he numbered among his own ancestors, singing a part of the Ilias.
So from the head of Akhilleus splendors arise,
Reflecting gleam after gleam against the skies,
Forth marched the lord and apart from the crowd,
High on the walls he raised his voice aloud,
With her voice too, Athena boosted the sound…
It was rather unusual to give Homeros at a dinner. The stories of Ilios or Odysseus were typically sung by travelling rhapsôidoi. Yet his fellows made allowances for Alkon’s lack of culture. The northern Molossoi seemed, like the Thessalians, still to live in the time of the ancient heroes.
Onomastos of Elis chose a war song of Tyrtaios, a long dead master of Sparta, urging his countrymen to stand together, shoulder to shoulder.
This is the excellence, the finest possession of men,
the noblest prize a young man can win.
This is a common good for the polis and all the people,
when a man stands firm and remains unmoved in the front rank…
Elis had once been controlled by the Argives a century ago when the great Pheidon had been their basileus, and the men of Sparta were Argos’ deadliest enemies. Thus as he ended, Onomastos bowed with a smile at Leokedes of Argos, politely asking forgiveness for the choice of song and theme. The man of Argos naturally and gracefully nodded his assent, knowing as well that his response and manner would be judged closely.
Amiantos of Trapezos recited something new from the island of Lesbos. “It’s from a woman, if you’ll believe it! Her name’s Sapphô! I think it fitting, for it describes perhaps the man fortunate to win Agaristê.” The company wondered to hear it.
That one seems to me equal to the gods,
the man who sits facing you and
nigh, listens to you speaking
Lysanias of Eretria presented a song of Hesiodos of Boiotia fitting to the evening’s occasion. In it the poet counsels his brother to choose his wife wisely.
When the time is right bring home yourself a wife,
When you are about thirty, not many years younger
or many years older, for this is the best time to marry.
Let a woman mature four years and be married the fifth.
And you should marry a virgin so you may teach her to act right…
…For a man gets to possess nothing better than a wife
if she is good, nothing more horrible if she is bad…
Kleisthenes joined the good-natured laughter which followed. “Well, I hope no one is disappointed. My girl is barely seventeen! If anyone wishes to wait until Hesiodos approves her age, he’ll have to wait at home! I can’t afford feeding you another year!”
Hippokleides came just before Megakles was due. He raised his bowl saying, “I congratulate so many fine performances and despair of matching them, so I will sing something merrier and more in keeping with our present occupation,” then began an irreverent poiêma by the soldier-adventurer Arkhilokhos.
...Please pass the cup down the deck,
And keep it coming from the barrel,
Good red wine, don’t stir up the dregs!...
He remained standing when he finished, and once the calls of approval had died down, he called upon a musician to play a dance on his aulos. The musician piped a lively tune to which Hippokleides danced with energy. Once done, he called for another dance even more spirited.
Kleisthenes leaned forward on his couch and regarded Hippokleides closely. He had named him basileus on this evening, wanting to put him to the test one last time. His song and the first dance had been irreverent and not typical for a basileus, yet not too unseemly. But as Hippokleides called for yet a third dance, Kleisthenes began to frown and openly show displeasure. He also watched Megakles and noted that, unlike his other guests who hooted and clapped, he looked at his fellow countryman with concern and seemed embarrassed for his friend. “He is too respectful to openly display his feelings,” Kleisthenes mused, “and while the others mock Hippokleides even as they urge him on, Megakles maintains a polite attention.”
Finally, Hippokleides called for a table, leaped onto it and performed some dances from Lakonia and from Attika. Kleisthenes felt increasingly embarrassed: now no longer for his guest, but for himself and the fact that he had considered that man for his son-in-law. Yet at the same time he wondered whether Hippokleides’ buffoonery was deliberate: an elegant solution to both men’s problems? When Hippokleides stood on his head and continued another dance by performing its steps in mid-air, Kleisthenes decided that the Athenian had embarrassed himself enough and climbed from his couch.
The music stopped and Hippokleides legs slowly sank back onto the table as all the guests watched their host stare at him. The subject of his apparent scorn however showed no discomfort as he took a seat upon the table.
“Son of Teisandros,” Kleisthenes pronounced evenly, “you have danced away your marriage!”
For a moment no one stirred or made a sound while Hippokleides climbed to his feet atop the table. Then smiling, he shrugged his shoulders and announced, “It’s all the same to Hippokleides!”
The disarming manner in which he spoke caused the whole company to burst into laughter; even the tyrannos chuckled and shook his head. As soon as the laughter died down and Hippokleides had taken his place on his couch again, their host bid a servant to fetch his daughter. This must be it! The company knew the moment was at hand, as Agaristê had never been present at a banquet before. When she entered the hall, everyone saw that she had prepared for this moment. She wore a linen khitôn leaving her alabaster arms bare and belted at the waist and about the breasts with a zônê of wool. She wore no himation so as to show her figure to its best advantage. The khitôn was a deep blue edged with gold thread and brought out the blue of her eyes while matching her long honey-gold tresses. Her hair was done simply, as there was no way to enhance their natural beauty further. Her face – how to describe it? It was almost divine, but its beauty was not that of Aphroditê, but rather reflected the intelligent beauty of Athena the wise.
The company was instantly sober and alert. Now that Hippokleides was out of the running, each suitor thought, “perhaps…just perhaps…” Megakles noted that Diaktorides smiled confidently and wondered why.
“Esteemed guests from all corners of Hellas,” Kleisthenes addressed his guests. “Any man would count himself blessed by the gods to have any or all of you as members of his family. I however have only one daughter. So that none here leave entirely disappointed, I wish to thank each of you for the honor of your presence, your excellent company and the time you have spent here this past year with a gift of a talanton of silver.” The suitors raised their wine bowls and gave loud approval of their host’s words.
He continued, “I hope it will not be necessary to slaughter some poor beast and have each of you swear an oath to respect my choice, as the suitors of the Helenê the Fair did before she was given to Menelaos!” Nervous smiles and chuckling greeted their host’s wit. Here it comes.
“Dear friends, I hope you will congratulate and bless my future son-in-law… I betroth my daughter Agaristê to Megakles Alkmaionos in accordance with the laws and customs of the Athenians!”
The guests all turned their heads to Megakles, who looked profoundly surprised, then raised their bowls to him, at first with some hesitation until Hippokleides loudly proclaimed, “well, I’ll be expecting dinner invitations from you, you rascal!” The guests relieved their tension by laughing merrily and repeated their congratulations in a more heartfelt manner. Only Diaktorides held his tongue. He lay still, staring at the wine bowl cupped in both hands and wearing a dark look on his face.
Megakles stood and signaled for silence. He bowed to his host and to his future wife and pronounced formally, “Kleisthenes Aristonymou of Sikyon, I accept the matchless gift of your daughter and declare myself betrothed!”
As the assembled guests clapped and hooted, Agaristê beamed a smile at Megakles, blushing her face and arms. Kleisthenes then bade his chosen son-in-law to come forward. The young Athenian gathered his composure as he arose from his couch and walked over to where father and daughter stood, aware of the eyes of the whole company. Kleisthenes grasped the hands of the betrothed, placed hers in his and then turned towards his guests. “Honored and noble men, I call upon you to witness the betrothal of Agaristê Kleisthenous and Megakles Alkmaionos and beg your approval and blessings.” The guests now formally raised their bowls and shouted their approval, calling upon the Twelve Gods of Olympos to bless the union, then solemnly poured a draught of wine onto the floor as an offering.
“And now, just one small detail remains!” Kleisthenes grinned, “So that my son-in-law need not feed and keep my daughter entirely at his own cost.” He signed to a servant standing near the entrance to the dining hall. The servant came forward bearing a bronze tablet and handed it to his master. Kleisthenes took the tablet and showed it to the company. “Here I have inscribed terms handing over control of property as Agaristê’s proix and hereby dower her with the land at Delphoi which the Amphiktyones gave me after the war against Krisa. It is covered with mature olive trees yielding over 100 medimnoi a year. It lacks only the name of the recipient.
“Megakles! Do you promise to administer this land wisely in my daughter’s interests, never to sell it without her consent and to keep it as inheritance for her children and only hers?”
Megakles turned to Agaristê and swore to her in front of everyone that it would be just as Kleisthenes required. Kleisthenes then took his daughter’s hand, pulled her into an embrace and whispered to her, “My dear daughter, now bear your sons and make certain that they become even more famous than your father.”
Agaristê retired almost immediately after the announcement. Although the climax of the evening had already passed, the guests remained at their host’s bidding to finish the evening at their leisure and called for more wine (and less water). After one more bowl, Kleisthenes instructed his servants to see to his guests, and begging the company to excuse his advanced years, retired to leave Megakles to the mercy of his former rivals. Amidst frequent teasing at Megakles’ expense, there was some discussion as to when they should depart. Most planned to begin preparations on the morrow but all agreed not to leave before the betrothed pair departed. Hippokleides declared that he would escort his fellow countryman home, and Lysanias of Eretria offered his company, as he would share the same road for most of the way. Diaktorides said almost nothing and soon slunk from the hall.
The remaining guests proceeded to get profoundly drunk, filling the hall with their singing and laughter. Now the guest of honor, Megakles was not allowed to leave until Hippokleides, the last of them all, finally heaved himself off his couch and staggered arm-in-arm with Megakles into the cool night.