Elitism and Identity at the Roman-Era Symposium

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Ancient History
Arts and Humanities
Arts and Humanities
Greek elite
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Elias, Irene

This dissertation approaches the symposium of the first and second centuries CE from a cultural historicalstandpoint. This iteration of the symposium has not been studied through such a lens, and this dissertation describes many of its unique aspects while analyzing its use as a tool for cultural and social identity formation among the symposiasts. The imperial context of this time creates a set of expectations and values absent from the more well-known classical symposium, spurring new tensions, anxieties, and customs within the traditional sympotic framework. These changes are analyzed using literature such as Plutarch’s Table Talk, Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae, and Lucian’s Symposium to allow an overarching analysis of the Roman-era symposium, revealing cross-imperial expectations for the institution regardless of local or personal variations. These texts are also analyzed as vehicles for the public image of the Greek elite, speaking to symposiasts as guidance and to others as a representation of Greek elite values. They are therefore read on multiple levels to nuance the analysis of Greek elite self-perception under the Roman Empire. The dissertation focuses its investigation on the various relational identities expressed and discussed in sympotic texts, analyzing the construction of the sympotic group and its positioning versus the non-elite, non-Greeks, Romans, and Greeks of the past. It argues that the Roman-era symposium prioritizes equality among guests while encouraging a limited sort of diversity to make conversation interesting, and that this bond of equal guests constantly reaffirms their position by situating themselves as superior to others through their intellect—but this illustration of superiority is subtle enough to avoid alienation of important non-Greeks, such as the Roman guests. Ultimately, this attitude extends even to the classical Greeks respected and constantly referenced by Roman-era symposiasts. While the symposium gains authority from its connection to a classical institution, it also freely departs from classical expectations, embracing an atmosphere of adaptation and relying on that openness to adaptation as proof for its participants that the Roman-era symposium is the most advanced form of the symposium up to that point.

Wilker, Julia
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