The Seductive Voice of the Aulos in Plato’s Symposium: the enigmatic dismissal of the Aulos Girl
Updated: May 26
In the Symposium, Plato presents us with strikingly different characterisations of the double-pipes (#aulos). At the very beginning of the drinking party (Symp. 176e7) the aulos-girl is sent away: given that this instrument played a key role in the sympotic practices of Classical Athens, this exceptional choice calls for an explanation. This question becomes even more significant in the light of the following developments of the dialogue. For the Aulos Girl reappears at a key moment of the dialogue, Alcibiades’ drunken arrival at the party: his dramatic appearance on scene is announced and accompanied precisely by the sound of the Girl’s “voice” (αὐλητρίδος φωνὴν ἀκούειν, 212c8; cf. 212d6). This striking image, and Αlcibiades’ subsequent praise of Socrates as ‘the most wonderful αὐλητής’, will be discussed in an upcoming post: Alcibiades’ praise of Socrates as ‘the most wonderful aulos player’ in #Plato’s #Symposium.
Rich archaeological and textual evidence shows that music played a central role in the ancient Greek drinking parties, just it does nowadays. Many instruments, including several types lyres and castanets of populated the scene of ancient Greek parties, but one played a particularly prominent role: the family of the aulos, or double-pipes.
Acoustically marking the entrance to a cultural space devoted to the shared enjoyment of many kinds of pleasures, the seductive notes of the aulos accompanied Classical symposia from start to finish. A special type of aulos music, called “Libations” (spondeia), marked the transition from the meal that took place at the start of the evening to the symposion proper—literally the ‘drinking together’ (see Plut. Quaest. Conv. 712f–713a; Theogn. 531–534, 791, 943–944 IEG; Xenophanes 1.19–20 IEG). Other kinds of songs, instrumental music and dance accompanied the games and merry-making of the symposiasts — including the strange pastime called kottabos.
Together with the inebriating effects of wine and perfumes, the seductive notes of the aulos, the ‘relaxed’, low-pitched modes (harmoniai) employed on these occasions, fostered emotional and physical intimacy between the guests, reinforcing individual affective bonds as well as the collective identity of the group (see e.g. Theogn. 237–525 IEG).
But this ideal vision of a symposium must not be mistaken for a comprehensive or historically accurate depiction: it seems more like “a dream, even hallucination of perfection”, as Stephen Halliwell puts it (2008, Greek laughter, 117)
In actual fact, much more disquieting and conflictual elements lurked behind this inebriating atmosphere of intimacy: as Theognis’ penetrating observations reveal, symposia offered unique opportunities to secretly uncover the ethical ‘fibre’ of the other guests (Theogn. 309–312, 477–496 IEG), observing their response to physical and intellectual pleasures in an ostensibly open and relaxed context.
This aspect of the psychology of sympotic gatherings is highlighted by Plato himself at the end of Book 1 of the Laws, where we are told that the apparently playful “test of wine” (ἡ ἐν οἴνῳ βάσανος) may turn into a very useful ‘tool’ in the hands of an experienced and careful symposiarch: according to the main character of the dialogue, this harmless test allows one to observe directly nothing less that “the character of the soul” of the guests (ἦθος ψυχῆς θεάσασθαι, Plato, Leg. 1.649e–650a).
The interplay of these sharply different points of view presents us with a complex image of the symposium as a space of conflict between different psychological needs: on the one hand, the determination to perform well in the light-hearted — but nonetheless partly serious — contests held between the fellow drinkers; on the other, the desire to lose control and indulge in the pleasures of music, wine and love (cf. Adesp. El. 27 IEG).
This tension, together with many other aspects of the multifaceted tradition we have glimpsed at, is embodied in the sophisticated literary representation of a drinking party offered in Plato’s Symposium, which reframes and reinterprets the features of this fundamental cultural institution within the framework of his own agenda for the dialogue: celebrating the vital, but not unambiguous role of eros in human life.
The Expulsion Of The Aulos-Girl And Its Cultural Implications
So what part does the aulos play in Plato’s complex literary and philosophical programme? Not a very relevant one, it would seem at first sight, given that the aulos-girl is swiftly dismissed at the very beginning of the party. But this revealing detail foreshadows some important features of the atmosphere that will characterise the first part of this work, especially if we keep in mind the central role that not only the aulos itself but also this specific kind of performer played in Classical Greek symposia.
At least from the sixth century BC, iconographical evidence shows that a very important part of sympotic entertainments was provided by aulos girls (auletrides), female harpers (psaltriai) and dancers (orchestrides)—women of humble origins who were hired not only for their musical performances but also for their erotic skills.
This picture is widely confirmed by textual evidence: Aristophanes, for example, touches on this problem in the closing scene of the Wasps (1364–86), where Bdelucleon rightly accuses his father Philocleon of having stolen an aulos-girl from the symposium they had just attended in order to keep her sexual favours only for himself –– a lively discussion which culminates in a physical fight between the characters.
But if the sexual character of the entertainment provided by female aulos players was a natural target for humorous remarks, the question of their social influence, and especially their remuneration, was no laughing matter. for instance, in a passage of his Constitution of the Athenians (50.2), Aristotle tells us that the athenians appointed special city officers (ἀστυνόμοι) to make sure that aulos girls, as well as other female musicians like harpers and kithara-players, were not paid more than the maximum legal fee of two drachmas, solving any unsettled rivalries by casting lots (cf. Isocr. Areopag. 48.5 and Antid. 287.3)— a telling provision which suggests that violent disputes over aulos-girls could pose a significant threat to public safety.
This is not the place to discuss the details of these and other fascinating testimonies on the social role of these female musicians, but one point is immediately evident and has very important implications for our current purposes: either as targets of salacious jokes or as objects of serious legislation, aulos girls evoked very strong reactions in the cultural environment of Classical Athens, representing the long-awaited ‘democratization’ of a traditional aristocratic institution or, on the contrary, becoming the clearest symbol of its cultural ‘degeneration’ in the eyes of conservative critics.
With this background in mind, let us now turn to Plato’s symposium and look more closely at how Eryximachus justifies his unusual proposal to expel the aulos girl from the drinking party:
'Well then, since it has been established that each man will be allowed to drink as much as he wants, and nobody will be forced to have more than that, next I propose this idea: the aulos-girl who has just come in should be dismissed and either go out and play to herself or to the other women inside the house, if she wants, whereas today we shall entertain each other only with words and speeches.'
Ἐπειδὴ τοίνυν, φάναι τὸν Ἐρυξίμαχον, τοῦτο μὲν δέδοκται, πίνειν ὅσον ἂν ἕκαστος βούληται, ἐπάναγκες δὲ μηδὲν εἶναι, τὸ μετὰ τοῦτο εἰσηγοῦμαι τὴν μὲν ἄρτι εἰσελθοῦσαν αὐλητρίδα χαίρειν ἐᾶν, αὐλοῦσαν ἑαυτῇ ἢ ἂν βούληται ταῖς γυναιξὶ ταῖς ἔνδον, ἡμᾶς δὲ διὰ λόγων ἀλλήλοις συνεῖναι τὸ τήμερον.
This choice is presented as an explicitly symbolic gesture, a cultural rejection that is all the stronger in comparison with the traditional background we have outlined at the beginning. After Phaedrus’ already unusual request that the guests should not be forced to get intoxicated (dia methes) but should drink purely for pleasure (pros hedonen), Eryximachus’ unorthodox proposal to send the aulos-girl away suggests a consistent strategy: this gathering must be ‘purified’ from external and mundane elements as much as possible, leaving them to lesser subjects such as slaves and women, while Agathon’s distinguished guests will engage in nobler activities.
But this is not the first or only Platonic passage that depicts this ‘dream’ of self-sufficiency. Indeed, the unusual rules endorsed by Phaedrus and Eryximachus at the beginning of the Symposium seem to reflect accurately the model of a virtuous drinking-party outlined by Socrates in a passage of the Protagoras:
Whenever the fellow-drinkers are refined and well-educated, you wouldn’t see any aulos-girls, dancers or harpers, but the guests would be properly trained to entertain each other through their own voices, without resorting to these silly and childish means but talking and listening in turn and in orderly fashion, even though they may drink quite some wine. Therefore these kinds of gatherings, which bring together people such as most of us claim to be, do not need any alien voice, not even that of the poets, who can’t be questioned about what they really meant to say […]. (Prot. 347c–348a)
ὅπου δὲ καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ συμπόται καὶ πεπαιδευμένοι εἰσίν, οὐκ ἂν ἴδοις οὔτ ̓ αὐλητρίδας οὔτε ὀρχηστρίδας οὔτε ψαλτρίας, ἀλλὰ αὐτοὺς αὑτοῖς ἱκανοὺς ὄντας συνεῖναι ἄνευ τῶν λήρων τε καὶ παιδιῶν τούτων διὰ τῆς αὑτῶν φωνῆς, λέγοντάς τε καὶ ἀκούοντας ἐν μέρει ἑαυτῶν κοσμίως, κἂν πάνυ πολὺν οἶνον πίωσιν. οὕτω δὲ καὶ αἱ τοιαίδε συνουσίαι, ἐὰν μὲν λάβωνται ἀνδρῶν οἷοίπερ ἡμῶν οἱ πολλοί φασιν εἶναι, οὐδὲν δέονται ἀλλοτρίας φωνῆς οὐδὲ ποιητῶν, οὓς οὔτε ἀνερέσθαι οἷόν τ ̓ ἐστὶν περὶ ὧν λέγουσιν […].
In a subsequent passage of the Protagoras this distinguished kind of symposium, ideally separate from the human world and its cares, is starkly contrasted with the ‘degenerate’ practices proper to ‘vulgar’ drinking-parties.
Differently from the elegant guests described above, the boorish members of this corrupt symposium (Prot. 347c4–5: τοῖς συμποσίοις τοῖς τῶν φαύλων καὶ ἀγοραίων ἀνθρώπων […]) are forced to rely on the “the alien voice of the auloi” (ἀλλοτρίαν φωνὴν τὴν τῶν αὐλῶν) in order to fill the vacuum of their thoughts, specifically resorting to the expensive, if trivial, performances offered by aulos-girls:
For these men, being base and vulgar, are not able to entertain each other over drinks through their own means, with their own voices and discourses, because of their lack of education; so they place great value on aulos-girls, paying large sums to hire the alien voice of the auloi, and they get together and bond through the voice of those instruments. (Prot. 347c–d)
καὶ γὰρ οὗτοι [scil. οἱ φαῦλοι καὶ ἀγοραῖοι ἄνθρωποι], διὰ τὸ μὴ δύνασθαι ἀλλήλοις δι ̓ ἑαυτῶν συνεῖναι ἐν τῷ πότῳ μηδὲ διὰ τῆς ἑαυτῶν φωνῆς καὶ τῶν λόγων τῶν ἑαυτῶν ὑπὸ ἀπαιδευσίας, τιμίας ποιοῦσι τὰς αὐλητρίδας, πολλοῦ μισθούμενοι ἀλλοτρίαν φωνὴν τὴν τῶν αὐλῶν, καὶ διὰ τῆς ἐκείνων φωνῆς ἀλλήλοις σύνεισιν.
By contrast, the setting of Plato’s Symposium matches perfectly the ‘ideal’ model described in the Protagoras: after getting rid of the aulos-girl, the distinguished guests of Agathon’s party spend the night delivering speeches and listening to each other in turn. and it is significant to notice that in the symposium this activity is given precisely the same ethical significance that Socrates attributes to it in the culminating section of his speech in the Protagoras:
Cultured men, by contrast, will do away with these kinds of parties and will bond through their own means, using their speeches to put each other to the test in turn. it is this kind of people that i think you and i should rather imitate […] we should produce our speeches for each other out of what is really our own, making trial of the truth and of ourselves. (Prot. 347e–348a)
ἀλλὰ τὰς μὲν τοιαύτας συνουσίας ἐῶσιν χαίρειν, αὐτοὶ δ ̓ ἑαυτοῖς σύνεισιν δι ̓ ἑαυτῶν, ἐν τοῖς ἑαυτῶν λόγοις πεῖραν ἀλλήλων λαμβάνοντες καὶ διδόντες. Τοὺς τοιούτους μοι δοκεῖ χρῆναι μᾶλλον μιμεῖσθαι ἐμέ τε καὶ σέ […] αὐτοὺς δι ̓ ἡμῶν αὐτῶν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τοὺς λόγους ποιεῖσθαι, τῆς ἀληθείας καὶ ἡμῶν αὐτῶν πεῖραν λαμβάνοντας.
The Symposium, therefore, provides a direct fulfilment of Socrates’ exhortation to “emulate” (μιμεῖσθαι) the model of a “good” drinking party he had just outlined: through their own speeches and the emotional influence of wine, Agathon’s guests will test each other, revealing the “truth” about their intellectual and ethical nature (See esp. Symp. 214e6–215a, in Part 2).
But another detail about the audience of Socrates’ exhortation in the Protagoras poignantly shows that these two texts do not simply belong to the same problematic domain, but should almost be regarded as two ‘acts’ of the same dramatic play. Alongside high-calibre intellectuals such as Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippocrates and Hippias, and politically influential personalities like Callias and Critias, there is one character among Socrates’ distinguished addressees that casts a completely different light on his words:
Alcibiades, the tragicomic figure who dominates the concluding section of the symposium, which we will discuss in Part 2 of this post.
Tosca A.C. Lynch
Full references to ancient sources and further bibliography in Lynch, T. (2018) ‘The seductive voice of the aulos in Plato’s Symposium: from the dismissal of the auletris to Alcibiades’ praise of Socrates-auletes’, in Baldassarre, A. and Markovic, T. (eds.), Music cultures in Sounds, Words and Images, Vienna: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 709–23