Kottabos, anglice cottabus (Greek κότταβος), was a game of skill popular for a long time at ancient Greek and Etruscan symposia (drinking parties), especially in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The game is played by flinging wine lees at targets. In keeping with the amorous symposiac atmosphere, the player would utter the name of a beloved as he tossed the wine, both revealing his desire and divining fate just as the more modern "loves me, loves me not" game played with flower petals.
The game was also played at the baths, as an anecdote attributed to Diogenes of Sinope by Diogenes Laertius indicates: "To a youth playing cottabus in the public baths he said, 'The better you play, the worse it is for you.'" This is read as a warning to the boy, that his skill at the game will attract more attention from suitors, and lead to excessive pederastic affairs. Another risk, according to Athenaeus quoting Aristophanes, is that young people might play too many games of cottabus and become drunk as a result, with unforeseen consequences.
The game appears to have been of Sicilian origin, but it spread through Greece from Thessaly to Rhodes, and was especially fashionable at Athens. Dionysius Chalcus, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Pindar, Bacchylides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Antiphanes make frequent and familiar allusion to the cottabus - and it appears on vases from the era; but in the writers of the Roman and Alexandrian period such reference as occurs shows that the fashion had died out. In Latin literature it is almost entirely unknown.
The object of the player was to cast a portion of wine left in his drinking cup in such a way that, without breaking bulk in its passage through the air, towards a bronze "lamp stand" with a tiny statuette on top with outstretched arms delicately holding a small disc called a plastinx. Halfway down the stand was a larger disc called the manes. To be successful the player had to knock off the plastinx in such a way that it would fall to the manes and make a bell like sound. Both the wine thrown and the noise made were called latax (λάταξ). The thrower, in the ordinary form of the game, was expected to retain the recumbent position that was usual at table, and, in flinging the cottabus, to make use of his right hand only.
To succeed in the aim of the game no small amount of dexterity was required, and unusual ability in the game was rated as high as corresponding excellence in throwing the javelin. Not only was the cottabus the ordinary accompaniment of the festal assembly, but, at least in Sicily, a special building of a circular form was sometimes erected so that the players might be easily arranged round the basin, and follow each other in rapid succession. Like all games in which the element of chance found a place, it was regarded as more or less ominous of the future success of the players, especially in matters of love - and the excitement was sometimes further augmented by some object of value being staked on the event.
Various modifications of the original principle of the game were gradually introduced, but for practical purposes we may reckon two varieties:
The discovery in Etruscan burial sites (by Wolfgang Helbig in 1886) of two sets of actual apparatus in Umbria, near Perugia, as well as various representations on Greek vases help explain the somewhat obscure accounts of how cottabus was played.
The rhabdus (pole) had a flat base, and the main structure tapered towards the top, with a blunt end (one which the plastinx or manes was balanced). The plastinx (small saucer) had a hole near the edge and was slightly concave in the middle.
About two-thirds of the way down, the rhabdus was encircled by the lecanis (large saucer). A socket near the top of the rhabdus held the manes (figurine). The manes was in the shape of a man, with his right arm and leg uplifted, sometimes holding a drinking horn (or "rhytum").
According to Helbig, three games were played with this apparatus: