BMCR 2009.10.59

Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta

, Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. viii, 184. ISBN 9780226668673. $45.00.

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

[Additional Note: My interest in Alkman was reawakened by an interesting paper by Katerina Ladianou at the 2009 APA meetings in Philadelphia, “Performing the Other: (Fe)male Chorus and Feminine Voice in Alcman’s Partheneion 1,” and I have used her helpful handout in preparing this review.]

Ferrari thinks she has solved the puzzle (or rather, puzzles, since there are several elusive features of Alkman’s Louvre Partheneion, all interconnected) of this enigmatic piece, PMGF [Davies 1991]1 Alcman 1. Her interest appears to have been triggered by a strange and beautiful Attic R-F vase in the shape of an astragalos or knucklebone of 470-450 BCE by the Sotades Painter, now in the British Museum E 804 (Beazley ARV 2 765.20; Beazley Addenda 286). The vase presents “an image… that comes from another time and place but ultimately appeals to the same conceit” (p. 2). A scrawny, rather comical male figure extends his right arm to a grouping of three young women who are holding hands and appear to be dancing (Ferrari says they are “engaged in a ring dance,” p. 2). With his left arm he points upwards to an additional 10 females who seem to be floating or lightly skimming over the ground; their skirts billow about them as they turn or pirouette nimbly in a variety of attractive poses. That these are the Pleiades and Hyades is a theory first put forward by von Stackelberg in 1837 and their composition as a chorus was proposed by F. Hauser;2 Ferrari adds the conjecture that the shabby chorus-leader is Pythagoras who, according to Iamblikhos, “alone could hear and understand … the universal harmony and concord of the spheres, and the stars moving through them.”3

Drawing from a variegated palette of testimonies and parallels, she reconstructs Alkman’s poem as a celebration of a major Spartan state festival celebrating the beginning of winter, specifically the first days of November and the start of the plowing season (in a Postscript, she moots the possibility that it is the Karneia, but admits that that festival cannot firmly be placed in the Spartan calendar, given the meagre and conflicting evidence). What the Spartan spectators were here being treated to was a re-enactment of the orderly progression of astral and other celestial phenomena as a reminder to them that it was important to maintain an equivalent harmonious order in their own polis; it was their duty as citizens to make sure that their political kosmos reflected the orderliness of the heavenly kosmos. The names sprinkled through Alkman’s verses in such profusion are not real Spartan girls; they are not even fictional Spartan girls. They are heavenly bodies. Thus, Agido is Dawn, Hagesichora the Moon, Ainesimbrota Night, and the chorus represent the Hyades.4

Commentators are in general agreement that the myth being narrated in the exceedingly fragmentary opening verses had to do with an encounter between the sons of Hippokoön, an early Spartan king, and his younger brother Tyndareus, whom he had exiled. The first word to emerge clearly on the papyrus is Polydeukes, and reputable evidence external to the poem suggests that what is going on here is a battle between the Tyndarids, almost certainly aided by Herakles, and the Hippokoöntids, in which all of the latter along with their father were killed in the fighting. Their defeat is ascribed to (besides the valor of their adversaries) the action of Aisa, Fate, and Poros,5 and there follows almost immediately the moral which the poet wishes his audience to draw from the narrative, “Let no man fly to heaven or attempt to marry Aphrodite.”6 In one of the strongest sections of Ferrari’s book she looks for clues to Alkman’s meaning in the proem of Parmenides fr. 1, On Nature. The chariot of Parmenides’s young seeker-after-truth is drawn along a path (here a ὁδὸν πολύφημον rather than a πόρος) through the gates of Night and Day, which are controlled by Justice. Ferrari argues, reasonably enough, that such a fable of philosophical/moral abstractions couched in cosmic terms would have resonated with Alkman’s audience. Ferrari devotes rather a lot of space to a discussion of the myth of Phaethon: “Only in the myth of Phaethon do flying to the sky and the prospect of marrying Aphrodite co-exist” (p. 55). Perhaps. But Phaethon’s name does not actually occur in Alkman’s text nor any detail that points unmistakably to his story and, when we find Ferrari trying to bolster her theory by citing mentions of the Pleiades and the swan singing on the streams of Okeanos in the parodos of Euripides’s Phaethon, a faint scent of special pleading begins to creep in.7

Any discussion of the poem’s meaning must grapple with the question what exactly is going on in the central, and longest, surviving section, especially vv. 50 ff., where the girls seem to be being compared to various breeds of horse. Here Ferrari produces what is (to me, at any rate) a totally novel interpretation: these are “expressions that compound synecdoche with metaphor” and “the epithets refer not to breeds of horses but to stereotypical notions about lands and peoples” (p. 95). Thus “Enetic” signifies “dark, black” and “the Enetic-looking horse then becomes a foil for the radiance of Hagesichora and points to the brilliance of the moon against the darkness of the sky” (ibid.). Ibenian (= Lydian)8 stands for “golden”; “a ‘golden’ horse aptly matches the metallic beauty of Hagesichora” (p. 96). The Kolaxaian was a Skythian breed;9 the Skythoi were red-haired and so the reference here “aptly characterizes the crimson light of Dawn” (ibid.). I would like to believe that this is what this part of the poem is all about, but doubts linger.

Of the subsidia called in by Ferrari from various sources to help support her theory, I found especially helpful and illuminating Euripides’s Alkestis, 445-52. In this lovely song the old men of Pherai, grieving for their recently deceased Queen, express confidence that her memory will be kept alive by poets making her sacrifice a subject of their songs “when at Sparta the cycle of the season of the month Karneios comes circling round and the moon is aloft the whole night long” (Ferrari’s translation). It is her not unreasonable guess that it was at just this kind of festival that the Partheneion was first performed.

Occasionally I felt that Ferrari was pressing the evidence beyond the breaking point. To support her view that the notion of a “harmony of the spheres” can be detected in Parmenides’s Proem she points to v. 6, where the axles of the Youth’s chariot are said to send forth σύριγγος ἀυτήν. She glosses the line “the musical notation of the sound of pipes”(p. 48) and takes 1.2 ὁδὸν… πολύφημον as “an allusion to the [Pythagorean] theory… that the movements of the heavenly bodies produce sounds that result in musical harmony” (p. 49). In a long discussion of Parm. 1.3 εἰδότα φῶτα (pp. 44 ff.) she asks us to believe that the audience was to understand the phrase both as “person who” and “lights which know everything” and sees here a description of the daimon’s road as one which “at once ‘carries the rays that witness’ and ‘carries the one who knows’,” calling this an “exercise in creative ambiguity” (pp. 47 and 46 respectively). I am pretty sure that even though we may puzzle over such homophonic phrases, a Greek audience would — from habit, the contexts, whatever — have readily understood the meaning (I would go with Freeman’s “a man who has knowledge”). Although ἀπέδιλος may mean “unfettered” at Alk. 1.15, it seems to me extremely unlikely that, as Ferrari contends (p.66 n.133), it means that rather than “unshod” at P.Desm. 135. Under what circumstances would the Okeanids have been “fettered”? (I have no idea what Alkman meant by the phrase ἀπ]έδιλος ἀλκά; the context gives no help. Campbell offers “without foundation,” citing Pindar’s ἀδαμαντοπέδιλος, “on a base of adamant” [Lσ fr. 33d.8 Race. Page’s attempt to elucidate the word by comparing the phrase in P.Desm. 135,” ‘not walking on the ground’ (but being conveyed through the air),’ ” strikes me as not entirely successful.)10 Nor am I very happy with Ferrari’s translation of τείρει at Alk. 1.77 as “effaces” (pp. 78, 81 and elsewhere; at 93 she offers “wears out, overcomes, effaces,” of which I would go with the first two choices). (I have no strong feeling, either, that the poet intended this rather than τηρεῖ, “protects,” which many editors print. In either case we cannot say that his meaning is pellucid.) She asserts that the Spartan festival at which the Partheneion was performed had as “its charge… to honor the gods and to commemorate the heroes and heroines of the past on a yearly recurring occasion” (127), That the gods were involved in this as in most, probably all, Greek festivals is unproblematic. About Sparta’s past heroes and heroines I am less sure. True, there were shrines at Sparta to several of the sons of Hippokoön,11 but the impression one gets from what little is left of Alkman’s narrative is, pace Ferrari, that they were not only on the losing, but also the wrong, side.

These minor disagreements should not be taken as diminishing my admiration for Ferrari’s ambitious project: to present a coherent theory that will explain most if not all of the mysterious features of this marvelous, peculiar, literary artefact from archaic Sparta. Let her reconstruction stand until a more convincing one is proposed.

Ferrari helpfully provides in an Appendix a full text and translation (pp. 151 ff.), followed by a useful list of abbreviations, an extensive bibliography and an Index of Sources. The book has been beautifully produced.12


1. The Myths

— Hippocoon and his sons

— Path and Sign

— Measure

— Phaethon

2. The Chorus

— The Travails of the Chorus

— Pleiades, Hyades, and Sirius

— The Moon and the Stars

3. Ritual in Performance

— Heaven and Earth

— The Mourning Voice


— The Season of the Karneia

— Kalathiskos Dancers


1. Malcolm Davies ed., Poetarum Melicorum Graecorum Fragmenta vol. I (Oxford 1991).

2. O. M. von Stackelberg, Gräber der Hellenen (Berlin 1837) pl. 23; F. Hauser in Furtwängler and Reichhold, Griechische Vasenmalerei (Munich: 1900-32) 3.91.

3. On the Pythagorean Way of Life 64-65, tr. Dillon and Hershbell, cited by Ferrari p. 5 n.13.

4. She appears to have been driven to this position by the (to me, misguided) notion of Herington that this type of occasional poetry would not have survived down the centuries unless the works had been re-performed, and that such re-performances would not have taken place unless the characters named were mythical, timeless, rather than here-and-now contemporary Spartan persons. I would posit instead a process of transmission whose exact nature cannot now be recovered, but which probably recognized that “classics” of this kind had to be preserved and transmitted by recitations at syssitia, public gatherings, etc. The date at which they were written down, to finally make their way into the Library at Alexandria and elsewhere, is anybody’s guess; I would say sooner rather than later. It seems to me well-nigh certain that the girls named at 1.70 ff., Nanno, Areta, Sylakis, Kleëssithera, Ainesimbrota, Astaphis, Philylla, Damareta and Hianthemis, are real people. There are female proper names scattered through Alkman’s other fragments.

5. To be supplied with virtual certainty in v. 14; cf. fr. 5, col. iii.3 (discussed by Ferrari at length, pp. 31 ff.). I think she is being undeservedly skeptical when she writes, “no part of the cosmogony that the commentary outlines [in the fragment in question, P.Oxy. 2390] can be assigned to Alcman with any confidence” ( p. 34).

6. D. A. Campbell’s trans. ( Greek Lyric, vol. II [Loeb Classical Library] Cambridge MA 1987), to whose good sense and impeccable scholarship all students of early Greek lyric are deeply indebted.

7. The alleged parallels are: Alk. 1.60 = Eur. F. 773.66 (Pleiads) and Alk.1.100-101 = Eur. F 773.76-7 (swan).

8. The identification is attested by scholiast B, P.Oxy. 2389, fr. 6 col. i, lines 10-11 ( PMGF p. 32).

9. Denys L Page, Alcman. The Partheneion (Oxford 1951; repr. Salem NH 1985) 90.

10. Ibid. 34.

11. The evidence, principally Pausanias 3.14.6-7 and 3.15.1, is discussed by Ferrari at pp. 22 and 124, and Page (n. 9 above), 26 f.

12. I noticed no misprints except that I think that the ref. in p. 22 n. 5 should be to p. 124 rather than p. 122. I missed a reference to Theseus in the General Index.