BMCR 2020.03.35

A history of Alcman’s early reception: female-voiced nightingales

Vasiliki Kousoulini, A history of Alcman's early reception: female-voiced nightingales. . Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019. 147 p.. ISBN 9781527531666 £58.99.


The subject of this book is the early reception of Alcman, the 7th century BCE Spartan poet. This is a topic that has received some attention in the last two decades (e.g. Hinge, 2006; Carey 2011).[1] But compared to the mountains of work dedicated to understanding Alcman PMG 1 or the reception of Sappho, the reception of Alcman is a relatively underexplored area. There are reasons for this: not much of Alcman’s work survives; there are few allusions to Alcman’s work by later writers; and how Alcman’s songs came to be written down, let alone how they became part of the Alexandrian canon, is less than clear. Studies of Alcman’s reception and textual tradition necessarily tread a thin line between the evidence that there is, and what seems likely.

Kousoulini’s book is a welcome addition to the topic. Broadly speaking, Kousoulini is interested in understanding Alcman’s canonical status, and the impact that this has on our understanding of his songs. Her study ranges from an assessment of the groups involved in the preservation and popularisation of Alcman’s songs, to an exploration of the extent to which the early reception of Alcman should be viewed separately from the tradition of partheneia. Indeed, one of the main questions that Kousolini asks is: “was the tradition of partheneia strong enough to transform Alcman into a generic figure?” (p. 9).

Kousoulini makes a convincing case throughout for a broad analysis of the tradition of Alcman, as well as the need to study the reception of Alcman alongside the reception of the genre of the partheneion. In doing so, Kousoulini positions herself as providing an alternative paradigm for the so-called ‘Hellenisation’ of Alcman. The Hellenisation of Alcman is an uncertain phenomenon and involves not only the spread of Alcman’s songs (and, at some point, the written text of those songs) to places outside Sparta, but Alcman’s entry into a recognised Alexandrian canon of lyric poets. For Carey, the processes (or at least large parts of it) most likely required an early textual corpus of some kind, itself likely based in Sparta (2011, 456). For Hinge, it seems more likely that Alcman’s songs were preserved orally (and in no proper textual form), until a written edition was collated under the revivalist spirit fostered by Agis IV and Cleomenes III in the third quarter of the 3rd century BCE (2006, 304–311).

Kousoulini’s argument sits somewhere between the two. She argues that there is no convincing evidence that Alcman was written down in Sparta during the Archaic period. A fragmentary sixth-century inscription found near the temple of Athena Chalkioikos in Sparta might have been a hexameter hymn to Athena. Previous scholars had toyed with the idea that the composer of such a hymn might have been the once famous Gitiadas (cf. Paus. 3.17), or, indeed, maybe even Alcman. Kousoulini suggests not (p. 79). Instead, she suggests that “the first “edition” of Alcman’s poems appeared in the Peripatus” (p. 116). This edition would have been preceded by an informal 5th-century collection of songs to be taught in Athenian schoolrooms, in order to educate their pupils for the symposium, where they might be expected to sing passages of Alcman (pp. 71–73). Kousoulini also highlights other centres where Alcman’s text could have been compiled in some form or other, such as Tarentum (by Archytas or Eudoxus) and Pergamon (noting a potential reference to Crates of Malos, a 2nd century BCE head of the Library of Pergamon, and a quotation of Alcman by Antigonus of Carystus, who was involved with the court of Attalus I) (p. 99).

The book is divided into an introduction and six chapters which explore: Alcman’s biographical tradition; the iconographical evidence; Alcman and his text; Alcman in the Classical period; Alcman in the Hellenistic period; and a final ‘reconstruction’ by way of a conclusion.

In the introduction, Kousoulini begins with a methodological discussion centred around Genette’s model of textual reception (intertextuality, hypertextuality, architextuality, etc.), recognising the different types of influences and allusions that later authors might have made to Alcman and partheneia more broadly (pp. 3–4).[2] Kousoulini suggests that Alcman’s songs are “an oral text . . . a text composed not as an independent unit but as a text connected with other texts or contexts that were already known to the audience, and using an oral mode of composition” (p. 4). She continues by delineating the boundaries of the partheneic genre, suggesting that previous studies have not emphasised enough the differentiation between textual receptions of Alcman and textual receptions of partheneia (p. 9). There is a thorough overview of the surviving testimonia, including a discussion of the biographical fallacy.

Having laid out the textual evidence for the tradition of Alcman, Chapter Two explores the visual tradition. The evidence is slim: Pausanias’ and others’ discussion of the Tomb of Alcman; the statue of Alcman (not Alcmeon, as Kousoulini argues) on display at Zeuxippus’ baths (AP 2.393–7); and a mosaic in Jordan that depicts Alcman alongside other poets and musicians (as well as Thucydides, and Dionysus). It is encouraging to see more work engaging with the material aspects of lyric poetry, and this chapter is the only work that I know of that is devoted to an examination of Alcman’s visual legacy. It is unfortunate that Kousoulini discusses the mosaic in Jordan as the only surviving depiction of Alcman, since there is a mosaic in Sparta where Alcman is depicted too, (alongside Anacreon, Alcaeus and Sappho: see Christou, 1964, pl. 138c and 139; also Panayotopoulou, 1998, 115). However, this second mosaic does not seriously affect Kousoulini’s argument that the visual reception of Alcman was comparatively sparse despite his place in the lyric canon.[3]

In Chapter Three, Kousoulini assesses the extent to which Alcman’s songs are oral poems, based on a reading of the surviving texts. She approaches this question from several angles, dividing her analysis between Alcman’s partheneia and his songs in other genres. In this regard, K. finds the form (meter, language), content (themes and motifs) and myths of Alcman’s partheneia as all being largely traditional (and thus ‘oral’, to some extent).

Having laid out the oral and traditional nature of Alcman’s songs, and the importance of the Peripatetics in researching and writing about the works and biography of Alcman, Kousoulini returns in Chapter Four to assess when and how Alcman became a ‘classic’. She concludes that “it can safely be assumed that, during the Classical period, there was a Panhellenic interest in Alcman and there was a Panhellenic reception of his poems” (p. 82). As noted, this conclusion breaks from the arguments put forward by Hinge that, until the Hellenistic period, Alcman was a largely epichoric poet.

In Chapter Five, Kousoulini begins by exploring Hellenistic reperformances of Alcman. The two known cases of later Spartan performances bookend the period, one dating to the first quarter of the fourth century, the second around 150 BCE (pp. 83–84). Kousoulini continues by exploring potential literary allusions during this period (such as Lyr. adesp. fr. 9 Powell, Corinna’s partheneia, and Erinna’s Distaff), before exploring Alcman’s treatment by Hellenistic scholars, ranging from Sosibius (treated as Spartan, though there might be a case for viewing the Laconian as Alexandrian) to authors such as Ephorus of Cyme (one of Isocrates’ pupils), and Chrysipppus of Soli, head of the Academy from 230 BCE. It is also in this chapter that Kousoulini explores Pergamon as a possible centre for the study of Alcman (pp. 98–101), before returning to look at literary allusions and receptions in the works of Callimachus, Apollonius, and Theocritus. The discussion of P. Louvre E3320 in this chapter is particularly useful since the papyrus likely provides evidence that Hellenistic editions were circulating “in aid of the melodious reading of Alcman’s songs” (p. 97). In the final chapter, Kousoulini restates her major arguments, most of which I have discussed above.

While there had previously been two major theories as to how the epichoric Alcman became part of the Alexandrian canon, with Kousoulini’s monograph there is now a third alternative, one which will doubtlessly stimulate further discussion on the topic. As such, I would recommend that this book be included in any dedicated Classics library.

There are some points of consistency and spelling that the publisher could have picked up on (e.g. “Anacreon’s fr. 501 PMG” followed by “Anacreon’s 501 PMG” on p. 65, and “One the one hand” on p. 67). Other than that, an index of passages would have been useful.


[1] Carey, C. (2011), “Alcman: From Laconia to Alexandria.” In: Athanassaki, L. and Bowie, E. (eds.), Archaic and Classical Choral Song: Performance, Politics and Dissemination (Berlin: De Gruyter), 437–460. Hinge, G. (2006), Die Sprache Alkmans: Textgeschichte und Sprachgeschichte (Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag). An online version of Hinge’s work is available at

[2] Genette, G. (trans. Newman, C. and Doubinsky, C.) (1997), Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press).

[3] Christou, C. (1964), “Ἀνασκαφικαὶ ἔρευναι εἰς οἰκόπεδα Σπάρτης,” A. Delt. 19 B, 135–141. Panayotopoulou, A. (1998), “Roman Mosaics from Sparta,” British School at Athens Studies 4, 112–118.