Flavio Massaro, in this revised expansion of his 2013 Salento dissertation, gives a lucid account of musical contests at Sparta proper (with the more meager data from greater Laconia adduced where relevant). The Introduction lays out the scope of the study, provides an historical overview of Spartan history emphasizing political and cultural events and trends that can be associated with the advent, decline, and/or or revitalization of festivals with an agonistic element (musical and/or athletic) at different stages. It therefore develops as an overall synthesis of the several festivals studied—the overarching interpretive narrative that Massaro has distilled from his careful collection and analysis of sources, the more detailed documentation of which occupies the sections that follow. These cover, one chapter each, the Karneia (2), the Gymnopaidiai (3), the paidikoi agones for Artemis Orthia (4), and contests of the Roman period—the Ourania, Eurykleia, Olympia Kommodeia, and victors of unknown contests (5). (The Hyacinthia receive some attention, especially in the introduction, but do not come in for separate formal treatment since their well-attested musical performances were not certainly competitive.) Each chapter has an introductory discussion about the festival in question, variously treating (as the elusive sources permit) cult origins and etiological narratives, date of establishment or pan-Hellenic reorganization, time of year and physical location, position and role in the larger social fabric, and practical organization—overall duration, the various events included and their relative sequence (processions, rituals, sacrifices), and the genres of musical competition. This last-named element often draws Massaro into broader discussions of literary and musical history, helping his readers synchronize the Spartan data with broader and more familiar narratives of Greek cultural history, ancient and modern. The available sources are then catalogued chronologically, with traditional texts followed by inscriptions, each furnished with selective critical apparatus and detailed commentary. Some of the key literary sources are by now well-worn in ancient music scholarship, e.g. passages from pseudo-Plutarch’s De musica on Terpander’s first katastasis of music at Sparta, and the beginnings of other agones elsewhere in the Peloponnese in the next generations. But these are enriched and complicated by less familiar lexicographical notices, glancing allusions in historiographical and biographical writings (Xenophon, Plutarch, et al.), and epigraphic evidence. Many readers will gladly encounter new minor players, and follow slender threads that connect unexpectedly to better known pan-Hellenic trends and other agonistic centers.
Massaro begins by confronting the tendency in both ancient and (older) modern scholarship to treat Sparta synchronically as a culture impervious to change (the well-known ‘Spartan mirage’). The fragments of Tyrtaeus and Alcman, together with the archeological record, give vital glimpses of the more fluid Archaic period. Massaro discusses Sparta’s geographical position, which helps explain the longevity of some Spartan customs and institutions, and the probable confluence of ‘Achaean’ and ‘Dorian’ cultural streams. Spartan expansion into Messenia, the attendant civil and political disturbances, the gradual establishment of eunomia, increasing influence in the wider Peloponnese, external diplomatic contacts with e.g. Lydia—these developments were accompanied by the emergence of a prosperous and refined elite culture that left traces in e.g. seventh-century luxury imports deposited in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia as votive offerings. That this environment supported a lively interest in individual achievements at contests, both at home and abroad (notably Olympia), is broadly implied by Tyrtaeus (9.1–14 Gentili-Prato).
Sparta itself became a kind of cradle for Greek music, especially kitharoidia, thanks to the Karneia. That other Dorian states had their own versions of the festival, which gave its name to a month in most Dorian calendars, shows that this was an ancestral institution. The Spartan version of this festival was apparently re-launched as a pan-Hellenic event ca. 696, when Terpander of Lesbos, an historical figure who nevertheless underwent considerable mythologization, won the first contest in 696 (according to a combination of Hellanicus and Sosibius). According to tradition, the Lesbian singer had been invited at the behest of the Delphic oracle to help quell social unrest through his enchanting music. Musical contests at the Gymnopaidiai are associated with a second wave of innovators—Thaletas of Gortyn, Xenocritus of Locri, Xenodamus of Cythera, Sakadas of Argos—who also promoted festivals elsewhere in the Peloponnese (Arcadia, Argos). Both Spartan festivals were connected with the cult of Apollo and long remained a pinnacle of musical expression throughout Greece; their development as pan-Hellenic performing opportunities parallels the emergence in this period of musical professionalism (e.g. Arion of Methymna), which in turn became (Massaro suggests) an increasingly efficient medium for communicating official ideologies to both internal and external audiences. Unfortunately, the sources do not enable us to reconstruct in any detail the organization and execution of these events. The Karneia, so far as we know, was above all (as at early Delphi) a kitharodic event, and remained so through at least the late fifth century. Despite traditions that associate Sparta with epic poetry, we do not know of rhapsodic competitions there. Massaro goes on to discuss Spartan choral culture and its integration into the ‘Lycurgan’ social fabric through various rites of passage that had some agonistic aspects, e.g. intergenerational rivalry between three age groups of male choruses. A vivid glimpse of female competition comes especially from Alcman’s well-known fr. 1. A more general impression of local song-dance culture comes from a lively vignette of the local historian Polycrates, surviving in Athenaeus (FGrH 588 F 1) and relating to the Hyacinthia (‘un’immagine nitida della centralità della musica a Sparta nella vita di tutti i giorni’, 25).
Massaro goes on to trace the gradual development of a reaction to excessive musical refinement, part of the Spartan mirage whose emergence accompanied a move towards greater austerity in the sixth century (Massaro discusses Chilon here). Several Laconian apothegms relate to this, as do anti-Laconic sources that cast Sparta as amousos and explained the early activity of foreign musicians there not as an indication of cultural prestige but Sparta’s own inability to beget good musicians. The sixth century is perhaps when the Lesbian school failed in Sparta; there is also increasing competition then from other pan-Hellenic performance opportunities (e.g. the reorganization of contests at Delphi in the early sixth century, and the emergence of Athens under Peisistratus and sons). The later fifth, according to tradition, is when Phrynis and Timotheus received rough treatment by the Ephors for exceeding the traditional lyric standard of seven strings. In this connection Massaro discusses the growing contrast in contemporary, especially Athenian, sources between Athens as a center of restless innovation and Sparta’s conservatism and hostility to external influence (Thucydides et al.). The gradual fossilization of Spartan musical culture, Massaro notes, is equally implied by the reperformance of earlier poets like Terpander, Alcman, and Tyrtaeus. Nevertheless, classical Sparta continued to enjoy a rich festival life after its own fashion. Some of the best evidence for this is the inscription of Damonon (IG V, 1, 213), ca. 400, which lists his many victories and those of his son in Sparta and environs; while these were athletic competitors, some of the named events are known from scattered references to have hosted musical events too. There was a thymelikos agon, for instance, during the Eleusinia at the sanctuary of Demeter of Therai (Hesych. s.v. Eleusinia); this was probably at least citharodic since Timotheus is said to have performed there (Boeth. Inst. mus. 1.1). The Parparonia are also known to have had choral performances (if not actual contests). Several other minor musical events are mentioned by Hesychius (see p. 37).
A general scarcity of sources, both literary and epigraphic, leaves contests of the Hellenistic period rather in the dark. Here the discussion must fall back on analogies from the period’s general political and social trends, e.g. Sparta’s broad assimilation, following Leuctra, to a Hellenistic koine; the first stone theater, built under Areus I, is seen as symptomatic. After 146, Sparta remained a free city under Rome; self-conscious contemplation of the Spartan past and ‘recovery of tradition’ can be inferred for contests of this period; several athletic and musical competitions are connected with the continuing agoge. Pausanias is a main source for this period. Continued musical performances in the cult of Artemis Orthia are presumably part of the paidikoi agones. Massaro emphasizes the similarity of Roman-era Sparta to other contemporary cities (e.g. monumental buildings). For the first and second centuries CE we have evidence for foreign competitors at Spartan festivals; these events, Massaro suggests, helped consolidate power relations between local elites and imperial power (e.g. festivals called Kaisareia, Sebasteia, Kommodeia). Sparta thus joined a competition circuit (periodos) that included Olympia, Isthmia, Nemeia, the Pythia and the Heraia at Argos. Specific information, beyond the names of festivals and victors, is generally scarce; but we get scattered glimpses of contests for actors, citharodes, auletes, and ‘poets’.
There is some unavoidable repetition between individual text-commentaries, the synthetic discussions which preface each chapter, and the valuable overview with which the study begins; but Massaro is careful to provide the level of detail and documentation appropriate to each stage of discussion, and it is necessary to work though all three levels for a full picture of each festival and source. Massaro’s study will be the fundamental resource for future study of or reference to Sparta’s musical history, and contributes importantly to our understanding of Laconia’s broader agonal culture and its society more generally. Massaro’s account, with numerous comparisons to other contests and festivals in the larger Greek world, and well supported by secondary literature, will also be a useful introduction to the culture of mousikoi agones and its scholarship for those behind on recent developments here.