Alcman (also Alkman, Greek polytonic|Ἀλκμάν) (7th century BC) was an Ancient Greek choral lyric poet from Sparta. He is the earliest representative of the Alexandrinian canon of the nine lyric poets.



The name of Alcman's mother is not known but his father may have been named either Damas or Titarus. [Suda, s.v. Polytonic|Ἀλκμάν.]


Alcman's nationality was a matter of dispute even in ancient days. Unfortunately, the vitae of the ancient authors were often deduced from biographic readings of their poetry and the details are often untrustworthy. Antipater of Thessalonica wrote that poets have "many mothers" and that the continents of Europe and Asia both claimed Alcman as their son. [Greek Anthology, 7.18.] Frequently assumed to have been born in Sardis, capital of ancient Lydia, the Suda claims that Alcman was actually a Laconian from Messoa. [Suda, s.v. Polytonic|Ἀλκμάν] The compositeness of his dialect may have helped to maintain the uncertainty of his origins, but the many references to Lydian and Asian culture in Alcman's poetry must have played a considerable role in the tradition of Alcman's Lydian origin. Thus, Alcman claims he learned his skills from the "strident partridges" ("caccabides"), [Alcman fr. 39 in Athenaeus 9, 389f.] a bird native to Asia Minor and not naturally found in Greece. The ancient scholars seemed to have referred to one particular song, in which the chorus says: [fr. 16, transl. Campbell (quoted in "P.Oxy." 2389 fr. 9).] Yet, given that there was a discussion, it cannot have been certain who was the third person of this fragment. Some modern scholars defend his Lydian origin on the basis of the language of some fragments [C.J. Ruijgh, "Lampas" 13 (1980) 429 (according to him, fr. 89 is exclusively Ionic and possibly composed in Asia Minor).] or the content. [A.I. Ivantchik, "Ktema" 27 (2002) 257-264 (certain references to Scythian culture come from a Scythian epic, which would be more readily accessible in Asia Minor).] However, Sardis of the seventh century BC was like modern Paris or New York, a cosmopolitan city. The implicit and explicit references to Lydian culture may be a means of describing the girls of the choruses as fashionable.


One tradition, going back to Aristotle, [Aristole, fr. 372 Rose, in Heraclides Lembus, "Excerpt. polit." (p. 16 Dilts).] holds that Alcman came to Sparta as a slave to the family of Agesidas (= Hagesidamus? [Huxley, "Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies" 15 (1974) 210-1 n. 19] ), by whom he was eventually emancipated because of his great skill.


Aristotle reported that it was believed Alcman died from a pustulant infestation of lice ("phthiriasis"), [Aristotle, "HA" 556b-557a.] but he may have been mistaken for the philosopher Alcmaeon of Croton. [O. Musso, "Prometheus" 1 (1975) 183-4.] According to Pausanias, he is buried in Sparta next to the tomb of Helen of Troy. [Pausanias 3.15.2-3.]



There were six books of Alcman's choral poetry in antiquity (ca. 50-60 hymns), but they were lost at the threshold of the Medieval Age, and Alcman was known only through fragmentary quotations in other Greek authors until the discovery of a papyrus in 1855 in a tomb near the second pyramid at Saqqâra in Egypt. The fragment, which is now kept at the Louvre in Paris, France, contains approximately 100 verses of a so-called "partheneion", i.e. a song performed by a chorus of young unmarried women. In the 1960s, many more fragments were discovered and published in the collection of the Egyptian papyri from a dig of an ancient garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus. Most of these fragments contain partheneions, but there are also other kinds of hymns among them.


Pausanias says that even though Alcman uses the Doric dialect, which is normally not particularly euphonious, it has not at all spoiled the beauty of his songs. [Pausanias 3.15.2 Polytonic|Ἀλκμᾶνι ποιήσαντι ἄισματα οὐδὲν ἐς ἡδονὴν αὐτῶν ἐλυμήνατο τῶν Λακῶνων ἡ γλῶσσα ἥκιστα παρεχομένη τὸ εὔφωνον.]

Alcman's songs were composed in the Greek Dorian dialect of Sparta (the so-called Laconian dialect). This is seen especially in the orthographic peculiarities of the fragments like α = η, ω = ου, η = ει, σ = θ and the use of the Doric accentuation, though it is uncertain whether these features were actually present in Alcman's original compositions or were added either by Laconian performers in the subsequent generations (see Hinge's opinion below) or even by Alexandrian scholars who gave the text a Doric patina using features of the contemporary, and not the ancient, Doric dialect.

Apollonius Dyscolus describes Alcman as Polytonic|συνεχῶς αἰολίζων "constantly using the Aeolic dialect". [Ap.Dysc., "Pron". 1, p. 107.] However, the validity of this judgment is limited by the fact that it is said about the use of the digamma in the third-person pronoun Polytonic|Fός "his/her"; it is perfectly Doric as well. Yet, many existing fragments display prosodic, morphological and phraseological features common to the Homeric language of Greek epic poetry, and even markedly Aeolic and un-Doric features (σδ = ζ, -οισα = -ουσα) which are not present in Homer itself but will pass on to all the subsequent lyric poets. This mixing of features adds complexity to any analysis of his works.

The British philologist Denys Page comes to the following conclusion about Alcman's dialect in his influential monograph (1951):

In his dissertation on the dialect of Alcman (2001), the Danish philologist George Hinge reaches to the opposite conclusion: that Alcman composed in the same poetic language as Homer ("the common poetic language"); however, since the songs were performed by Spartans, they were also transmitted with a Laconian accent and written down with a Laconian orthography in the 3rd century BC. []

Metrical form

To judge from his larger fragments, Alcmans poetry was normally strophic: Different metres are combined into long stanzas (9-14 lines), which are repeted several times.

One popular metre is the dactylic tetrameter (in contrast to the dactylic hexameter of Homer and Hesiod).


Girls' choruses and initiation

The type of songs Alcman composed most frequently appear to be hymns, "partheneia" (maiden-songs), and "prooimia" (preludes to recitations of epic poetry). Much of what little exists consists of scraps and fragments, difficult to categorize.

The choral lyrics of Alcman were meant to be performed within the social, political, and religious context of Sparta. Most of the existing fragments are lines from "partheneia" or "maiden-songs" (Greek Polytonic|παρθένος "maiden"), i.e. hymns sung by choruses of unmarried women. The "partheneia" were performed as a type of drama by choruses of girls during festivals in connection with their initiation rites. This genre has been described exhaustively by the French scholar Claude Calame (1977).

The girls express a deep affection for their chorus leader:Earlier research tended to overlook the erotic aspect of the love of the partheneions; thus, instead of the verb translated as "gards", Polytonic|τηρεῖ, at the end of the first quotation, the papyrus has in fact the more explicit Polytonic|τείρει, "wears me out (with love)". However, there is now a consensus in most modern scholarship that this homoerotic love, which is similar to the one found in the lyrics of the contemporaneous poetress Sappho, matches the pederasty of the males and was an integrated part of the initiation rites. [Calame 1977, vol. 2, pp. 86-97.] At a much later period, but probably relying on older sources, Plutarch confirms that the Spartan women were engaged in such same sex relationships. [Plutarch, "Lycurgus" 18.4.] It remains open if the relationship also had a physical side and, if so, of what nature. Yet, the very fact that the love was codified by a man, Alcman, and even proclaimed during the festivals of the city, is a clear indication that the romantic feelings of the girls were not only tolerated silently, but even promoted loudly.

Some scholars think that the chorus was divided in two halves, who would each have their own leader; at the beginning and close of their performance, the two halves performed as a single group, but during most of the performance, each half would compete with the other, claiming that their leader or favorite was the best of all the girls in Sparta. There is, however, little evidence that the chorus was in fact divided. The role of the other woman of Alcman's first partheneion, Aenesimbrota, is contested; some consider her indeed a competing chorus-leader, [R.C. Kukula, "Philologus" 66, 202-230.] others think that she was some sort of witch, who would supply the girls in love with magic love-elixirs like the "pharmakeutria" of Theocritus's Second Idyll, [M.L. West, "Classical Quarterly" 15 (1965) 199-200; M. Puelma, "Museum Helveticum" 43 (1977) 40-41] and others again argue that the she was the trainer of the chorus like Andaesistrota of Pindar's Second Partheneion [Calame 1977, vol. 2, pp. 95-97; G. Hinge [ Cultic persona] ]

Other songs

Alcman probably composed choral songs for the initiation rites of Spartan boys as well. Thus, the Spartan historian Sosibius (ca. 200 BC) says that songs of Alcman were performed during the Gymnopaedia festival (according to Athenaeus [Athenaeus, "Deipnosophists" 678b.] ):

Praise for the gods, women, and the natural world

Regardless of the topic, Alcman's poetry has a clear, light, pleasant tone which ancient commentators have remarked upon. Details from rituals and festivals are described with care, even though the context of some of those details can no longer be understood.

Alcman's language is rich with visual description. He describes the yellow color of a woman's hair and the golden chain she wears about her neck; the purple petals of a Kalchas blossom and the purple depths of the sea; the "bright shining" color of the windflower and the multi-colored feathers of a bird as it chews green buds from the vines.

A lot of attention is focused on nature: ravines, mountains, flowering forests at night, the quiet sound of water lapping over seaweed. Animals and other creatures fill his lines: birds, horses, bees, lions, reptiles, even crawling insects.



Texts and translations

*"Greek Lyric II: Anacreon, Anacreontea, Choral Lyric from Olympis to Alcman" (Loeb Classical Library) translated by David A. Campbell (June 1989) Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-99158-3 (Original Greek with facing page English translations, an excellent starting point for students with a serious interest in ancient lyric poetry. Nearly one third of the text is devoted to Alcman's work.)
*"Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets" translated by Willis Barnstone, Schoken Books Inc., New York (paperback 1988) ISBN 0-8052-0831-3 (A collection of modern English translations suitable for a general audience, includes the entireity of Alcman's "parthenion" and 16 additional poetic fragments by him along with a brief history of the poet.)
*"Alcman. Introduction, texte critique, témoignages, traduction et commentaire". Edidit Claudius Calame. Romae in Aedibus Athenaei 1983. (Original Greek with French translations and commentaries; it has the most comprehensive critical apparatus.)
*"Poetarum melicorum Graecorum fragmenta". Vol. 1. "Alcman, Stesichorus, Ibycus". Edidit Malcolm Davies. Oxonii: e typographeo Clarendoniano 1991.

econdary literature

*Calame, Claude: "Les chœurs des jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque", vol. 1-2 (Filologia e critica 20-21 ). Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo 1977. Engl. transl. (only vol. 1): "Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece". Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 1997, rev. ed. 2001. ISBN 0-7425-1524-9 .
*Hinge, George: "Die Sprache Alkmans: Textgeschichte und Sprachgeschichte" (Serta Graeca 24). Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag 2006. ISBN 3-89500-492-8.
*Page, Denys L.: "Alcman. The Partheneion". Oxford: The Clarendon Press 1951.
*Pavese, Carlo Odo: "Il grande partenio di Alcmane" (Lexis, Supplemento 1). Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert 1992. ISBN 90-256-1033-1.
*Puelma, Mario: "Die Selbstbeschreibung des Chores in Alkmans grossem Partheneion-Fragment", Museum Helveticum 34 (1977) 1-55.
*Risch, Ernst: 'Die Sprache Alkmans'. "Museum Helveticum" 11 (1954) 20-37 (= "Kleine Schriften" 1981, 314-331).

Further reading

*Easterling, P.E. (Series Editor), Bernard M.W. Knox (Editor), "Cambridge History of Classical Literature", v.I, Greek Literature, 1985. ISBN 0-521-21042-9, cf. Chapter 6, "Archaic Choral Lyric", pp.168-185 on Alcman.

External links

* [ SORGLL: Alkman 58; read by Stephen Daitz]

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