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Wed, 29 Jul 2009 12:06:30 -0500
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Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta. By GLORIA FERRARI. Chicago: The University 
of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. viii + 184 + 20 color plates + 2 halftones. 
Cloth, $45.00. ISBN 978–0–226–66867–3.

Order this text for $35.06 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.07.05

Due to its fragmentary state, as well as our incomplete knowledge of 
performance contexts in archaic Sparta, Alcman’s famed Louvre Partheneion 
fragment has had a long and contested history of interpretation. Ferrari 
(F.) provides a novel interpretation of the poem, while situating it within 
its literary and cultural matrices. She states that the purpose of her book 
is to show “that cosmic imagery … runs through Alcman’s song and 
governs its staging” (p. 7) and that “on the occasion of a major state 
festival celebrating the cycle of the seasons, the chorus dances the Hyades 
and points to the Moon, Dawn, and Night” (p. 17). Although by no means 
the first scholar to note astral imagery in the poem, F. is the first to do 
so in such an extended fashion. The basic questions for all readers, then, 
are: does F. persuade us that the cosmic imagery she purports to uncover is 
as widespread as she claims? Are her interpretations overly constrictive?

In the introduction, F. criticizes the assumption that the poem preserves a 
transcript of a performance in which the chorus speak of themselves as 
themselves. She points out that lyric choruses “could, and did, play the 
part of mythical or epic characters” (p. 11), and then asserts that 
“the chorus of the Partheneion … take on the role of archetypal 
dancers, in their case a chorus of stars” (p. 17). F. is correct, of 
course, that we should be aware of our assumptions, and there is no reason 
to assume prima facie that the chorus could not play something other than 

In Chapter 1, “The Myths,” F. systematically addresses the myths 
presented in the poem and interprets them in light of their social and 
literary context. She elegantly points out that the myth of Tyndareus, 
Hippocoon and his sons shows the problems that ensue when an illegitimate 
heir takes control of the state; at Sparta with its system of dual 
kingship, this myth of fraternal rivalry and illegitimate succession would 
have had important political resonance. F. then turns to the famed Aisa and 
[Poros] passage of the papyrus and interprets Aisa as “the time allotted 
to darkness and night” and Poros as “the road of heaven.” 
Traditionally, Poros and Aisa (Portion and Allotment) are taken to refer to 
the duration of life given the heroes mentioned in the immediately 
preceding catalogue. The word geraitatoi, which is textually sure, works 
well with this opinio communis. But, if we follow F.’s interpretation, 
“the road of heaven” and “the time allotted to darkness and night” 
are called the oldest [gods?]. This seems strange, even given the Greek 
fondness for personification. F. also excises some now widely accepted 
supplements, presumably because they do not work with her thesis. While 
such excisions are legitimate, I would have liked to see her address the 
surrounding text that is still sure.

In lines 16–17, F. finds reference to the myth of Phaethon, which she 
connects with Poros and Aisa, discussed above as “path” and 
“measure.” She suggests that “poros and aisa in the gnome are highly 
relevant, since it was the youth’s inability to follow the ‘path’ of 
the Sun and thus keep to the ‘measure’ of the day that resulted in 
disaster.” Once again, I wish F. had discussed the broader extant text. 
She omits reference to lines 18 and 19, in which the possibility that 
females besides Aphrodite might be married is clearly mentioned, and 
focuses only on one bride, Aphrodite, for Phaethon. In support of her 
interpretation, F. offers the supplement “flee from” in line 17 (i.e., 
no one should flee from marrying Aphrodite), but Blass’ widely accepted 
“try” seems preferable (i.e., let no one try to marry Aphrodite), since 
the gnomic line 16 seems to exhort humans to be aware of their mere mortal 
status. I doubt that many scholars will follow F. and read the myth of 
Phaethon into this passage.

In Chapter 2, “The Chorus,” F. focuses on the chorus and its 
performance. F. addresses the notoriously difficult line 49, but does not 
consider the possibility that the passage is simply corrupt. Like G.O. 
Hutchinson in his Greek Lyric Poetry, I would obelize the passage. Shortly 
thereafter, F. asks whether we should assume that the females (Agido, 
Hagesichora, Anesimbrota) mentioned in the poem are historical, and 
(following others) points out that many of the women seem to have 
“speaking names.” Is this fortuitous or do names like Hagesichora, 
“leader of the chorus,” tell us that we are wrong to regard these as 
historical personages rather than acted roles? Given her thesis, F. 
stresses that these names do not refer to historical personages but can be 
used of actors generically. This may be true, but, unfortunately for F.’s 
thesis, the names do not connect in any obvious way with names for stars. 
Moreover, F.’s argument that the poem would not be preserved, were these 
historical characters, is particularly weak. For example, we still have 
epinician odes in which Hieron of Syracuse plays a prominent role.

In her discussion of the hotly contested lines 60–3, F. points out that 
the Pleiades and Hyades are often positioned in literature together in 
reference to the beginning of winter, the time for plowing. Since the 
Pleiades are mentioned in the text, F. deduces that Alcman’s chorus must 
be the Hyades, who are competing against the Pleiades; this is all heavily 
based on the hotly contested verb makhontai, “fight.” But the texts F. 
marshals in support of her thesis (Hes. Op. 614–17; Il. 18.486) never 
describe the Pleiades “fighting” with the Hyades; rather it seems that 
the Pleiades and Hyades move in tandem. If we are to presume that 
Alcman’s chorus of Hyades is fighting the Pleiades, as F. argues, we 
should expect a similar arrangement within Greek discourse concerning the 
Pleiades and the Hyades, but the comparanda F. offers suggest the opposite.

Alcman’s text is problematic for F.’s thesis in other ways as well. In 
“we are carrying a plow/robe,” the language seems quite literal and 
works better on the assumption that an offering is being made on behalf of 
the chorus and civic body to a deity, presumably Orth(r)ia. In none of the 
comparison texts F. cites is phero used to describe the introduction of the 
plowing season. Moreover, an interpretation of the verb’s object as the 
“plowing season” rather than the “plow” itself warrants more 
explanation. Most commentators also take Orthriai as a dative singular—as 
Hutchinson notes, the syntax practically demands it—while F. takes it as 
a nominative plural with the Pleiades. The common interpretation, contra 
F., works well if we assume that this poem was written for a festival at 
which a deity was given some material offering, either a plow or a robe. It 
may also be that we are wrong to even consider plow/plowing season as a 
possibility for pharos here, since robes are fitting gifts for goddesses in 
Greek cult and the interpretation of pharos as plow apparently cannot be 
supported outside this text and the commentary on it; Hutchinson, for 
example, takes it for granted that pharos must mean robe (pp. 77, 91). F. 
further suggests that Agido is Dawn, Hagesichora the Moon, and Anesimbrota 
Night; but she offers no substantial evidence in support of these 
equivalences. For many reasons, therefore, I find myself unable to accept 
the interpretation F. offers for interpreting Alcman’s chorus as the 

Nor can I believe that the chorus refer to their performance as ponoi, 
“labors,” at line 88. It seems odd to say that a goddess healed a 
chorus from performing a ritual. More likely the chorus are calling upon 
the goddess as a reliever of some specific toils/sufferings the community 
experienced, and the text encourages this interpretation, since a reference 
to peace comes shortly thereafter. As Hutchinson points out, the peace 
follows logically after the ponoi. The goddess Aos, then, was the 
citizens’ healer, as causal gar makes clear (just as Hegesichora will 
provide the chorus of girls with peace). F. translates eks Hagesikhoras 
(line 90) as “away from Hagesichora,” but the idea seems to be that the 
youths are set upon the path of peace “thanks to” Hagesichora, just as 
the city is set upon the path of peace thanks to Aos.

F. also suggests that the horse imagery in the poem refers to the 
horse-driven celestial bodies of the night sky, and that the number ten in 
the final stanza can be understood in reference to Pythagorean cosmology 
and harmonics. This moves a long way from the opinio communis, which 
interprets the ten simply as a reference to the number of individuals in 
the chorus. Moreover, the horse imagery cannot obviously be connected with 
astral imagery, nor is the number ten obviously connected with Pythagorean 
cosmology in this text. In fact, the Greek geographic epithets associated 
with the horses (Venetic, Colaxean, Ibenian) do not trigger associations 
with stars but with places on earth, and the “ten of children” in 
Alcman’s text makes perfect sense as a reference to the number of 

In Chapter 3, “Ritual in Performance,” F. considers performance 
context. Like most commentators, she assumes that the poem was part of a 
state festival, and stresses that the festival “had the function of 
linking the orderly workings of the cosmos to the well-ordered city” (p. 
107). Since F. assumes that the poem preserves the dance of the Hyades, she 
suggests that it was performed at the changing of seasons, and views the 
performance as a rite of passage for the performers. F. elegantly discusses 
the discourse of praise and blame inherent in the poem, as well as 
noteworthy functions of dramatic technique, such as Alcman’s use of what 
would later be known as the Brechtian Verfremdungstechnik. She also finds 
within the poem a strong strain of lament, which she links to Spartan 
society, In my opinion, the section on lament is inadequately supported.

In her postscript, F. suggests that Alcman’s poem was performed at the 
Karneia festival, and looks at representations of the kalathiskos-dance, 
which she interprets in relation to the dance of the stars hypothesized for 
Alcman’s text. With regard to the Karneia, F. provides a revisionist 
argument, suggesting that this is a winter rather than a summer festival.

F. works comfortably with philological, historical, art-historical and 
anthropological data and methods, and has written an impressively 
interdisciplinary book. But the passages in Alcman’s text that are 
problematic for her thesis are too often passed by unmentioned or are 
interpreted tendentiously: F. has not successfully supported her thesis.

University of Oregon 

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