Alcman (also Alkman, Greek: Ἀλκμάν) (seventh century B.C.E., dates unknown) was an ancient Greek choral lyric poet from Sparta. He is the earliest representative of the canonical nine lyric poets of ancient Greece. It is perhaps due to his seniority that Alcman, unfortunately, is also one of the most obscure of all the ancient Greek poets. Although it is clear from the number of quotations and accolades written about him that Alcman was one of the premier poets of his era, almost none of his works have survived intact to the present-day. The longest surviving work of Alcman to date is a fragment of a choral poem discovered in Egypt in the nineteenth century.
Despite the loss of his works, Alcman's influence on other poets of the ancient world is considerable. The records of the lost library at Alexandria describe Alcman as the "inventor of love poetry"; other poets whose works have better survived the test of time, including Anacreon and Stesichorus, were believed to have been significantly influenced by Alcman's lyrics. Although, like far too many poets of the ancient world, a true assessment of his works is now impossible, it is clear that he exerted a considerable influence on the literary developments of his time, and it is indisputable that he will endure as a notable figure of the ancient literary world.
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. Frequently assumed to have been born in Sardis, capital of ancient Lydia, the Suda claims that Alcman was actually a Laconian from Messoa. 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), 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:
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 or the content. However, Sardis of the seventh century B.C.E. was like modern Paris or New York—a cosmopolitan city—and as a result it is difficult to assert with certitude that Alcman was born and bred in Sardis and did not migrate there from some propinquitous province.
A more romantic legend has it that when Sparta faced internal difficulties, the Delphic Oracle instructed them to find the greatest poet to sing for their city or they would be destroyed by civil strife. Alcman, the greatest living poet, was thus brought to Sparta as an official singer for public rites and festivals. When Alcman attempted to experiment too extravagantly in his music, his Spartan hosts "arrested" his lyre and kept it in custody until he agreed to maintain a more conventional approach to his official songs, so as not to offend the Oracle or the gods. On an earlier occasion, Sparta had obtained the services of the famous poet Terpander, also based on advice from Delphi, so this tradition should not be lightly dismissed as pure invention.
There were six books of Alcman's choral poetry in antiquity (approximately 50-60 hymns), but they were lost at the threshold of the Middle Ages, 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 one hundred 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 was normally not considered particularly beautiful, it did not at all spoil the beauty of his songs.
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, σδ = ζ, -οισα = -ουσα (the last two of which are not attested in Laconian itself, though) and the use of the Doric accentuation.
Apollonius Dyscolus describes Alcman as συνεχῶς αἰολίζων "constantly using the Aeolic dialect". 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 Fός "his/her," which is perfectly Doric as well. Yet, many existing fragments display prosodic, morphological and phraseological features common to the Homeric language of Greek epic poetry. 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):
(i) that the dialect of the extant fragments of Alcman is basically and preponderantly the Laconian vernacular; (ii) that there is no sufficient reason for believing that this vernacular in Alcman was contaminated by features from any alien dialect except the Epic; (iii) that features of the epic dialect are observed (a) sporadically throughout the extant fragments, but especially (b) in passages where metre or theme or both are taken from the Epic, and (c) in phrases which are as a whole borrowed or imitated from the Epic...
To judge from his larger fragments, Alcman’s poetry was normally strophic: Different meters are combined into long stanzas (9-14 lines), which are repeated several times.
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 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:
For abundance of purple is not sufficient for protection, nor intricate snake of solid gold, no, nor Lydian headband, pride of dark-eyed girls, nor the hair of Nanno, nor again godlike Areta nor Thylacis and Cleësithera; nor will you go to Aenesimbrota's and say, 'If only Astaphis were mine, if only Philylla were to look my way and Damareta and lovely Ianthemis'; no, Hagesichora guards me."
I were to see whether perchance she were to love me. If only she came nearer and took my soft hand, immediately I would become her suppliant."
Earlier research tended to overlook the erotic aspect of the love of the partheneions; thus, instead of the verb translated as "gards," τηρεῖ, at the end of the first quotation, the papyrus has in fact the more explicit τείρει, "wears me out (with love)."
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 thus divided.
Alcman probably composed choral songs for the initiation rites of Spartan boys as well. Thus, the Spartan historian Sosibius (c. 200 B.C.E.) says that songs of Alcman were performed during the Gymnopaedia festival (according to Athenaeus):
The chorus-leaders carry [the crowns] in commemoration of the victory at Thyrea at the festival, when they are also celebrating the Gymnopaedia. There are three choruses, in the front a chorus of boys, to the right a chorus of old men, and to the left a chorus of men; they dance naked and sing the songs of Thaletas and Alcman and the paeans of Dionysodotus the Laconian."
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