Alcman (Greek Ἀλκμάν, also Alkman) (7th century BC) was an Ancient Greek choral lyric poet from [8], holds that Alcman came to Sparta as a slave to the family of Agesidas (= Hagesidamus?[9]), by whom he was eventually emancipated because of his great skill.

A more romantic legend[citation needed] 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, being 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.


Aristotle reported that it was believed Alcman died from a pustulent infestation of lice (phthiriasis),[10] but it may be a mistake for the philosopher Alcmaeon.[11] According to Pausanias, he is buried in Sparta next to the tomb of Helen of Troy.[12]



There were six books of Alcman's choral lyric 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 1960's, 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 euphonous, it has not at all spoiled the beauty of his songs.[13]

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".[14] 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"; 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. 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..."

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 cent. BC.[1]


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 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."[15].

"...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."[16]

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)". 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.[17] At a much later period, but probably relying on older sources, Plutarch confirms that the Spartan women were engaged in such same sex relationships.[18] 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,[19] others think that the was some sort of witch, who would supply the girls in love with magic love-elixirs like the pharmakeutria of Theocritus's Second Idyll,[20] and others again argue that the she was the trainer of the chorus like Andaesistrota of Pindar's Second Partheneion [21]

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):

"The chorus-leaders carry [the Thyreatic 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."[22]

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.

Geographic features get close attention: 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.


  1. ^ Suda, s.v. Ἀλκμάν.
  2. ^ Greek Anthology, 7.18.
  3. ^ Suda, s.v. Ἀλκμάν
  4. ^ Alcman fr. 39 in Athenaeus 9, 389f.
  5. ^ fr. 16, transl. Campbell (quoted in P.Oxy. 2389 fr. 9).
  6. ^ C.J. Ruijgh, Lampas 13 (1980) 429 (according to him, fr. 89 is exclusively Ionic and possibly composed in Asia Minor).
  7. ^ 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).
  8. ^ Aristole, fr. 372, in Heraclides, Excerpt.polit.
  9. ^ Huxley, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 15 (1974) 210-1 n. 19
  10. ^ Aristotle, HA 556b-557a.
  11. ^ O. Musso, Prometheus 1 (1975) 183-4.
  12. ^ Pausanias 3.15.2-3.
  13. ^ Pausanias 3.15.2 Ἀλκμᾶνι ποιήσαντι ἄισματα οὐδὲν ἐς ἡδονὴν αὐτῶν ἐλυμήνατο τῶν Λακῶνων ἡ γλῶσσα ἥκιστα παρεχομένη τὸ εὔφωνον.
  14. ^ Ap.Dysc., Pron. 1, p. 107.
  15. ^ fr. 1, vv. 64-77; transl. Campbell.
  16. ^ fr. 3, vv. 79-81; transl. Campbell.
  17. ^ Calame 1977, vol. 2, pp. 86-97.
  18. ^ Plutarch, Lycurgus 18.4.
  19. ^ R.C. Kukula, Philologus 66, 202-230.
  20. ^ M.L. West, Classical Quarterly 15 (1965) 199-200; M. Puelma, Museum Helveticum 43 (1977) 40-41
  21. ^ Calame 1977, vol. 2, pp. 95-97; G. Hinge Cultic persona
  22. ^ Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 678b.


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 0674991583 (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.

Secondary literature

  • Claude Calame: Les chœurs des jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque. Vol. 1-2. 1977. Engl. transl. (only vol. 1): Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece. 1997.
  • George Hinge: Die Sprache Alkmans: Textgeschichte und Sprachgeschichte. PhD Dissertation, Århus 2001 (not yet published, =
  • Denys L. Page: Alcman. The Partheneion. 1951.
  • Carlo Odo Pavese: Il grande partenio di Alcmane (Lexis, Supplemento 1). Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert 1992.
  • Mario Puelma: Die Selbstbeschreibung des Chores in Alkmans grossem Partheneion-Fragment, MH 34 (1977) 1-55.
  • Ernst Risch: 'Die Sprache Alkmans'. Museum Helveticum 11 (1954) 20-37 (= 'Kleine Schriften' 1981, 314-331).

Alcman's Partheneion

All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M

N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z