George Hinge


Cultic Persona
and the Transmission of the Partheneions



The chorus was one of the most important expressions of Greek cult. In words and movements, the choreuts embodied the myth of the cult and gave life to its rituals. In addition, the young boys and girls were integrated into the civic identity by imitating the history of the polis. In Sparta, a corpus of the texts of these choruses was published in Hellenistic times in six books under the name of the seventh-century poet Alcman. Unfortunately, this collection disappeared on the threshold of the Middle Ages. Only ca. 3% has survived either as quotations in other authors or in papyrus fragments from Egypt. Many of these fragments belong to so-called partheneions, i.e. choral songs performed by young girls, parthenoi.

In the most famous of Alcman’s partheneions, which is known primarily thanks to the Louvre Papyrus, the names of eleven girls are listed. Two girls are in the front, two protagonists, so to speak, whose names occur more times in the extant lines: Hagesichora (vv. 54, 57, 79, 90) and Agido (vv. 40, 42, 58, 80). The chorus is comparing their attractiveness (vv. 39-59):

... ἐγὼν δ᾿ ἀείδω
Ἀγιδῶς τὸ φῶς· ὁρῶ
.᾿ ὥτ᾿ ἄλιον, ὅνπερ ἇμιν
Ἀγιδὼ μαρτύρεται
φαίνεν· ἐμὲ δ᾿ οὔτ᾿ ἐπαινὲν
οὔτε μωμέσθαι νιν ἁ κλεννὰ χοραγὸς
οὐδ᾿ ἁμῶς ἐῇ· δοκεῖ γὰρ ἤμεν αὔτα
ἐκπρεπὴς τὼς ὥπερ αἴτις
ἐν βοτοῖς στάσειεν ἵππον
παγὸν ἀεθλοφόρον καναχάποδα
τῶν ὑποπετριδίων ὀνείρων·

ἦ οὐχ ὁρῇς; ὁ μὲν κέλης
Ἐνετικός· ἁ δὲ χαίτα
τᾶς ἐμᾶς ἀνεψιᾶς
Ἁγησιχόρας ἐπανθεῖ
χρυσὸς [ὡ]ς ἀκήρατος·
τό τ᾿ ἀργύριον πρόσωπον
διαφάδαν τί τοι λέγω;
Ἁγησιχόρα μὲν αὕτα·
ἁ δὲ δευτέρα πεδ᾿ Ἀγιδὼ τὸ εἶδος
ἵππος Ἰβηνῶι Κολαξαῖος δραμείται

I sing of the light of Agido. I see her (?) like the sun, of whose light Agido is a witness. Our illustrious chorus-leader will not in any way allow me to praise her or blame her. For she seems to be herself excellent as if one would put on grass a horse, strong, prize-winning, thunder-footed, belonging to the dreams from beneath the rocks (?). Don’t you see it? The first is a fast Enetian, but the mane of my cousin Hagesichora is blossoming like pure gold. Her silvery face - why spell it out? That is Hagesichora. Agido runs after her the second in beauty, like a Colaxaean horse against an Ibenian.

Then nine other girls are introduced (vv. 64-77):

οὔτε γάρ τι πορφύρας
τόσσος κόρος ὥστ᾿ ἀμύναι,
οὔτε ποικίλος δράκων
παγχρύσιος, οὐδὲ μίτρα
Λυδία, νεανίδων
ἰανογ[λ]εφάρων ἄγαλμα,
οὐδὲ ταὶ Ναννῶς κόμαι,
ἀλλ᾿ οὐ[δ᾿] Ἀρέτα σιειδής,
οὐδὲ Σύλακίς τε καὶ Κλεησισήρα,
οὐδ᾿ ἐς Αἰνησιμβρ[ό]τας ἐνθοῖσα φασεῖς·
Ἀσταφίς [τ]έ μοι γένοιτο
καὶ ποτιγλέποι Φίλυλλα
Δαμαρ[έ]τα τ᾿ ἐρατά τε Ἰανθεμίς·
ἀλλ᾿ Ἁγησιχόρα με τείρει.

For there will not be enough purple to defend oneself, nor a colourful snake of solid gold nor a Lydian diadem, the pride of the violet-eyed young girls, nor the hair of Nanno, nor godlike Areta nor Sylacis and Cleesisera; and you will not go home to Aenesimbrota and say: May Astaphis be mine, may Philylla look at me, or Damareta or lovely Ianthemis. No, it is Hagesichora that torments me.

These girls are normally identified as the rest of the chorus. There are some bad preserved verses later in the poem saying something about being ten instead of eleven. It seems to correspond with the total number of names mentioned in the poem (ten with Aenesimbrota, eleven without her). In this group, Hagesichora and Agido occupy a central place in the collective consciousness of the chorus.

The name Hagesichora means literally “she, who leads the chorus”, and it has therefore generally been assumed that she was also the chorus-leader or χορηγός mentioned more times in the poem. Agido, on the other hand, means “a girl belonging to the family of the Agiads”. The Agiads were one of the two Spartan royal houses. Gregory Nagy draws an important conclusion from the fact that the names of the two protagonists have a straightforward meaning, namely that they do dot designate historical persons, but generic roles employed by different persons in different performances of the choral song in question. It was not Gelegenheitsdichtung composed for a single occasion and for a very specific group of girls. The chorus represented the polis as such, and the poem was, so to speak, timeless. I agree with Nagy’s analysis, since it converges with the conclusions about the performance of choral lyrics, which I would like to draw from the linguistic form of the transmitted poems.

In general, one must be cautious not to draw too far-reaching conclusions from the meaning of a personal name. Nagy may be right that names of poets like Homer, Hesiod and Stesichorus may in fact originally designate generic figures rather than historical persons, since their names fit so perfectly to their status. Homer is the “collector”, i.e. the proto-rhapsode (ὁμο- + ἀραρίσκω), Hesiod is “he, who releases the song” (ἵημι + ϝοδός), and Stesichorus is “he, who puts up the choruses” (ἵστημι + χορός). They are both, after all, shrouded in mythology. On the other hand, the danger of the method becomes clear, when one considers a name like Aristotle; it means in fact “the best end”, and since telos, “end, purpose”, is a cornerstone in Aristotelic terminology, we would have called Aristotle a generic name, the prototype of the Peripathetic philosopher, if we didn’t know better. So, parents may in fact just be lucky (or provident), when they give names to a newborn child. So, it could simply be a happy coincidence that a girl named Hagesichora happened to be the chorus-leader in the year, when Alcman composed his famous partheneion.

The eleven names of the Partheneion are uncommon. That is, three of them are frequent girl’s names in the inscriptions throughout the Classical age, Areta “virtue”, Philylla “sweetheart” and Damareta “virtue of the people”. The other names are, however, rather extraordinary. In fact, six of them are not attested in other sources, namely Hagēsichora, Agidō, Ainēsimbrota, Astaphis, Ianthemis, and Sylakis, and one is only attested in literary texts, namely Kleēsisera; Nannō occurs a couple of times. There are, of course, a lot of names, which are attested only once, and especially the female names, which are much rarer in the sources, tend to be singular. In the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, there are enumerated 2,630 female names altogether for the Peloponnese and Magna Graecia. 1,739 of these names or 66.1 % occur only once and 501 or 19 % twice or three times. So it must not be discriminating per se that six or 54.5 % of the names in Alcman’s partheneion occur only there. So, what makes them suspicious is not so much their infrequency, but rather the fact that some of them fit to their role so remarkably well.

Mario Puelma argues that Hagesichora cannot be the chorus-leader, since the word ho chorāgos is introduced in verse 44 before the first mention of the name Hagesichora in verse 53; it must refer to the only person, which is called by her name earlier in the poem, namely Agido, who is mentioned in the previous sentence. According to this analysis, it is mere coincidence that Hagesichora has a name that means “chorus-leader”. It is, however, perfectly possible that the chorus referred to their leader with the title and no name the first time, since they would of course have known themselves, who was who, anyway. At any rate, if we accept that the persons are in fact generic roles, it is no problem at all. The words chorāgos and Hāgēsichorā would then be equivalent both semantically and functionally and therefore mutually interchangeable.

Koncert (Napoli, Museo Archeologico, inv. 9023)I will claim that all names of the partheneion are role-names. When Alcman composed his partheneion, he had not concrete girls with names like Philylla, Nanno or Sylacis in his mind. The choral song is a drama with certain roles, which would be cast with the girls, who happened to be available for the year of the performance. Of course the casting was not at random. The part of the beloved was not given to the ugliest or less sympathetic girl of the group, even if beauty and attractiveness were probably not objective criteria, but measured by the position of the girl’s parents. Thus, the part of Agido would always be played by a girl from the family of the Agiads.

The roles of the other names in Alcman’s first partheneion are less evident. As we have seen, the names are rare, but we know to little about early Laconian female onomastics as to exclude that they were in fact commonplace names, as were Areta, Philylla and Damareta in later times. The triviality of these names is in fact no less suspicious than the rarity of the other names. One could say that they simply designate the common role of the dancing and admiring girl. The name Nannō, which is probably some kind of Lallwort, is in classical literature only known as the name of a flute-playing hetaera in Mimnermus. If we are allowed to transfer this connotation to Sparta (Mimnermus is contemporaneous with Alcman), it would not be a very appropriate name for a Spartan girl of noble rank. The name Sylacis is not particularly innocent either: thylakos means “leather sack”, and the feminine thylakē is used, at least later, for the scrotum. We know nothing about the bodily movements of the dance, but it is not impossible that it involved obscene roles too.

Let us turn to some of the other extant partheneions to see if the names included in them can be analysed as generic too. The most problematic in this respect would be Alcman fr. 5, which is quoted in a papyrus commentary only, since it seems to have mentioned the Spartan king Leotychidas:

«νῦν δ᾿ ἴομες τῶ δαίμονος» ἕω(ς) τοῦ «παι[δῶν] ἀρίσταν»· Λεωτυχίδας Λ]ακεδαι[μονί]ων βασιλεύς. ἄδηλον δὲ [... θ]υγάτηρ ἡ Τιμασιμβρότα ... τινος. «φυὰν δ᾿ ἔοικεν [π]αιδὶ ξανθῷ Πολυδώ[ρ]ω[ ]» Λεωτυχίδα υἱός ἐστι τοῦ Λακεδαιμονίων] βασιλέ[ω]ς· [το]ῦ δ᾿ Εὐρυκ[ρ]άτους υἱὸς Πολύδ]ωρος καὶ Τιμ[ασιμ]βρότα θυγά[τηρ

«But now let us go to the god’s» until «the best of his children». Leotychidas, the king of the Lacedaemonians. It is unclear [...] daughter was Timasimbrota ... «Is similar in build to the blond child (of?) Polydoros» He is the son of the king of the Spartans. Polydorus was Eurycrates’ son and Timasimbrota his daughter.

This information has been taken as a decisive verification of the traditional date of Alcman. It is in this context more interesting that the presence of a historical king in a partheneion may be considered an inconvenient impediment to the hypothesis about the generic character of these poems. However, the king can be seen as a generic figure as well, even if his name is historical; he is the representative of a power, which embodies the city as such and is repeated generation after generation for centuries. At any rate, it is uncertain if the name of Leotychidas did in fact stand in the poem. If the poem told that Timasimbrota was the best of Leotychidas’ children, there would have been nothing to comment upon, but the commentator states that it is unclear and ends up with another conclusion, it seems. Furthermore, Leōtychidas, -ēs is the Koine form of the name; it is rather unlikely that the commentator would choose that form, if he had just read the Doric La(o)tychidas in the poem. Another possibility is, therefore, that it was said that Timasimbrota was the best of the king’s children, and that the commentator has himself calculated that Leotychidas was king at the time of Alcman. Timasimbrota is in the next lemma compared with a youth called Polydoros. Since Leotychidas’ son had another name, the commentator concludes that they were the children of the other king, Eurycrates, instead.

Pindar’s second partheneion (= fr. 94(b) S.-M.) is written for the daphnephoric procession in the honour of Apollo. In the middle of the song, the chorus calls on the son of Damaena to lead it, and it adds that the daughter will follow as the first one (vv. 66-72):

Δαμαίνας πα[ῖ, ἐ]να[ισίμ]ῳ νῦν μοι ποδὶ
στείχων ἁγέο· [τ]ὶν γὰρ ε[ὔ]φρων ἕψεται
πρώτα θυγάτηρ [ὁ]δοῦ
δάφνας εὐπετάλου σχεδ[ό]ν
βαίνοισα πεδίλοις,
Ἀνδαισιστρότα ἃν ἐπά-
σκησε μήδεσ[ι.....]ρο[ ]

... of Damaina, stepping forth now with a ... foot, lead the way for me, since the first to follow you on the way will be your kind daughter, who beside the branch of leafy bay walks on sandals, whom Andaisistrota has trained in skills ... (transl. W.H. Race)

It is normally assumed that Damaena’s son is Pagondas mentioned in the beginning of the poem (v. 10), and it is his daughter that follows after him; Agasicles, mentioned in v. 38, is considered his son. Thus the poem is associated with a particular historical family and therefore not particularly generic. It is, however, not the only interpretation: Damaena’s son could be Agasicles, and “the daughter” not the daughter of Damaena’s son, but the daughter of Damaena herself. Another supplement of verse 66 reads patēr, “father”, so that Damaena is the name of the daughter.

At any rate, it is striking how the different names resemble the names of Alcman’s partheneions semantically. The leading boy has a name derived from hēgeomai, the very same verb, which is used in the exhortation (v. 67 ἁγέο). Agasicles’ role was presumably similar to that of Hagesichora. The children’s mother has a name, which can be interpreted as “the praise of the people” (δῆμος + αἶνος). The closest parallel to that is Alcman fr. 10(b), where the leader of the chorus is called Hagesidamos, son of Damotimidas. The structure of the two partheneions are similar: after a narrative excursus, the chorus invokes its leader and comments upon the dance.

The chorus-leader is acting with one particular girl, who is in both cases defined genealogically: Ag-idō (Alcman): thygatēr (Pindar). In the beginning of Pindar’s partheneion, the chorus states that it will sing about the “dwelling of Aeoladas and his son Pagondas” (vv. 8-11 πάν|δοξον Αἰολάδα σταθμόν | υἱοῦ τε Παγώνδα | ὑμνήσω). I suppose that this is meant only as a general reference. The cult was in the hands of a genos that claimed Pagondas as a prominent member, just like the cult of Alcman’s first partheneion is associated with the genos of the Agiads by virtue of the girl’s name Agido (and fr. 5 perhaps with the Eurypontids due to the name Polydoros). The references to the excellencies of the parents in the middle of the poem are also general. Even if the mention of these influential families in Pindar and Alcman may be the poet’s indication of the patronage of the song, a sort of sphragis, we know from Pausanias that the children leading the daphnephoric procession had to come from a noble family (9.10.4):

τόδε γε καὶ ἐς ἐμὲ ἔτι γινόμενον οἶδα ἐν Θήβαις· τῷ Ἀπόλλωνι τῷ Ἰσμηνίῳ παῖδα οἴκου τε δοκίμου καὶ αὐτὸν εὖ μὲν εἴδους, εὖ δὲ ἔχοντα καὶ ῥώμης, ἱερέα ἐνιαύσιον ποιοῦσιν· ἐπίκλησις δέ ἐστίν οἱ δαφναφόρος, στεφάνους γὰρ φύλλων δάφνης φοροῦσιν οἱ παῖδες.

The following custom is, to my knowledge, still carried out in Thebes. A boy of noble family, who is himself both handsome and strong, is chosen priest of Ismenian Apollo for a year. He is called Laurel-bearer, for the boys wear wreaths of laurel leaves. (transl. Jones /Ormerod)

It is clear from this description that the boy was acting a generic role characterised by two qualities, beauty and breeding. Hagesichora and Agido were probably cast for their roles on account of the same two qualifications.

In Alcman’s partheneion, Aenesimbrota has a special role. The chorus says that it doesn’t bother about Nanno, Areta, Sylacis, Astaphis, Philylla, Damareta, or Ianthemis; it is Hagesichora it loves. It says literally: “You will not go home to Aenesimbrota and ask, may Astaphis be mine, or may Philylla look at me.” It has been claimed that choral poems like the famous partheneion was performed in a competition between two choruses, or two halves of the chorus, and that Aenesimbrota was the leader of the other team. Martin West has proposed that Aenesimbrota was some kind of witch, who would give love mixtures to convince the unwilling heart of a girl, just like the pharmakeutria, “mixer of love potions”, in Theocritus’ 2nd idyll. It is, however, better to compare her role with Pindar’s Andaesistrota, as Claude Calame does, being like her the third person besides the chorus-leader and the favourite girl. The chorus of Pindar’s partheneion describes explicitly Aenesimbrota as the trainer (v. 71 ἃν ἐπάσκησε).

An-daisi-strota literally means “she, who divides the people” (ἀνα-δαίω + στρατός). It is therefore very likely that it is yet another role name, which was employed by different women in different performances. Ainēsi-mbrota means “she, who praises people” (αἰνέω + βροτός), and Timasi-mbrota in Alcman fr. 5 P and Klēsi-mbrota in Alcman fr. 4 P have pretty much the same meaning (τιμάω and κλέω). We have seen that the mother of the children (or the daughter) in Pindar’s second partheneion and the father of the chorus-leader in Alcman fr. 10(b) P also have names, which mean something like “praise of the people”, Dam-aina and Damo-tim-idas respectively. In Alcman’s second largest partheneion, fr. 3 P, a person called Asty-meloisa, or “she, who cares for the city” (ἄστυ + μέλω), plays a central role in the ritual, and her role is emphasised further with the prepositional phrase κατὰ στρατόν “throughout the people”(v. 74).

It is significant that we have repeatedly more or less the same semantic describing either the trainer of the chorus or the parent of the chorus-leader. Since the chorus embodies the people as such, the person casting it and training it may consequently be called “the one, who distributes the honours to the people”. There can be no doubt that Alcman was in fact conscious about the etymological value of the names in question. In fact, in fr. 3 P, he even has the chorus glossing Astymeloesa μέλημα δάμῳ “a delight for the people” (v. 74).


Since the unison voice of the chorus calls Hagesichora its cousin (v. 53 τᾶς ἐμᾶς ἀνεψιᾶς), it is likely that the members were somehow related. Another fragment of a partheneion, fr. 10(b), has a chorus, which consists of Dymainai, i.e. female members of the Doric phyle of the Dymanes. Like many other Doric cities, Sparta was divided into three so-called phylae, a kind of clan, which claimed a common origin. If the chorus of the large partheneion was recruited in the same way, it could easily claim to be related, “cousins” so to speak.

A papyrus commentary to a partheneion of Alcman, fr. 11, speaks about Dymainai and Pitanides. Unfortunately, it is very fragmentary, so it is impossible to see if the commentator is speaking about one and the same group of girls or two different groups. Pitanides means girls from Pitane, one of the old Spartan villages (κῶμαι); unlike most other Greek cities, the polis of Classical Sparta consisted of five independent villages instead of a synoecised city, and a town wall was not built until Hellenistic times. Since the “constitution” of Sparta, the famous rhētra quoted in Plutarch, Lyc. 6, prescribes that the people shall be divided into phylae and obae, it is generally assumed that phyle was a tribal division and obe a geographical division, identical to the villages of Sparta.

In other words, the Dymainai and the Pitanides belonged to two different orders of organisation. One could of course claim that either Alcman or his commentator has got it all wrong. On the other hand, the two levels are compatible if the obae and the phylae overlapped, so that each obe was divided into three parts according to the three phylae. Such a division is a commonplace in the Greek world; these kinship subdivisions are called either ph(r)atria or patra according to the dialect of the text. In fr. 5, the commentator does in fact speak about a patra, if the supplement is correct: φυλ[ικὸς χ]ορός (ἐστι) Δυμα[ ... πά]τρα Δυμά[νων “it is a phyle chorus; Dyma[ ... a pa]tra of the Dyma[nes”.

A probable scenario is that the single pieces of choral lyric were re-performed by a certain patra in connection with a certain festival. Each year group of a patra probable formed a club, a thiasos. These thiasi rehearsed and performed the traditional songs generation after generation until Hellenistic times. Taking the broad range of possible re-occurring festivals and the number of patrae (15? 27?) into consideration, it is not surprising that the Hellenistic philologists were able to collect at least two papyrus rolls with maiden songs ascribed to Alcman (in all ca. 20-25 songs). It is not, however, self-evident that each patra had equal access to all festivals. Some festivals were perhaps reserved for a certain lineage. It is remarkable that all known references to a phyle in Alcman mention the Dymanes. There are also other indications that this phyle was traditionally associated with cult practice.

The Dymainai chorus of fr. 10(b) P was leaded by a male chorus-leader with the name Hagesidamos. The similarity with the name Hagesichora is probably not a coincidence. Names with Hagēsi- was known in the Agiad house in the Archaic age, so Alcman may have constructed role names with this verb in order to mark them as belonging to this family. Aristotle says that Alcman was originally a slave of Agesidas, but was set free because of his talents (Pol.Lak., fr. 611.9 Rose); Agesidas is possibly a corruption of the name Hagesidamus occurring in fr. 10(b) P. This tradition may point to a dependence of Alcman on the Agiad dynasty, and it may be derived from a misunderstanding or overinterpretation of some parts of Alcman’s poetry, where a chorus expresses its affection for its leader.

However, the Agiads belonged to the phyle of the Hylleis, since they claimed to be descendants of Heracles’ adoptive son Hyllos. In other words, if Hagesidamus is Agiad, we have a man from the Hylleis phyle leading a chorus of girls from the Dymanes phyle. In fr. 1, on the other hand, the chorus and their female leader belong to the same phyle. Since the relation between chorus and leader must be different in the two cases anyway because of the different sex, the difference in phyle is not so surprising after all. The phyle of the Hylleis seems to have been associated with the ruling class. The combination of dancing Dymainai and a leading Hylles corresponds to this division of the roles.

According to Pausanias, the royal tombs of the Agiads lied in the kōmē of Pitane (3.14.2), whereas the tombs of the Eurypontids were in the kōmē of Cynosura (3.12.8). It would perhaps not be too audacious, then, to assume a link between the Agiad house and the obe of Pitane. Alcman’s own grave monument was situated in the same part of the city as well (3.15.3), near the Dromos, where, still according to Pausanias, young men competed, and near Platanistas, where the race of the young girls in Theocritus’ 18th Idyll seems to be situated. Claude Calame thinks that the same ritual was the occasion of Alcman’s first partheneion as well.

In other words, fr. 1 P was meant to be performed by girls belonging to the Hylleis patra of the Pitane obe. The poem was re-performed year after year by new girls, who played fixed roles in the group and in the ritual. One of the girls was appointed the leader of the chorus and carried the name “Hagesichora”. Another girl obtained the role of the beautiful number two, and she was called “Agido”. There was also a third girl, possibly one from an older year group, who assumed the role of the trainer and divided the parts between the girls, “Aenesimbrota”.


The only external testimony to the transmission of Alcman’s poetry is found in the Dipnosophistae of Athenaeus. It is a quotation of the Laconian historian Sosibius (15, 678b-c = FGrHist 595 F 5):

θυρεατικοί· οὕτω καλοῦνταί τινες στέφανοι παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίοις, ὥς φησι Σωσίβιος ἐν τοῖς Περὶ θυσιῶν, ψιλίνους αὐτοὺς φάσκων νῦν ὀνομάζεσθαι, ὄντας ἐκ φοινίκων· φέρειν δ᾿ αὐτοὺς ὑπόμνημα τῆς ἐν Θυρέᾳ γενομένης νίκης τοὺς προστάτας τῶν ἀγομένων χορῶν ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ ταύτῃ, ὅτε καὶ τὰς Γυμνοπαιδιὰς ἐπιτελοῦσιν. χοροὶ δ᾿ εἰσὶν γ´· ὁ μὲν πρόσω παίδων, <ὁ δ᾿ ἐκ δεξιοῦ γερόντων,> ὁ δ᾿ ἐξ ἀριστ<ερ>οῦ ἀνδρῶν, γυμνῶν ὀρχουμένων καὶ ᾀδόντων Θαλητᾶ καὶ Ἀλκμᾶνος ᾄσματα καὶ τοὺς Διονυσοδότου τοῦ Λάκωνος παιᾶνας.

Thyreatikoi. This is the name of some wreaths among the Spartans, as it is told in Sosibius, On cult. He says that they are now called psilinoi, because they are made of palm leaves. In commemoration of the victory at Thyrea, they are carried by the leaders of the choruses that are held in the festival, when they are also celebrating the Gymnopaediae. There are three choruses: in the front one of boys, <to the right one of old men,> and to the left one of men, who are dancing naked and singing the lyrics of Thaletas and Alcman and the paeans of Dionysodotus the

Starting from this fragment of Sosibius, the establishment of the choruses is dated to the year of the victory at Thyrea in 546 BC. Since this date is later than all conventional estimations of Alcman’s lifetime, he could possibly not have written the poems specially for the festival in question. It would have to be a poem written for some other occasion, but revived at a later time. It is, however, not the Gymnopaediae as such, which were instituted after the victory at Thyrea, but only a minor festival, if one reads Athenaeus’ summary of Sosibius closely. The name of this festival was probably Paparonia. The Gymnopaediae were most likely celebrated in commemoration of another battle between Sparta and Argos over the same piece of land, namely the battle at Hysiae in 669 BC. In other words, there is nothing that speaks against that Alcman composed songs for choruses participating in the Gymnopaediae, a central festival in the initiation cycle of the boys.

I assume that Alcman’s poetry was transmitted inside the cultic context for centuries, until they were collected in the third or second century BC and published in a scholarly edition in Alexandria. It is normally believed that the poems of Alcman were written down by the poet himself or at least in his own lifetime, and that this hypothetical proto-edition circulated in the Greek world in the Archaic and Classical ages, until the poems were reedited in an orthographically and typographically up-to-date version in the Hellenistic age. There are virtually no sources supporting this hypothesis. The main arguments are the sophistication of the texts and the incorrupt transmission. Thus, John Herington writes in his Poetry into Drama:

“The archaic Greek song culture differed most radically from the song cultures of Appalachia, or of most other known to history, in this: although its performances were universally oral, it rested on a firm substructure of carefully meditated written texts. Only the existence of texts can account for its astounding sophistication, refinement, and variety and also for the transmission and preservation of its songs in reasonably uncorrupt form.”

However, sophistication and literacy are not co-dependent. Both the Iranian Avesta and the Indian Rgveda have been composed and transmitted for more than thousand years without a written text. This picture is simply anachronistic and ethnocentric. As to the uncorrupt transmission, we have really no proof that the extant fragments of Alcman have come to us in an unaltered form. On the contrary, the linguistic peculiarities of the text of the Egyptian papyri and of many of quotations occurring in later Greek authors, suggest that the Hellenistic text reflects a fourth-century pronunciation rather than a seventh-century orthography.

As a matter of fact, the poetry of Alcman was almost unknown outside of Sparta until the Hellenistic age. It is striking that Plato does not mention Alcman at all, even though he speaks about Laconian poetry in great length in the second book of the Laws. He only refers to Tyrtaeus, the elegiac poet, who composed exhortative songs during the Messenian wars; Plato says that because of its militaristic constitution Sparta has not been able to produce any beautiful songs. This unfair judgement is only possible if Plato was totally unaware of the sweet muse of Alcman. There is nothing militaristic about his partheneions.

There are nevertheless some poems, which seem to have been known outside of Sparta in the Classical period already. They are characterised by another linguistic surface than the one seen in Egyptian papyri and in most quotations. To my mind, this fact is an evident indication of a different transmission. This small group of poems has no local dialect features at all. It has for instance θ and ου, where the main transmission shows Laconian σ and ω. Both traditions have the Doric ᾱ, but this feature is the rule not only in Pindar, but also in the choral lyric of the Attic drama. One such poem is a fragment consisting of four hexameter verses (fr. 26 P):

οὔ μ᾿ ἔτι, παρθενικαὶ μελιγάρυες ἱερόφωνοι,
γυῖα φέρειν δύναται· βάλε δὴ βάλε κηρύλος εἴην,
ὅς τ᾿ ἐπὶ κύματος ἄνθος ἅμ᾿ ἀλκυόνεσσι ποτῆται
νηλεὲς ἦτορ ἔχων, ἁλιπόρφυρος εἴαρος ὄρνις.

Honey-singing holy-voiced girls, no longer can my limbs carry me. If only I were a cerylus, that flies over the top of the waves together with the halcyons, with a strong heart, a sea-blue bird of the spring.

It is alluded to in Aristophanes’ Aves, without the name of the author, but the similarity between the verses makes the allusion certain (Av. 298-300). Among the fragments of Alcman, which were quoted in later authors, there are other dactylic hexameters (fr. 28, 77, 80, and 107 P), whereas hexameters are totally absent in the fragments transmitted in the Egyptian papyri. This discrepancy suggests that the papyri do not represent the Alcman corpus equally. They contain primarily ordinary choral lyric poems, which are characterised by varying metres as part of larger stanzas. It cannot be excluded, of course, that the four hexameters of fr. 26 was combined with lines of another type in the original poem, but it would be untypical, to say the least of it. Thus, the metre points to another type of poetry than the one represented by the partheneions.

Another fragment, which is transmitted in a non-Laconian form, is fr. 98:

θοίναις δὲ καὶ ἐν θιάσοισιν
ἀνδρείων παρὰ δαιτυμόνεσσι πρέπει παιᾶνα κατάρχειν

At the meals and at the banquets of the mess, among the guests, it is time to begin the paean.

It is found in the Geography of Strabo in a context, where he quotes the historian Ephorus (10.4.18 = FGrHist 70 F 149). Ephorus writes in the middle of the 4th century BC, so the fragment is older than the Hellenistic edition of Alcman. According to my analysis, it therefore belongs to the limited group of poems exported in Classical times already. Like fr. 26, it has θ and ει instead of the Laconian σ and η.

In a description of the Laconian sacrificial meals, Herodotus uses the exact same word for the participants as in the Alcman fragment, namely daitymōn. It is common in the Odyssey too, where it is used among other things of the dinner guests of Menelaus in Sparta (4.621), and it is not rare in the prose either. It is, however, remarkable that Herodotus has put it in the exact same epic form as Alcman, daitymonessi. It may be a reminiscence of this verse. The scene of Alcman fr. 98 is some kind of cultic meal in a ritual society, described with words thoinē and thiasos;it says that it is time to begin a paean, but it is probably not a paean itself.

A piece of choral lyrics is not just a text and a melody, but also a complex dramatic dance. It is not so easily exported. A poem like Alcman’s partheneion could of course be performed by one person, but the implicit references are almost unintelligible without the dance and the ritual context to make the roles clear. It is therefore, I think, no coincidence that the partheneions did not reach a larger public in the Classical period and were not submitted to writing until the Hellenistic age, when they were studied by a minor esoteric group of learned philologists. The poems, which were in fact “exported” to other areas in Classical times already, were different. They were easier accessible. The text was not full of arcane references to a specific cult. They were composed for a different performance and for a different forum.

The hexameter is normally meant for solo performances, typically accompanied by the lyre, what is also called kitharōidia. One particular type of poem performed by a kitharōidos is the prooimion, “prelude”. The so-called Homeric hymns were called prooimia in Classical times (Thuc. 3.104.4-5 of the Apollo Hymn), and they were probably meant as an introduction to a choral performance. According to the interpretation of fr. 26 P in Antigonus of Carystus, the poet expresses his concern that he cannot follow the movements of the chorus actively anymore. It was probably an independent citharodic introduction to a partheneion, in which the poet spoke in his own voice and introduced the chorus.

In the same way, fr. 98 P presents itself as a prooimion of a paean, which was performed during a sacrificial meal. One important forum for the distribution of poetry in antiquity was without doubt the symposium. It was common that a virtuoso sang a piece of music accompanied by the cithara either from his own production or one of the more famous poems. Sparta had the institution of the syssition, during which the men ate together. We know from Philochorus that at their meals the Spartans used to present pieces of Tyrtaeus by turns (Athen. 14, 630e-f = FGrH 328 F 216):

Φιλόχορος δέ φησιν κρατήσαντας Λακεδαιμονίους Μεσσηνίων διὰ τὴν Τυρταίου στρατηγίαν ἐν ταῖς στρατείαις ἔθος ποιήσασθαι, ἂν δειπνοποιήσωνται καὶ παιωνίσωσιν, ᾄδειν καθ᾽ ἕνα <τὰ> Τυρταίου· κρίνειν δὲ τὸν πολέμαρχον καὶ ἆθλον διδόναι τῷ νικῶντι κρέας.

Philochorus says that after having conquered the Messenians under the command of Tyrtaeus, the Lacedaemonians introduced the habit that whenever they had dinner and sang paeans they would sing Tyrtaeus’ pieces in turn. The polemarch would be the judge and give meat as a prize to the winner.

The fame of Tyrtaeus’ poetry outside of Sparta in the Classical age already is without doubt due to the fact that elegy was easily transferred from syssition to symposium. If certain pieces of Alcman were performed at the syssitia, they were possibly picked up by other Greeks as well. These fragments were performed in a neutral Greek and eventually written down in this form (just like the fragments of Tyrtaeus, which are in Ionic).


Most of Alcman’s poems consisted of choral lyric, which was bound to its cultic context until it was eventually “discovered” by the Hellenistic philologists and published according to the contemporary living performance. The choral hymns were inaccessible because of the many implicit references to the cultic situation and therefore less suitable for a performance outside of this context. The fragmentary nature of the extant fragments have of course not made the comprehension of the poems any easier, but even the largest fragment of them all, fr. 1, poses more questions than it answers, and in spite of more than 150 years of scholarship it is still a matter of debate, what is going on and who is who. The rich commentaries in the margin of the papyrus itself and in the independent papyrus commentary P.Oxy. 2389 show that the task was no less complicated for the Hellenistic scholars, even if they were able to read the whole text. As a matter of fact, the text of this poetry would only appeal to antiquarians and philologists with a keen interest in Laconian history or language, and it was never part of the common syllabus.

Several of the extant fragments are quoted in the Dipnosophistae of Athenaeus (ca. 200 BC). He has probably not collected the verses himself, but relies on quotations found in older handbooks. Sometimes he is explicit about his sources, e.g. (3, 114f, = fr. 94 P):

αἱ δὲ παρ᾽ Ἀλκμᾶνι θριδακίσκαι λεγόμεναι αἱ αὐταί εἰσι ταῖς Ἀττικαῖς θριδακίναις. λέγει δὲ οὕτως ὁ Ἀλκμάν ‘θριδακίσκας τε καὶ κριβανωτώς’. Σωσίβιος δ᾽ ἐν γ΄ περὶ Ἀλκμᾶνος κριβάνας φησι λέγεσθαι πλακοῦντάς τινας τῷ σχήματι μαστοειδεῖς.

The (cakes) called thrikadiskai by Alcman are the same as the Attic thridakinai. Alcman says ‘thridakiskas te kai kribanotōs’. Sosibius says in On Alcman, book 3, that kribanai are a kind of breast-shaped cakes.

He returns to the same matter later (14, 646a):

κριβάνας πλακοῦντάς τινας ὀνομαστικῶς Ἀπολλόδωρος παρ᾽ Ἀλκμᾶνι. ὁμοίως καὶ Σωσίβιος ἐν γ΄ περὶ Ἀλκμᾶνος, τῷ σχήματι μαστοειδεῖς εἶναι φάσκων αὐτούς, χρῆσθαι δ᾽ αὐτοῖς Λάκωνας πρὸς τὰς τῶν γυναικῶν ἑστιάσεις, περιφέρειν τ᾽ αὐτούς, ὅταν μέλλωσιν ᾄδειν τὸ παρεσκευασμένον ἐγκώμιον τῆς παρθένου αἱ ἐν τῷ χορῷ ἀκόλουθοι.

Kribanai is the name of some sort of cake in Alcman according to Apollodorus. Similarly Sosibius in On Alcman, book 3, saying that they are breast-shaped, and that the Laconians use them at the festivals of the women, carrying them around, when the attendants in the chorus are going to sing the hymn they have prepared for the girl.

Sosibius is mentioned as an authority in connection with two other quotations of Alcman, at 3, 81f (= Alcm., fr. 100 P), about the quince, and at 14, 648b (= fr. 96 P), about a ritual muesli. There is a handful of other fragments concerning ritual meals, which may very well have come from the same source, even though Sosibius is not mentioned in the context, e.g. 3, 100f (= fr. 19 P):

μακωνίᾶν δ᾽ ἄρτων μνημονεύει Ἀλκμὰν ἐν τῷ ε΄ οὕτως· ‘κλῖναι μὲν ἑπτὰ καὶ τόσαι τράπεσδαι μακωνίᾶν ἄρτων ἐπιστέφοισαι λίνω τε σασάμω τε κἠν πελίχναις πέδεστι χρυσοκόλλα<ς>’ ἐστὶ <δὲ> βρωμάτιον διὰ μέλιτος καὶ λίνου.

Poppy-seed breads are mentioned by Alcman in book 5: ‘Seven couches and seven tables groaned with poppy-seed breads, linseed and sesame, and there is gold-solder in the bowls’. It is a dish made of honey and linseed.

We have the same metre as in fr. 96 (catalectic iambic trimetre), and the two fragments may very well have come from one and the same hymn.

Sosibius is probably to be dated around 200 BC. Apparently, he has written a treatise on Alcman in at least three books (and probably many more, if it was a running commentary). The excerpts explain implicit references to rituals in Alcman’s poetry. In other words, the Laconian scholar refers to the “esoteric” choral hymns of Alcman, which were unknown outside of Sparta in the Classical Age and virtually incomprehensible without a commentary. It is therefore extremely interesting that the linguistic surface of these quotations is perfectly Laconian. It happens to be apparent only in fr. 94 P (κριβανωτώς) and 19 P (ἐπιστεφοίσαι = -ουσαι, τραπέσδαι = ζ , λίνω and σασάμω = -ου, πέδεστι = μετ-). What is more, fr. 19 is quoted with reference to the book, in which it appears, which is a clear proof that a proper edition with a fixed order of the poems existed at the time of the quotation.

Athenaeus’excerpts from Sosibius’ Peri Alkmanos is probably the earliest indirect testimony to the Hellenistic edition of Alcman. As we have seen, the few older quotations originate from an independent transmission of a minor group of easily accessible poems. In the third century, someone took the task to edit something like the “Complete Works of Alcman” in six volumes, including approximately 60 cult hymns, which had previously been unknown to the reading public. One may only guess, what was the impetus for this edition. Under the reign of Agis IV (ca. 244-241 BC) and Cleomenes III (ca. 235-222 BC), Sparta experienced some kind of renaissance, during which old institutions were revitalised. The edition of the choral lyrics may very well have been part of this programme, an attempt to erect an eternal monument in memory of the golden age of Sparta and, at the same time, to codify the ritual choruses, which were considered indispensable for the famous Spartan agōgē and, by consequence, for the establishment of civic identity.


The choral lyric of Alcman was not ephemeral literature, which happened to be preserved because of its beauty. It was tied to its cultic context and remained in it throughout the Classical Period. The poems were not written down until the Hellenistic age except for a limited amount of poems, which were known outside of Sparta in the Classical age, primarily poems, which could be performed by kitharōidoi in the context of the symposium. The main bulk, however, was transmitted in the uninterrupted re-performance by the Spartan youth.

Alcman’s poetry was not meant for one occasion. The personal names occurring in the partheneions are not historical persons, but roles, which new girls took upon them generation after generation. The same holds true, it seems, for the partheneions of Pindar. The partheneions were performed by groups of girls coming from specific tribes and families. The political division in phylae and obae played a central role in the formation of these groups, since the choruses marked the integration of the youth into the civic structure. The partheneions remained the property of the kinship groups until they were eventually collected and submitted to writing in the third century BC.