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Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta

The Partheneion, or “maiden song,” composed in the seventh century BCE by the SpartanpoetAlcman, is the earliest substantial example of a choral lyric. A provocative reinterpretation of the Partheneion and its broader context, Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta excavates the poem’s invocations of widespread and long-lived cosmological ideas that cast the universe as perfectly harmonious and invested its workings with an ethical dimension.

Moving far beyond standard literary interpretations, Gloria Ferrari uncovers this astral symbolism by approaching the poem from several angles to brilliantly reconstruct the web of ancient drama, music, religion, painting, and material culture in which it is enmeshed. She shows, for example, that by stringing together images of horses, stars, and birds, the poem evokes classical antiquity’s beloved dance of the constellations. Instrumental in shaping the structure of the lyric, this dance symbolizes the cosmic order reflected in the order of the state, which the chorus would have enacted in a ritual performance of the song.

With broad implications for archaeology, art history, and ancient science, Ferrari’s bold new analysis dramatically deepens our understanding of Greek poetry and the rich culture of archaic Sparta.

192 pages | 20 color plates, 2 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2008

Ancient Studies


Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“This wonderful sequel to Professor Ferrari’s Figures of Speech manages to throw new and powerful light on a whole host of salient topics—the Spartan poet Alcman, the poetics of Archaic Greek astrology and cosmology, Greek ritual drama in performance, and, not least, ancient Sparta’s surprisingly cosmopolitan mentality and society. It is itself a stunning performance, and fully earns her a place among the constellation of superstar Sparta-watchers.”

Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge

“This book offers a new interpretation of Alcman’s Partheneion in its mythic, cosmic, and ritual contexts—an interpretation that is entirely original and ingenious. It is clearly and accessibly written and should find an audience among archaeologists, art historians, and anthropologists, as well as specialists in Greek poetry. I enjoyed reading it immensely and learned a great deal from it.”

Leslie Kurke, University of California, Berkeley

“Centered on a provocative reinterpretation of Alcman’s Louvre Partheneion, and on a new analysis of its dramatic structure and ritual dimension, this book offers a valuable discussion of early Greek ideas about the stars, cosmic harmony, and the homology between the cosmos and the state. This book should be praised for its interdisciplinary approach: it will be welcomed by philologists, art historians, and all those interested in an anthropological approach to ancient Greek culture.”

Clemente Marconi, New York University

"Minor disagreements should not be taken as diminishing my admiration for Ferrari’s ambitious project: to present a coherent theory that will explain most if not all of the mysterious featues of this marvelous, peculiar, literary artefact from atchaic Sparta. Let her reconstruction stand until a more convincing one is proposed."

A.J. Podlecki | Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Table of Contents

1.   THE MYTHS    
Hippocoon and his Sons    
Path and Sign    
2.   THE CHORUS    
The Travails of the Chorus    
Pleiades, Hyades, and Sirius    
The Moon and the Stars    
Heaven and Earth    
The Mourning Voice     
The Season of the Karneia     
Kalathiskos” Dancers     
Appendix: “Partheneion” Text and Translation    
Index of Sources    
General Index


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award
Honorable Mention

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