"The Partheneion", or 'maiden song,' composed in the seventh century BCE by the Spartan poet Alcman, 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.
Gloria Ferrari is professor emerita of classical archaeology and art at Harvard University. Her many books include Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece, also published by the University of Chicago Press.