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11.2.Boterf

Most scholarship on Alcman has understandably focused on the relatively large fragments of his partheneia (especially PMG 1 and 3). While this extensive discussion has greatly enriched our understanding of the complex imagery and performance context of these poems (see e.g. Stehle (1997), Peponi (2007), Ferrari (2008)), it has led to a neglect of Alcman’s shorter extant poems. This talk aims to redress this imbalance by focusing on an unusual set of poems that reveal a different side of Alcman than we are accustomed to: one that is obsessed with food. I will concentrate on fragment PMG 17 and argue that Alcman’s alleged “gluttony”, rather than just being a scrap of biographical gossip, reflects aspects of the poet’s relationship with the greater Spartan community. References to food in his poetry allow Alcman to construct a specific relationship with his audience and community.

This accusation of gluttony is an ancient one. Athenaeus claims that Alcman shows himself to be a glutton in his poetry (Ἀλκμá½°ν δ’ á½ ποιητá½´ς ἑαυτὸν á¼€δηφάγον εἶναι παραδίδωσιν) (416c). While it is unclear whether Athenaeus is reflecting larger biographical traditions about Alcman in antiquity or even how serious Athenaeus is in this accusation, many of the extant fragments (e.g. PMG 17, 19, 20, 56, 95, 96) do show that Alcman mentioned food in his poetry to a surprising degree. These contexts range from likely sympotic performances (e.g. PMG 19) to public Dionysian rituals (PMG 56). In each of these instances, the descriptions of food ground Alcman’s performance in specific festive or ritualistic contexts. Food imagery provides a means for him to relate his performance to the audience’s own experience of the ritual.

This strategy becomes most apparent in PMG 17. In this poem Alcman claims he will give a tripod to some unspecified party. As he explains, this tripod will soon be full of pea soup (τάχα δá½² πλέος á¼”τνεος), which Alcman who “eats everything” loves hot after the solstice (ὁ παμφάγος Ἀλκμá½°ν á¼ ράσθη χλιαρὸν πεδá½° τá½°ς τροπάς). He insists that he doesn’t enjoy fancy food, but seeks out common fare, like the people themselves (á¼€λλá½° τá½° κοινá½° γάρ, á½¥περ ὁ δᾶμος, ζατεύει).

Although it is unclear whether this poem should be considered choral or monodic, his preference for common food has important poetical and political consequences. First, it functions as a symbol of his own poetry, a gift given to the greater community. Even though line 6 is highly corrupt, I find emendations that Alcman mentioned some form of “sweet” (ἁδύ) highly suggestive. Alcman would therefore reject the common association of poetry with “sweetness” (e.g. Hymn Hom. Ap. 169) His preference for plain fare indicates that his poetry also remains unadorned and unassuming.

Just as importantly, these lines explicitly “politicize” Alcman’s eating habits. The phrase τá½° κοινá½° unites the political and the gastronomical, by demonstrating how Alcman’s eating habits resemble the general public’s. If testimonia about Alcman’s own Lydian birth are correct, his rhetoric of austerity here may indicate his solidarity with his new community at Sparta. Regardless of Alcman’s origins, I suggest that his focus on eating the same food as his fellow citizens highlights one of the central tensions in archaic lyric, the relationship between the poet and his community. Poets, blessed with unique and exceptional poetic abilities, faced audiences that might envy them for their very exceptionality. In the case of PMG 17, Alcman resolves this tension by claiming himself to be “just like them” in his eating habits. Alcman thus proves that, despite being an exceptional poet, he too acts like a humble member of the community.

Bibliography

  • Ferrari, Gloria. 2008. Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Peponi, Anastasia-Erasmia. 2007. “Sparta’s Prima Ballerina: Choreia in Alcman’s Second Partheneion (3 PMGF).” CQ 57: 351-62.
  • Stehle, Eva. 1997. Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton UP.

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