Looking for Spartan art

There are only around 700 attributed vases in the Laconian black-figure style. They were made for around two generations during the sixth-century BCE, with no more half a dozen or so key artists or workshops involved in their production.

Until recently, these vases remained a relatively inaccessible part of Archaic Greek culture. You would need a combination of Conrad Stibbe’s catalogues of Laconian black-figure vases (not the easiest of volumes to find), Maria Pipili’s Laconian Iconography of the Sixth Century B.C., museum visits, and numerous online museum catalogue searches, to get a good idea of their visual vocabulary and what sets these vases apart from their Corinthian and Attic equivalents. This is fine and par for the course if you are an academic, but it made talking and teaching about these vases pretty cumbersome (and, let’s face it, anything that makes research a little bit easier is also very welcome).

In 2013, the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University acquired the archive of Conrad Stibbe, including a vast collection of photographs. The first part of the digitisation of this archive has focused on Laconian black-figure vases, and now over 700 images can be viewed on ArtStor. I’m not too sure how widely known this excellent resource is, hence the blog post, but having all these images in one place will be a real boon to study of Spartan art, and I very much look forward to the digitisation of the rest of Stibbe’s archives!


A representation of Boreas? Laconain black-figure cup attributed to the Naukratis painter, 565-560 B.C. Munich, 382.

Romano-British Bells

In 2018 Hella Eckardt and Sandie Williams published a landmark study of bells in Roman Britain (you can access the archive pre-print for free here). The quality of the data that they gathered is, compared to what most music archaeologists are used to dealing with, phenomenal. You can access it here.

Today, I spent a few hours adding (rough) co-ordinate data, and have created an interactive map of Romano-British bells using CartO. You can search the bells according to whether or not the it has a surviving clapper or not, if they are decorated or not, by site, and a few other options. Conveniently, Hella’s and Sandie’s data has links to publications, so if you find a bell that looks to be of particular interest, you’ll know where to go. This is just a first draft of the resource, as a way for me to get some practice ahead of further projects and plans (I’ll probably update every now and again). This is also my first publicly available output tied to an ongoing project to better understand the musical instruments of Roman Britain. Funded by a Society of Antiquaries Lambarde Memorial Travel Award (the deadline for this year is 15th Jan.), I’ve been kept from the series of planned museum visits, but have been happy to carry on with some desk-based research.

Link to source data:

Hella Eckardt (2017) The sound of magic? Bells in Roman Britain [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] https://doi.org/10.5284/1043774

Header image:

Relief from Coventina’s Well (Northumberland), where two bells have been found:

Hope, R. C. (1893). The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells Of England, including Rivers, Lakes, Fountains and Springs. Copiously Illustrated By Curious Original Woodcuts. p. 113.

Alcman the Sexed-up Spartan

A hirsute imagining of Alcman: link

The Suda entry for Alcman contains a rather surprising claim about the 7th century Spartan poet:

 καὶ ὢν ἐρωτικὸς πάνυ εὑρετὴς γέγονε τῶν ἐρωτικῶν μελῶν

“Alcman was pretty horny and loved up, an inventor, he created songs of wild passion…”

Suda A 1289 = Alcman, T.1

There are problems in interpreting this line, and I’ve clearly gone for the reading of ἐρωτικὸς that emphasises (with a bit of overdoing) the nature of the word. Alcman didn’t simply write love songs, but he wrote songs of passion and sexual desire. At any rate, that is what the Suda entry suggests, but there is not a huge amount of evidence for Alcman’s ‘love songs’.

Yes, there are some pretty heated passages in some of the Partheneia. This is particularly evident in PMG 3 (P. Oxy. 2387), where the beautiful Astymeloisa looks at the female speaker with ‘limb-loosening desire’. The speaker wishes her to come closer and for Astymeloisa to take her hand so she may be her suppliant. Is this the kind of thing that the Suda was referencing?

Perhaps, but Suda reference is to ‘amorous songs’, and the word melos implies a specific style or group of songs. PMG 3 seems to have been one of Alcman’s partheneia (though there was some debate in antiquity about this). Further, the reference in the Suda is to Alcman himself being erotikos — the implication being that Alcman’s ‘songs of passion’ where on account of (and perhaps related to or referencing?) his own emotional encounters. That is not the case with PMG 3.

However, I have been leading you somewhat astray, because the Suda entry is not our only reference to Alcman’s sexed-up songs. Importantly, it seems that the 5th/4th century Archytas of Tarentum knew about Alcman’s poetic proclivities (Archytas via Chamaeleon via Athenaeus 13.600f = Alcman PMG 59ab). The Archytas reference reveals that Alcman was well-enough known at the time (albeit by a specialist in the history of music). It also implies that at that time this was one of the areas for which Alcman was noted, and it fills out some details concerning his ancient biography:

λέγει δὲ καὶ ὡς τῆς Μεγαλοστράτης οὐ μετρίως ἐρασθεὶς ποιητρίας μὲν οὔσης δυναμένης δὲ καὶ διὰ τὴν ὁμιλίαν τοὺς ἐραστὰς προσελκύσασθαι· λέγει δ᾿ οὕτως περὶ αὐτῆς·

τοῦτο ϝαδειᾶν ἔδειξε Μωσᾶν // δῶρον μάκαιρα παρσένων // ἁ ξανθὰ Μεγαλοστράτα.

He says that he loved Megalostrata without measure, a poet with the power to attract her lovers through her ‘intercourse’. And he says this about her:

This gift of the sweet Muses was // revealed by a blessed parthenon // Megalostrata the blonde-haired.

Athenaeus, 13.600f = Alcman PMG 59b

There is, I think, an intended double entendre with the use of the word homilian (used to describe how Megalostrata attracts her lovers) but the word, as far as I can find, has been translated as “conversation” (both the 1922 ‘Lyra Graecia I’ Loeb by J. M. Edmonds and David Campbell’s more recent 1988 edition, as well as Doulas Olson’s 2011 Vol.VII of the Loeb Athenaeus). In fact, this passage has received some odd translations more generally.There has been a temptation link this passage to the other homoerotic passages of Alcman: for makairai parsenon West gives “a girl for girls to envy”.

There’s no real way to reconstruct the relationship between Alcman and Megalostrata: fictional, personal, fantasy? Nor can we be sure as to who Megalostrata was: a Spartan citizen, enslaved poet?

Whatever the case may have been, the erotic poetry of Alcman seems to have been a key part of his ancient identity. If we accept that Alcman as a poet produced poetry only for Spartan audiences (what seems to be a very big scholarly assumption), then we also need to think about what the role of erotic songs would have been in Spartan society, and the complications that raises for our contemporary understanding of Alcman as a composer of Partheneia.

Hearing Ancient Greek and Roman Music

One of my favourite modules to teach at Reading is the first year module ‘Ancient Song’, an introduction to the likes of Alcman, Sappho, Horace, and many more.

What is particularly exciting about this module is that is also allows me to introduce students to ancient Greek and Roman music. To compliment some of the in-class lessons, I thought it would be a good idea to compile a list of links to various modern reconstructions of ancient Greek and Roman music, providing a range of interpretations that help us to explore the possibilities of ancient performance. The links below consist of reconstructions and performances of specific songs and instruments that have survived (to greater and lesser degrees), and will be added to every now and again. I will also probably compile these videos into a playlist at some point.

I have made a few recordings myself, and they can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/james-thomas-lloyd/sets/rome-mooc-music-files

William Golding’s “The Double Tongue”

Over the holidays I had a chance to read a book I’d picked up from the local Oxfam a few months back, William Golding’s The Double Tongue.

The Double Tongue takes place at a generally unspecified time (c. mid./late 1st C. BCE) during the rise of Roman influence in Greece and follows the life of Arieka, as she narrates her life-story from girlhood to old age, and how she became the Pythia at Delphi.

William Golding, in 1983 (Wikimedia Commons)

I finished reading this book a week or so before marking a batch of first year undergraduate essays. One of the questions that many of the students chose to answer was “How influential were women in the religious life of the Archaic Greek polis?”

Inevitably, most of the essays mentioned the Pythia in one way or another, and many of them approached the actualities of the Pythia’s influence in a way that resonated with Golding’s story (ultimately, rather bleak and Machiavellian).

Golding questions the agency of the Pythia and religion more generally. His Ion(ides), the Delphic priest who interprets Arieka’s mantic utterances, constantly push her to direct the prophecies towards the best interests of Greece (if she finds Apollo silent). He also quite often invents his own ‘interpretations’.

Golding’s cynicism may well be justified. At any rate, stories about the Alcmaeonidae (mentioned by some of the students), and later the Spartan Lysander, suggest that there was a certain (perceived) flexibility as to the origin of an oracle when material (or perhaps political) incentives were leveraged. In Golding’s novel, we see the manipulation of a supposedly sacrosanct, infallible, authority. The problem is that our sources are nearly uniformly silent as to who the Pythia ever was (we have to wait until Plutarch for that), and there are certainly no firsthand accounts of any Pythia’s views on their role.

This is all important stuff for first year students to understand. Ancient history is a very unbalanced set of sources. All this amounts to a nice bit of rambling, but with a useful thought, hardly new, but worth repeating. It is rather helpful to creatively explore the lives of those that history or archaeology struggles to bring to life, and Golding’s novel does that brilliantly.


David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae

David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae is one of the most famous receptions of the Spartan image. Brave, heroic, soldiers, gathered with a sense of urgency and an acceptance of their impending doom and duty.

by Jacques Louis David

[above – David, Leonidas at Themopylae (1800-14). Canvas 3.92 x 5.33 m. Musee du Louvre]

Much has been written about the painting, but I’m going to focus on some details I’ve been wondering over recently. Admittedly, on a painting so large there are plenty of details to obsess over (its huge, nearly 4 x 5.5 m). Take the inscriptions (the figure at left carves out a version of “Go, tell, the Spartans, stranger…”), the conveniently placed scabbards and cloaks, or that, on a closer inspection, everything is less ordered, and slightly more shambling than you might expect of our heroic subjects.

In light of all this, the fact I’ve been plagued by the role of music in this painting might at first seem somewhat trivial, but it was clearly something that David had troubled over quite a bit too. In a series of draft sketches for the Leonidas, one of the most noticeable differences (aside from the later omission of Herakles, and more general shifts to its composition), is the placement and representation of music. But I don’t mean the heralding trumpet players (at one time naked, at another decked in full hoplite armour, shield and all). No, I’m interested in the lyre.

david leonidas lyre.jpg

In the final version of the Leonidas, wreathed and tied to the tree, is a small four-string lyre. The obvious allusions here might be to Apollo, or a symbolic harmony despite the busyness of the composition, but as I’ll highlight, this lyre is the conclusion of something David had been thinking about, and rethinking, in a number of his sketches for the painting.

At one point, the lyre was played by a musician, the figure directly to the left of Leonidas. This image then shifted to the figure with which we are now familiar, kneeling down, and fixing his sandal, but instead of an altar to Herakles, behind the figure was his lyre.

Screenshot 2019-10-05 08.26.06

[above – Study for Leonidas. Lithograph by Jules David, Le Peintre Louis David, p.662, after pencil drawing purchased in 1826 after the death of the David]

Screenshot 2019-10-05 08.30.40

[above – David, study for Leonidas. Pen, ink, and wash, 21 x 28.2 cm, Signed lower left: L. David, 1813. Cabinet des Dessins, Musee du Louvre, 26.080]

Before I suggest what I think David was trying to explore here, it is important to note that at the same time David was reworking the presence of the lyre, he was also figuring out the role of Herakles. As already noted, in the final painting, there is an altar to Herakles behind the kneeling figure, but in a draft sketch in the NY Met, David had envisioned Herakles himself taking to the Spartans’ side. To me, the ultimate removal of Herakles, replaced by the more symbolic altar, helps to explain the eventual removal of the lyre player (still seen in the version with Herakles).

While I don’t think David had envisioned the figure as Apollo, the shift from playing-musician, to resting-musician, and then tied-up lyre, can be explained in a few ways. Firstly, the power of music, like Herakles, is something that is invisible, still present, but not active, David wanted to focus on the human actors while still alluding to their piety, or the influence of the divine in their actions. Secondly, as a symbol of Apollo, and harmony more generally, the lyre is restricted, physically tied-up. The lyre, and all it symbolizes (Apollo, the arts, music, harmony), has been cast aside and replaced by the trumpets of war. But how did it get there, who tied it up? Following David’s development of the scene, the obvious conclusion would be the kneeling figure, who, once a musician, has set aside his instrument as he prepares for battle. Like so much about the Leonidas, is this really a praise of Spartan honour, or a critique of what such attitudes sacrifice?


[above – David, study for Leonidas, Pencil, 40.5. x 55 cm. The NY Met., Rogers Fund, 63.1]

If you’re interested in the development of the Leonidas at Thermopylae, I’d recommend this article from 1978 by Steven A. Nash, which highlights some the problems and answers as to when and what David was developing over the fifteen or so years he had been at work on the painting.