Literary Studies Seminar

Beauty and Authority. Sparta and Alcman in Modern Swedish Literature

The purpose of the project is to see how Swedish-language literature relates to Sparta as an ideal society and to Alkman as a poet. The project can be seen as partaking in a more general discussion about the use of antiquity and aesthetics.

Funding in SEK: 100 000



Planned completion


Project manager at MDU

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Throughout the ages, the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has played an important role in the European imagination. Along with Athens, the image of a hardline militaristic society, whose citizens were subject to strict discipline from cradle to grave, has been crucial to the notion of Greece as an ideal to emulate. National Socialism's Germany, which saw itself as a new Sparta, went the furthest. But Sparta has also been viewed critically, as the model for the idea of totalitarian society. These notions, however, have been difficult to reconcile with the fragments of Alcman, Sparta's foremost lyricist. His so-called maiden songs conjure up the image of young women singing of each other's beauty, with lavish jewelry and female homoerotic overtones. In another fragment, the poem's self speaks of its weakness and longing to fly with birds. Even today, Alcman can be described as a food wreck with a strong erotic operating life, as "unspartan".

Tradition has suggested that Alcman was not a Spartan, or placed his active time in a period before the introduction of the Spartan order. Both of these arguments fall on the fact that his poems were performed for a long time in classical Sparta. Instead of being separated from Sparta, the poems must be situated in Sparta, which becomes possible thanks to the revision of the view of both poem and society now underway.

By taking a closer look at both Alcman and the late poetry that connects to Spartan themes, we gain a new understanding of the relationship between beauty and authority. In 20th-century Swedish-language literature, Sparta has been both a source of inspiration and something frightening. The most influential translator of Greek literature during the first half of the century was the Finnish-Swedish Emil Zilliacus.

The research project shows how a significant part of his authorship is based on parallels between ancient history and contemporary events. Here we find the divide between the scenic and erotic in Alcman, and the military in the society that performed his songs. Zilliacus' way of idealizing the Spartans' fight against the Persians at Thermopylae forms a fund against which several other writings can be understood, such as Hjalmar Gullberg and Eyvind Johnson. A particularly interesting case is Karin Boye, who translated Alkman in the poetry collection For the Sake of the Tree in 1935. Boye is torn between different ways of relating to Sparta, a problem she articulates in dialogue with Vilhelm Ekelund's writing. After the end of the Second World War, both Sparta constitute a problematic point of reference for, among others, Lotta Lotass. As I will show, her novel Sparta questions the whole concept of ideal models through a post-apocalyptic vision.

Overall purpose with the project:

The purpose of the project is to see how Swedish-language literature relates to Sparta as an ideal society and to Alkman as a poet. The project can be seen as partaking in a more general discussion about the use of antiquity and aesthetics.

Goal with the project:

The project's goal is to show through a series of articles, both strictly scientific and more popular, the important role Alcman and Sparta play for Swedish-language literature. The project also clarifies the subject's political implications, concerning issues such as strength and vulnerability, patriotism, gender and the use of history.

Activities in the project:

The theoretical starting points regarding ideologically colored antique use are largely given in the Kyrklund monograph En himmel av sten (2021), but the interplay between politics and aesthetics is also touched upon in articles such as "Perne in a Gyre" (2014) or the review of Vulovic's Poetry as propaganda ( The Collector 2023). The project combines research articles with popular science contributions:

  1. An introduction to the poet Alcman is given in the article "Antikens märkligaste dikt" in the journal Lyrikvännen 5–6/2021. The enigmatic so-called Louvre partheneion of the Spartan poet is translated and commented.

  2. An overall picture of Swedish Sparta reception is given in the article "Leonidas Goes North" in the anthology Classical Controversies (2022), which was written with the antiquarian Johannes Siapkas. While Siapkas puts Swedish political use of Sparta and Thermopylae in a European context, Sjösvärd discusses literary use of Sparta, which is then elaborated in the project's other articles. (Sjösvärd's contribution financed by Helge Ax:son Johnson's foundation.)
  3. The article "Översättning som kamp" in the magazine Medusa 2/2022 Emil Zilliacus’ translations and introductions of ancient writings. The Finnish-Swedish translator who is still read today created his texts in an explicit dialogue with the political history of the 20th century, a relationship that the article outlines.

  4. In "Isfågelns flykt" in the magazine Samlaren 2023, Karin Boye's poetry collection För trädets skull is closely studied against the background of her relationship with Vilhelm Ekelund. Tracing both their relationship to Sparta, the article examines Boye's critical appropriation of Ekelundian imagery. Boye advocates a poetics founded in elective friendships, which enable historically distant writers to meet across ideological and cultural boundaries. An example of this is Ekelund, who through his writing talks a lot about the halcyon, a mythical bird that Alcman depicts in a poem translated by Boye. (Financed by Åke Wiberg's foundation.)

  5. The upcoming article "Under duvornas tecken" discusses Ekelöf's poem "Alkmán" against the background of the author's view of the past, but also the Spartan aspect. 6. At least one article will go in depth with the relationship to Sparta and Alcman during last turn of the century, which was already touched upon in "Leonidas Goes North". In addition, there might be some more surprises.