Music in Roman Life

views updated

Music in Roman Life

Product of Many Influences.

The surviving evidence indicates that Roman musical culture was not unique and new, but rather a product of many external influences, most notably Etruscan and Greek. Long before Latin became the official language, and Rome the seat of a great empire, there were native peoples in Italy who spoke their own—as yet undeciphered—languages and, no doubt, enjoyed their own musical traditions; virtually nothing is known about them. The Greeks interacted with many of these cultures and exerted a profound influence. Imported Greek pottery, some of which dates as early as 1000 b.c.e., has been found by archaeologists in the northern regions of Etruria, Latium, and Umbria, along the Tiber River in central Italy, and in Campania in the south. During the course of the eighth century b.c.e., Greeks emigrated in large numbers to southern Italy and Sicily, where they founded permanent colonies. Greek musicians, composers, actors, and poets who had been living and working in Italy eventually found their way to Rome, where their musical ideas, traditions, and practices were accepted by most, if not all the citizens. The native Italian traditions were not completely supplanted by the Greek, but they are not well understood; only a few fragments of early Latin carmina (songs, poems) from Rome and Latium survive; these were monodic or choral, and included ritual song (e.g. Carmen Fratrum), epic-historical poetry (Carmen convivialia)—which were accompanied by the tibia (the Latin version of the Greek aulos)—triumphal songs (carmina triumphalia), and funeral laments (neniae). The Romans enjoyed musical concerts, solo performances, and theatrical productions that were, for the most part, versions of Greek or native Italian genres. With few exceptions, the Romans adopted Etruscan, Near Eastern, and Greek lyres, double-reed pipes, and percussion instruments. In fact, after Rome conquered Greece and brought the entire country into the empire in the second half of the second century b.c.e., the pervasive Hellenizing (Greek) presence provoked some heavy criticism from Latin writers and even law-makers; Juvenal and Cicero both condemned the excessive Hellenizing of Roman culture, and Roman censors issued edicts limiting the performances of Greek virtuosi and the use of Greek instruments.

The Etruscan Heritage.

The Etruscans were a people who dominated the area of Etruria and Latium in northern Italy before Rome emerged as the central power. Archaeologists have discovered a large number of imported Greek vases in Etruscan tombs, proving that they had a thriving trade with the Greeks from at least the fifth century b.c.e., perhaps earlier. The fresco art in some of the tombs also indicates Greek influence. One grave, the so-called Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, contains a fresco depicting two musicians. One plays the tibia (double-reed pipe) known in Greece as the aulos; the other plays a lyre that resembles the Greek chelys (tortoise-shell lyre). Even after Roman rule was firmly established, the Etruscans had much influence on Roman religious practices and the music involved. Many, if not most, of the state musicians hired to play for Roman religious and other state festivals were Etruscans who belonged to a collegium ("artist guild") in Rome.

Etruscan Instruments.

The Etruscans played instruments that were comparable to Greek versions, but also others which seem to be unique to them, and they paired instruments that were not played together in Greece. In a relief on a bronze Etruscan situla ("bucket") dating to the late sixth century b.c.e. a musician playing an unusual m-shaped harp (or lyre) is paired with a player of the fistula ("pan-pipes"); the two musicians, both wearing wide-brimmed hats, sit facing each other in a formal concert pose. In Greece, the pan-pipe (syrinx) was rather a pastoral instrument used primarily by shepherds or for outdoor revels. If an illustration on an Etruscan cinerary urn dating to the late second century b.c.e. can be trusted, the Etruscan obliqua tibia was a pipe that may have been played more like a flute than an oboe, comparable to the mysterious Greek plagiaulos. The player in the scene on the urn seems to hold the tibia horizontally out to his right like a modern flautist; the placement of his lips transversely across the mouthpiece on the top of the pipe and his cross-fingering of the holes suggests that the instrument was more like a flute than a reed. This type of pipe was shown in Roman art well past the third century c.e. Curved horns used by the Etruscans and later adopted by the Romans include the lituus, bucina, and cornu, and were more comparable to the Greek tuba, a straight trumpet, than the Greek salpinx. Both the salpinx and the tuba were referred to as "Etruscan" by Greek and Latin writers, but the Greek salpinx was almost exclusively a military instrument, whereas the Etruscans and Romans also played their trumpets and horns in concerts, sometimes in ensemble with the tibia ("pipe") and kithara ("lyre").

Greek Influence.

The Greek influence in Italy did not begin with the Etruscans in the north, but in the south, as early as the late eighth century b.c.e., when large numbers of Dorian Greeks moving west from the Peloponnese colonized southern Italy and eastern Sicily. Many Italian and Sicilian Greeks became very wealthy in their new land, especially those living in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Unlike Athens, which by the fifth century b.c.e. had established a democracy, the political system of Syracuse was a type of monarchy called a "tyranny." These tyrants took power by force, but once established, they could be very generous to the Greek artisans, musicians, and poets whom they admired; the fifth-century b.c.e. Greek poet Pindar and playwright Aeschylus were among those who received lavish hospitality at the court of the tyrant Hieron in Syracuse. The largest cities in Italy and Sicily boasted open-air theaters comparable to the most majestic amphitheaters in Greece (such as Epidauros). Greek influence on Roman culture became more evident after the First Punic War, during the course of the third century b.c.e., when contact between the Roman people and the Greeks in southern Italy increased. Musical instruments that were popular in Greece—pipes, lyres, horns, rattles—were also played in Rome, albeit in different forms and combinations. The Romans imitated Greek literary and dramatic forms; they adopted and adapted Greek architecture. Wealthy Latins hired Greek teachers and doctors. Greek gods and heroes of myth received Latin names, but were worshipped in comparable ways. By the time the Roman army took Corinth in 146 b.c.e. and brought the whole country of Greece into their empire, the Roman people had already long been captured by Greek culture.

Roman Theater.

As in Greece, dramatic dance and song in ancient Italy were central to the various rites and rituals performed to appease or praise the gods. Many early dances were improvised, and accompanied by the tibia—the most popular wind instrument for dancers in both Italy and Greece. The Latin historian Livy related that in 364 b.c.e. Etruscan ludiones ("pantomimists") were called upon to save Rome from a plague by dancing to a special melody played by a tibicen ("piper"). The Romans adapted this Etruscan dance and added a rhythmically varied song; the new compositions were called saturae (satire). Scenes on vases from Apulia, a region on the coast of southern Italy, show that a popular form of entertainment in the Greek colonies in Italy after the mid-fourth century b.c.e. was the travelling troupe of tragic jesters called phlyakes, who performed satires and burlesque on a portable stage, with music provided by an aulete ("piper"). The Romans adopted Greek forms of epic, lyric, tragedy, and comedy, and music continued to play an important role, although very little is known about its melodies or characteristics. No musical compositions from Roman theater survive. In the third century, Roman theatrical productions favored revivals of fifth- and fourth-century b.c.e. Greek playwrights, especially Euripides, Aristophanes, and New Comedy writers Menander and Philemon; the first writer/composer with a Roman name—Livius Andronicus—was actually a Greek slave brought from Tarentum to Rome and later freed. His Latin successors included the playwrights Ennius, Plautus, Terence, and others, who flourished into the second century b.c.e. These Roman writers translated Greek original plays into Latin, and enjoyed a good deal of poetic license, changing names, mixing scenes, and rearranging the plots in a technique known as contaminatio; they also sometimes turned spoken dialogue from the Greek original into song.

Roman Comedy.

The comedies of Plautus (250–184 b.c.e.) and Terence (a generation later) were among the most popular in Rome at least until the end of the first century b.c.e. Their plays, like those of their Greek predecessors Menander and Aristophanes, were full of ribald and often obscene humor. Male actors played all the parts—even the "girlfriends" in the bawdy love stories. Roman comedy featured the canticum, a scene enacted in sing-song manner to the accompaniment of the tibia which would alternate with the deverbia (recited portions). Choral song, which was so central to Greek tragedy, probably played less of a role in Roman theater; the orchestra space, used by the chorus in Greek theater as the dancing place, served as an area for reserved seating in Rome. Solo virtuosity was highly prized in Rome, and the tibicen often introduced a tragic or comic performance with an easily recognizable tune composed specifically for that show. The tibicen also interacted with the actors and the audience during a performance. Production data has survived that lists the names of actors, dates of production, and the name of the festivals, along with some information about the original music composed for the plays. Different kinds of tibia were assigned to each actor in a comedy: "equal pipes" were designated for the "Girl from Andros," while the character of "Phormio" required "unequal pipes" (possibly an octave apart).

Other Theatrical Forms.

After Terence and his generation of playwrights, comedy and tragedy became less prominent in Rome, but a new theater of Pompeii was opened in 55 b.c.e., and the old plays were performed during the Funeral Games for Julius Caesar after his assassination in 44 b.c.e. Mime and pantomime, developed from Etruscan forms, were popular in the Roman repertoire around the first century b.c.e.; the mime was a re-enactment of real or mythical stories performed using speech, dance, and movement, sometimes with the accompaniment of the tibia. Pantomimes might include choral and orchestral music using a variety of instruments: tibiae and other types of pipes, kitharae (lyres), cymbals, and a percussion instrument played with the foot called the scabella. Solo comic and tragic actors—comoedi and tragoedi—were in big demand; the comic Roscius and dramatic actor Aesopus were celebrities in Rome. Suetonius, the biographer of the first twelve Roman emperors, related that the cruel and perverted emperor Nero was, ironically, an accomplished kitharode who also performed in costume, on stage, along with the professional actors.

Latin Poetry.

While the verses of the famous first-century b.c.e. Latin poets Catullus and Horace contain many allusions to music and the musical instruments of the Greek poets, there is no evidence to suggest that Latin lyric was actually performed to the accompaniment of the lyre, as Greek lyric poetry was. Horace did compose a publicly performed poem in Sapphic meter for chorus, to be sung by two groups of 27 girls and boys. Commissioned by the emperor Augustus for the Centennial Games in 17 b.c.e., no evidence for the music survives. The Latin poet Vergil, working under the patronage of the emperor Augustus, composed the Roman national epic the Aeneid using the same meter as Homer—dactylic hexameter—and employing the themes of the Iliad and Odyssey, yet this poem was not sung, nor was it performed to the accompaniment of the lyre, as Homeric epic had been in the Archaic Period.

Roman Female Poets and Musicians.

With few exceptions, there were no Latin female poets comparable to Sappho or Nossis of Greece. Male poets, such as Propertius and Ovid, mentioned the names of Roman female writers in their works, but the actual poems of only one Latin woman—Sulpicia (31 b.c.e.–14 c.e.)—survive. Six of Sulpicia's elegies exist, totalling only forty lines. She was probably the niece of her patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, a historian who also supported other elegiac poets, including Ovid and Tibullus. Although Sulpicia used to good effect the stylistics common during the reign of Augustus—couplets, alliteration, and assonance—she did not allude to music in her poetry, and her poems were meant to be recited, not sung. Some Roman women studied music seriously from an early age, and made a name for themselves as professional dancers, singers, and kitharists (lyre-players); girls as young as nine or ten might perform in public, as Phoebe Vocontia did, in Rome. According to her tombstone (imperial period), Phoebe was an emboliaria, a performer during the interludes in the theater. "Learned in all the arts," she died at age twelve. Another inscription on a tomb dating to the imperial period reads: "To the gods of the dead. Gaius Cornelius Neritus made this for himself and for Auxesis the kitharist, the best wife." Female performers were paid a living wage for their craft. A papyrus from Philadelphia in Egypt dating to 206 c.e. records that a castanet-dancer by the name of Isidora was offered the following payment for a six-day wedding-gig at a gentleman's home: thirty-six drachmas per day, four artabas of grain, and twenty double loaves of bread. In addition, the writer offered to keep all her cloaks and gold jewelry safe, and to provide two donkeys for her round-trip journey. According to Roman law, the social status of actors and actresses was low, although female actresses were admired nonetheless. The actress Bassilla, called "the tenth Muse" by her admirers, "won fame in many towns and cities for her various accomplishments in plays, mimes, choruses, and dances," according to her third-century c.e. epitaph from the theater at Aquileia.


introduction: According to the biographer Suetonius, Domitian, son of the emperor Vespasian, began his reign in 81 c.e. by promoting festivals and religious celebrations; he also erected many public buildings, including the Colosseum, where he staged spectacles; he may have been popular with the people, but the senate grew to despise him, and he was assassinated in 96 c.e.

Domitian presented many extravagant entertainments in the Colosseum and the Circus … In honour of Capitoline Jupiter he founded a festival of music, horsemanship, and gymnastics, to be held every five years, and awarded far more prizes than is customary nowadays. The festival included Latin and Greek public-speaking contests, competitions for choral singing to the lyre and for lyre-playing alone, besides the usual solo singing to lyre accompaniment. … When presiding at these functions he wore buskins, a purple Greek robe, and a gold crown engraved with the images of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

source: Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1978): 297–298.

Music and the Emperors.

A rich and diverse musical climate existed in Rome during the imperial period; talented actors, instrumentalists, singers, and dancers poured into the city from all corners of the empire, including Egypt, Syria, and Spain. The emperors enjoyed musical entertainment while they dined, and many were fine musicians themselves. Theatrical performances in the amphitheaters were well-attended throughout the imperial period. During the time of Nero, the mechanical syrinx (water-organ) gained in popularity. This early pipe organ, said to have been invented in the third century b.c.e. by Ktesibios in Alexandria, Egypt, was loud; it was designed for use in Roman amphitheaters, where it could be heard in the back rows. A mosaic from a Roman villa in Germany dating to the third century c.e., shows a pipe-organ with about 29 pipes set upon an altar-shaped wooden base. Despite a lack of detail in the illustration, it appears that the instrument could have played a complete two-octave scale in several different keys. Nero, who spoke Greek and learned to play the kithara from a Greek virtuoso named Terpnos, instituted and participated in musical competitions. The emperor Vespasian hired Terpnos, another kitharode named Diodorus, and the tragoedus Apollinaris to perform at the reopening of the theater of Marcellus. Hadrian, a talented musician, was the patron of the Cretan kitharode Mesomedes; fourteen or fifteen poems by Mesomedes survive, several with musical notation. Large concert performances by choral groups and orchestras were a feature of both secular occasions and religious festivals. Horns such as the tuba, lituus, bucina, and cornu—normally used in the military—were played in ensembles. Rome was host to a number of foreign religious cults; the music associated with these contained foreign melodies. During the worship of Cybele and Bacchus, music of the Phrygian elymoi (reed pipes of unequal length, one of which featured a curved bell at the end) joined with melodies and dances from Egypt.

Military Music.

As in Greece, military music played a central role in Roman life. A wide variety of wind instruments blared in marching bands and were used for signalling military maneuvers in battle: kerata (cow horns), the salpinx and lituus (ivory or bronze trumpets), cornu (circular horn), and tuba (brass tuba). The Etruscans employed these horns as early as the fourth century b.c.e., and they remained popular for more than 500 years—well into the late imperial period (fourth century c.e.). A bonafide lituus was found by archaeologists in the town of Caera (modern Cervetri) not too far from Rome. It consists of a 63 inch-long tube with no keys or valves; it would have been blown a bit like a bugle but had a lower tone. The bucina and cornu, originally cow horns but the latter crafted of bronze or other lightweight metal, curved around the player like a modern sousaphone. The tuba, a straight trumpet with a flared bell, had a higher and more striking tone than the lituus. Horns such as these, which were used by the Greeks exclusively as military instruments, were also played in concerts, at weddings, and in funeral processions by the Etruscans and Romans.


Giovanni Comotti, Music in Greek and Roman Culture. Trans. Rosaria V. Munson (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, originally published in Italian, 1979).

John G. Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome (London: Routlege, 1999).

Timothy Moore, "Music & Structure in Roman Comedy," in American Journal of Philology 119.2 (1998): 245–273.

Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. Ed. and trans. Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant. 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).