Women in Ancient Music

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Women in Ancient Music

Women in Society.

Ancient Greece and Rome were patriarchal societies; men dominated the social and political sphere. Women's lives were bound to the men in their families and to a system of government that denied women an equal voice in public life. The general rule that women should neither be seen nor heard was enforced into the Christian era and beyond. Most of what is known about Greek and Roman women in music comes not from the women themselves, but from the men who wrote about them, and the male artists who depicted them in vase- and wall-painting. Only if a woman gained enough of a reputation (good or bad) to warrant attention was her name made known. The family was considered the most important unit in ancient Greece and Rome, and women were the center of family life; they played an important role in family religion, and presided over all rites of passage from birth to death. The ceremonies connected with these rites gave women an opportunity to sing, dance, and play music in public. Women also participated in the large state religious festivals, and some became professional poets and musicians. Despite the scant evidence for women writers, poets, and musicians, there is enough to indicate that women did make names for themselves in music, while amateurs enjoyed playing for their own pleasure.


In the Greek Bronze Age, Greek women must have sang and probably played instruments, but they are not represented doing so. Mycenaean art of the second millennium b.c.e. depicts only men playing the phorminx ("lyre") and the aulos ("double-reed pipe"). As a rule, men and women led separate lives in ancient Greece and Rome. Women normally stayed close to home and tended to domestic affairs, while the men spent time working at their profession or in the public gathering places of the city. Even the private homes were divided into male and female spaces. A vase from a grave in Italy shows a group of women dancing and playing a variety of instruments for each other in the privacy of their quarters. They also entertained each other and listened to music while working wool, baking bread, or nursing children. Hetairai, often highly educated and musically trained prostitute-musicians, entertained men at symposia (drinking parties). Some religious rites and ceremonies were open only to women, especially those connected with fertility, and evidence shows that both Greek and Roman women sang and played musical instruments during these rites.


introduction: In his Life of Caesar, the writer Plutarch (second century c.e.) related a humorous story in which a young man named Clodius tried to sneak into the women's sacred rite of the Bona Dea (Good Goddess—associated with Dionysus) by dressing as a female lyre-player.

Rome, 62 b.c.e.: Publius Clodius was in love with Julius Caesar's wife Pompeia, but a close watch was kept on the women's apartment, and Aurelia, Caesar's mother, made it difficult for the lovers to meet. During the festival of the 'Good Goddess', it is customary for the men to leave the house; the wife takes over and decorates for the festival. Most of the rites are celebrated at night, and with great amounts of festivity in the revels and music as well. The evening when Pompeia was celebrating this ritual, Clodius snuck into the house dressed like a young woman lyre-player. As he was walking around he met one of Aurelia's attendants, who asked him to play with her, as one woman might with another. When he refused, she dragged him before the others, asked who he was, and where he came from. His voice gave him away, and Aurelia, calling a halt to the rites, had Clodius thrown out of the house. Clodius was duly indicted by the senate for sacrilege, but later acquitted. Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, saying that a wife of his "must be above suspicion."

source: Plutarch, Life of Caesar, in Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook in Translation. Eds. M. Lefkowitz and M. Fant (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982): 292–293.

Instruments for Women.

Although both men and women could be professional musicians, certain instruments were thought to be more appropriate for one gender or the other. Since men marched in military parades and moved about more freely in public generally, the horns and the larger lyres were appropriate to them. Women and girls played the smaller lyres, the harp, and the aulos (reed pipe). The wife of Ktesibios, the inventor of the organ, may have given concerts on it. Hetairai were hired to play the aulos and chelys (a type of lyre) at men's drinking parties, while psaltriai (literally "pluckers") played the harp at parties for women; certain melodies and instruments, such as the aulos, lute, and chelys, were associated with erotic love. The barbitos (another type of lyre), the pektis (a type of harp), and the Lydian harp were popular instruments for women, and after the fourth century b.c.e., the lute-like trichordos or pandouros appeared in the arms of women. The tympanos (drum), kymbala (cymbals), and other percussion instruments were most often played by female worshippers of Dionysus, the Great Mother, and other deities connected to fertility and fecundity.

Female Poets.

It was the job of the pythia, priestess of Apollo at the Oracle in Delphi, to interpret the divine prophecy of Apollo for the pilgrim, and she did so by chanting the god's words in hexameter verse. While this chanting is not proper poetry, it is one indicator that women had a powerful poetic voice in ancient Greece, even though Homer's professional bards were men, not women. Between the sixth and the third centuries b.c.e., however, some of the most famous female poets and musicians make their entrance. None came from Athens, perhaps because women's lives were much more restricted there than in other places. All were highly educated and well-to-do. Sappho, born around 612 b.c.e. on the island of Lesbos, is the most famous of a group of women poets whose work survives: Korinna, Erinna, Nossis, and Anyte. Sappho's poetry was autobiographical, personal, and often erotic. She wrote passionately about the power of Aphrodite, the Muses, and the Graces. She was an innovative poet, setting the rhythms of her native Aeolic dialect of Greek to new melodies; her form of lyric monody (solo singing), which has been called by scholars the "Sapphic stanza," was meant to be sung to musical accompaniment. Sappho is depicted in vase-painting holding the barbitos, and she mentions lyre and harp-playing in her poetry. In addition to monody, Sappho also wrote compositions for choral performance. Fragments of her partheneia (maiden-songs) and epithalamia (wedding-songs) survive, albeit without musical notation. Her choral works were performed by separate groups of dancing young men and women. Admired not only by her contemporary male poets, but generations of poets coming after, Sappho was a vivid portrayer of women's emotions:

Once again that loosener of limbs, Love,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
seizes me.

Very little is known about the other Greek women poets and only small fragments of their poems survive. The traveler Pausanias (second century c.e.) reported that Korinna of Boeotia beat Pindar—a very important male lyric poet of the fifth century b.c.e.—more than once in poetry competitions. Praxilla, another fifth century poet, was famous for her scolia ("drinking-songs"). Of Roman women poets almost nothing is known, despite the fact that in Rome women's social status was better than in Greece. Sulpicia (first century b.c.e.) was the only Latin female poet whose work survives to any degree, because it was included in a book of poems by Tibullus, a male friend.

Types of Music for Women.

In his Republic and Laws, the philosopher Plato prescribed different melodies and rhythms to men and women according to the nature of each gender. Specifically, men should make "masculine" music, and women, music that is "orderly and moderate." Plato and Aristotle wrote that both girls and boys should be taught mousike, the broad term for "music" that included song, dance, and instrument playing. Plato recommended three years of training on the lyre beginning at age thirteen. These philosophers insisted that there were two types of women musicians: respectable and shameful. In the fourth century b.c.e., education was more available to women than it had been in earlier times, and now a sharp distinction was made between the unsavory hetairai (prostitute-musicians) and other female musicians who had been taught by reputable music teachers from a very young age and were paid to perform concert music during public festivals. An inscription from 186 b.c.e. recognized Polygnota, a Theban, for her kithara performance and recitations during the Pythian Games in honor of the god Apollo at Delphi. It notes that she received a crown and 500 drachmas in payment. Roman female musicians also performed during religious festivals. In Rome and many parts of the Roman Empire, female musicians, singers, and dancers performed every November during the three-day festival of the goddess Isis, who had a temple in Rome despite being an Egyptian deity. The performance involved actors playing the parts of Isis and Nephthys in the mystery plays celebrating the death and resurrection of Osiris. In Roman Egypt, female entertainers were paid quite handsomely. A third-century c.e. papyrus from Philadelphia in Egypt contains a letter in which the services of three castanet-dancers were requested, presumably for a wedding feast. Payment was set at 36 drachmas per day, plus four artabas of grain and twenty double loaves of bread.

Women's Ritual Laments.

In ancient Greece, women generally did not have a public platform in which to express their opinions and sentiments. Ritual lamentation—public mourning for the dead during a funeral—provided women a protected medium to address publicly issues of social importance. Ritual laments were performed by an inner circle of women close to the body of the deceased, and combined weeping and wailing with poetic song and stylized movement. During a ritual lament, women were free to say whatever they felt, no matter how explosive or threatening; in the epic poem the Aeneid by the Roman poet Vergil, the mother of a dead soldier criticizes the war so vehemently in her lament that the men are ordered to drag her away before she disheartens the troops. There were three categories of laments: the threnos, the goos, and the kommos. The threnos was a composed dirge performed, for example, by goddesses in Homeric epic and formal laments of a female chorus in Greek drama. The goos, a more frequent term, referred to the improvised discordant weeping performed by kinswomen and close friends of the deceased. The kommos was specific to tragedy. Aristotle in his Poetics defined the kommos as an antiphonal song of lament between an actor and the female chorus, which was one of the most visually compelling exhibitions of physical and psychological pain. In Greek tragedy, ritual laments were often called "lyre-less" or "undanced" to illustrate their harsh discordance and lack of joy. Euripides, an accomplished composer and playwright of the fifth century b.c.e., often wrote laments into his plays. In his musical tragedy Helen, the queen of Sparta laments her role in the destruction of Troy, wishing that the Sirens could accompany her mourning with the Libyan harp, the syrinx, with lyres, and with tears of their own to match her own "suffering for suffering, care for care, antiphonal chorus to match" the lament (164–166). The so-called Berlin Papyrus (second or third century c.e.) preserves a notated fragment of a dramatic vocal lament on the death of the hero Ajax that appears to be set at the register of the female voice. Traditionally in Greek and Roman theater men played all the roles, but this fragment suggests that a female singer, perhaps playing the role of Ajax's grieving wife Tecmessa, performed the lament. The Dorian mode, the same melodic system used by the lyric poets, in love songs, and in paeans, was commonly used for formal laments.



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Diane Rayor, Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991).

Jane McIntosh Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989).

Nancy Sultan, "Private Speech, Public Pain: The Power of Women's Laments in Ancient Greek Poetry and Tragedy," in Rediscovering the Muses: Women's Musical Traditions. Ed. Kimberly Marshall (Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1993): 92–110.

Diane Touliatos, "The Traditional Role of Greek Women in Music from Antiquity to the End of the Byzantine Empire," in Rediscovering the Muses: Women's Musical Traditions. Ed. Kimberly Marshall (Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1993): 111–123.

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).

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Women in Ancient Music

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Women in Ancient Music