So, I recently saw a concert. It was, I’m kind of sad to say, the first concert that I have ever been to, and it was absolutely awesome to be so close to one of my favorite bands. Besides the fact that it was such a groovy experience, it got me thinking about music in the ancient world. Specifically, music in ancient Rome.
Now, as much as I love the Romans, something must be said about their ingenuity. For all of their technology and culture and religion and the like, they were not an incredibly inventive bunch.
The greatest influences on Roman music were the Etruscans and the Greeks, though with the expansion of the Empire the music would have changed to include African, Gallic, Germanic, and other Mediterranean styles.
We know a lot less about ancient Roman music than we do ancient Greek music, because unfortunately not a lot of musical documents survived the ages (and Christianity as well, and that is no knock at that religion – the early Christians just didn’t like the ‘pagan’ Roman music). Apparently, what we do know – or assume – is that Roman music was monophonic (each piece being a single melody with no harmony) and followed an elaborate scale system.
The only Roman source that we have comes from the 6th century CE musician and philosopher Boethius, and his writings are about Greek music rather than Roman. So, he’s not much help in this case. No written examples of music have been discovered as of yet, and it’s not likely that any will be found, if paintings of contemporary musicians are any clue – apparently, the Romans did not read sheet music.
Music was used in a variety of situations and places, not only for religious purposes as some would think. Funerals, public and private gatherings, and gladiatorial spectacles all used music as well. There were even music recitals which people took place in, though they were typically not high-standing citizens, as such a thing may have been frowned upon – if you were a Roman male of free status, you did not dance or sing or play music in public. Generally. Someone neglected to tell that to the Emperor Nero, apparently.
The ancient Romans used a variety of instruments, and their definitions are as follows:
Tuba: this version of the tuba was not the modern version that we know, but instead something like a cross between a trumpet and a French horn. This was a long, straight bronze ordeal of Etruscan origin with a detachable mouthpiece. It was used by the military for ‘bugle calls’, and it was incapable of sounding different tones.
Cornu: a horn that is shaped like a capital G. Like the tuba, this was an Etruscan invention and was used in the military.
Aulos/Tibia: the aulos is the Greek term, the tibia the Latin term. This instrument consisted of two unconnected reed pipes that sounded like a clarinet when blown.
Askaules: an early bagpipe. This is somewhat contested, as not many depictions – whether literary or artistic – exist of this instrument.
Lyre: an early harp made of a tortoise shell or wood frame and strings stretched from a crossbar to the body. This instrument was cradled in one arm and plucked with the other hand. Not nearly as common as the…
Cithara: like a lyre, but larger and heavier. The modern word ‘guitar’ apparently comes from this instrument.
Lute: the forerunner of the cithara, this instrument had three strings and was supposedly easy to play.
Hydraulis: AKA the water organ, this instrument is blown by air, and the power source for the air is water that has been compressed into pipes. The hydraulis was played by hand, and it featured keys which the operator would touch lightly. This instrument is the predecessor of the modern church organ.
Finally, I have some good news: there are several modern music groups who specialize in the reconstruction of ancient Roman music!
My personal favorite is Musica Romana. They reconstruct music from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as other places and time periods, and are based in Germany. I really find it fascinating that they use the only fully-functional hydraulis replica that exists, period, in a couple of their songs, and you can find those songs on YouTube. The English version of their website is located at http://www.musica-romana.de/en/index-beta.html and I have embedded a video below for your enjoyment 🙂
Another good group is Synaulia. While I love the melody of their songs, I’m not a big fan of the singing. They have singing in Latin in some of their songs, and it is pronounced with a thick Italian accent – to someone who studies classical Latin, it’s kind of like nails on a chalkboard. You can find out more information about them at http://www.soundcenter.it/synauliaeng.htm