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Ancient Roman music

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Ancient Roman music

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Detail of a mosaic found in Pompeii. The figure on the left is playing the double aulos, double-reed pipes; the figure in the middle, cymbalum, small, bronze cymbals; and on the right, the tympanum, a tambourine-like drum. Detail of a mosaic found in Pompeii. The figure on the left is playing the double aulos, double-reed pipes; the figure in the middle, cymbalum, small, bronze cymbals; and on the right, the tympanum, a tambourine-like drum.

Ancient Roman Music In a discussion of any ancient music, non-specialists and even many musicians have to be reminded that much of what makes our modern music familiar to us is the result of developments only within the last 1,000 years; thus, our ideas of melody, scales, harmony, and even the instruments we use would not be familiar to Romans who made and listened to music many centuries earlier.


General Characteristics of Roman Music

As strange as it seems, we know less about the music of ancient Rome than we do about the music of ancient Greece. There are a number of at least partially extant sources on the music of the Greeks. For example, much is known about the theories of Pythagoras and Aristoxenus (some of it from Greek sources and some through the writings of later Roman authors), and there exist about 40 deciphered examples of Greek musical notation. There is very little such material on the music of the Romans. There are various reasons for this, one of which is that early fathers of the Christian church were aghast at the music of theater, festivals, and pagan religion and supressed it once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.[1]

The Romans are not said to have been particularly creative or original when it came to music. They did not attach any spiritual ethos to music, as did the Greeks [2]. Yet, if the Romans admired Greek music as much as they admired everything else about Greek culture, then it is safe to say that Roman music was mostly monophonic (that is, single melodies with no harmony) and that the melodies were based on an elaborate system of scales (called "modes"). Also, the rhythms of sung music followed the natural meter of the words.[3]

There were also other, non-Greek influences on Roman culture--from the Etruscans, for example, and, with imperial expansion, from the Middle Eastern and African sections of the empire [4]. Thus, there were, no doubt, elements of Roman music that were native Italian as well as non-European; the exact nature of these elements is unclear.

Musical instruments

Roman musical instruments included:

The cornu, shown with a zoomorphic bell, from Filippo Bonanni's 1723 book Gabinetto Armonico, a compendium of illustrations of musical instruments. The cornu, shown with a zoomorphic bell, from Filippo Bonanni's 1723 book Gabinetto Armonico, a compendium of illustrations of musical instruments.

  • Wind (lip reed; i.e. like a modern brass instrument)
    • tuba—not the modern tuba, but a long and straight bronze trumpet with a detachable, conical mouthpiece like that of the modern French horn. Those found are about 1.3 meters long; they had a cylindrical bore from the mouthpiece to the point where the bell flares abruptly, [5] in a fashion similar to that of the modern, straight trumpet often seen in presentations of "period music". (It goes without saying that there were no valves. One instrument was capable only of a single overtone series.) It was essential to the military, providing "bugle calls" and was apparently borrowed from the Etruscans.
    • cornu—a somewhat more than semi-circular (shaped like an upper-case letter 'G') bronze instrument with or without a cross-bar/handle across the diameter. It had a conical bore (like a modern French horn) and a conical mouthpiece. Also used in the military and also borrowed from the Etruscans.
  • Wind (mechanical reed; i.e. like a modern clarinet)
    • the aulos (the Greek term--in Latin, tibae), usually double, consisting of two double-reed (as in a modern oboe) pipes, not joined but generally played with a mouth-band to hold both pipes steadily between the player's lips [6]. Modern reconstructions indicate that they produced a low, clarinet-like sound. There is some confusion about the exact nature of the instrument; alternate descriptions indicate each pipe having a single-reed (like a modern clarinet) instead of a double reed.
    • the ascaules—a bagpipe.

Woman playing a kithara. Woman playing a kithara.

  • Plucked string instruments
    • the lyre—borrowed from the Greeks (essentially an early harp; i.e. a frame of wood or tortoise shell with various numbers of strings stretched from a cross bar to the sounding body. The lyre was held or cradled in one arm and hand and plucked with the other hand. The Romans gradually abandoned this instrument in favor of the more sophisticated kithara, a larger instrument with a box-type frame with strings stretched from the cross-bar at the top to the sounding box at the bottom; it was held upright and played with a plectrum. The strings were tuneable by adjusting wooden wedges along the cross-bar [7].

The hydraulis Note the presence of the curved trumpet, the cornu. The hydraulis Note the presence of the curved trumpet, the cornu.

  • The organ—There are some mosaic images of organs and fragmentary remains in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. The pipes were sized so as to produce many of the modes (scales) taken over from the Greeks. From the fragments, the instruments seem to be a cross between the bagpipe and the organ. It has not been established if they were blown by the lungs or by some mechanical bellows. Of greater interest is the hydraulis, an organ that worked by water pressure. The instrument goes back to the ancient Greeks and a well-preserved model in pottery was found at Carthage in 1885. Essentially, the air to the pipes that produce the sound comes from a mechanism of a wind-chest connected by a pipe to a dome; air is pumped in to compress water, and the water rises in the dome, compressing the air, and causing a steady supply to reach the pipes. [8] (Also see Pipe organ#History)
  • Percussion
    • Variations of a hinged wooden or metal device (called a scabellum)—a "clapper"— used to beat time. Also, there were various rattles, bells, and tambourines.

Music in Society

In spite of the purported lack of musical originality on the part of the Romans, they did enjoy music greatly and used it for many activities. Scott [9] recounts the obvious military uses of the tuba for signalling, as well as music for funerals, private gatherings, public performances on the stage and large gladitorial spectacles. Music was also used in religious ceremonies. It should be noted that the Romans cultivated music as a sign of education [10]. Music contests were quite common and attracted a wide range of competition, including Nero, himself, who performed widely as an amateur and once traveled to Greece to compete. [11].

There are also numerous references (cited in Scott [12]) to the pervasive presence of music in ancient Rome, music even on a very large scale--hundreds of trumpeters and pipers playing together at massive games and festivals--and even of normally hand-held kitharas built as large as carriages.

What the music sounded like

Although the Greeks had musical notation, [13] there is no evidence that the Romans copied it. That is to say, of the surviving illustrations, say, in the mosaics of Pompeii, of musicians performing, none of them show the musicians to be reading music. Thus, we have not discovered, as yet, anything on the order of written music that would tell us exactly what Roman musicians were singing and playing at funerals, parties, gladitorial games, etc. (Again, the modern reader is reminded that the musical scores of films about ancient Rome, such as Ben Hur or Spartacus are total anachronisms.) Even the well-known writings of the late Roman philosopher, Boethius,[14] are more of a treatise on the music of the ancient Greeks rather than an explanation of what contemporary music of the Roman empire must have sounded like. It is, thus, speculative, but perhaps reasonable speculation, that the Romans might have tuned those instruments that could be tuned—those with pipes or strings—to one or more of the many Greek modes that had come down to them. Familar, perhaps, to the modern ear would be the military calls on the trumpet-like tuba, since all instruments of that nature only have access to the same series of overtones bound by the laws of physics. [15]


  • Bonanni, Filippo (1964). Antique Musical Instruments and their Players, Dover Publications reprint of the 1723 work, Gabinetto armonico with supplementary explanatory material. New York: Dover Pub.
  • Boethius. De institutione musica. English: Fundamentals of music / Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius ; translated, with introduction and notes by Calvin M. Bower ; edited by Claude V. Palisca. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • Grout, Donald J. and Calude V. Palisca (1996). A History of Western Music, New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Pierce, John R (1983), The Science of Musical Sound, New York: Scientific American Books.
  • Scott, J.E. (1957). "Roman Music" in The New Oxford History of Music, vol.1: Ancient and Oriental Music," Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, William (1874). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities , New York: Harper.
  • Suetonius, Nero, xli, liv.
  • Ulrich, Homer and Paul Pisk (1963). A History of Music and Musical Style, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanoich.
  • Walter, Don C (1969) Men and Music in Western Culture, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Williams, C.F. (1903). The Story of the Organ, New York: Charles Scribner & Sons.


  1.  Grout
  2.  Ulrich, p. 25
  3.  Grout
  4.  Scott, p. 404
  5.   Bonanni, plate 2.
  6.  Bonanni, plate 3.
  7.  Bonanni, plate 48.
  8.  Williams.
  9.  Scott, p. 413
  10.  Walter, p.23
  11.  Suetonius, cited in Scott, p. 418.
  12.  Scott, p. 416
  13.   Ulrich, p. 15
  14.  Boethius
  15.   Pierce, p. 45

Additional bibliography

  • Comotti, G. (1989). Music in Greek and Roman Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989.
  • Landels, J.G. (1999). Music in Ancient Greece & Rome. London/NY: Routledge.
  • S.Hagel / Ch.Harrauer (edd.), Ancient Greek Music in Performance, Vienna 2005.
  • M.L.West, Ancient Greek Music, Oxford 1992.
  • G.Wille, Musica Romana – die Bedeutung der Musik im Leben der Römer, Amsterdam 1967.

etxernal links

Musica Romana, musicarchaeology, scientific review of ancient roman music as well as performances, bibliography and descriptions for instruments and notations online (English and German).

The Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum (TML), an evolving database of the entire corpus of Latin music theory written during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Synaulia, dedicated to the reconstruction of historical musical instruments, sound theatre, dance on the basis of ethnology.

Ancient music
Preceded by Prehistoric music | Succeeded by Early music

Home | Up | Ancient Roman music | Music of Mesopotamia | Aulos | Barbiton | Rhapsode | Seikilos epitaph

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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