Ancient Roman Music






Much about Ancient Roman music can be reconstructed by examining the similarities between Medieval and Ancient Greek musical practices since Rome is the link between the two.

The Greeks

The dividing line between Greek and Roman culture is never quite certain since the former was greatly influenced by the latter. Greek investigations on music theory and practice were transmitted to the Italian peninsula and modified only slightly and, therefore, are a source of evidence in the investigation of Roman culture.

Greeks viewed music as both an art and a science. Besides its relaxation and entertainment functions it had religious and civic roles and was an object of rigorous investigation. Plato wrote about music as a cosmological paradigm in his Timaeus and as an important influence for human behavior in The Republic and Laws. Aristotle described music’s educational functions and effects on character development in book VIII of Politics. Centuries later Aristides Quintilianus wrote:

Music is a science, certainly, in which exists sure and infallible knowledge, for whether we speak of it in terms of problems or effects, it would never demonstrate any change or alteration. And indeed, we might also with reason call it an art, for it is both a composite of perceptions… and is not useless to life. (Aristides Quintilianus, On Music)

Other Greek writers such as Cleonides, Epicurean, and Pausanias corroborate this dualistic view and the importance of the subject. All activities of Greek life from schooling, religious ceremonies to recreation, theatrical performances and singing of poetry involved music. Moreover, most literary forms were sung, danced and accompanied by musical instruments. The oldest epic poems of Western literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey provide examples for that. Two bards in the Odyssey claim that “the god bestowed song” on them to accompany their poems. In the Iliad Achilles himself is found playing a lyre and singing of the exploits of past heroes.

Homer’s hero is a prototype for the well-educated Greek man. Athenian parents often sent their boys to a kithara teacher who would teach them lyric poetry and techniques of lyre playing. Music lessons were always individual and through simultaneous playing by master and pupil. This master-pupil relationship of individual instruction must have existed since very early times and across the borders of the Greek city-states. Even females were allowed exposure to music besides the patriarchal order of the society: master teachers like Alcman of Sardis and Sappho of Lesbos taught girls to sing and dance in choruses. Music had a central role in Greek social order.

The Early Romans


The early Romans at first aspired to that idea. Cicero references teaching of singing and dancing and playing instruments in book iii of De Oratore and Varro even ranked music among the liberal arts. In time, however, the wealthier Romans began to look down on that practice. Suspicion and not pleasure was the appropriate view towards the art of sound; little attention was paid towards singing and dancing was particularly offensive.

Later on, as Rome conquered all of Greece, wealthy Roman gentlemen such as Caesar and Cicero studied in Greek schools and received some music training. In the early times of the empire educators began to appreciate more and more musical education; this, however, had nothing to do with music’s aesthetical values. Quintillianus asserts in his treatise Institutio Oratoria that schoolteachers viewed melody and rhythm as tools that could be exploited to achieve rhetoric mastery. That is why, as Juvenal and Martial document, at that time aristocrats were willing to pay obnoxiously high amounts for musical training.

One more comparison, that between the Greek music theorist Damon and his Roman colleague Boethius, further emphasized Rome’s dry and devoid of emotion view towards music. Damon describes art and song in Diels romantically as “necessarily arising when the soul is in some way moved,” a concept which provided Plato with the ideological framework to build on. Ethical values such as courage, moderation and justice are necessary for lyre-playing according to this scholar of the Periclean age.

Boethius, on the other hand, is not moved by romantic ethics in his fundamental treatise De Institutione Musica, most of which survives. It is a part of an exploration of the four mathematical disciplines of antiquity: arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy: the quadrivium, i.e. the fourfold path to knowing the “essences” unaffected by material substance.

Music, according to Boethius, influences reason and, therefore it is desirable to understand and control its fundamental elements: tonal systems, genres, and modes. It is both musica mundana, a prevailing force in the universe that determines the course of planets and stars, the seasons and the combination of the elements, and musica humana which unifies the human being bringing the body and soul into harmony. Although this idea does not lack romantic imagination, it doesn’t attribute to music any of the artistic qualities typically associated with it both before and after the Roman republic and empire. Music is a force of nature, not more aesthetically pleasing than gravity.

Furthermore, Boethius makes a distinction between the “true musician”, a scholar who can judge compositions by applying knowledge, and a “poet” who simply acts intuitively to produce something of less value. Roman prejudice esteems the scholar and disregards the poet because the ultimate goal of music is an academic one. The systemized knowledge of numerical ratios and proportions and structured musical systems is what Boethius among other Romans tried to produce. He distinguished between consonance and dissonance as different in complexity mathematical ratios, systemized the Greek modal system and produced a theory of sound. He didn’t, however, marvel its beauty in any way.

Boethius’s fundamental work was rediscovered in the Carolinian renaissance and remained a lead character in liberal arts education. The high influence of De Institutione Musica did not fade until the 11th century when at the time of Guido d’Arezzo he was finally reevaluated as a philosopher instead of as a music theorist. Only at that point theory detached itself from fantastic cosmological speculations and became more oriented towards actual musical practice.

Although “actual musical practice” existed in plentiful amounts as well it was regarded as a low-class form of entertainment. The music performed expressed strict discipline because the Romans believed that “ostentation in music was effeminate and was leading to a lowering of moral standards” and a number of anti-luxury laws were passed to limit the ostentatious performances at banquets. The archaic Law of the Twelve Tablets for instance forbade more than ten pipers at a funeral. The breaking of any of the rules of this musical nomenclature was severely punished. Many writers protested against new styles. Polybulus narrates and instance when Greek musicians were kicked of the stage because their style was not being understood. Juvenal complains about the Syruan Orontes who “poured into the Tiber with its language, manners, and music.” The stereotypical view among Roman writers toward the music of their time was one of melancholic recollection. They believed that nothing was left of the greatness of Greek music besides being surrounded by a good deal of alive music.

Performers were organized into trade guilds which were so massive that if they went on strike, as the sacred pipers once did, the whole State was held up. Large groups of musicians accompanied official ceremonies such as sacrifices, returns of the emperor home, and triumphs to stimulate or excite the crowd. Yet despite their large number, performing musicians seem to have been looked down on.

The places where music was performed partially accounts for the disregard of this profession. Evidence from Petronius, Pliny and Martial shows that most “concerts”, if they can even be called like that, took part at private parties in aristocratic villas. Other venues of performance were funerals, streets, circuses and theaters. Simple music and simple dancing accompanied simple comic plays; these were often vulgar and obscene and attracted a large audience of common people. Pantomime, a dramatic dance on a mythological theme by a single performer accompanied by chorus and orchestra, was a more prestigious form of entertainment. Even as a part of pantomime, however, music is scolded:

There reigns the art of dancing to which music is almost entirely subordinated. (Plutarch, Quaest. Conviv. ix. 15)

Even Plutarch dismisses popular music and an unimportant factor in entertainment.

Popular music was a plain attraction for simple-minded people and not a sophisticated art form. According to Scott, those in power used large-scale entertainment as a tool for distracting the masses from taking part in the political field. Another use of music, one that shows only practicality and discipline, is in the army. Military music was rated among other organizational procedures for the legionaries: trumpets were used to call an attack, encourage soldiers during the battle, sound retreat or signal “halt” or “encamp”. Besides for those functions musicians were used to deceive the enemy into believing that deserted camps were full or that armies were stationed where they were not in reality.

The practical function of military music and the disregarded second-class role of street music in entertainment are the only two instances of music making in Rome. They were detached from the dry and detached from reality academic research into the science of the “divine essences” and nothing existed in between. Music as we think of it today, as a multifunctional component of any culture, a legitimate profession and a form of entertainment for all members of society did not exist in Ancient Rome.

For more information, contact Theo Popov at [email protected]