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Art in ancient Rome

roman music

Roman music is a bit of a mystery in that we have no record of the music as such. Musical notation was at best simple and very little evidence has reached us – certainly none which we can make use of to reproduce the melodies they may have loved. If Roman notation was borrowed from the Greek then we can imagine a set of letters to denote tones with notation above them to give an idea of duration. Roman art also fails to give evidence of musicians using written notation. Perhaps the approach to music was similar to that of cookery: a simple recipe with little information regarding quantities or cooking times – it was up to the cook to apply his personal skills: perhaps the same applied to musicians.

We can however learn something of what it might have been like by looking at the instruments and musical influences which lay at the root of Roman music and contributed to its development.

Influence on Roman music:

If we conflate myth, historical literary evidence and scientific investigation we can see that the Romans were local italic peoples greatly influenced by the Orient. It is believed that the Etruscans to the north of Rome had elements of Turkish genetics, and to the south of Rome there were the Greek colonies in Campania, Pompeii is a great example of this coming together of cultures. Myth has it that the founding of Rome was to be attributed to descendants of the Trojan Aeneas on a site which had in precedence been settled by Evander, himself of Greek/Turkish origins. Many deities are of Indo-European origin also. For example the "Cornu" and "Tuba" may have been learned from the Etruscans whilst the Citarra from the Greeks.

Roman expansion across the Mediterranean also put Roman civilisation in direct contact with the music of other cultures: immigrants and slaves and even priests of new foreign deities all brought their own sounds and music with them into the city. Flutes, cymbals and tambourines became part and parcel of everyday Roman life.

However, Rome didn’t simply "borrow" instruments and music from her neighbours: Romans took these, adapted them and transformed them into new genres of her own. Nor should we think that the Romans simply absorbed all and any type of "foreign" music that came their way: The Greek historian Polibius tells us that in 167BC Greek musicians came into Rome to play during public celebrations. Their way of playing wasn’t appreciated, they were laughed at by the public and hence reduced to performing a spectacle more adapted to local tastes.

Music was certainly composed for scenic representations such as the satires and comedy. In 389BC simple stage plays (saturae) were accompanied by flute music and danced to by Etruscan dancers.

The songs and musical sounds used in many religious processions and in military parades were almost certainly "home grown". During religious rites it would be customary to have a musician playing an instrument near the altar, not only to provide music for the event, but also to drown out the loud noises around and outside: There is plenty of evidence, for example in accounts of ancient Roman schooling, about how noisy and disruptive the streets of Rome could be.

Musicians held a high position in Roman society, particularly in their important function during rituals and processions (including military triumphs for example). This position was recognised as early as the reign of King Numa Pompilius when the first census was drawn and musicians (players of bagpipes) were amongst the first professional guilds into which the population was subdivided. Ever since the 6th century BC tuba and horn players had their own guild.

Bearing the above in mind, it is difficult to reconcile the apparent importance of musicians since antiquity with the relatively scarce evidence left of their practice. The immediate answer could be that whilst being important their work didn’t leave a lasting impression on society of the day, or indeed that music so commonplace that it wasn’t viewed as sufficiently exceptional. An alternative interpretation could be that Christian religion which took over the Roman empire and in so doing suppressed pagan Roman religious rites "stamped out" what was somehow associated with past culture.

Types of Roman instruments

Like modern instruments, Roman instruments can be subdivided into percussion, wind and string instruments.

Wind instruments include:

Players of wind instruments were regarded highly since the earliest of Roman times, and were part of the earliest census (6th century BC) as citizens with well defined social roles.

String instruments:

Percussion instruments:

There were a broad variety of rattles, bells and tambourines used, particularly in religious rituals. An interesting example which is still seen today is the "sistrum" which came from Egypt and was used as part of rituals to the goddess Isis.


Military inscriptions and sculptural reliefs suggest that within the instruments there was an order of importance: tuba players were considered the elders and most important followed by the horn players.

Variety of wind instruments was more apparent with the increased attendance to stage plays in Roman theatres, be they Latin version of Greek plays or simple (vulgar) saturae or pantomimes. These were often started with a procession into the theatre arena, preceded by trumpet players. A horn would signal the start of the play. An orchestra would play music at the sides. The use of trumpets and horns was also commonplace at other public shows held at the amphitheatre such as gladiatorial shows or animal hunts. The greatest exhibitions could have hundreds of musicians playing in unison.

Fanfares to announce an event or moment were likely to have one of three classes of sound:

Ars musica (art of music)

Ad tibicinis modos saltare (dancing to the sound/music of flute players)


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This page about roman music was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments