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 fails to give evidence of roman music involving written notation. Perhaps the approach to music was similar to that of cookery and roman recipes: little information regarding quantities or cooking times – it was up to the cook to apply personal skills and judgement. Perhaps the same applied to music.
It may be fair to say that music is like language: Much as there was an oral, unwritten, tradition for the transmission of stories and cultural information; it was equally unnecessary to codify music for it to perform its social role.
Learning from birds and primitive music
We know that primitive music from peoples all over the world is directly linked with a variety of social, religious and linguistic aspects of daily life. Singing of melodies links the singer with the immediate environment and community. The meaning can be reinforced by using different types of voice whether hummed, sung in falsetto, with nasal sounds or with the chest. It can be accompanied by certain chosen instruments.
The particular combination and juxtaposition of sounds is a means by which identity and sense of community is transmitted. This brings the participants to a form of union and ecstasy combining music, song and dance. Examples we might immediately understand are the music of Native Americans, traditional Flamenco singers or even modern jazz musicians. Like birds, there is a fundamental melody which is codified and learned at the earliest age, on top of which the individual can liberally use collective rules to form a new and unique performance.
We can also learn something of what Roman music might have sounded like by looking at the instruments and musical influences. Last but not least one could consider the rhythm and sounds of Latin poetry, which itself has a different meter and rhythm from either ancient Greek or even modern English.
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.
Hence the “Cornu” and “Tuba” may have been learned from the Etruscans whilst the Citarra or from the Greeks.
There are some lovely Etruscan frescos of a variety of instruments, in particular the Aulus (pipes)
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:
- Flute (including the double flute) known as “tibiae“. The Greek word was “aulos” and lent it’s name to Cleopatra’s father “Auletes” – the flute player.
- hear an aulos on Youtube
- Tuba, rather like a long pipe/trumpet with no finger holes for notes or tones, particularly useful in the military.
- The “cornu” is rather more characteristic: a round pipe with a cross-piece across the middle to act as a handle.
- hear a cornu from Pompeii
- The “askaules” bagpipes.
- Organ – it may not be appropriate to include the organ amongst the wind instruments, but in terms of function it did involve a set of wind-pipes. A particularly memorable organ is the water driven “hydraulis“.
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.
Lute. Three strings. The simplest to play.
- Lyre – like a harp. A sort of horn shape with a cross piece across the top. The strings are stretched from the top to the bottom. This is the instrument which Emperor Nero supposedly played whilst watching the great fire of Rome.
- Cithara – Perhaps the most noble of instruments, worthy of being learned by the upper class. It was a heavier and more complex type of Lyre with 7-9 strings, and a soundbox and capable of fine tuning. It was a very important instrument in ancient roman culture for both solemn and less formal occasions. Ancestor of the guitar (note the name’s similarity).
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.
- Tambourine – well known even today
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 theaters, 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 amphitheater such as gladiatorial shows or animal hunts. The greatest exhibitions could have hundreds of musicians playing in unison.
Classes of Sound in Roman Music
Fanfares to announce an event or moment were likely to have one of three classes of sound:
- “bombi” – likely a buzzing sound like a swarm of bees
- “imbrices” – like rain or hail falling on a roof
- “testae” – like cymbals falling onto a floor.
For further elaboration it is worth going to Livy History of Rome 7,2 where he describes the development of scenic entertainments.
“Ad tibicinis modos saltare” (dancing to the sound/music of flute players)