Unfortunately for the study of Classical music only a limited amount of information is known about Roman musical history. Relatively little has survived to be passed down which deals with Roman music specifically. A possible explanation for this is the Church’s suppression and prohibition of the musical culture due to its presence in all things pagan. What is known about the role that music played in Roman society is that, unlike Greece where music was an integral part of life, philosophy and proper education, Rome did not embrace music with the same level of awe, nor was it considered central in its importance to a proper life. Nevertheless, music did still play a critical and inseparable part in the religious, military and civil realms where it was used by the State, in domestic settings and for entertainment. Its uses continued from accompaniments and large scale performances to smaller employment by taverns and street side buskers.
There have been a number of cultural situations that have been put forward which could account for the Romans’ devaluation of music in their society and instead relied upon others, namely the Etruscans and Greeks, to be the faucet for their musical experiences. There is no strong evidence that supports that the Romans had musical accompaniment for any literary performance and there certainly is no support for poetry and epics having musical accompaniment; this is quite in contrast to how the Greeks read their poetry and epics. However, we do know that it was certainly composed for the comedies and that pantomime was strong on having musical accompaniment. Romantic and comedic mime performers sang and danced to pipes, brass and percussion. There is also the issue with the educated, high class Romans who actually wrote on music. These Romans tended to have strong respect for their Hellenistic predecessors and so preferred the “pure” Greeks forms as their foundation rather than the less authoritative Latin works, and so, it is the Greek theories and thoughts that have been passed down rather than the Roman. Greece also had a long and successful history with its music and was well rooted in its proficiency in all areas of its learning and instruments. Instead of breaking the ground twice, the practical Roman writers simply relied upon that which had already been established with wide acceptance throughout the Hellenistic world. With this, the Roman attitude had no contention.
Like a number of other social topics in Roman life, music was piously condemned but despite this it was still embraced. Children were taught it and women were expected to be capable musicians usually on the lyre and/or pipes as these were domestically the most common. It is no surprise that the Romans borrowed their musical theory and instruments from the cultures around them and fit them to their needs, and this holds especially true as the Empire grew and absorbed a greater variety of cultures. It is the Etruscans and Greeks who impacted the Romans most heavily with their strong and imaginative musical culture. However, unlike much of what Rome adopted, music was one area that they put little to no effort into making a Roman version of; perhaps due to a lack of desire or natural skill. They comforted themselves in this deficit by viewing musical inclination as effeminate and disreputable. This attitude is typified by Suetonius writing about the Emperor Nero when he wrote, “…the scandalous and criminal part of his conduct, of which I shall now give an account… [was that] he was instructed in music” (Nero, 19).The Romans were happy listeners content in their lack of ability and interest and focused their civilizing efforts to areas not so powerfully mastered by the Greeks.
The Etruscan musical influence on Rome is well known but the depth of that influence is more difficult to pin down. It is sure that the Romans leaned heavily upon the Etruscans particularly in the religious realm even down into Virgil’s time when he idealized a sacrifice with a “fat Etruscan” blowing into an ivory instrument (Georgics II, ln.193). Where our lack of information on Roman music fades it is helpful to look deeper at the Etruscans since the Romans more or less just took on the entire Etruscan musical mantle in conjunction with the Greek mantle later on. Etruscan art that deals with music sometimes holds variances with Greek art which helps to guide us to a more rounded image of what Roman music must have looked like. For example, in a fresco from the Etruscan “Tomb of the Leopards”, there is a depiction of an instrument combination of an aulos/lyre while Greeks preferred an aulos/barbiton combination. The barbiton does not appear in Etruscan art and does not show in Roman art until much later, which would suggest that early Roman music also used an aulos/lyre combination.
Once the Romans encountered Greece and the musical wonders discovered there, they just as bluntly assimilated the Hellenistic musical culture and in most cases did not even develop new vocabulary but simply transliterated the Greek. The Greeks quickly became the living backbone of Roman music, if not very well the core of the culture itself, performing all the roles from teachers to performers to theorists. With the exception of Nero in both the Republic and Empire, music was given little consideration until Hadrian who had something of an artistic revolution and employed a Cretian musician named Mesonmedes, a fact outstanding enough to record for history.
So this is the background for Roman music and how it acted in Roman society, but what did it look like? Below are listed a number of instruments commonly employed by the Romans.
For note, all stringed instruments were plucked with the finger or with a plectrum. There was no use of bows. The Ancients also developed various sizes in many of their instruments to achieve a different scale and gave them differing names; larger instruments for deeper sounds, smaller for higher, etc. Knowing how similar Roman musical theory was to the Greek form it can be reasonably assumed that Roman music was monophonic (single melodies, no harmony).
Brass instruments were almost exclusively used for signaling or drawing attention to something such as in the army, games, or for large ceremonies such as triumphs or weddings. The Roman’s love of trumpets was likely extended from the Etruscans who also favoured the use of brass instruments. On top of the adopted Greek salpinx there are four Latin names for the other four horns used, this is important because the existence of a Latin name shows their prominence in Roman society where they typically did not exert themselves into Latinizing musical vocabulary.
Vegetius, in his de re militaris Book II, categorizes the various horns according to their specific use in the army; the tubae sounded charges and retreats and changing of the guards, cornu (often translated as cornet) regulated the motions of the colours, and the buccina was given to the imperator for use in his presence and in soldier executions. In time of action the tuba and cornu sounded together.
Lituus: Not to be confused with the Etruscan augery staff, the lituus bears a resemblance to a short version of the horn made famous by the Ricola commercials only held up horizontally; a straight horn with the bell curved upwards. Seen in both early Etruscan and Roman inscriptions, it is keyless, valve-less, and was likely played like a modern bugle. Though depicted in art to be about three feet (one meter) in length, one that had been found in a soldier’s grave is longer at about 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) in length.
Tuba: Contrary to the modern use of the word, the Roman tuba was a long, straight horn usually made of bronze and averaging about four feet long and had a detachable bone mouthpiece. It was brought into military prominence around 500 B.C. as a giver of signals, such as the charge and retreat and changing of the guard. Its use was continued for many centuries afterwards. Mentioned by the earliest Latin authors such as Ennius, the tuba does not become prominent in art until the first century B.C.
Cornu: There is an academic debate to whether or not there is a noteworthy distinction between the cornu and the buccina/bucina. It is thought that these two words apply to the same instrument and it does seem acceptable to use them interchangeably. If there should there be a distinction made between the two then it is likely due to their difference in length for classification of the latter tends to be due to its great size with its 11- 12 foot length.
Typically made of bronze, the cornu was about three feet long and curved like a “G” with a weight-relieving cross-bar across the widest part allowing the musician to rest it on his shoulder. Although thought of as mostly an instrument of war and games, literature tells us that the use of the cornu was much more varied. The “Dinner at Trimalchio’s” from Petronius’ Satiyricon (LXXVII) ends with confusion over the command intended by the cornu players (“cornicines”). When Trimalchio asks for the players to practice his death dirge, a nearby fire brigade misunderstands the sound and storms into the house with water and axes effectively putting an end to the dinner; or at least for the story’s protagonists.
Salpinx: Although the salpinx was a Greek trumpet the Romans still assimilated it on top of the three horn varieties they already had. It was rather like a straight trumpet and shorter than a tuba and yet was certainly not like any of the other Roman horns. The sound it produced was one of force as the A.D. third century author Aristides Quintilianus, in his treatise “Peri Musikęs” calls the salpinx’s sound terrifying. Both the Latin tuba and the salpinx had been nicknamed “tyrrhene”, or Tyrrhenian/ Etruscan, a word derived from “Tyrrhenoi” which the Greeks applied to refer to the Etruscans. This does suggest some form of a beginning with the Etruscans which is not unbelievable since the Greeks did highly regard the Etruscans for their musical abilities. The Greeks did not consider the salpinx anything but a tool of war and yet this was not the case in Etruscan and Roman depictions where it is seen outside of its martial role and in musical ensembles in combinations with the tibia and kithara, for example, and, in Etruscan art, even at weddings.
Aulos (Greek)/Tibia (Latin): The aulos, to use its most widely known name, is iconic for its double reed pipes angled like a “V” with the player blowing at the point. There also existed a single pipe version as well. The aulos is one of many instruments having mythological origins with the story being that the satyr Marsyas found the pipes after Athena threw them away having seen how contorted her face became when she had to blow so hard to play.
Although it is often translated as a flute this is not correct. There was a flute like instrument, oblique tibia, which was an entirely distinct instrument. Modern reconstruction tells that the aulos has a low sound similar to a clarinet.
There was more than one version of the aulos. Aristides Quintilianus theorized that the aulos, as well as other instruments, could be categorized to a gender. For example, Aristides lists the Phrygian and Choric aulos as feminine due to their higher and softer sounds, while the Pythian aulos is masculine because of its stronger sound (Peri Musikęs II.XVI). Plutarch mentioned the epikedeios aulos as being commonly employed in funerals for its power to invoke grief and tears (Quaestiones conviviales 3.8(657a). This is the instrument thought to be mentioned in the Biblical passage Matthew 9:23 when Jesus came to Jairus’ house and the aulos players (auletes) had begun playing. The Dorian Greeks in Southern Italy also had a version called an aulos titurinos. This is significant due to Virgil’s use of the name “Tityrus” as both a shepherd’s name and a substantive for a shepherd (Eclogues 8.55) thereby suggesting a more pastoral employment for this version.
Plagiaulos(Greek)/ oblique tibia (Latin): This transverse flute is the father of the modern flute. It was about 2 feet long (60 cm) and continued to be popular in Roman art up to and beyond the A.D third century. Its origins are debatable with the Etruscans being strong contenders though Pliny suggests Midas of Phrygia (Naturalis Historia vii.204) as an originator and Athenaeus, c. 183 AD, the Egyptians (II.176b).
Syrinx(Greek), fistula(Latin): More contemporarily known as pan-pipes, the fistula was closely associated with the god Pan for his use of them and was named after the nymph Syrinx who was turned into a reed to hide from the god’s amorous attentions. The fistula typically had four, nine, or ten, with an average of six thin pipes bound together in a line and the musicians would blow into the top thereby producing the sound. Both the Greeks and Romans had their own form of the pipes: the Greek syrinx had uniform length pipes while the Roman fistula, taken directly from the Etruscan form, had the pipes of varying lengths arranged in steps. While the syrinx was predominantly associated with pastoral environments, the Etruscan fistula is seen apparently indoors at parties and banquets, a tradition which the Romans continued. Fistulae accompanied religious ceremonies of sacrifices and libations and were sometimes accompanied with the lyre or brass instruments. The pipe and brass combination was popular in funeral processions.
Askaules: The askaules, so named by combing the Greek words aulos + askos (a bag), was what is now known as the bagpipes. They were known in Italy by at least by the second century B.C. perhaps earlier though they do not seem to have easily caught on in Roman society as they are rarely mentioned in Latin literature. Martial references them in his Epigram X.3.8 as does the second century A.D. author Dio Chrysostom (“and they say that he is skilled…to play the pipe with his mouth, on the bag placed under his arm-pits, Orat. 71.9), and Suetonius mentions them as well relating Nero’s future plans to give a performance as a bagpiper (“utricularius”) should he survive the trials at the end of his life (Nero 54).
Lyre: Perhaps the most recognizable instrument from the ancient world, the lyre continued its high level of popularity over centuries. Described simply as a portable harp it had various numbers of strings with four, seven and ten being the favourite and was strummed with a plectrum. It was used widely and in many combinations with other instruments though Pindar does mention it in use with auloi (Nem.3). The lyre was associated with moderation and virtue which speaks of its mythological background as a peace offering given to Apollo from Hermes. The lyre’s professional counterpart was the kithara.
Kithara: Larger than the lyre and used predominantly by professionals, the kithara seems to have been officialised with seven strings early in the 7th century B.C. if not earlier. It was regarded by the Greeks as an instrument for pleasure only and not education due to its almost exclusive use in entertainment settings such as dances, banquets, games, etc. and accompanied the Greek recitals of poetry, epics, and oratory. The kithara continued to be a staple instrument long into the Roman Empire.
Barbiton (alt. barbitos): The barbiton was the bass of the lyre family with its long strings and was thought to have originated on Lesbos. It was not very popular with the Greeks as they considered it barbaric and it nearly died out of use by Aristotle’s time who categorized it as an instrument for pleasure only, alongside the aulos, rather than education as it was considered an exciting instrument which prevented speech and learning (Politics VIII.6.1341a). However, the Romans successfully revived the barbiton where it is possible that it was indeed revived as an instrument of pleasure at parties and festive gatherings. In art, the barbiton is often seen being used by Silenus, the Muses and by mortal women as it was associated with the Grecian women lyric poets
Epigonion: The epigonion was a stringed, harp-like instrument said to have had forty strings of varying length and they may or may not have been strung into pairs of unison. While it has been depicted on pottery and written about, there are discrepancies about what it specifically looked like. The epigonion was introduced to Greece from Alexandria, according to Juba II of Maurentania (c.30 B.C.-A.D. 23), a musical expert of his time, and was played with both hands and was often accompanied with not only the voice but other strings like the kithara. It was mentioned by Athenaeus where he sites that the epigonion had been refashioned into an upright psaltery though he does not mention what it had been refashioned from (II.4.183d).
Lute: Although considered a medieval instrument, this forerunner of the guitar was indeed used in ancient Rome though it never achieved the popularity of the lyre or kithara. It had a small body, long neck and had three strings.
Hydraulis: Certainly the most complicated of the ancient instruments was the hydraulis, a water and air powered organ that was essentially a mechanically blown syrinx. Ctesibius of Alexandria (285- 222 B.C.) is accredited with the hydraulis’ invention.
The instrument’s mechanics and water were held in a large alter-like base and the pipes stood vertically across the top in a horizontal line. The hydraulis had a powerful sound as the A.D. fourth century poet Claudian records, “let him thunder a great rumble with a light touch” (Panegyricus de Consulatu Flavii Manlii Theodori, 331-22). Proven to be very popular in Rome, and notably in the arena, it served as an accompaniment, alongside the trumpets, to gladiatorial matches among other employments. There was great variance in its size from the portable to the extremely large. Vitruvius gives a detailed description of the hydraulis (De Arch.X.7) in both its construction and use though even he admits at the end of his description that trying to write about such a device is difficult and it is best seen and experienced for one’s self to best understand it.
Sistra: Borrowed from the Egyptians and used mostly for religious purposes, the sistra was a rattle which had two strings strung with noise making metal attached across a “goal post” frame. To produce its sound it could either simply be shaken or hit with a rod. Cleoptra VII used large numbers of these during the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.) and the Emperor Hadrian minted a coin with an anthropomorphized Egypt holding a sistra.
Rome also employed a wide variety of other instruments in their daily and religious lives many of which are still in wide use today: scabellum, which were basically clappers, rattles, bells, tambourines, and a variety of drums which were used for keeping rhythm and the latter also for hunting.
For further reading on this subject these books are recommended:
Apollo’s Lyre - Thomas J Mathiesen
Music in Ancient Greece and Rome - John Gray Landels
Music in Greek and Roman Culture - Giovanni Comotti (Trans. Rosaria V. Munson)