Almost all of ancient literature is lost to us, as classical-history Youtuber Garrett Ryan explains in a video previously featured here on Open Culture. But we have even less ancient music, given that form’s essential ephemerality as well as the not-inconsiderable fact that the ancients didn’t have tape recorders. Still, that hasn’t stopped Ryan from describing to us what music would have sounded like in the heyday of the Roman Empire in the video above, for his channel Told in Stone. Not only does he introduce the instruments played by the popular musicians of ancient Rome, he also evokes the atmosphere of ancient Roman concerts, which had their own “equivalent of rock stars, notorious for selling out theaters, sparking riots, and talking back to emperors.”
They did all of this by mastering what look to us like simple tools indeed. The dominant examples of these were the cithara, a kind of lyre amplified by a sound box; the tibia or aulos, whose two pipes could be played at once (thus producing “a fluttering counterpoint that audiences found wildly exciting”); and the hydraulis or water organ, the rare instrument that could be heard even over a loud crowd.
Though Roman musicians could be virtuosic in their technique, some still consider them “hacks, content to borrow Greek music without anything substantial to it.” Ryan acknowledges that in music, as in certain other realms, Romans did indeed pick up where the Greeks left off, but “over time they evolved both a distinctive musical culture and distinctive tastes in musical spectacle.”
Despite the aforementioned lack of tapes — to say nothing of CDs, MP3 players, or streaming services — music was “everywhere in ancient Rome.” One would hear it at religious rituals, sacrifices included; at festivals, where hymns were sung in honor of the gods; during gladiatorial combat, when the organs “roared as men and beasts battled in the bloodstained sands”; in private gardens and dining rooms; on street corners and plazas, full of the ancient version of buskers; often the theater and less often at musical contests judged by the emperor himself. But it was the most skilled soloists who became renowned across the empire and “inspired something like Beatlemania, driving aristocratic ladies to fight for cast-off plectrums and lyre strings.” For those besieged Roman rock stars, alas, it was a couple thousand years too early to make a Beatles-style retreat into the studio.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.