What Did Music in Ancient Rome Sound Like?

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is “100% Accu­rate”

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

The Evo­lu­tion of Music: 40,000 Years of Music His­to­ry Cov­ered in 8 Min­utes

Hear the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

A Street Musi­cian Plays Pink Floyd’s “Time” in Front of the 1,900-Year-Old Pan­theon in Rome

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Marianne Tedstone Glover says:

    I have stud­ied Roman Music for over 10 years, have the first PhD in Ancient Roman Music and have cre­at­ed a CD.

    Hear it is


    It would be amaz­ing if you could add it to your arti­cle?

    Best wish­es

    Dr Mar­i­anne Ted­stone Glover

  • Thomas says:

    Thank you for shar­ing your work! It real­ly is the cher­ry on top of this arti­cle. Just so that you know, the link to your web­site appears to not work from here. Maybe because I’m using mobile. How­ev­er if you Google your name, it comes up just fine. Again, thank you for shar­ing!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.