Boscoreale fresco of a woman with a kithara

Roman instruments include pan flutes, straight trumpets, wooden flutes, cane reed instruments, finger symbols, skin drums, bagpipe-like instrument, lyres, shepherds pipes, and the bucina (G-shaped brass instrument). Musician instruments found at Pompeii include shell trumpets, bone flutes and bronze horns. Organs with piston pumps and wooden soldiers that made sounds with pipes were described in Hellenistic times. These instruments were widely used across the Roman Empire.

No one knows what Roman music sounded like. No Roman compositions have enured and scholars don't even know what their system of notation was. Efforts to recreate what Roman music have been based on archaeological remains of instruments, references in historical texts and depictions in frescoes, mosaics and sculpture.

Old Roman chants, predecessors of Gregorian chants, survive in writing from the 11th century and later. Scholars believe some forms of modern folk music, particularly in the Lazio region around Rome and in Campani in the south, descended from Roman pipe and drum music.

One scene in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii shows an aging Silenus (companion and tutor to the wine god Dionysus) playing a ten-string lyre resting on a column. Another shows a young male satyr playing pan pipes while a nymph suckles a goat. This scene is believed to be connected with an initiate joining a mystery cult. In many rituals, this initiation is assisted by music, which is thought to necessary to achieve a psychological state in which rebirth and regeneration can take place.

Clementis Recognitiones wrote (c. A.D. 220): “Most men abandon themselves at festival time and holy days, and arrange for drinking and parties, and give themselves up wholly to pipes and flutes and different kinds of music and in every respect abandon themselves to drunkenness and indulgence.”

On Roman legion music, Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450) wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornets and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornets are used only to regulate the motions of the colors; the trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors; but in time of action, the trumpets and cornets sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornets sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general's orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. F or reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace.” [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

Juvenal wrote in Satire III: On the City of Rome (A.D. c. 118): “It is that the city is become Greek, Quirites, that I cannot tolerate; and yet how small the proportion even of the dregs of Greece! Syrian Orontes has long since flowed into the Tiber, and brought with it its language, morals, and the crooked harps with the flute-player, and its national tambourines, and girls made to stand for hire at the Circus. [Source: “The Satires of Juvenal, Persius, Sulpicia and Lucilius,” translated by Rev. Lewis Evans (London: Bell & Daldy, 1869), pp. 15-27]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

CD: “Synaulia: Music from Ancient Rome”, released on Amiara Records.

Apollo, Bacchus and Music

Apollo with a kithara

Apollo was the god of the sun, light and music. Originally called Phoebus Apollo and known to both Greeks and Romans as Apollo, he lived on the island of Delos in the east, where he was born, and Delphi to the north of Athens. He drove the chariot of the sun across the sky and had the power to cure illness and inflict it.

Apollo was worshiped by musicians and poets. Marianne Bonz wrote for PBS’s Frontline: “Apollo was thought of as an archer-god, whose arrows could either wound or heal. He was also the god of song and the lyre, as well as the god of divination and prophecy. [Source: Marianne Bonz, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

The nine Muses sing to Apollo’s lyre, which are the sublunar sphere, and seven spheres of the planets, and one of the fixed stars. And they crowned him with laurel, partly because the plant is full of fire, and therefore hated by daemons; and partly because it crackles in burning, to represent the god's prophetic art.

Dionysus (Bacchus to Romans) was the god of drama, dance, music, fertility and wine. He was the only god to be born twice and the only one with a mortal parent. Because of his association with drinking, partying, festivals and having a good time it is not surprising that he was one of the most popular gods. Dionysus often traveled is disguise. He was known for appearing and reappearing quickly. When he wanted to make a show he arrived with a procession of nymphs and satyrs.

Music and Roman Emperors

On Hadrian (A.D. ruled 117–138), Aelius Spartianus wrote: “In poetry and in letters Hadrian was greatly interested. In arithmetic, geometry, and painting he was very expert. Of his knowledge of flute-playing and singing he even boasted openly. He ran to excess in the gratification of his desires, and wrote much verse about the subjects of his passion. He composed love-poems too. He was also a connoisseur of arms, had a thorough knowledge of warfare, and knew how to use gladiatorial weapons. He was, in the same person, austere and genial, dignified and playful.”

On Titus (ruled A.D. 79–81), Suetonius wrote:“Titus, He was besides not unacquainted with music, but sang and played the harp agreeably and skillfully. I have heard from many sources that he used also to write shorthand with great speed and would amuse himself by playful contests with his secretaries; also that he could imitate any handwriting that he had ever seen and often declared that he might have been the prince of forgers.

On the great games hosted by Vespasian (A.D. 69-79), Suetonius wrote: “At the plays with which he dedicated the new stage of the theater of Marcellus he revived the old musical entertainments. To Apelles, the tragic actor, he gave four hundred thousand sesterces; to Terpnus and Diodorus, the lyre-players, two hundred thousand each; to several a hundred thousand; while those who received least were paid forty thousands and numerous golden crowns were awarded besides. He gave constant dinner-parties, too, usually formally and sumptuously, to help the marketmen. He gave gifts to women on the Kalends of March [The Matronalia, or Feast of Married Women; see Hor. Odes, 3.8, 1], as he did to the men on the Saturnalia. Yet even so he could not be rid of his former ill-repute for covetousness. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

20120227-Mosaic Pompeii Vagrant_musicians_MAN_Napoli_Inv9985.jpg
Pompeii mosaic of Vagrant musicians

On the Games of Domitian (ruled A.D. 81–96), Suetonius wrote: “He also established a quinquennial contest in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamations both in Greek and in Latin; and in addition to those of the lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone, without singing; while in the stadium there were races even between maidens. He presided at the competitions in half-boots clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales [Established for the worship of the deified Flavian emperors, after the manner of the Augustales], similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.”

Music at a Cleopatra Party

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus in present-day Turkey to meet Marc Antony on a perfumed barge with purple sails. She was dressed as Aphrodite and was fanned by boys dressed like cupids. "Her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes...Instead of a crew the barge was lined with the most beautiful of her waiting women as Nerid and Graces, some at the steering oars, others at the tackles of the sails, and all the while indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the river banks."

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120): Life of Anthony (82-30 B.C.) For “Lives,” written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden MIT]

“The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal; while the word went through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus, for the common good of Asia. On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equalled for beauty.”

Cleopatra's barge

Nero, the Great Musician?

Nero saw himself as great sportsman, musician and poet even though he lacked talent in all of his endeavors. He "soiled the imperial dignity by his buffoonery in the theater...and believed he could use his art to bring his enemies to tears and repentance," wrote Boorstin. He conducted horse races in his palace gardens and "mingled with the public as a charioteer." He even thought about giving up his emperorship and becoming a musician so, people “would adore in me what I am." ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

During his monotonous lyre recitals, it was said that he locked the audience in the theater. No one was allowed out for any reason. Once a woman reportedly gave birth in the middle of a performance and Nero kept on playing as if nothing had happened. In A.D. 67, Nero won over 1,100 events. In 66 A.D. he arrived at the Olympics with a retinue of 5000. He entered several events, and with his bodyguards standing ominously close, he won them all. During the chariot race he fell off his mount and all the other contestants stopped until he got back on. He later went on to win the race even though he did not finish."

Nero gave the lyre-player Menecrates and the gladiator Spiculus properties and residences equal to those of men who had celebrated triumphs. Suetonius wrote: “Towards the end of his life, in fact, he had publicly vowed that if he retained his power, he would at the games in celebration of his victory give a performance on the water-organ, the flute, and the bagpipes and that on the last day he would appear as an actor and dance "Vergil's Turnus." Some even assert that he put the actor Paris to death as a dangerous rival. “He had a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated. With this in view he took their former appellations from many things and numerous places and gave them new ones from his own name. He also called the month of April Neroneus and was minded to name Rome Neropolis.

“In competition he observed the rules most scrupulously, never daring to clear his throat and even wiping the sweat from his brow with his arm [the use of a handkerchief was not allowed; see also Tac. Ann. 16.4]. Once, indeed, during the performance of a tragedy, when he had dropped his scepter but quickly recovered it, he was terribly afraid that he might be excluded from the competition because of his slip, and his confidence was restored only when his accompanist [the "hypocrites" made the gestures and accompanied the tragic actor on the flute, as he spoke his lines] swore that it had passed unnoticed amid the delight and applause of the people. When the victory was won, he made the announcement himself; and for that reason he always took part in the contests of the heralds. To obliterate the memory of all other victors in the games and leave no trace of them, their statues and busts were all thrown down by his order, dragged off with hooks, and cast into privies.”

Nero, His Lyre and Music

Suetonius wrote: “Having gained some knowledge of music in addition to the rest of his early education, as soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest master of the lyre in those days, and after listening to him sing after dinner for many successive days until late at night, he little by little began to practice himself, neglecting none of the exercises which artists of that kind are in the habit of following, to preserve or strengthen their voices. For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice. Finally, encouraged by his progress, although his voice was weak and husky, he began to long to appear on the stage, and every now and then in the presence of his intimate friends he would quote a Greek proverb meaning "Hidden music counts for nothing" [Cf., Gell. 13.31.3]. And he made his debut at Neapolis [Arkenberg: modern Naples], where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theater was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock [It collapsed in consequence, but not until the audience had dispersed; see Tac. Ann. 15.34]. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

“In the same city he sang frequently and for several successive days. Even when he took a short time to rest his voice, he could not keep out of sight, but went to the theater after bathing, and dined in the orchestra with the people all about him, promising them in Greek that when he had wet his whistle a bit, he would ring out something good and loud. He was greatly taken, too, with the rhythmic applause of some Alexandrians, who had flocked to Neapolis from a fleet that had lately arrived, and summoned more men from Alexandria. Not content with that, he selected some young men of the order of equites and more than five thousand sturdy young plebeians, to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause (they called them "the bees," "the roof-tiles," and "the bricks") [The first seems to have derived its name from the sound, which was like the humming of bees, the second and third from clapping hands rounded or hollowed, like roof-tiles, or flat, like bricks or flat tiles], and to ply them vigorously whenever he sang. These men were noticeable for their thick hair and fine apparel; their left hands were bare and without rings, and the leaders were paid four hundred thousand sesterces each.

“Considering it of great importance to appear in Rome as well, he repeated the contest of the Neronia before the appointed time, and when there was a general call for his "divine voice," he replied that if any wished to hear him, he would favor them in the gardens; but when the guard of soldiers which was then on duty seconded the entreaties of the people, he gladly agreed to appear at once. So without delay he had his name added to the list of the lyre-players who entered the contest, and casting his own lot into the urn with the rest, he came forward in his turn, attended by the Prefects of the Guard carrying his lyre, and followed by the tribunes of the soldiers and his intimate friends. Having taken his place and finished his preliminary speech [probably asking for the favorable attention of the audience; cf., Dio, 61.20], he announced through the ex-consul Cluvius Rufus that "he would sing Niobe"; and he kept at it until late in the afternoon, putting off the award of the prize for that event and postponing the rest of the contest to the next year, to have an excuse for singing oftener. But since even that seemed too long to wait, he did not cease to appear in public from time to time. He even thought of taking part in private performances among the professional actors, when one of the praetors offered him a million sesterces. He also put on the mask and sang tragedies representing gods and heroes and even heroines and goddesses, having the masks fashioned in the likeness of his own features or those of the women of whom he chanced to be enamored. Among other themes he sang "Canace in Labor," " Orestes the Matricide," "The Blinding of Oedipus" and the "Frenzy of Hercules." At the last named performance they say that a young recruit, seeing the emperor in mean attire and bound with chains, as the subject required, rushed forward to lend him aid.

He placed the sacred crowns in his bed chamber around his couches, as well as statues representing him in the guise of a lyre-player; and he had a coin, too, struck with the same device. So far from neglecting or relaxing his practice of the art after this, he never addressed the soldiers except by letter or in a speech delivered by another, to save his voice; and he never did anything for amusement or in earnest without an elocutionist by his side, to warn him to spare his vocal organs and hold a handkerchief to his mouth. To many men he offered his friendship or announced his hostility, according as they had applauded him lavishly or grudgingly.”

Neronia: a Sport Combining Poetry, Music and Athletic Contests

Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: “ Nero introduced the “Neronia” — Olympic-style poetry, music, and athletic contests. But what pleased the masses did not always please the Roman elites. When Nero insisted that senators compete along with commoners in other public games, his golden age began to crackle with tension. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014]

On the entertainment and the behavior of Emperor Nero at a show in A.D. 58, Suetonius wrote: “The pyrrhic dances represented various scenes. In one, a bull mounted Pasiphae, who was concealed in a wooden image of a heifer; at least many of the spectators thought so. Icarus at his very first attempt fell close by the imperial couch and bespattered the emperor with his blood; for Nero very seldom presided at the games, but used to view them while reclining on a couch, at first through small openings, and then with the entire balcony uncovered.

“He was likewise the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial contest in three parts, after the Greek fashion, that is in music, gymnastics, and riding, which he called the "Veronia"; at the same time he dedicated his baths and gymnasiums supplying every member of the senatorial and equestrian orders with oil. To preside over the whole contest he appointed ex-consuls, chosen by lot, who occupied the seats of the praetors. Then he went down into the orchestra among the senators and accepted the prize for Latin oratory and verse, for which all the most eminent men had contended, but which was given to him with their unanimous consent; but when that for lyre-playing was also offered him by the judges, he knelt before it and ordered that it be laid at the feet of Augustus' statue. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta, he shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol. He invited the Vestal Virgins also to witness the contests of the athletes, because at Olympia the priestesses of Ceres were allowed the same privilege.”

Nero, His Lyre and the Fire of Rome

Although Nero was fond of music and played a Roman instrument somewhat similar to a violin, there is no historical evidence that he played it during the fire. Rumors were spread that Nero enjoyed watching the fire and many Romans accused him of deliberately setting it.

Tacitus wrote: “Rumors soon arose accusing the Emperor Nero of ordering the torching of the city and standing on the summit of the Palatine playing his lyre as flames devoured the world around him. These rumors have never been confirmed. In fact, Nero rushed to Rome from his palace in Antium (Anzio) and ran about the city all that first night without his guards directing efforts to quell the blaze. But the rumors persisted and the Emperor looked for a scapegoat. He found it in the Christians, at that time a rather obscure religious sect with a small following in the city. To appease the masses, Nero literally had his victims fed to the lions during giant spectacles held in the city's remaining amphitheater. [Source: Tacitus, “The Annals”, from Victor Duruy, “History of Rome” vol. V (1883); translated by Michael Grant, Eyewitness to History]

Suetonius wrote: “To all the disasters and abuses thus caused bu the princeps there were added certain accidents of fortune; a plague which in a single autumn entered thirty thousand deaths in the accounts of Libitina; a disaster in Britain, where two important towns were sacked [Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and Verulamium (modern St. Albans); according to Xiphilinus 80,000 perished] and great members of citizens and allies were butchered; a shameful defeat in the Orient, in consequence of which the legions in Armenia were sent under the yoke and Syria was all but lost. It is surprising and of special note that all this time he bore nothing with more patience than the curses and abuse of the people, and was particularly lenient towards those who assailed him with gibes and lampoons. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

“Of these many were posted or circulated both in Greek and Latin, for example the following: "Nero, Orestes, Alcmeon their mothers slew." "A calculation new. Nero his mother slew." "Who can deny the descent from Aeneas' great line of our Nero? One his mother took off, the other one took off his sire." "While our ruler his lyre does twang and the Parthian his bowstring, Paean-singer our princeps shall be, and Far-darter our foe." "Rome is becoming one house; off with you to Veii, Quirites! If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well."

“After the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off...he was driven by numerous insulting edicts of Vindex, to urge the Senate in a letter to avenge him and the state, alleging a throat trouble as his excuse for not appearing in person. Yet there was nothing which he so much resented as the taunt that he was a wretched lyre-player and that he was addressed as Ahenobarbus instead of Nero. With regard to his family name, which was cast in his teeth as an insult, he declared that he would resume it and give up that of his adoption. He used no other arguments to show the falsity of the rest of the reproaches than that he was actually taunted with being unskilled in an art to which he had devoted so much attention and in which he had so perfected himself, and he asked various individuals from time to time whether they knew of any artist who was his superior. Finally, beset by message after message, he returned to Rome in a panic; but on the way, when but slightly encouraged by an insignificant omen, for he noticed a monument on which was sculptured the overthrow of a Gallic soldier by a Roman horseman, who was dragging him along by the hairs he leaped for joy at the sight and lifted up his hands to heaven. Not even on his arrival did he personally address the Senate or people, but called some of the leading men to his house and after a hasty consultation spent the rest of the day in exhibiting some water-organs of a new and hitherto unknown form, explaining their several features and lecturing on the theory and complexity of each of them; and he even declared that he would presently produce them all in the theater "with the kind permission of Vindex."

Music at Bridal and Funeral Processions

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “After the wedding feast the bride was formally taken to her husband's house. This ceremony was called deductio, and, since it was essential to validity of the marriage, it was never omitted. It was a public function, that is, anyone might join the procession and take part in the merriment that distinguished it; we are told that persons of rank did not scruple to wait in the street to see a bride. As evening approached, the procession was formed before the bride’s house with torch-bearers and flute-players at its head. When all was ready, the marriage hymn (hymenaeus) was sung and the groom took the bride with a show of force from the arms of her mother. The Romans saw in this custom a reminiscence of the rape of the Sabines, but it probably goes far back beyond the founding of Rome to the custom of marriage by capture that prevailed among many peoples. The bride then took her place in the procession. She was attended by three boys, patrimi et matrimi; two of these walked beside her, each holding one of her hands, while the other carried before her the wedding torch of white thorn (spina alba). Behind the bride were carried the distaff and spindle, emblems of domestic life. The camillus with his cumera also walked in the procession. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“During the march were sung the versus Fescennini, abounding in coarse jests and personalities. The crowd also shouted the ancient marriage cry, the significance of which the Romans themselves did not understand. We find it in at least five forms, all variations of Talassius or Talassio, the name, probably, of a Sabine divinity, whose functions, however, are unknown. Livy derives it from the supposed name of a senator in the time of Romulus. On the way the bride, by dropping one of three coins which she carried, made an offering to the Lares Compitales, the gods of the crossroads; of the other two she gave one to the groom as an emblem of the dowry she brought him, and one to the Lares of his house. The groom meanwhile scattered nuts through the crowd. This is explained by Catullus that the groom had become a man and had put away childish things, but the nuts were rather a symbol of fruitfulness. The custom survives in the throwing of rice in modem times. |+|

In a funeral procession, after the body was placed on display it was time to was carry it in a procession to the final resting place. bier. The wealthy were taken in elaborate palanquins carried by four to eight male relatives. Sometimes it was followed by musicians and professional mourners. Notice was given to neighbors and friends. Surrounded by them and by the family, carried on the shoulders of the sons or other near relatives, with perhaps a band of musicians in the lead, the body was borne to the tomb.

At the head of the procession went a band of musicians, followed, at least occasionally, by persons singing dirges in praise of the dead, and by bands of buffoons and jesters, who made merry with the bystanders and imitated even the dead man himself. Then came the imposing part of the display. The wax masks of the dead man’s ancestors had been taken from their place in the alae and assumed by actors in the dress appropriate to the time and station of the worthies they represented. It must have seemed as if the ancient dead had returned to earth to guide their descendant to his place among them. Servius tells us that six hundred imagines were displayed at the funeral of the young Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus. Then followed the memorials of the great deeds of the deceased, if he had been a general, as in a triumphal procession, and then the dead man himself, carried with face uncovered on a lofty couch. Then came the family, including freedmen (especially those made free by the testament of their master) and slaves, and next the friends, all in mourning garb, and all freely giving expression to the emotion that we try to suppress on such occasions. Torchbearers attended the train, even by day, as a remembrance of the older custom of burial by night. |+|

Heaven, Celestial Harmony and Music in the Milky Way

On a visit to a heaven-like place, Cicero wrote in “On the Republic”, Book VI: “This was the shining circle, or zone, whose remarkable brightness distinguishes it among the constellations, and which, after the Greeks, you call the Milky Way. From thence, as I took a view of the universe, everything appeared beautiful and admirable; for there, those stars are to be seen that are never visible from our globe, and everything appears of such magnitude as we could not have imagined. The least of all the stars, was that removed furthest from heaven, and situated next to earth; I mean our moon, which shines with a borrowed light. Now the globes of the stars far surpass the magnitude of our earth, which at that distance appeared so exceedingly small, that I could not but he sensibly affected on seeing our whole empire no larger than if we touched the earth with a point. [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“When I had recovered myself from the astonishment occasioned by such a wonderful prospect, I thus addressed Africanus Pray what is this sound that strikes my ears in so loud and agreeable a manner? To which he replied It is that which is called the music of the spheres, being produced by their motion and impulse; and being formed by unequal intervals, but such as are divided according to the most just proportion, it produces, by duly tempering acute with grave sounds, various concerts of harmony. For it is impossible that motions so great should be performed without any noise; and it is agreeable to nature that the extremes on one side should produce sharp, and on the other flat sounds. For which reason the sphere of the fixed stars, being the highest, and being carried with a more rapid velocity, moves with a shrill and acute sound; whereas that of the moon, being the lowest, moves with a very flat one. As to the Earth, which makes the ninth sphere, it remains immovably fixed in the middle or lowest part of the universe. But those eight revolving circles, in which both Mercury and Venus are moved with the same celerity, give out sounds that are divided by seven distinct intervals, which is generally the regulating number of all things.

“This celestial harmony has been imitated by learned musicians, both on stringed instruments and with the voice, whereby they have opened to themselves a way to return to the celestial regions, as have likewise many others who have employed their sublime genius while on earth in cultivating the divine sciences.

“By the amazing noise of this sound, the ears of mankind have been in some degree deafened, and indeed, hearing is the dullest of all the human senses. Thus, the people who dwell near the cataracts of the Nile, which are called Catadupa, are, by the excessive roar which that river makes in precipitating itself from those lofty mountains, entirely deprived of the sense of hearing. And so inconceivably great is this sound which is produced by the rapid motion of the whole universe, that the human ear is no more capable of receiving it, than the eye is able to look steadfastly and directly on the sun, whose beams easily dazzle the strongest sight.”

Roman Banquet Dining Room and Entertainment

Katharine Raff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The dining room was one of the most important reception spaces of the residence and, as such, it included high-quality decorative fixtures, such as floor mosaics, wall paintings, and stucco reliefs, as well as portable luxury objects, such as artworks (particularly sculptures) and furniture. Like the Greeks, the Romans reclined on couches while banqueting, although in the Roman context respectable women were permitted to join men in reclining. This practice set the convivium apart from the Greek symposium, or male aristocratic drinking party, at which female attendees were restricted to entertainers such as flute-girls and dancers as well as courtesans (heterae). [Source: Katharine Raff, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011, \^/]

“A dining room typically held three broad couches, each of which seated three individuals, thus allowing for a total of nine guests. This type of room is commonly described as a triclinium (literally, "three-couch room"), although dining rooms that could accommodate greater numbers of couches are archaeologically attested. In a triclinium, the couches were arranged along three walls of the room in a U-shape, at the center of which was placed a single table that was accessible to all of the diners. Couches were frequently made of wood, but there were also more opulent versions with fittings made of costly materials, such as ivory and bronze. \^/

“The final component of the banquet was its entertainment, which was designed to delight both the eye and ear. Musical performances often involved the flute, the water-organ, and the lyre, as well as choral works. Active forms of entertainment could include troupes of acrobats, dancing girls, gladiatorial fights, mime, pantomime, and even trained animals, such as lions and leopards. There were also more reserved options, such as recitations of poetry (particularly the new Roman epic, Virgil's Aeneid), histories, and dramatic performances. Even the staff and slaves of the house were incorporated into the entertainment: singing cooks performed as they served guests, while young, attractive, and well-groomed male wine waiters provided an additional form of visual distraction. In sum, the Roman banquet was not merely a meal but rather a calculated spectacle of display that was intended to demonstrate the host's wealth, status, and sophistication to his guests, preferably outdoing at the same time the lavish banquets of his elite friends and colleagues.” \^/

Entertainment and Gaming at Trimalchio Banquet in Satyricon

Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66) wrote in “Satyricon“: “Then going through his teeth with a silver pick, "my friends," quoth he, "I really didn't want to come to dinner so soon, but I was afraid my absence would cause too great a delay, so I denied myself the pleasure I was at — at any rate I hope you'll let me finish my game." A slave followed, carrying a checkerboard of turpentine wood, with crystal dice; but one thing in particular I noticed as extra nice — he had gold and silver coins instead of the ordinary black and white pieces. While he was cursing like a trooper over the game and we were starting on the lighter dishes, a basket was brought in on a tray, with a wooden hen in it, her wings spread round, as if she were hatching. [Source: Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66), “The Banquet of Trimalchio” from the “Satyricon,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“Then two slaves came with their eternal singing, and began searching the straw, whence they rooted out some peahen's eggs, and distributed them among the guests. At this Trimalchio turned around — "Friends," he says, "I had some peahen's eggs placed under a hen, and so help me Hercules! — I hope they're not hatched out; we'd better try if they're still tasty." Thereupon we took up our spoons — they were not less than half a pound weight of silver — and broke the eggs that were made of rich pastry. I had been almost on the point of throwing my share away, for I thought I had a chick in it, until hearing an old hand saying, "There must be something good in this," I delved deeper — and found a very fat fig-pecker inside, surrounded by peppered egg yolk. “At this point Trimalchio stopped his game, demanded the same dishes, and raising his voice, declared that if anyone wanted more liquor he had only to say the word. At once the orchestra struck up the music, as the slaves also struck up theirs, and removed the first course. In the bustle a dish chanced to fall, and when a boy stooped to pick it up, Trimalchio gave him a few vigorous cuffs for his pains, and bade him to "throw it down again" — and a slave coming in swept out the silver platter along with the refuse. After that two long-haired Ethiopians entered with little bladders, similar to those used in sprinkling the arena in the amphitheater, but instead of water they poured wine on our hands. Then glass wine jars were brought in, carefully sealed and a ticket on the neck of each, reading thus: "Opimian Falernia, One hundred years old."”

Presently one of the guests remarks, first on how completely Trimalchio is under the thumb of his wife; next he comments on the gentleman's vast riches.] "So help me Hercules, the tenth of his slaves don't know their own master.... Some time ago the quality of his wool was not to his liking; so what does he do, but buys rams at Tarentum to improve the breed. In order to have Attic honey at home with him, he has bees brought from Attica to better his stock by crossing it with the Greek. A couple of days ago he had the notion to write to India for mushroom seed. And his freedmen, his one-time comrades [in slavery] they are no small cheese either; they are immensely well-off. Do you see that chap on the last couch over there? Today he has his 800,000 sesterces. He came from nothing, and time was when he had to carry wood upon his back.... He has been manumitted only lately, but he knows his business. Not long ago he displayed this notice: "Caius Pompeius Diogenes, Having Taken A House Is Disposed To Let His Garret From The Kalends Of July."”

Music in a Mithraic Bull Blood Ritual

David Fingrut wrote: “As 'God of Truth and Integrity', Mithras was invoked in solemn oaths to pledge the fulfillment of contracts and punish liars. He was believed to maintain peace, wisdom, honour, prosperity, and cause harmony to reign among all his worshippers. According to the Avesta, Mithras could decide when different periods of world history were completed. He would judge mortal souls at death and brandish his mace over hell three times each day so that demons would not inflict greater punishment on sinners than they deserved. [Source: David Fingrut in conjunction with a high-school course at Toronto's SEED Alternative School, 1993, based largely on the work of Franz Cumont (1868-1947) /]

Mithraic banquet

“Sacrificial offerings of cattle and birds were made to Mithras, along with libations of Haoma, a hallucinogenic drink used by Zoroastrian and Hindu priests, equated with the infamous hallucinogen 'Soma' described in the Vedic scriptures. Before daring to approach the altar to make an offering to Mithras, Persian worshippers were obliged to purge themselves by repeating purification rituals and flagellating themselves. These customs were continued in the initiation ceremonies of the Roman neophytes. /

“Worshippers took part in masquerading as animals, such as ravens and lions, and inserted passages into their ritual chants that were devoid of any literal meaning. All of these rites that characterized Roman Mithraism originated in ancient prehistoric ceremonies. During the rituals, the evolution of the universe and the destiny of mankind was explained. The service consisted chiefly of contemplating the Mithraic symbolism, praying while knelt before benches, and chanting hymns to the accompaniment of flutes. Hymns were sung describing the voyage of Mithras' horse-drawn chariot across the sky. Invokers and worshippers of Mithras prayed, "Abide with me in my soul. Leave me not [so] that I may be initiated and that the Holy Spirit may breathe within me." Animal sacrifices, mostly of birds, were also conducted in the Mithraeums.” /

Kiki Karoglou of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: A ““In all mithraea, a central cult image was displayed at the end opposite the entrance. It represented a ritual bull-killing, a tauroctony: the god Mithras, wearing a cloak and a "Phrygian" cap, kneels on the back of a bull pulling back its head and stabbing it in the neck with a sword. A scorpion attacks the bull's testicles, while a dog and a snake are stretching up to drink the blood dripping from the wound. A raven flies above, and personifications of the sun to the right and the moon to the left complete the scene. All elements of the tauroctony correspond to constellations of the night sky. The mithraeum is often viewed as an astrological representation of the universe with Mithras as the Sun god himself, with whom he was eventually assimilated: "Deus Sol Invictus Mithras" (the Unconquered Sun God Mithras).” [Source: Kiki Karoglou, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2013, \^/]

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: ““A sculpted relief from Rome depicts the central image of Mithraism - Mithras slaying a bull. This is accompanied by a number of figures that probably relate to Mithraic ritual and theology, including the torch-bearers on each side. A figure in the top left corner with a radiate crown represents the sun, and alludes to the relationship of Mithras with the cult of the Unconquered Sun. [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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