L.C. Elson, Curiosities of Music: The Public Games of Greece

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Chapter X. Music of the Roman Empire

Under the luxurious reign of the Cæsars, music attained unusual prominence in Rome, but it was still the music of virtuosity, rather than true art. Skillful performers multiplied, while talented composers did not exist. The choruses were augmented to the utmost, their numbers exceeding all previous extent.1 New instruments began also to appear, the sumphonia, the hydraulic organ, and others. The study of music began to be fashionable (in some at least of its branches) and the emperors themselves did not disdain to practise the art. It is a singular fact, however, that exactly those emperors who were the greatest rascals, took the greatest interest in music. Domitian founded games in honor of Jupiter, in which he introduced Kithara playing and other musical contests to amuse the populace. Heliogabalus sang, danced, played the flute, organ, and pandura, and was proficient in giving musical recitations with flute accompaniment. Caligula studied singing and dancing, and was so fond of the former, that when at the theatre, he could scarcely ever refrain from following the melodies which the tragedians sang, by humming along with them. It is related of him,2 that during the height of his power and tyranny, he sent, one night, a summons to three men of consular rank, to attend him at once at his palace; in fear and terror, the three hastened to obey, scarcely doubting that the night was to be their last on earth; on arriving, they were most agreeably surprised to hear the sound of flutes, and the emperor himself suddenly burst out before them, arrayed in full theatrical costume, and sang them a song, after which he bowed and retired, upon which they were dismissed, and returned to their anxious families; we can imagine that, under the circumstances, Caligula received very hearty applause that night.

Vespasian established musical games, and gave large sums to actors and singers.3

Titus was a good singer and player.

In the later days of paganism, when the music of the Christian church had already manifested its power and superiority, the Emperor Julian endeavored to bolster up the religion of the ancestors, and fight the church with one of its own weapons. He therefore sought to make an extensive reform in the religious and sacrificial music. He endeavored to form music schools at Alexandria, in Egypt, where a new school of singing and composition might be inculcated, and whence Rome might draw the material for a better religious music than had formerly obtained. In one of his letters, he says: “I deem no study more worthy of attention than good music. I desire that you select from among the population of Alexandria certain well born lads, who shall be supplied each with two Egyptian artabai per month, besides rations of corn, wine and oil, and be provided also with clothes by the comptroller of the treasury. The boys are to be chosen for a definite time according to their voice. Should any give promise of further abilities to reach a high degree in the science of music, let them be informed that we propose to offer to such, very substantial rewards. That the minds of these lads will, independently of our encouragement, be benefited by that cleansing power which perfect music exerts, we may rest assured on the authority of those who in past times have laid down excellent regulations on the subject. So much for the new choristers. As for those now under the instruction of the music master Dioscurus, make them act here all the more diligently to their practice. Since we are prepared to assist them in whatever way they may choose.”4

This beautiful scheme was frustrated by the death of its great originator, about two years afterward.

But among all the Roman Emperors, none was a more passionate virtuoso, and devotee of skillful music than that incomprehensible monster, Nero. We shall enter into considerable detail regarding this curious emperor, as he may stand as a type (although an exaggerated one) of the soulless and sensual musical virtuosi of his era. In giving his history (so far as it relates to music) we follow mainly the version of Suetonius.


He studied music in his early youth, and first appeared publicly in the games of the Roman youth, entitled the Juvenalia;5 here he seems to have made no remarkable impression, either by his voice or dramatic action. Immediately on his accession to the throne, he sent for the famous harper Terpnus, and took the greatest pleasure in his performances; it was his habit to sit with him after supper till late into the night. At last he began to practice upon the instrument himself; and at the same time he began to apply himself assiduously to the cultivation of his voice, although it is the testimony of all his historians, that his voice was rather thin and husky.

The care he lavished upon the preservation of his voice, far out-does that of any modern prima donna; he would lie on his back during part of each day, with a sheet of lead on his stomach, or chest; he used emetics and clysters copiously when it seemed at all out of order; his food was always regulated with reference to its effect upon his voice, and he forbore from eating many fruits and pickles, because they were prejudicial to it.

He never delivered any addresses to his army because he feared that he might thereby strain it; all his speeches to the soldiers were delivered by proxy, even though he were present. On all occasions, he had his voice-master by him, to caution him whenever he should be in danger of over-straining, and this instructor was ordered, if the warning should by any cause be unheeded, to clap a napkin upon his mouth by way of enforcing his advice. Through the whole reign of this emperor however, there was never less misery than while he was applying himself to his musical education, or was upon his musical tours.

Encouraged by the improvement (real or imagined) in his voice, he became desirous of appearing upon the public stage. The unjust valuation which he placed upon the art, being apparent by his remark that “music unheard, was valueless and unregarded.”

His first public appearance took place at Naples, A. D. 63; while singing, the theatre was shaken by an earthquake, but Nero was not to be checked, even by the elements, and sang to the end of his song.6 After the theatre had been vacated, it fell in; and Nero composed lengthy hymns to the gods for his escape.7

On his return to Rome he was desirous of showing his skill in that metropolis; at first he only sang to select audiences of friends at his own palace, but infatuated with the applause of this flattering circle, he was only too glad to follow their suggestion that such a fine voice should not be hidden.

He instituted games in his own honor, entitled the Neronia, which were celebrated in imitation of the Greek sacred games, every fifth year; at these games he had introduced contests of flute and organ-players; he was too impatient to wait until the allotted interval should have expired, but ordered that the games should be celebrated in advance of their accustomed time, and placed his name on the list of musical competitors;8 the Senate sought to avert such a disgrace, by offering to decree the victory to him, without requiring him to compete, but Nero answered, that he stood in no need of favor or protection; that he depended entirely upon himself and upon his own merits; that he would fairly enter the lists, and that the decision should come from the judges.9 When his name was called, he came on in his regular turn, attended by a suite of high military officials, one of whom bore his harp. After taking his place he announced that he would sing the story of Niobe; this he did, and kept it up for hours, but at the conclusion he (suddenly changing from singer to emperor) deferred the awards of the judges for one year, as this afforded him an opportunity to appear again in that time.

The people gave on this occasion immense applause, but whether they were most pleased by the music, or by the novelty of the whole affair, is doubtful.

But Nero could not wait even the exceptionally short time which he had set, and appeared at numerous private shows, which were given from time to time by private individuals of wealth and station. For these performances he was glad to be offered compensation, not from any avaricious motive, but because it stamped him as a thorough and professional artist; of course many courtiers took advantage of this foible and were very glad to pay him a princely honorarium. He was offered on one occasion 1,000,000 sesterces for one appearance; this sum being equivalent to $37,500 puts the enormous salaries of the modern prima donna to the blush.

He sometimes sang for two or three days in the same place, only pausing occasionally to take refreshments and recuperate, and seldom was any song of his less than a day in length.

This in itself might have been an easily-avoided bore under ordinary circumstances, but he prevented the possibility of a decreasing audience, by posting sentinels at the doors, and forbidding all egress. We can judge of the terrible dullness of these occasions by the fact that some spectators, at times, jumped from the windows, at the risk of their limbs, while others feigned death and were carried out for burial.10

There were spies scattered through the audience, and any inattention to the emperor’s singing was dangerous. The soldiers chastised every one who did not applaud properly. If any of the lower classes presumed to give adverse criticism, they were summarily dealt with, while those of the upper rank who showed their weariness, were marked out for future vengeance. The emperor had in reality the life of any subject in his power, while seemingly only exerting legal authority; for he had hundreds of informers, spies and perjurers about his court who could fasten any charge on any person however high in station, and the awe-struck senate was always ready to condemn. Many when charged with any crime by the emperor’s minions, at once committed suicide as the shortest way out of the scrape.

Among those who fell under Nero’s displeasure for not appreciating his music, was the future emperor Vespasian, who during one of the songs, fell fast asleep. Nero was with difficulty persuaded to spare his life, but finally contented himself with banishing him from the court. The scene must have been to some extent, ludicrous, when these poor, bored victims of the emperor-musician, applauding vehemently, cried out for more. Yet the applause did not always fall in the right place, and to obviate this difficulty, the emperor formed a corps of claquers or professional applauders, whose duty it was to lead, and direct the applause at the proper moments. This army of claquers consisted of many fashionable young men, and five thousand commoners. They could easily be distinguished by their elegant attire and curled locks.

The system pursued was similar to that at present used in some of the Parisian theatres; there was one chief, or leader, and several deputy commanders; the force was divided into small parties, and mingled among the bona fide audience, and at a signal from their chief, there would be applause of the required kind.

Nero lavished large sums on this corps, and was ever susceptible of flattery to his musical talents: on some Alexandrians singing some verses in his praise, he was so elated that he sent to Alexandria for more singers and conferred many benefits upon them.

Once while singing in the Roman theatre, in the character of Orestes, the murderer of his mother (which he certainly ought to have acted well, for Nero killed his own mother) he came on the stage loaded with chains, on which a young soldier rushed on the stage to deliver him; this compliment to the reality of his acting was specially grateful to Nero.

The passion for acting and singing were with him almost monomania; during the immense conflagration of Rome, which he himself had kindled, (and which burned for six days and seven nights) he stood upon the tower of Mecaenas, and was so impressed with the spectacle, that he hastened to his theatre, put on the appropriate costume, and sang “The Destruction of Troy:” hence the proverb “Nero fiddled while Rome was burning,” which might run more appropriately “Nero sang because Rome was burning,” for it was not callousness, as has been implied, but rather the reverse of it; a venting of the emotions caused by the grandeur of the spectacle.

That he had implicit belief in his musical powers, there can be no manner of doubt, for he had thoughts of possibly using it as a profession; it had been foretold that the time should come when he would be forsaken by all; on which he replied to the soothsayer “an artist can gain his livelihood in any country.”

In Greece at the public games, the musical contests were still an important feature,11 and the cities where they were celebrated, hearing of Nero’s vanity in music, sent envoys to him with several golden crowns, as tribute to his abilities in the art; Nero was gratified beyond measure, and said that the Greeks had the only proper appreciation of music. He gave a sumptuous supper to the envoys, after which they begged that they might be permitted to hear that divine voice; Nero, nothing loth, consented, and as might be expected the Greeks went into ecstasies of applause. This determined Nero to make a musical tour through Greece, and attend the sacred games there.

He started on his journey with a vast retinue, among which were the entire force of claquers. Arriving in Greece he ordered the games which did not fall in that year, to be celebrated out of course, and also, contrary to all precedent, established musical contests at the Olympic games, that he might have the honor of appearing in them.12

At these games, he appeared with all his enforced boredom, none being allowed to leave the theatre, during his performances. The anxiety and earnestness he displayed in these contests are almost incredible. He bribed better artists to allow him to win, and he would address the judges, telling them that he had made all study and preparation, and taken all the care necessary for so important a contest, but the issue was in their hands, he hoped therefore they would not regard any purely accidental mishaps. The judges would thereupon mildly encourage the timid contestant.

He always adhered strictly to the rules imposed upon the contestants; he would never spit, or wipe the perspiration from his forehead; once on dropping his staff, he was greatly alarmed lest the accident should lose him the prize, but was reassured by one of the contestants who told him that he was sure that the judges had not perceived the occurrence; after the conclusion of his song, he fell on his knees, stretching out his hands in humble supplication for the verdict of the judges. But when the victory was awarded to him, (as it was always sure to be) his humility was thrown to the winds; he then caused his own heralds to proclaim him as the victor, and soon set up statues of himself in the various cities, with laudatory inscriptions, according to the custom of Greece. Not content however, with this, he also caused the statues of all previous victors to be pulled down and thrown in the sewers.

He took the prize (of course) in every Greek contest in which he participated. Competition was freely invited, though not as freely tolerated.

In one of the Grecian contests a musician entered the lists against him, who was very proud of his skill, and could not be bought; he contested the prize so obstinately and skilfully, that Nero’s soldiers also entered the contest by driving him to the wall, and killing him in sight of the audience;13 the prize was awarded to Nero.

His return from the tour was made with grand pomp; on reaching Naples, he had a breach made in the walls (according to Greek custom) and made his triumphal entry into the city, through it. In the same manner he entered Rome and Antium. In Rome he arrogated to himself a full triumph, and entered in state; all his prizes to the number of eighteen hundred were placed in chariots, and appeared in the procession, each one bearing an inscription as to where and when it was won. Statues were set up, and medals struck in honor of his unprecedented musical success. From this time forward, until his death he did not abate in his musical studies or ardor.

Towards the close of his reign, he took much interest in the water organ, of which we have previously given a description.

When his affairs were at a crisis, soon to be followed by his death, he still gave most of his time to his favorite study. One day when messengers first brought to him the tidings of a new rebellion, it is related that he spent a few moments in consultation about these momentous state affairs, and the rest of the day in showing to his courtiers some new organs which he said he intended shortly to introduce into the theatre.

When apprised of the fact that the legions of Julius Vindex had mutinied, and that that able general had also declared against him, he was sufficiently aroused to march against him, but, ever a maniac on the subject of music, he declared that he intended to do nothing but appear in the camp of the rebellious legions, and weep and sing to them pathetic songs, which should so affect them that they would at once return to their allegiance; the next day after the bloodless victory he promised to appear and sing songs of triumph in the theatre; and he thought it well that composers should begin to write the triumphal odes at once.

In preparing for the expedition, his chief care was not for instruments of war, but to provide safe carriage for his musical instruments; many wagons were filled with these, as he took along several water organs. But the expedition never took place, and he never had the chance of testing the effects of pathetic music upon the Roman legions, for all the army declared against him and he suddenly found himself deserted by his court, and proscribed by the senate. In his downfall nothing hurt him more than that his enemies spoke of him as “that pitiful harper,” and he constantly appealed to his attendants if any could excel him in the art.

He at this crisis made a vow that, if his reign continued peaceably, he would appear in the games he intended to give in honor of his success against the insurgents, and play the water organ, flute and sumphonia, as well as enact a play, and dance; but these inflictions the Roman people were spared.

In one night his seemingly strong power vanished, and he was compelled to fly for his life, attended only by three or four persons. Having made his way to the suburban residence of Phaon, one of his freedmen, it was soon apparent that he could not escape, and that he must die, either by the hands of the infuriated Romans, or by his own. Weeping and sobbing, while his attendants prepared his grave, almost his last words before his suicide were “Alas! what an artist the world is now to lose,” thus in his latest moments, keeping up that egotism and infatuation for music which had been one of his ruling characteristics through life.

The musical side of Nero’s character is certainly to some extent ludicrous, but there were other and far darker sides to his hideous character. These of course are not within our province to dwell upon, but we have chosen to give a full description of his musical life that the reader may clearly see how little of true art, or love of art could have existed in so oppressive an atmosphere.

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This is a part of a book Curiosities of Music: A Collection of Facts not generally known, regarding the Music of Ancient and Savage Nations (1880) by Louis Charles Elson, in public domain.
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The section covers pages 39-113, originally footnotes were not numbered.
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