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

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Chapter VIII. Ancient Roman Music.

Art-love was not a distinguishing characteristic of the ancient Romans, and we are not astonished therefore, to find them borrowing music from Etruria, Greece, and Egypt; originating nothing, and (although the study was pursued by the Emperors) never finding anything higher in its practice than a sensuous gratification.

In the earliest days of Rome, the inhabitants were exclusively farmers, or warriors, and their first temples were raised to Ceres, or to Mars.

The priests of Ceres came originally from Asia Minor, and were called the Arval Brotherhood; flute-playing was a prominent feature in their rites, and they were all proficient upon that instrument. Their number was limited to twelve.

The worship of Mars was conducted by the Salian priests, whom Numa summoned to Rome, from Etruria. These also used the flute as an accessory to their sacrificial rites. In these primitive days of Rome, much was borrowed from the Etruscans, in style and instruments of music.

The earliest songs of Rome were in praise of Romulus, and told the story of the twin brothers, and the divine origin of the city. They were sung by choruses of boys. Similar songs were sung during meals by the elders, with an accompaniment of flutes; these latter songs being especially directed to the young men and inciting them to be worthy of the deeds of their ancestors.1

Under the rule of the Emperors, all these worthy compositions went to decay, and were replaced by a much more degrading school of music. At no time, however, was music considered a necessary part of the education of Roman youth.

There existed in the later days of ancient Rome, some music schools, but the study was far less universally pursued, than in Greece, at the same epoch. The musical course, has been given by Quintilian, as follows,—

Theoretical. 1st. Arithmetic
Physics. _
2nd. Harmony,
Practical.—Composition. Rhythm,
Execution. Playing Instruments,
Dramatic Action.

Which makes a rather formidable array, even to modern eyes.

Among the Roman musical instruments, the flute was the most popular, and essentially national. We have already stated, that it was used in the worship of their two chief deities; it was in secular use to a yet greater extent.

This flute (Tibia) was hooped with brass bands, and had an immense resonance. It was used by both sexes, but in public, and on most religious occasions, was played by men.

The frequency with which it was used, made the art of playing it, a most remunerative one, and the flute-players soon formed themselves into a guild, or protective society. This guild had many privileges accorded to it, and existed for a period of some centuries. The “Guild of Dionysian Artists” was a society of later date, and was a Musical Conservatory, Academy, and Agency all in one. It flourished greatly under the patronage of various Roman Emperors, and for a long time supplied singers and actors to the Roman world.

Valerius Maximus2 has given an anecdote which shows how powerful, and exacting the Guild of flute-players could afford to be.

They were one day excluded from the Temple of Jupiter, where they had been allowed, by ancient custom, to take their meals; upon which the entire Guild left Rome, and went to the village of Tibur near by. This caused great embarrassment, no religious services could be held, and scarce any state ceremony properly conducted. The senate thereupon sent an embassy to induce them to return; in vain, the angry musicians were inflexible. The wily embassadors then called the inhabitants of Tibur to their aid, and these pretended to give a great feast, to welcome the flute-players. At this feast, the musicians were all made very drunk, and while asleep from the effects of their liquor, they were bundled into chariots and driven back to Rome, where all their old privileges were restored, and newer, and greater ones added.

They received the right to give public representations, and spectacles, in Rome; but at these they were always masked, the reason given, being their shame at the manner of their inglorious return to the city.

Flutes were used at funerals, and it appears that at one time the luxury and pomp of Roman obsequies grew so excessive that a law was passed limiting the number of flute-players on such occasions to ten.

Only at one time did the flute disappear from any public worship, and that was when the worship of Bacchus was introduced into Rome. To this rite the kithara was used; but this worship which was somewhat refined, though jovial, among the Greeks, became among the Romans so debauched and uxorious, that it was soon prohibited by law.

The flute was used in combination with other instruments at times. Apuleius speaks of a concert of flutes, kitharas and chorus, and mentioned its deliciously sweet effect. It was also used as a pitch pipe, to give orators a guide in modulating their voices when addressing an assembly; thus Caius Gracchus always on such occasions, had a slave behind him, whose duty it was to aid him to commence his orations in a proper pitch, and when his voice sank too low, or became too shrill, to call him to better intonation by the sounds of the flute.

Although the flute was the favorite Roman instrument, it was by no means the only one. Trumpets were used to a great extent. A one-toned trumpet of very loud voice, was used for battle signals. These were of very large size, usually of brass, and their sound is described as “terrible.” There was also a smaller, shepherd’s trumpet of mellower tone.

Another much used instrument, of peculiar character, was the sumphonium which did not differ materially from the modern bag-pipe.3

Instruments of percussion, were few, and not indigenous to the Romans; such as were used came from the East, and were chiefly used in the worship of Eastern deities, at Rome. When the worship of Bacchus was prohibited, they passed away, with that licentious rite. The most complicated instrument of the ancient world, appeared in Rome during the first century of our era. It was an Organ, not as in the scriptural days a mere syrinx, or Pans-pipes, but an undoubted organ somewhat similar in its effect to our modern instrument.

The instrument is said to have been invented by Ctesebius of Alexandria, in Egypt, who lived about 250 B. C. They did not appear extensively in Rome however, until nearly 300 years later. This organ has given rise to much fruitless discussion. In the field of musical history especially, “a little knowledge” has proved “a dangerous thing,” for where slight descriptions exist of instruments or music, latitude is left for every writer to form his own theory, to fight for it, and denunciate those who differ from it.

We have seen what a battle was fought over the three little manuscripts of Greek music, what a host of differing opinions were held about the Scriptural word “Selah,” and now about this hydraulic organ, each writer mounts his hobby horse, and careers over the field of conjecture. Vitruvius, has given a full description of the instrument from personal inspection, but as his technical terms have lost all significance to modern readers, and have been translated in various ways, and as his work contained no diagrams, or illustrations of the various parts, it is useless.

Some writers4 imagine the organ to have had seven or eight stops, that is, so many different kinds of tones, which would place them nearly on a par with our own. Others5 think that they possessed seven or eight keys, that is so many tones only. It has been a point of dispute as to what function the water performed in working it. Vitruvius is rather hazy on this point, saying only that it is “suspended” in the instrument. The water, when the organ was played was in a state of agitation, as if boiling.

There are medals still in existence, which were awarded to victors in organ contests, on which this instrument is represented, with two boys blowing or pumping, but the representation is too small to clear up any doubtful points.

So much is certain, the organs were very powerful in tone, being therefore the instruments best adapted to the large amphitheatres of Rome, and were extremely popular, for it was complained that young men forsook their other studies to learn to play them. The only possibility yet remaining that their construction may be known to us, is in the chance of discovering one in Pompeii.6

The functions of music in Rome were similar, though in a less degree, to its uses in Greece. At the sacrifice, the banquet, the contest, and the theatre, music was always an important adjunct. Prophets sometimes inspired themselves by it, as in the east.

There were various games, public and private, at which competition in music took place. But it was not, as in Greece, an art of simplicity and feeling; the love of the extraordinary, the colossal and outre, the desire for the most vulgar modes and excess of obscenity, soon degraded the art from the rude simplicity it possessed in the days of the republic.7

This desire for colossal effects was apparent in the Roman games. Seneca says that in Nero’s time, the chorus was more numerous than formerly the whole audience. Hosts of trumpeters, flute-players, etc., crowded the stage. It is also well illustrated in the splendor of the Triumph.

Triumphs were of two kinds, the lesser of which was called Ovatio, and was decreed for unimportant or easily-gained victories.

The grand Triumph (for important victories) was the highest military honor that could be bestowed.

When it had been decreed by the Senate, the victorious General entered Rome by the triumphal gate, where he was met by a procession of the entire Senate; here he gave an oration in praise of the valor of his army, and entering his triumphal chariot, the procession began. The order was as follows:—

Musicians, singing and playing. These were chiefly trumpeters, and the singers chanted triumphal songs.

The Senate and Magistrates.

The animals for the sacrifice, usually oxen, with their horns gilt, and decked with garlands, accompanied by the priests.

Music, flute players, to assist at the sacrificial rites.

Wagons, filled with statues, plate, armor, ensigns, etc., the spoil captured from the enemy.

The tribute from various countries, usually golden crowns, or ornaments sent to grace the occasion.

The captive leaders, kings, or generals, with their wives, in chains.

Lictors with the fasces twined with laurel.

Musicians and dancers dressed as Satyrs, crowned with gold. In the midst of these was a mimic, dressed as a female, who by his performance and gestures, insulted and burlesqued the captives.

Persons sprinkling perfumes.

The victorious general, dressed in purple and gold, crowned with laurel; he was seated in a circular chariot, drawn by four white horses. In his right hand he held a branch of laurel, in his left an ivory sceptre, surmounted by an eagle. His face was painted of a vermilion color, and a golden bulla hung from his neck.

Sometimes the chariot was drawn by elephants.

The children of the victor were allowed to ride with him, and he was attended by many relatives and citizens dressed in white. Behind him stood a slave carrying a richly gemmed crown, whose duty it was to admonish him constantly during the triumph, by whispering in his ear, “Remember that thou art a man.”

The Military Tribunes followed, and the procession closed with,—

The whole army, horse and foot, crowned with laurel, and carrying various ornaments which they had won in the war.

They sang as they marched, the praises of their general, and of their own bravery; but sometimes (for it was a day of license and carnival) they sang the coarsest ribaldry and jokes concerning their leader; thus the army of Julius Cæsar, sang some very personal and vulgar verses about him, at his triumph.

The procession moved from the Porta Triumphalis, along the Via Sacra to the capitol.

All the shops were closed, the temples all open. The buildings along the route were decorated. Stands and scaffoldings were erected for the convenience of spectators. Banquets were spread before every house, to which all comers were welcome. It was in short a perfect carnival, but far exceeding in its proportions that of modern Rome.

When the procession arrived at the Temple of Jupiter at the Capitol, several of the captive leaders were taken from the ranks, and put to death, for ancient Rome was cruel even in her rejoicings; the oxen were also sacrificed, and the wreaths, with which their horns were decorated, were thrown into the lap of Jupiter’s statue.

In the evening there was a grand banquet to the victorious General (Imperator), after which he was escorted to his home with music and song.

Nothing better illustrates the cruel, coarse, and sensual character of Roman music than that employed at such a triumph. Loud trumpet tones, a vile and ungenerous musical pantomime, the sacrificial music, and rude impromptu songs of the soldiery were the chief musical accessories of the greatest popular festival.

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.
Originally, chapter numbers also include "VII." twice.

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