It is often said that old Rome never really had anything of its own and that, like the United States, all of its "culture" was borrowed, or more likely purloined, from other places. And like some modern Americans, there were some ancient Romans, especially the snooty ones, who could be jarringly critical of their own civilization -- presumably, they were trying to impress supposedly more sophisticated neighbors. Most Romans, however, like most of us, prefer to believe that it was the very fusion of external influences into a "Roman" whole that defined their culture. The Academies might be politically correct (denigrating themselves and pandering to everyone else), but the rest of Rome -- real Rome -- ignored the professors and hoped that the students would outgrow their sophomoric tendencies when they finished school and joined the family business, or at least they would just stay forever isolated in the Academies and become the next generation of professors.
So already in ancient times, there were "critics" who said that Roman music was "all Greek" -- or "all Egyptian" -- or "all Gaulo-Keltic" -- or "all Persian": anything but Roman. But the Roman people, nonetheless, frequented and enjoyed performances of "their music" at the theaters and odeons. The dancing-girls in the orchestra pit could be "sensa togae" but were never without musicians. Live music -- the only kind they had -- accompanied meals in homes that could afford it. And, almost daily, public religious "pompae" processed down Rome's more important streets to the strains of soothing flutes -- they were really there so the priests wouldn't be distracted by crowd noises -- or to the raucous clash of cymbals for the rites of the less restrained (and more fun) archaic gods and goddesses -- louder, fewer clothes, very erotic, lots of inebriants. Sentimental songs were sung in bars, and bawdy ones in other "houses." Everyone enjoyed the brass and copper horns announcing the events at the games or the arrival of the Emperor or of the Generals' triumphal marches from the Campus Martius to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Music inspired the troops before and during battles only to be overblown by military horns signaling tactical commands.
What did "Roman" music sound like? That's a vexing question. There are surviving instruments in reasonable numbers (and fine modern replicas) so we know their tonal ranges, timbres, and capabilities. The ancient Romans had the flute, called aulos in Greek and tibia in Latin, which could be single- double- or triple-piped, and they had multi-pipe syrinxes (Panpipes, often pictured by the ancients in the hands of Pans and now reappearing in Rome in the hands of Andean immigrants). The ancient Romans had fipple (whistle) and reed (phyrigian) flutes in addition to the common ones where they just blew air across an opening. At least in the northern provinces they also had bladder- or bagpipes (phusales and utriculi.) They had a tremendous variety of brass and copper horns in all sizes and shapes. Most often pictured, perhaps because of their size and loudness, were the ones called bucinae, which must have been classified as big, bigger, and biggest. The largest bucinae were wrap-around models carried (worn?) like modern Sousaphone tubas. Most popular among the Romans were stringed instruments, mostly lyres and kitherae, early double-necked ancestors of guitars. Plucking of the strings was the rule of the day, but the Romans may have known about bowing from contacts on their eastern frontiers. There were numerous percussion instruments, some of which were flat drums and others that had rattling parts of metal, wood, or bone. There were, inevitably, hybrid percussi, like modern tambourines, with both drumheads and rattles. Round cymbals, most of them quite small, judging by ancient illustrations, were used, sometimes alone, to mark the rhythm for dancers. We know from pictures that the Romans loved keyed pipe-organs, which could be air (bellows) or hydraulically operated, but we have very few examples from which to derive information about what tones the keys activated. It's also important to remember that many other musical instruments, about which we know nothing, might have been tried in the vast area that was "Rome" in its more than one thousand year history. Wouldn't it be great if archeologists someday turned up the storeroom of some first century Roman symphony with all its instruments and scores?
We do have some samples of ancient Roman "sheet music" -- scribal representations of what musicians should play. But, without concordances to the scoring of modern music, they are just so much ink on paper. Theories abound, but we don't even know which parts of what's written down might represent the "musical notes" or, sometimes, even which end of the sheet is up. Some of the sheets clearly are modified Greek notation of the period, but those were found in Egypt and date from a time of heavy Hellenic cultural influence: they simply might be Greek rather than Roman. Presumably, Medieval neumes were derived from whatever notations the Romans used, but there are centuries-long gaps, which haven't really been bridged, especially working backwards.
Most importantly, even having instruments and written music in hand, we would never be able to tell what little Timeus might do with his brass horn in his living room or whether he might ever flower into a Wyntonius Marsalis. We don't know if his younger sibling lapping at the reeded phyrigian flute on the porticus might ever lick it like brother Branfordius Marsalis. Pictures of Roman pipe organs will never tell us if Rome ever had an Edwin Henry Lemare, a Thomas Heywood, or a Clarence Eddy. And was there ever a Roman Mozart or an Elton John? They could have had "great music" and nobody with the talent to play it, or the other way around. Why, oh why, didn't they leave us any CDs?
But wait! We all know what ancient Roman music sounded like. There have been hundreds of Roman epics churned out from Hollywood to Bollywood, and all of those that were done in the last 75 or so years soared with romantic Roman love themes and roared with Imperial Army marches. General Maximius Decimus Meridus (in Gladiator) even had his own background theme music! And there are whole operas of the stuff: Verdi's Attila; Mozart's Clemenza di Tito; Handel's Scipione; Bach's Clemenza di Scipione; Cavalli's Scipione Affricano; D'Albert's Die Toten Augen. We have Roman music, yes?
Well, no. None of that is the music that the goddess Minerva invented. And it's not the music that the Supreme Musician, Apollo, patronized and "sat in on" with his golden lyre. The most likely approach by anyone in modern times to real ancient Roman music is that of the universally acclaimed Synaulia group of, appropriately, Italian musicians. Like all music, theirs is hard to describe in words, and particularly so because it's so non-derivative: written descriptions of music are always something like, "it's a little like Wagner (or somebody) but with more horns", and that just doesn't work here.
Luckily, you can get your own copy of the Synaulia 1996 music CD and hear their music for yourself. The CD is subtitled Volume I, Wind Instruments. Another Volume, Music of Ancient Rome Volume II, String Instruments, is scheduled for release before Christmas 2001, according to the Florentine production company, Amiata Records, (Phone: 39 055 24 66 200, Internet address: http://www.amiatamedia.com). Volume I has 25 tracks demonstrating mostly wind instruments, but all the others (except, I think, the organ) are represented. The descriptive text is very good, but is in Italian only. (Good English descriptions are on the Internet -- see below.) It's available at better book and record stores here in Rome, or you can order it from on-line music suppliers and bookstores or directly from Amiata. Amazon has it for $28 (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000B8MP), but I found a copy here in Rome for ten dollars less.
Go buy the disk, kick off your shoes, lay back, and enjoy a representation of Rome's really classical music. Or, better still, for a more authentic experience, play it loud and run naked with your boom-box through the streets of Rome.
Rome's National Museum of Musical Instruments, Piazza S. Croce in Gerusalemme 9/A, has ancient instruments, the first piano, Ben Franklin's Glass Harmonica and an Internet site: http://www.cini.ve.cnr.it/ISMA2001/main_museum.htm
Ancient Roman Music
http://history.evansville.net/rome.html#Music and Dance
http://users.ipa.net/~tanker/organs.htm -- organs
What Ancient Authors said about Roman Music:
http://www.soundcenter.it/ -- Synaulia's own web site -- some English pages available
http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/cds/amt1396.htm -- some English Language notes on "Volume I "
http://www.amiatamedia.com/eng/series/ma/pages/ar1396.htm -- the Volume I producing company's English-language notes on the album (links to music samples at the bottom of the page don't work)
Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2001.html for other articles.