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Nero – organist

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Hydraulis on the Roman mosaic
Hydraulis on the Roman mosaic

When Ctesibius, a 3rd century BCE Alexandrian mathematician, was constructing his hydraulis, the first water organ in history, certainly no one predicted him great successes. The instrument, intended as a syringa with a mechanical blast, initially functioned only as a technical curiosity. However, it took only two centuries for the music flowing from metal pipes to make a Mediterranean career – organ music is already mentioned with approval by Cicero himself (Tusc. III. 43).

However, it is assumed that it was not until the times of Nero that the organ became a commonly known instrument. They were used not only privately, but also in the open air – especially where a loud sound was needed, capable of breaking through the noise in the stands or arena. The emperor was supposed to be a great organ enthusiast, which – perhaps – is proved by a coin from his reign, on the reverse of which you can see a figure standing next to the instrument.

Thanks to Suetonius (VI, 41) we know of a grotesque story (also mentioned in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, LXIII, 26, 4) in which we see the empire threatened by the revolt of Vindex, the propretor of Gaul. Nero, worried about the insults of Vindex (he was accused at the time of being a mediocre lute player), having returned from Naples to the capital, summoned some of the most eminent people from his surroundings to hold a brief discussion with them on the political situation. For the rest of the day, he showed them the structure and parts of the “newest kind” of water organs, detailing their mechanism. It is difficult to say whether masked hysteria or an attempt to investigate a crisis situation prevailed in him. He ended the presentation of the instrument with a promise that he would show it to everyone in the theatre, “with the kind permission of Vindex”.

Vindex committed suicide in May 68 CE, Nero was murdered just a month later. Only the organ itself has survived the test of time, as it had a bright future as a musical instrument.

Author: Grzegorz Bukowiecki (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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