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Roman music

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Three Roman Musicians
Three Roman musicians

Music was a part of ancient Roman culture from the earliest times. The same situation was occurring in Greece. Most pieces of their culture were taken exactly from the Greeks. There was no difference in the case of music.

Roman music is still not well known, despite many archaeological and written records. Historical sources do not reach far into the past; the oldest are from the third century BCE. Nowadays researchers are trying to show the difference between Greek, Roman and oriental music. They emphasize the big importance of Etruscan tradition (according to military music and wind instruments).

Synaulia – reconstruction of ancient Roman music

Many habits widespread now in Romanesque nations refer to practises found in ancient Romans and maybe even earlier (eg. funeral ceremonies, the tradition of juglares, according to which mimes-acrobats sang epic songs. In contrast to many cultures (e.g Near East one), Rome didn’t develop the so-called ethics theory, in which music elements as rhythm, melody and even particular instruments have proper ethos, which means “an expression, which has an effect on the listener’s soul”. Moreover, there was poor faith in magical music power, Musical practice had rather a utility character. Nevertheless, musicians stand in a lofty position in society and gain the patronage of emperors.

In ancient Rome, there was a distinction between artistic and folk music. Just like in Greek music accompanied by poetry and drama forms like mimes or Atellan farces. Climate was favourable for playing and singing in an open space. In Rome tragedy as a form of poetry didn’t earn any popularity. But comedy gained big fame, which was a mix of dialogues and popular songs. Folk music was performed on the streets in big cities. There also existed music connected with spectacles, theatre and games; entertainment music accompanied banquets and finally music related to rites (e.g. funeral ceremonies). Especially developed was military music. Roman used proper instruments and musical sounds signifying offensive, retreat or victory (functional conditions were so strong, that these sounds were used even to put the enemy in error). Another kind of music was associated with celebrations and military triumphs.

Floor mosaic from II century CE depicting musicians playing during gladiators and animals fights in the arena. From the left side: tuba, hydraulis and two cornua.

An integral part of almost every social occasion was the performance of the song (carmen). Exemplary during Ludi saeculares, the Roman celebration of the new age’s beginning, on order of the Emperor Octavian Augustus in 17 BCE a mixed children choir performed a song of HoraceCarmen Saeculare. Under Greek influence in Rome started to think, that music presents a cosmic order and is closely related to math and knowledge. Music appeared during spectacles called pantomimus, which were an early form of ballet history consisting of vivid dance, playing instruments and singing libretto.

Hydraulis and cornu on mosaic.

It is not for sure if Romans used music records. If they were using it they took it surely from the Greeks. There were four letters (in Polish they are A, G, F, C), which corresponded to the next series of sounds. Above the letters, the rhythm was marked, which determined the length of each tone. For our times preserved many more Greek records than Roman.
Ancient Romans appreciated music, which played a big role in their lives. Music was practised and developed because according to their feelings it was a form of education. What’s more, tunes accompanied all religious ceremonies. They organised also music competitions, in which(according to the reports) took part even an Emperor Nero – for this purpose he travelled all way to Greece,

Roman music was monophonic consisting of single melodies. Reconstruction groups try to reproduce Roman melodies. Below are a few tracks in the performance of ” Musica Romana”.

Roman art presents different wind instruments, percussion and stringed instruments. On the territory of the former Roman empire new instruments and their parts are still discovered, It means, that together with expansion and conquering new lands Roman music spread to new provinces.

From instruments, the most known and used by soldiers were trumpets and horns, especially trumpets made from bronze or wood, covered with skin. Romans were playing on a bronze trumpet during the victory, on a wooden one during the retreat. There were known also horns (cornu)made from bronze in the shape of a semicircle, lituus in the shape of the letter “J” and buccina (bucina). From other wind instruments Romans knew hydraulic organs (Alexandrian) and from Greek instruments aulos (Roman tibia) and Pan’s flute (- syrinx). Before the Greek conquest the most popular instruments were aerophones. Also, trumpets were often used. In the beginning, they were not developed. After conquering Greece especially instruments like a lyre or already mentioned aulos became popular in Rome. Music emphasized fame and wealth that’s why big vocal and instrumental bands were hired. Then the division between creators and listeners appeared. Previously music was co-created. Idiophones existed in a few forms, the most popular was scabellum (knocker). Stringed instruments (kitharas, harps) had a foreign origin.

Actors with masks around man, who plays on aulos.

Wind instruments

Musician plays on cornu.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie Authorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.
  • Tuba was long, straight, a trumpet made from bronze, which had a removable conical mouthpiece. Survived examples are approx. 1, 3 meters long. In the army, this instrument was used to play curfews. Tuba was also used during theatre performances and games (ludi).
  • Cornu (“horn”) was long metal, tubular wind instrument, which wrapped around the musician’s body and formed a letter G. It had conical mouthpiece and hole. It’s difficult to distinguish cornu from buccina. Cornu was used to military signalling and during parades. In the army person played on cornu was called cornicen, who converted oral commands into sound. This instrument was also used during games and performances.
  • Tibia (Greekaulos) was a kind of flute with two pipes..
  • Askaules were bagpipes.
  • Flutes and Pan’s flutes.

The use of wind instruments in the army is described by Vegetius:

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. For 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.

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris

Stringed instruments

  • Lyra was taken from Greeks and was an early form of the harp. The instrument’s frame was made from wood or turtle shell. From beam to frame the strings were stretched. The lyre was held in one hand. Romans gradually abandoned this instrument for a more sophisticated kithara.
  • Lute was a real precursor of kithara (cithara). It had three strings and was not so popular as lyre or zither. But it was definitely easier to play on it.
  • Kithara was the first instrument of ancient Romans. They played on it on a daily basis as well as during formal occasions. Kithara was bigger and heavier than the lyre. It allowed playing louder, more delicate and acutely. There was also a possibility of precise tuning. It was believed that gods of music, Muses and Apollo gave the musicians playing on kithara the ability to hypnotize their listeners.
Woman playing on kithara.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie Authorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.


Mosaics show instruments, which look like a mix of pipes and organs. Pipes were chosen to create many scales of sound known in Greece. We don’t know for sure if Romans played on them by blowing or indifferent way. Hydraulic organs (hydraulis), in which the water pressure was applied, were the most significant technical and musical achievements in ancient times. Hydraulis accompanied gladiators duels and stage performances. On this instrument played even Emperor Nero.


  • Different varieties of wooden and metal instruments called scabellum were to beat the pace. In use were also other rattles, bells, drums and even sandals.
  • Drums and percussion instruments like kettle drums and castanets (Egyptian sistrum).
  • Sistrum was a rattle consisting of rings stretched across the intersection of metal rods of the metal frame. This instrument was often used for ritual goals.
  • Cymbala was small plates; metal disks with concave middles and raised sides. They were used together bumping them against each other.
Reconstruction of scabellum in the shape of flaps. The rhythm was beaten by foot.
  • J. G. Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, 2001
  • Music of ancient Rome, "Wikipedia"
  • Musica Romana
  • Synaulia

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