Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 BCE-476 CE: Music

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Musical Instruments

The Voice

The human voice was the first and the most central of musical instruments in Greek and Roman life. Ordinary people sang while they plowed fields, harvested grain, worked wool, made wine, and tended children. There were drinking songs, hymns to the gods and heroes, laments, and wedding songs. Victors at the athletic games were awarded a song of praise; paeans rallied troops for battle. Singers competed for prizes in solo and choral song. One of the earliest depictions of singing is found on a Bronze-Age black steatite vase from Crete, dating to the second millennium B.C.E.: a group of three singers, heads thrown back and mouths open in song, march together with a group of harvesters; a sistrum (shaker) player keeps the beat. The first surviving reference to singing in literature comes from the Odyssey where the goddess Circe sang in a sweet voice as she worked at her loom. Singers were commonly portrayed on Greek vase-paintings from the sixth century B.C.E.; some paintings represent the sound emitting from the mouth in the form of little “o’s.” Epic lyric poetry was sung or recited, often to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and the few examples of surviving written music show that the poetry that would be sung was important enough to be written down even if the piece was for a solo instrument. Language itself glorified the voice as an important instrument as well. In his work De Anima, the philosopher Aristotle distinguished phone (“voice”) from psophos (“sound”) by noting that only animals with souls have a true voice. The Greek adjective ligys, or ligyros, was most often applied to the voice when it was tuneful, clean, and pure, like a nightingale.


Chordophones (stringed instruments) were the most basic and arguably the most important of the musical instruments in ancient Greece. They included four types of lyre, a variety of harps, psalteria (zithers), and, after the fourth century B.C.E., a lute-like instrument called the pandouros. The Romans preferred the wind instruments, but the lyre appeared in Etruscan art and continued to be popular with soloists throughout the Roman period. Ancient scholars and lexicographers, such as Pollux and Athenaeus (second century C.E.), listed and discussed the different types of lyres and harps, providing important information about their construction, tuning, and usage. In music education, Plato, Aristotle, and the later music theorists advocated the use of simple, traditional tunes on the lyre.

The Lyre

Musicians used the lyre to accompany the singing of sacred hymns, as well as epic and lyric poetry, and it became the preferred instrument of solo virtuoso performers. People of all ages played the lyre for their own personal pleasure, in musical contests, at ritual ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, and at parties and festivals. In Greek myth the lyre was associated with the Muses, Hermes, Apollo, Dionysus, and Orpheus. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the god Hermes fashioned the first lyre from the shell of a chelys (tortoise). Archaeology shows that the earliest lyres appeared in ancient Palestine and Sumeria in the third millennium B.C.E., and most likely entered Greece through trade with the Mycenaeans during the Bronze Age. Earliest depictions of the Greek lyre in action come from Mycenaean Greek settlements of the second millennium, where archaeologists have found painted frescoes and sculptures depicting lyre players and women’s circle dances. Lyre-players appear on Mycenaean engraved rings and seals. The Greek word for “lyre”—lura—refers to the family of chordophones with strings of equal length. There are four main types of lyre: thechelys, barbitos, phorminx, and kithara, each having its own particular shape, size, tuning, and social function. Basic construction consisted of a soundbox (tortoise shell or wood), to which arms and a crossbar were attached; gut strings were attached by a knot to the chordotonon (a small board on the bottom of the sound-box), passed over the bridge, and were attached to the crossbar at the top of the instrument. The number of strings varied from five to nine, with seven being the norm from the Archaic Period onward. The player could stand, sit, or walk while strumming or plucking the strings with a bone plectrum (pick). A lyrestrap helped the musician to hold the instrument in place against the chest.

Types of Lyres

The chelys and the barbitos were small and lightweight; their bowl-shaped soundboxes did not amplify sound with much volume. They were played by amateur musicians, used for music lessons, and were preferred by the lyric poets such as Sappho for smaller, indoor group performances. Although the ancients attribute the invention of the barbitos to the Greek musician and poet Terpander, it is not a Greek word and most likely came to Greece from Asia Minor. The most accomplished musicians desired bigger wooden-soundbox lyres: the phorminx and the kithara. There are numerous literary and artistic references to these being more professional instruments. In Homer’s Odyssey, two aoidoi (professional bards) named Demodokos and Phemios perform songs of the epic cycle to the accompaniment of the phorminx before an audience eager to applaud “that song which is the latest to circulate among men.” In the Iliad, the Achaean fighter Achilles sat in his tent singing “the glory of heroes” as he strummed a beautiful phorminx “made by an artist, with a silver bridge and a clear lovely tone” (9.185-188). Vase paintings often showed the phorminx with a decorative eye on the soundbox, a feature that always distinguished it from its close relative, the kithara. In the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.), the phorminx came to be associated primarily with the cult worship of Dionysus, and the kithara was increasingly the preferred instrument for competition and virtuoso performance; it could be paired with the aulos (double-reed pipe) in ensemble playing. Its large wooden soundbox gave the kithara a powerful sound that made it suitable for playing outdoors, for example, during the Panathenaia (national festival of Athena) in Athens; two kitharodes (kithara-players), dressed in fancy costumes, are depicted marching in the Panathenaic procession on the frieze of the Parthenon temple.


The names of several famous Greek kitharodes are known. Terpander was one of the earliest and best-known composers and performers on the instrument in the Archaic Period, while Philoxenus of Kythera and Timotheus of Miletus were the most famous in the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.). Timotheus claimed to have invented “eleven-stroke meters and rhythms”; this may mean that he added strings in order to embellish the melody of a song with intricate rhythmic ornamentation. Fame had its downside, however; great kitharodes were sometimes lampooned in Athenian comedies. Two famous kitharodes in Greek myth are Orpheus and Thamyris, both from Thrace. Orpheus was said to have charmed even the rocks with his playing, and Thamyris boasted that he played better than the Muses. Both died violently, but were compensated with cult worship after death. Orpheus gained the gift of prophecy, while a special type of kithara was named after Thamyris.

The Harp

The harp, an instrument that was used by the Sumerians and the Egyptians in the fourth millennium B.C.E., first appeared in the Greek world during the Bronze Age about a thousand years later; a number of marble figurines from tombs in the Cycladic Islands represent the triangular harp in the arms of seated male musicians; no strings are indicated in the statues, but a contemporary seal impression shows four. Later versions had twenty to forty strings, and were thus called “many-stringed” instruments. Harps varied in size, and appear in three basic shapes: arched, triangular, and C-shaped. Among the many names for the instrument are: pektis, trigonon, psalterion, magadis, and sambyke. The harp falls into the category of a psalter because it was normally played with the fingers of both hands without the aid of a plectrum (pick). The frame was of wood, and a soundbox was located at the base. Strings of unequal length were stretched from the base to the top of the harp, following the curve of the frame, and tuning pegs were either located on the base or at the top, depending on the type of harp. The Bronze-Age Greek harper figurines were all male, but by the fifth century B.C.E.harps—especially the trigonon, sambyke, pektis, and magadis—were most often described as women’s instruments; they were shown in vase-paintings as being played exclusively by women, generally in the context of a wedding or asymposium (men’s drinking party) together in ensemble with the aulos and the chelys. Since it was associated primarily with the feminine, and especially sensual or erotic entertainment, Plato did not consider the harp to be an appropriate instrument for educational purposes. Professional women harpists—known as psaltriai or sambykai—scandalized conservative Romans when they first played there.

The Lute

There was limited use for the lute in Greece and Rome, although the instrument was known in Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium B.C.E., and in Egypt soon thereafter. The name pandouros (“lute”) may derive from the Sumerianpan-tur (“little bow”). In both Egypt and the Mediterranean, the lute was another instrument primarily played by women. It is not known in Greece before the Alexandrian Period of the mid-fourth century B.C.E., when the pandouros appears in the arms of a group of female terracotta figurines. The instrument is also held by one of the Muses in a well-known pedestal relief sculpture on a temple to the goddess Leto built in the same century. The fourth-century comic poet Anaxilas alludes to a lute in his play The Lyre-Maker. It is possible that the instrument, which resembles a small guitar or a banjo, came into Greece during Alexander the Great’s military campaigns in Persia. Constructed of wood, the pandouros consisted of a pear or triangular-shaped soundbox from which projected a fretted neck of varying length. A cord around the shoulders served as a lute-strap. Gut strings were stretched from the bottom of the soundbox to the tuning pegs on the head. The players could either sit or stand, and strummed with their right hand while fretting with their left. The number of strings varied from one to four. The theorist Pollux included the pandouros with the trichordos (“three-stringed”) lyres, and it is likely that this very simple chordophone was also used by the Pythagoreans for acoustic research.


The wind instruments—reeds, pipes, horns, and flutes—were important in ancient Greek and Roman music from the earliest periods, especially the double-reed instrument known as the aulos. In fact, the aulos appears more often in vase paintings and fresco art than any other instrument, despite the opinion of Plato and Aristotle that the instrument was not appropriate for education. Wind instruments were used in a variety of contexts: salpinges (“brass trumpets”) and kerata (“horns”) accompanied military processions as well as public spectacle. The Roman cavalry thundered to the sound of the lituus (“trumpet”); brass ensembles featured the cornu (“horn”) and the bucina (“tuba”). Triton-shells were used as trumpets (or, perhaps, megaphones) by ordinary people and children; they were often imitated in stone or faience. The aulos was used to accompany small and large groups of singers during religious festivals, banquets, and parties, and could be played while dancing. The aulos was essential during the ecstatic cult worship of the gods Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) and Cybele; it is often shown being played by satyrs and silenes (over-sexed woodland creatures associated with the ecstatic cult of Dionysus), and Aristotle commented that the aulos could arouse wild and dangerous passion. Pan-pipes (Greek syringes, Roman fistula) were played by shepherds and herdsmen. Along with iconographical and literary evidence, a good number of actual wind instruments have been recovered by archaeologists, so that scholars have a good idea of how many of them were manufactured, tuned, and played.

The Aulos

The aulos was not a flute, but a single-or double-reed instrument, comparable to the oboe. Thinner than an oboe and often much longer, the aulos was usually played in pairs, one held in each hand. It commonly consisted of five parts: theglotta (mouth-piece), in which a reed of varying materials was housed; a three-part resonator consisting of two bulb-or oval-shaped resonators called the holmos and the hupholmion; the bombyx (main resonator), constructed in sections; and the trupemata (finger-holes). The pipe could be made of reed, ivory, bone, wood, or metal, and could be straight or have a curved bell. In vase-paintings from the sixth century B.C.E., the instrument was frequently shown strapped to the musician’s face with a phorbeia (“halter”). The aulos (plural, auloi) was carried in a sybene (“bag”), and the reeds in aglottokomeion (“reed-carrier”), when not in use. In the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.) the aulos normally had five fingerholes, with one located on the bottom of the pipe for the thumb. In later Greek and Roman auloi, the holes could be covered by rotatable bands. The theorist Aristoxenus listed five sizes of auloi from highest to lowest in pitch: parthenikoi(“for girls,” soprano), paidikoi (“for boys,” treble), kitharisterioi (“for lyre-players,” tenor), teleioi (“complete,” baritone), and hyperteleioi (“more complete,” bass).

Origins of the Aulos

The writer Pollux noted a number of so-called “ethnic species” of auloi coming from Phrygia, Libya, Egypt, Thebes, and Scythia, each with its own peculiarities. The Greeks desired to claim the aulos as their own instrument and not a foreign import, thus some myths credit Athena with creating the aulos, or its music, while other stories say that a virtuoso player named Pronomos of Thebes (late fifth century B.C.E.) invented the two-pipe arrangement. In fact, the aulos was played in pairs in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Egypt from the third-second millenia B.C.E. and is attested in early Bronze-Age Aegean art. The earliest example of an aulete (aulos-player) in Greece is a marble figurine from the Cycladic island of Keros (c. 2200 B.C.E.). Myth and history are intertwined regarding the invention of the aulos. Two Greek myths, often re-told well into the fifth century B.C.E., credit the Phrygian satyr Marsyas or the goddess Athena with inventing the instrument. Pollux places the origin of the aulos in Phrygia, noting that there was a Phrygian type of aulos, the elymos aulos, used in the celebration of the Phyrgian goddess Cybele. Plutarch (first century C.E.) related a famous and often illustrated Greek myth of the Phrygian satyr Marsyas, whose father Hyagnis was said to have invented both the aulos and the first tune for it: “The Great Mother’s aulos tune” (a reference to the goddess Cybele). Hyagnis taught the tune to his impish son, who in turn taught a certain real-life musician named Olympos. Pindar (fifth century B.C.E.) claimed in his twelfth Pythian ode that Athena created the pamphonon melos (“all-sounding song”) of the aulos “in order to imitate the shrieking cry of the Gorgon.” In his De cohibenda ira, Plutarch gives another account of the story in which Marsyas, watching Athena play the aulos, ridiculed the way her cheeks puffed out when she blew notes; the goddess, mortified, threw the instrument away. Marsyas then invented the phorbeia (“cheek-halter”) to control the movement of the mouth and cheek. In yet another version, Athena, displeased with the aulos, passed the instrument on to Apollo.

The Aulos in Performance

Numerous artistic and literary references show the aulos being used. On the famous painted Bronze-Age sarcophagus from Ayia Triada from Crete (c. 1490 B.C.E.), a male aulete plays during the occasion of an animal sacrifice; a phorminx player performs on the opposite side. Auloi are again paired with the phorminx in the Odyssey on Achilles’ shield, accompanying dancing at a wedding. The aulos was often played in ensemble with lyres and harps. It accompanied the dithyramb (choral dance) and most other types of choral and lyric performance. Deemed appropriate for both happy and sad occasions, the aulos was played at funerals. Auloi were the instruments that accompanied dancing and singing during the Eastern ecstatic worship of Dionysus, Cybele, and Orpheus. Prostitute women auletes entertained men at drinking-parties, and the instrument is often depicted in erotic scenes on vase-paintings.

The Sound of the Aulos

There were three basic modal systems, or scales, associated with the aulos: Dorian, Lydian, and Phyrgian, but several dozen types were categorized by pitch range. Accomplished auletes could play an impressive array of scales and pitches by employing techniques such as half-holing, cross-fingering, and over-blowing; by playing two auloi at once, the aulete could combine scales. Different tones and timbres were also accomplished by adjusting the tonguing of the reed and embouchure (lip position) on the mouthpiece. Different writers described the sound of the aulos as screeching, buzzing, sweet-breathed, pure-toned, wailing, enticing, orgiastic, and lamenting. Plato and Aristotle considered complex melodies employing more than one mode or scale to be disruptive to the soul; Plato banned the aulos from his ideal city in the Republic because it was a “pan-harmonic” instrument.

The Roman Tibia

The Roman tibia (plural tibiae) was a pipe of reed or bone, equivalent to the Greek aulos. The Roman writer Varro said the same thing about the tibia as the Greek philosophers did about the aulos: its tones were complex, and could have an ecstatic affect on the soul. As in Greece, the reed pipe was played during the worship of deities such as Cybele, Bacchus (Greek Dionysus), and Isis, all of whom are connected with fertility, fecundity, and rebirth. The tibia was also used to accompany different kinds of solo theatrical performance, such as mime, pantomime, and farce, often in ensemble with lyres and percussion. Solo tibicen (“tibia-players”) would introduce tragedies, and according to Cicero, the audience could often identify a drama by the first few notes. The tibia is ubiquitous in Roman mosaics and paintings depicting scenes from Roman comedy. Tibicen would play instrumental pieces or accompany songs between the acts. The tibia was indespensible in the comedies of Terence and Plautus as the accompaniment to certain polymetric scenes of dialogue called cantica; the playwrights would direct the tibia to play, or to be silent, depending on the desired effect in the scene, and the tibicen would engage sometimes in the action. Stage directions in the comedies of Terence indicate which type of tibia were required: tibiae pares (“pipes of equal length”), tibiae impares (“pipes of unequal length,” probably an octave difference), and tibiae sarranae (“Phoenician tibiae”). The tibia musician who composed for Terence may have also served as musical director.

The Flute and Pan-Pipe

The aulos has often been translated as “flute,” but this is incorrect. The true flute has no reed, and is played by blowing transversely across the blow-hole while holding the instrument horizontally to the side. Most types of auloi were reed instruments played in pairs and held in front of the musician, like an oboe or bassoon. One type of aulos, however, might have been played like the modern flute: the plagiaulos (Greek) or obliqua tibia (Latin). Like the other auloi, the plagiaulos was not Greek in origin, but came from Lydia, Phrygia, or, according to Pollux and Athenaeus (late second century C.E.), Libyia. The flute is rare, and does not appear in Greece before the third century B.C.E. Two surviving plagiauloi are housed in the British Museum; both feature a small bust of a bacchante (worshipper of Bacchus) on one end. Both the plagiaulos and the syrinx (“pan-pipes”) were pastoral instruments, played by shepherds and herdsmen for simple enjoyment. There are more artistic and literary references to the syrinx then there are to the flute. While there are no surviving Bronze-Age examples of the syrinx, it is depicted in the Iliad (eighth century B.C.E.) on the shield of Achilles, in the hands of happy shepherds. The so-called “François Vase” (circa 575 B.C.E.) features a Muse playing the syrinx at the mythical wedding of Peleus and Thetis, but the instrument is most widely associated with pastoral poetry of the third century B.C.E. Although Plato bans the aulos from his ideal state in The Republic, he allows herdsmen in the country to have their simple syringes. In Greek myth, the god Hermes is credited with inventing the syrinx; it is the instrument commonly associated with Hermes’ son, Pan, god of shepherds—hence the term “pan-pipe.” Later writers suggest other origins, including Pollux who associates it with the Celts and unnamed “islanders in the ocean.” The term syrinx (Latin fistula) was used to designate both a single-pipe whistle and also a group of five to seven equal-length pipes, tied together, and plugged with wax at graduated intervals to form a scale. The musician holds the instrument upright beneath the mouth and blows across the pipes as one would a bottle. Later versions include a rank of different-length pipes tied together, or pipes with holes bored into them to effect the desired pitch.

The Organ

The idea behind the syrinx—that scales could be created by blowing air across the opening of pipes—was expanded by Greek engineers in Egypt during the Hellenistic Period (fourth century B.C.E.). Athenaeus, writing in the late second century C.E., credits an Alexandrian mechanic named Ktesibios with the invention of the hydraulis (“water organ”), which used a hydraulic pump to create a continuous supply of air to ranks of pipes. The Roman architect Vitruvius (late first century B.C.E.) later described how “stops” were used to close off air from entire rows of pipes in order to alter the pitch. Hero of Alexandria, an engineer writing 100 years later, explained in detail how the hydraulic machine of Ktesibios worked in his book Pneumatika. A complex mechanical organ, the hydraulis was not commonly played, but there is an inscription from the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi that praises the hydraulist Antipatros for winning a musical competition in 90 B.C.E.

The Trumpet

Several different types of horns were played by the Greeks and Romans. The ivory or more often bronze salpinx (“trumpet”) was primarily a battle instrument, used to send signals; it also appeared in ritual and ceremonial contexts, especially in the Roman period, where it was called a tuba and often made of brass or iron. The blast of the trumpet was used to call people to assembly and start races. Most writers claim the salpinx to be of Etruscan (Italian) origin, but the instrument is comparable to both Mesopotamian and Egyptian trumpets. It consisted of a long, thin, tube, which could be straight or curved, with a funnel or orchid-shaped bell at the end. The glotta (“mouthpiece”) was made of bone. In hisDe Musica, the Roman theorist Aristides Quintilianus (third-fourth century C.E.) described the salpinx as a “warlike and terrifying instrument” that the Roman army employed to move troops by playing “codes through music.” Human and divine salpinges (players of the salpinx) were frequently depicted in vase paintings; on a fifth-century B.C.E. cup by the painter Epiktetos, a saytr holds a salpinx in one hand, a shield in his right, and plays while running; a phorbeia(“halter,” also used by dancing auletes) holds the mouthpiece to his lips.


Animal and sea-shell horns were commonly used throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East from the earliest periods. In Greek myth, triton and conch shell horns were the instruments played by sea deities such as Nereids and Tritons. The keras (“cow-horn”), often baked to produce a clearer tone, was used together with the much louder salpinx to signal troops in battle. In Rome, military horns and trumpets, including the tuba, bucina (shaped like a bull-horn), and the circular cornu were featured in concerts given by large choral groups and orchestras.


Percussion instruments included the sistrum (“rattle”), krotala (“castenets”), kumbala (“finger-cymbals”), tympanon (“drum”), kymbalon (“cymbal”), and the kroupalon (Latin scabellum), a wooden or metal tap worn on a shoe used to keep time. The rhombos (“bull-roarer”) could be classified as either a percussion or a wind instrument. It consisted of a piece of wood attached to a string, which made a rumbling sound when whirled above the head. Sistra—metal or clay-and-wood rattles—were popular in Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean. They appeared in Bronze-Age art of the second millennium B.C.E., and many actual sistra survive—over twenty were found at Pompeii. Evidence shows that percussion instruments—notably large, one-sided drums (rhoptra and tympana) and perhaps clappers—were used by the Parthians, ancient people of Iran and Afghanistan, to terrify the enemy in battle. In Greece and Rome, percussion instruments were rather used predominately by women to accent rhythm of dance and poetic meter in the cult worship of Dionysus, Cybele, Pan, and Aphrodite, deities associated with fertility, fecundity, and sexuality. Women devotees of Dionysus, called maenads, are frequently depicted in vase-paintings dancing while striking small hand-held tympana with their palms. In his comedy Lysistrata, the fifth-century B.C.E. playwright Aristophanes suggested that women playing the tympana during the worship of Pan and Aphrodite could create quite a ruckus. Women also played the krotala, a pair of bar-shaped wooden or metal clappers, hinged at one end, and played with each hand, like castenets; a commonly depicted duet includes a female krotala-player and a male aulete, both dancing wildly. Krotala are also depicted as being played by satyrs, over-sexed mythical creatures associated with Dionysus. Kumbala (finger-cymbals) are also associated principally with female worshippers of Dionysus. These are small, round clappers made of wood, shell, or clay, which produced a higher tone than krotala. Many examples can be found in museums. A pair of kumbala from the fifth or fourth century B.C.E. in the British Museum is inscribed with the owner’s name. The sistrum (rattle or shaker) was also a woman’s instrument. A ladder-shaped wooden version, labelled by Pollux as a psithyra, is regularly depicted hanging on the wall in a woman’s room or in a woman’s hands in Greek vase-paintings from Apulia in southern Italy.

Music In Greek Life

Integrated Into Every Part of Society

Music was undeniably prevalent in all parts of Greek society. It was featured prominently in weddings, funerals, and other social events, during military campaigns, and most notably during festivals. Music was appropriate for all situations, whether they were family or community events. Once a musical performance had begun, it was common for neighbors, friends, and even strangers passing by to take part in some of the activities that included music. Music was also the central entertainment at symposia, private drinking parties held after dinner in the men’s area of the house. Almost all types of these musical events have been preserved, either in the artwork or literature that has survived from the era, giving clues to modern scholars about the scope of music in Greek life.

Epic Poetry

One of the earliest examples of music being performed in public was when it accompanied the performance of epic poetry. The eighth-century B.C.E. Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey are the earliest written examples of myths performed in poetic form; they represent a tradition reaching back at least to the second millennium B.C.E. Originally sung to the accompaniment of the phorminx (lyre), the Homeric epic was composed in stichic form, meaning that many lines were repeated in the same meter. In the case of Homeric epic, this meter was dactylic hexameter, which consisted of a combination of the dactyl (-⋃ ⋃) and spondee (–). The melody was simple and conservative. In antiquity the transmission of epic poetry was accomplished through oral rather than written means; the poet trained his pupil, and they traveled from city to city, singing in music competitions and at the homes of patrons, always tailoring their performance to their audience.

Performance of Epic Poetry

The epics themselves include many references to their own performance style: Demodokos and Phemios, two aoidoi (professional bards), sing and play selections of epic poetry before large audiences at banquets in the royal courts of kings Odysseus and Nestor. In the Odyssey Book Two, Odysseus’ son Telemachus praises Phemios for delivering the “newest song to circulate.” Amateur musicians would also attempt a few lines of epic, as the poem illustrates: the Achaean warrior Achilles, on a break from battle, plays his phorminx and sings “the glorious deeds of fighting heroes” for his friend Patroclus in Book Nine of the Iliad. From the sixth century forward, epic poetry was performed by rhapsodes, professional bards who recited selections of Homeric poetry at music competitions during religious celebrations, such as the Epidaurus festival of Asclepius, the god of healing who appeared as a mortal doctor in the Iliad. In Athens, during the Great Panathenaea held every four years in honor of Athena, groups of rhapsodes were organized to perform the complete Iliad and Odyssey.

Music in the Military

Another early use for music was its necessity on the battlefield. The aulete (piper) was an essential timekeeper for rowers on Greek warships and for soldiers on the march. Bards and musicians entertained sailors and infantrymen while on campaign, keeping their spirits up. Marching songs were played on the salpinx (“trumpet”), which was also used to signal and direct troop movement in battle. The paean was sung during battle to rally troops, as the playwright Aeschylus wrote in his tragedy The Persians: “O Children of Greece, come! Free the fatherland, free your children, your wives, the shrines of your ancestral gods, the tombs of your ancestors! Now the struggle is for all!” The Spartans, noted for their military prowess, used several different types of marching song and rhythms which, according to Plutarch in his Instituta Laconica, made the soldiers brave and fearless of death. The seventh-century B.C.E. poet Tyrtaeus used one of the marching meters known as the embateria when he urged the Spartan troops to march on, shield and spear in hand, with no thought for their lives, sparing no one.

Epinikian Poetry

Athletic contests were held every four years during the Olympian, Pythian (at Delphi), Nemean, and Isthmian Funeral Games, during which music was often heard and was often used as a prize of sorts. Modern Olympic games descended from such celebratory festivals, which featured many of the same events, including boxing, running, wrestling, horse racing, and pentathlon. Athletes from all over Greece would participate, and the victor of a competition was rewarded with prizes. After the competition, a grand homecoming celebration was held for the winners, and an elaborate poem, known as the epinikion, would be composed and performed especially for the individual. The poet, who was paid handsomely, extolled the victor and his family, and contextualized his accomplishment by comparing his effort to the struggle of a mythic hero or god. The poem could be performed again on the anniversary of a victory. Epinikia were composed for choral performance and, as the poems themselves reflect, were enhanced with dance accompanied by thephorminx (lyre) or aulos (reed). The best-preserved epinikian poems of the late sixth-early fifth centuries B.C.E. are those of Pindar, from Boeotia. Four books of Pindar’s epinikia—one for each of the major Games—survive; many can be assigned to specific festivals and victors. Pindar’s first Pythian Ode was composed for a certain Hieron of Aetna, winner of the chariot race in 470 B.C.E. Pindar also wrote poems for war heroes and musicians; his twelfth Pythian Ode, written for Midas of Acragas on the occasion of back-to-back victories on the aulos, contains a reference to the invention of a “many-headed” melody for the aulos by the goddess Athena. Pindar was well respected in antiquity for his brilliant use of imagery and metaphor, lyric meter, and musicality. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a first-century B.C.E. theorist, praised Pindar’s “archaic and austere” beauty, and the range of his modal systems.

Public Festivals

Much like the Olympics, music was used in numerous other festivals, and many festivals had musical competitions that replaced the athletic competitions that were familiar to Olympians. The earliest evidence that music was part of public festivals in Greek life comes from the Bronze-Age settlement of Ayia Triada on the island of Crete (c. 1490 B.C.E.); a fresco and a stone sarcophagus depict musicians playing the phorminx and the aulos during a procession and a ritual sacrifice. Public festivals in honor of the gods filled the Greek calendar, and each region of Greece had its own particular ceremonial traditions; these came at yearly or longer intervals, and could last from one to seven days. Choral and solo songs, dance, and poetry were central parts of all festival events. The three main features of public religious festivals were the procession, the animal sacrifice, and the feast. The prosodion (“processional hymn”) was sung to the accompaniment of the aulos while people paraded to altars and temples; when they arrived at their destination, the prosodion was sung to the kithara (type of lyre). Larger, more important celebrations, such as the City Dionysia and the Great Panathenaea at Athens, the Pythian festival at Delphi, and the Karneia at Sparta, included dramatic, poetic, and/or musical competitions.

Choral Song

The festival procession generally included the dithyramb, a male choral dance with musical accompaniment, hymnoi (“hymns”), and the paean (a song of exhortation sung and shouted by men and boys in unison). Originally associated with the ecstatic worship of Dionysus, the god of “altered consciousness,” the dithyramb was passionate and tumultuous, a revelry that celebrated masculine sexual power and fecundity. The seventh-century B.C.E. poet Archilochus proclaimed that he knew how to lead the dithyramb, the beautiful song of lord Dionysus, when infused with wine. Later, the dithyramb became institutionalized, and the City Dionysia in Athens featured organized performances by close to two dozen dithyrambic choruses of fifty men and boys each; dressed in costume, often crowned with ivy, they sang and danced under the direction of the khoregos (teacher, or leader of the chorus) to the accompaniment of the aulos. The names of a number of khoregoi (dithyrambic poets) and auletes (double-reed players) were inscribed on monuments. Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides, poets of the early fifth century B.C.E., were famous composers of dithyrambic choral song; the historian Herodotus named Arion as the person who first categorized the dithyrambs in Corinth, and after the fifth century B.C.E., Timotheus of Miletus and Philoxenus were credited with adding more complex rhythms and melodies to the dithyramb through modulation and modification of the aulos.


Often during the beginning and end of festivals, hymnoi were sung as a sign of thanks for prosperity. Hymnoi (“hymns”) were songs of praise to gods. These could be brief accolades to gods during a procession or short introductions to paeans or epic poems. Hymns were composed by the lyric poets Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Pindar, and Bacchylides in the sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E., but the earliest hymns were part of an oral tradition. The Homeric Hymns—so named because they were composed in the same meter, dactylic hexameter, as the epic poems of Homer—were a literary genre performed by professional bards during a religious festival. These were long, elaborate, and detailed biographies of divinities that explained the particular god’s origin, sphere of influence in society, and sites of worship. Thirty-three are preserved. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes includes a description of how the god invented the first lyre out of a chelys (“tortoise shell”). Aphrodite’s Hymn relates how the goddess fell in love with the mortal hero Anchises, and bore his son—the Trojan prince Aeneas—whose descendents would later found Rome. One of the longest and most elaborate of the Homeric Hymns is the Hymn to Demeter, the goddess of grain and agriculture. Her hymn describes how Demeter’s daughter, Kore, came to be known as Persephone, the wife of Hades, god of the Underworld; the story in the hymn contains many symbols and cryptic references to the popular mystery cult of Demeter, which was held in a large sanctuary in the town of Eleusis, near Athens.

The Paean

The paean, a versatile form of song that could be sung on a variety of public and private occasions, was especially important during the festivals of the gods Apollo and Artemis, twin children of Leto. Many paeans were composed by musicians and poets to honor Apollo as the Oracle of Delphi. Two were inscribed on the wall of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, complete with musical notation. Dating to the second century B.C.E., the 33 preserved lines of the first paean praise the glory of Apollo with sacrifice and music of the kithara (lyre) and the lotus (a type of reed pipe), and relates the myth of how Apollo became the prophet of Delphi by slaying Python, the serpent who guarded the prophetic tripod. Paeans also served as a holy song performed by soloists or choruses during the Panathenaea, a great festival of Athena held every four years in Athens; the Hyakinthia at Sparta; and other festivals honoring the major divinities. They could also function as a prayer of deliverance or thanksgiving.

Girls’ Choral Songs

Men were not the only ones to perform at festivals. Girls received training in choral music and dance from a young age; before the seventh century B.C.E., this was the only “formal” education open to girls. From the fifth century onwards, vase-paintings show women teaching girls to dance or play an instrument. Many vase-paintings depict girls and young women dressed in long, modest costumes, holding hands while dancing together in a line or a circle. Choruses of girls and women performed at family occasions such as weddings, but were also a feature of public festivals. Many famous poets, including Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides, composed partheneia (“maiden’s choral dances”) for public performance. In one of the best preserved of the partheneia, composed by seventh-century B.C.E. Spartan poet Alcman, two girls are singled out as the most charming and lovely leaders of ten girls dancing to honor the Dawn Goddess. Choruses of young women joined men in singing paeans and dancing on the Acropolis all night at the beginning of the Panathenaea. At Thebes, girls danced at night during the worship of the Mother of the Gods.

Music Competitions

Four major Funeral Games—multi-day festivals held to commemorate a region’s ancestral king—provided opportunities for athletes as well as musicians to compete for prizes. From the end of the eighth century B.C.E. musicians arrived from all over the Mediterranean to participate in festival contests. Instrumental competitions were instituted in the first quarter of the sixth century; competitors included instrumentalists on the concert lyre (kitharists) and the double-reed pipe (auletes); poets, who performed to accompaniment (kitharodes and aulodes); and the rhapsode, a professional bard who performed selections from the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other epic poetry, introduced by a hymn. Vase-paintings depict these competitors standing on a small stage before a judge.

The Victors

In his poem Works and Days, Hesiod, a shepherd-poet roughly contemporary with Homer (c. 700 B.C.E.), described how he won a tripod with handles, which he dedicated to the Muses, for his performance of a hymn at the Games of Amphidamas in Chalcis (654-652 B.C.E.). The names of many winners are known, some of them women: a kitharode named Polygnota of Thebes won a crown and 500 drachmas for her performance during the Pythian Games, according to a second-century B.C.E. inscription from Delphi. Two among the male victors stand out: Terpander of Lesbos and Timotheus of Miletos. Terpander was a celebrated musician of the early Archaic Period (seventh century B.C.E.), and was maligned in a comedy by Phercrates for singing too many notes. It is said that while Terpander increased the number of strings on the kithara to seven, Timotheus added four more; an anecdote relates that Timotheus was exiled from Sparta for using too many strings on his kithara during the music competition at the Karnean Festival there.

Greek Theater

The festival of the Great Dionysia, held in Athens in March, was the most important dramatic competition in Greece. Instituted in the mid-sixth century B.C.E. by Peisistratus, the festival lasted five days and featured three tragedies, three satyr plays, five comedies, and two dithyrambs. The Dionysia honored the god Dionysus as Eleutherios (“The Liberator”), and the plays were performed in the large, open-air theater dedicated to the god at the foot of the Acropolis. Here, tragedians, of whom the most famous are Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and comic play-wrights—Aristophanes is the best known—produced their spectacular and timeless productions before thousands of spectators; adaptations and revivals of these plays continue to be staged today. The tragedies were serious re-enactments of well-known myths, such as the murder of Agamemnon, commander of the Achaean forces at Troy, by his deceitful wife Clytemnestra, or the downfall of the Theban hero Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The playwright was free, within reason, to interpret these myths through plot and action, which combined spoken dialogue between two to three actors, and choral song. All the parts were played by men or boys. The earliest surviving tragedy, produced by Aeschylus in 472 B.C.E., is unique in not drawing its plot from a myth; it treats an historical event: the bloody sea battle that had occurred at Salamis only eight years before between the Greek and Persian fleets.

The Chorus

The most important musical element of Greek tragedy and comedy was the chorus. Aristotle, in the Poetics, states that tragedy evolved from the dithyramb, the young men’s choral dance originally performed in honor of Dionysus. He adds that the tragic chorus employed melody, rhythm, and meter in combinations composed by the tragedian, who also choreographed and trained the chorus. Each playwright entering the competition was assigned a chorus of twelve to fifteen teenage boys, and a khoregos (“chorus-leader”). The boys were citizens of Athens, until the fourth century B.C.E., when professional singer-dancers were chosen. Aristotle explained that choral performance consisted of three basic parts: the parados (entrance song); the stasimon, sung while standing in the orchestra (literally “dancing place”); and the kommos, an antiphonal lament exchanged between the chorus and the actors. Musical accompaniment was provided by an aulete, a player of the double-reed pipe. In the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.), the chorus was assigned a character role; they played the part of elder statesmen, old men, slave-women, sailors, even supernatural beings, and shared in the action of the plot. Their function was to provide background for the story, interpret the action of the plot for the audience, and provide a moralizing element. Like the actors, the choral members wore masks, and their musical performance was enhanced by the use of dance and gesture.

Music In Comedy

In the fifth century B.C.E. “Old Comedy” of Aristophanes, the chorus was 24 in number—twice the size of the tragic chorus. The group played the part of humans, but also birds, frogs, clouds, and other whimsical characters whose primary purpose was to entertain. Vase-painters illustrated the fantastic costumes of these choruses. Contemporary popular music, such as love songs, were part of the repertory, sung and danced to the accompaniment of the aulete. Several of Aristophanes’ comedies featured a parabasis, during which the chorus would step forward and address the audience directly, speaking on behalf of the playwright. A musical celebration, often comic, marked the end of many comedies. Aristophanes’ play Wasps ended with a type of ribald can-can danced by men, called the kordax. In his last surviving comedies, produced at the beginning of the fourth century, the role of the chorus was reduced. The poetry of the choral odes apparently were no longer written by the poet and included in the text; the word KHOROU (“Choral Song”) was simply written in near the end of the play or between acts to indicate the performance of a song that was not necessarily connected with the story of the play. Aristotle referred negatively to the use of such interludes, which he called embolima. In the “New Comedy” of the fourth century—of which only one entire play, Menander’s Dyskolos, survives—no choral odes were written; instead, the word “KHOROU” occurs between the acts. The play itself, like the tragedies and comedies before it, does refer to music and the performances of the aulete, which confirms that music was always part of Greek theater in one form or another.

Musical Innovations of the Playwrights

Thanks to a comedy by Aristophanes called Frogs, it is possible to know a bit about how the poetry and music of the great tragedians of the fifth century B.C.E. was perceived by other artists. In the late fifth century, when Frogs was produced, the great playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were all deceased; in the play, the god Dionysus goes to the Underworld to fetch the best of the three back to earth. A contest is arranged, during which Aeschylus and Euripides ridicule each other’s language, meter, and music. Euripides labels Aeschylus as repetitive and monotonous, while Aeschylus charges Euripides with employing the base songs of prostitutes, foreign music, laments, and dance-hall music. Aeschylus boasts that his musical style fits his lofty, heroic subject matter; Euripides brags that his realism makes the audience think. In the end of the play, Aeschylus wins the contest, but leaves his Underworld throne to Sophocles, whom Aristophanes chose not to mock (perhaps because he had only just died). In his comedy Peace, Aristophanes praised the songs of Sophocles, which contained a variety of modes and more complex rhythms than those of Aeschylus.

The “Modern” Playwrights

The most innovative poets of the classical tragedians were Euripides and Agathon. The music of Euripides was so popular abroad that it was said to have saved the lives of some Athenian sailors and prisoners of war: Plutarch related that when the Athenian forces were defeated at Syracuse by the Sicilians, their captors freed anyone who could sing any songs of Euripides. Unlike their predecessors, Euripides and Agathon employed the chromatic genus of scale, which resulted in more notes and a wider range. Although other playwrights sometimes used women’s ritual laments in their choral odes, no one made better use of this genre of song than Euripides. Almost every one of his plays contains a lament, considered to be one of the most powerful and effective of the performance genres. It is telling that of all the music composed by the major playwrights, only Euripides’ survives, on two scraps of papyrus dating from the early third century

B.C.E. The first comes from his play Orestes, originally produced at the Great Dionysia in 408 B.C.E., and the second from Iphigenia at Aulis. Despite the fragmentary condition of the examples, it is possible to recognize Euripides’ style: the use of chromatic lines, alteration of poetic meter, and reduplication of syllables. Agathon, the youngest of the playwrights, won his first competition in 416 B.C.E.when Euripides was sixty; he is credited with introducing new dithyrambic modes and the performance choral music that was not connected to the subject of the tragedy. The music of both Agathon and Euripides was influenced by “modern” tendencies toward multiple notes, complex scales, and modulation, their melodic complexity described asanatretos (“bored-through like an ant-hill”). The choral poet Melanippides of Melos, writing at the end of the fifth century, was considered a pioneer of “modern” music in his use of many-noted anabolai, instrumental preludes to a dithyrambic performance. By the fourth century, the embolima (“interlude”) replaced the traditional choral ode in tragedy, as it did in comedy. The tragedian would no longer write his own choral odes as an integral part of the plot and action.

Competitions After the Classical Period

Agathon was, for all points and purposes, the last of the great classical tragedians. From the fourth century forward, solo arias and “star performances” became the most popular, and the tragodos, a virtuoso performer, would sing and mime new material or selections from the great tragedies of the fifth century to instrumental accompaniment. Musical compositions were now being written down for professional use, and a few texts have survived (two of them being perhaps the fragments of Euripides mentioned above). More musical competitions were added to existing festivals, and the number of festivals increased, as inscriptions attest. In 279 B.C.E. a new festival called the Soteria was established at Delphi, in gratitude to Apollo “The Savior” for his divine help in defeating the Galatians, who had attacked Apollo’s sanctuary there. Royal festivals were now held in Macedonia, northern Greece, and Alexandria, in Egypt. Professional guilds, established at the beginning of the fourth century B.C.E., were now sending their musicians, poets, and actors from all over Greece to these competitions. The rise of the virtuoso singer and instrumentalist was alarming to more than a few people. In the Republic and the Laws, Plato argued that the sound of complex rhythms and melodies are harmful to the soul, in the way that “new” musical styles over the years like jazz, rock, and most recently, hip-hop and rap music have been considered a threat to social harmony and stability. Plato and other writers complained that music with “too many notes” was vulgar and/or womanish.


While music was often used at very large social events, it was also used for smaller, personal purposes as Well. A popular subject for painters, poets, and playwrights, the wedding was a time for paeans, choral song and dance, women’s ululation, and music of the lyre and the pipe. The wedding procession of the bride to the groom’s house was an occasion for grand merrymaking. One of the earliest descriptions of a wedding march appears as a scene on Achilles’ new shield in Iliad Book Eighteen; the bride is carried on a mule-drawn wagon through the town by torchlight while young men whirl and dance to the aulos and the phorminx, and the hymenaeum (“wedding song”) rings loud. The hymenaeum was sung during the wedding proper; it was strophic, and often contained a refrain calling upon the god of marriage: “Hymen, Hymenaie!” The song wished the couple harmony, prosperity, and love. Another wedding song, the epithalamion, was performed by a group of unmarried men and women at the door of the wedding chamber. This bittersweet song signaled the transition from child to adult, virgin to married person. Some of the same themes and metaphors featured in the epithalamion—marriage as a journey, the danger of separation from parents—also appeared in funerary laments. In one of her many poignant wedding songs, Sappho of Lesbos wrote a dialogue between the bride and her virginity:

Bride: Maidenhood, maidenhood, where have you gone and left me?

Maidenhood: No more will I come back to you, no more will I come back.


Funerary scenes depicted on vases from the ninth century B.C.E. forward indicate that large, public funerals were expected for important people, and music was an important element. For nine days mourning took place privately, in the house, but on the tenth day the public burial would occur. Whenever the body was conveyed to or from the house, the mourners followed the bier, displaying their grief by weeping, tearing their hair, scratching their faces, and rending their clothes. The most important public funeral rite was the lament, performed over the body by kinswomen and professional mourners. The two terms commonly used in literary texts for “ritual lament”—threnos and goos—both represented vocalizations that combined inarticulate cries with swaying movements and antiphonal poetic song, often described in tragedy and poetry as “un-lyred” and “un-danced” hymns, in reference to their sobriety. Vase-paintings show auletes performing at funerals, and later writers such as Josephus and Cicero refer to the hiring of up to ten professional auletes for large funerals. The goos may have been a more private, informal and extempore lament. In Homeric epic the wordthrenos was used for the formal laments by goddesses for dead heroes; it could also refer to the lament of professional mourners. In Athenian tragedy, the threnos was delivered during the kommos, an antiphonal song of lament between the actors and the chorus. The earliest literary lament occurs in Book Twenty-Four of the Iliad, when the Trojan prince Hector is mourned by three kinswomen: his mother Hecuba, wife Andromache, and sister-in-law Helen. No music or dancing is indicated, but the poetry of the laments is very powerful in using the discourse of grief to praise and to blame. So effective were laments in raising the level of emotion in the crowd that the sixth-century B.C.E. Athenian lawgiver Solon banned women’s public performance of the threnos, and many fifth-century B.C.E. texts indicate that the practice of women’s laments was perceived as politically threatening. Plato was adamantly opposed to women’s public laments, calling them irrational feminine expressions of grief; in the Laws, he states that the ideal lawgiver would prohibit public outcries at funeral processions. In later periods, an epigram—a simple, often plaintive or melancholy verse—might be inscribed on the tombstone. The only surviving funerary epigram with musical notation was found inscribed on the grave monument of a certain Seikilos, dating to the first century C.E.

The Symposium

The symposion (literally a “drinking together”) was an important social gathering for Athenian aristocrats from the fifth century B.C.E. forward. The party took place in the men’s quarter of a private home; the wife and children remained upstairs. The guests, reclining on couches, ate, drank diluted wine out of large cups, conversed about silly or even serious matters, played games, and caroused. The entertainment was often provided by professional actors or singers and hetairai, high-class prostitutes who could sing, dance, and play the aulos. The guests themselves might play the lyre and sing their own renditions of well-studied lyric and elegiac poets of a century before: Alcaeus, Anacron, Stesichorus, Archilochus, and Theognis, to name but a few. Skolia (“drinking songs”) were satirical ditties, freely constructed, sung under the influence of wine by any guest who was handed a myrtle branch in turn. The skolia of the poet Anacreon were quite popular; he was considered one of the best of the Ionian (East-Greek) poets of the late sixth century. Athenaeus, in his Deipnosophistae (second-third century C.E.), listed 25 skolia and discussed their style. The symposium was a popular subject for vase-painters, who filled their scenes with fantasy mixed with reality. In his Symposium, Plato staged a philosophic dialogue during a drinking party. In an unlikely scenario, the characters decided not to drink wine to excess and to let the piper go home so that they could have a serious philosophical discussion on the “Nature of Love.” It might have been a boring night, had Socrates’ friend Alcibiades not crashed the party and brought some raucous merriment to the evening.

Music Education

Methods of Training

Formal music education is known in Athens from the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E. Before this, people interested in learning to sing or play an instrument could study informally under someone else, or even teach themselves. A professional bard would train a talented pupil in return for lodging, food, and clothes. Repertoire and technique were passed down orally and by rote; it is unlikely that there was any tradition of teaching pupils how to read music. The large choral groups, which performed at public festivals, did require organized training by a chorus-leader (khoregos), who may also have taught participants to read the poetry. From the seventh to sixth centuries B.C.E., there were active music centers at Sparta, where Alcman composed his partheneia (girls’ choral dances), and on the island of Lesbos, where Sappho set up choruses for girls. In Sparta, part of a young boy’s military training included learning how to dance and sing paeans while wearing armor.


Instruction in music and letters generally took place in the teacher’s home, but professional music schools were established in the late eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E. by Terpander and Thaletas at Sparta. After the fourth century B.C.E., professional training was offered by a Guild or Academy school, where students from all over the Greek world would study choral and instrumental composition. Girls and boys both received an education, and some girls became professional musicians. Many vase-paintings from Athens depict a typical day in school, which included music, letters, mathematics, and physical education. A famous cup, painted by Douris in the early fifth century, illustrates this in particularly fine detail: a kitharistes (“lyre-teacher”) is facing his student; both hold the chelys (tortoise-shell lyre). Other lyres hang on the wall above their heads. To their right, a seated grammatistes (“grammar-teacher”) holds a scroll with verse written on it, which his pupil recites while standing stiffly at attention. A bearded paidagogos, a slave in charge of the boys, watches the lessons. On the other side of the cup, one student prepares to sing while his teacher plays the aulos (double-reed pipe); nearby, another teacher writes on a wax tablet for his pupil.

The Effect of Music

Greek philosophers, theorists, and even the poets themselves generally agreed that music had a profound effect on a person’s character, and for that reason the types of music taught in school should be carefully chosen. As a rule, simple traditional styles were preferred by educators—complex, foreign (not Greek), styles were not. The lyre, associated with Apollo and Orpheus, was favored over the pipe, which accompanied wild ecstatic worship of Dionysus. Homeric poetry or selections of tragic choral odes were preferable to other genres of songs. Pythagoras, a mathematician of the late sixth-early fifth centuries B.C.E., believed that sounds and rhythms, which are ordered by numbers, exemplified and corresponded to the harmony of the cosmos. This is further explained through the Greek word for music theory, harmonics, which contains the Indo-European root -ar, meaning “to join, fit together, be in synchrony.” According to Pythagoras, the consonances of a fourth, fifth, and octave were models of harmony. His inquiries into the science of sound and relative numbers began what would later be known as “acoustic theory.”


The music teacher Damon, building on the ideas of Pythagoras a generation later, taught that each musical genre had its own character, or ethos, which affects human thought and behavior. For boys, rhythms and melodic forms should be chosen for their masculine qualities; girls should learn music that taught modesty and restraint. The chromatic genera of scales were considered effeminate, while the enharmonic promoted courage and manliness. Damon’s focus on the ethical qualities of music in turn influenced those who followed, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Roman writer Varo. All of these writers exhibit a conservative desire to label, categorize, select, and even censor certain types of melodic forms. In the Laws and Republic, Plato considered only two harmoniai (modal scales) acceptable for the purposes of education: the Dorian and Phrygian. Aristotle was a bit more lenient, admitting that all types of music have their place, even the baser sorts. Not all philosophers adhered to the doctrine of ethos; the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of the third-second centuries B.C.E., for example, attacked the notion that music had any permanent effect on the soul. Philodemus, an Epicurean, wrote a treatise entitled On Music in which he argued that poetry had power, but music itself was simply pleasurable. Despite those who would contradict the Pythagorean notion that music was linked to cosmic harmony and therefore had the ability to influence the soul, the idea would not go away. After the first century C.E. the doctrine of ethos was adopted and adapted by Ptolemy and Aristides Quintilianus (third-fourth century C.E.), who supported earlier arguments that traditional, rational, masculine melodic forms must be used for education, but others could be used for different purposes.


Professional guilds of artists and musicians, known as the Dionysou Technitai (Artisans of Dionysus), were created in Athens and in Teos (north-west Asia Minor, now Turkey) by the beginning of the third century B.C.E. In his Deipnosophistae, the lexicographer Athenaeus included solo instrumentalists such as kitharists and auletes, as well as poets, actors, singers, and composers as members of guilds operating under a group of officers headed by a priest of Dionysus. They provided performers, directors, and composers for any occasion, and handled payment contracts. In this way, the Dionysou Technitai was comparable to a musician’s union. Such guilds also functioned as schools offering training in singing, musical instrument instruction, and lessons in the writing of rhythm and melody. The guild schools may have kept a library of written compositions, but none have survived.

Music in Roman Life

Product of Many Influences

The surviving evidence indicates that Roman musical culture was not unique and new, but rather a product of many external influences, most notably Etruscan and Greek. Long before Latin became the official language, and Rome the seat of a great empire, there were native peoples in Italy who spoke their own—as yet undeciphered—languages and, no doubt, enjoyed their own musical traditions; virtually nothing is known about them. The Greeks interacted with many of these cultures and exerted a profound influence. Imported Greek pottery, some of which dates as early as 1000 B.C.E., has been found by archaeologists in the northern regions of Etruria, Latium, and Umbria, along the Tiber River in central Italy, and in Campania in the south. During the course of the eighth century B.C.E., Greeks emigrated in large numbers to southern Italy and Sicily, where they founded permanent colonies. Greek musicians, composers, actors, and poets who had been living and working in Italy eventually found their way to Rome, where their musical ideas, traditions, and practices were accepted by most, if not all the citizens. The native Italian traditions were not completely supplanted by the Greek, but they are not well understood; only a few fragments of early Latin carmina (songs, poems) from Rome and Latium survive; these were monodic or choral, and included ritual song (e.g. Carmen Fratrum), epic-historical poetry (Carmen convivialia)—which were accompanied by the tibia (the Latin version of the Greek aulos)—triumphal songs (carmina triumphalia), and funeral laments (neniae). The Romans enjoyed musical concerts, solo performances, and theatrical productions that were, for the most part, versions of Greek or native Italian genres. With few exceptions, the Romans adopted Etruscan, Near Eastern, and Greek lyres, double-reed pipes, and percussion instruments. In fact, after Rome conquered Greece and brought the entire country into the empire in the second half of the second century B.C.E., the pervasive Hellenizing (Greek) presence provoked some heavy criticism from Latin writers and even law-makers; Juvenal and Cicero both condemned the excessive Hellenizing of Roman culture, and Roman censors issued edicts limiting the performances of Greek virtuosi and the use of Greek instruments.

The Etruscan Heritage

The Etruscans were a people who dominated the area of Etruria and Latium in northern Italy before Rome emerged as the central power. Archaeologists have discovered a large number of imported Greek vases in Etruscan tombs, proving that they had a thriving trade with the Greeks from at least the fifth century B.C.E., perhaps earlier. The fresco art in some of the tombs also indicates Greek influence. One grave, the so-called Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, contains a fresco depicting two musicians. One plays the tibia (double-reed pipe) known in Greece as the aulos; the other plays a lyre that resembles the Greek chelys (tortoise-shell lyre). Even after Roman rule was firmly established, the Etruscans had much influence on Roman religious practices and the music involved. Many, if not most, of the state musicians hired to play for Roman religious and other state festivals were Etruscans who belonged to a collegium (“artist guild”) in Rome.

Etruscan Instruments

The Etruscans played instruments that were comparable to Greek versions, but also others which seem to be unique to them, and they paired instruments that were not played together in Greece. In a relief on a bronze Etruscan situla (“bucket”) dating to the late sixth century B.C.E. a musician playing an unusual m-shaped harp (or lyre) is paired with a player of the fistula (“pan-pipes”); the two musicians, both wearing wide-brimmed hats, sit facing each other in a formal concert pose. In Greece, the pan-pipe (syrinx) was rather a pastoral instrument used primarily by shepherds or for outdoor revels. If an illustration on an Etruscan cinerary urn dating to the late second century B.C.E. can be trusted, the Etruscan obliqua tibia was a pipe that may have been played more like a flute than an oboe, comparable to the mysterious Greek plagiaulos. The player in the scene on the urn seems to hold the tibia horizontally out to his right like a modern flautist; the placement of his lips transversely across the mouthpiece on the top of the pipe and his cross-fingering of the holes suggests that the instrument was more like a flute than a reed. This type of pipe was shown in Roman art well past the third century C.E. Curved horns used by the Etruscans and later adopted by the Romans include the lituus, bucina, and cornu, and were more comparable to the Greek tuba, a straight trumpet, than the Greek salpinx. Both the salpinx and the tuba were referred to as “Etruscan” by Greek and Latin writers, but the Greek salpinx was almost exclusively a military instrument, whereas the Etruscans and Romans also played their trumpets and horns in concerts, sometimes in ensemble with the tibia (“pipe”) and kithara (“lyre”).

Greek Influence

The Greek influence in Italy did not begin with the Etruscans in the north, but in the south, as early as the late eighth century B.C.E., when large numbers of Dorian Greeks moving west from the Peloponnese colonized southern Italy and eastern Sicily. Many Italian and Sicilian Greeks became very wealthy in their new land, especially those living in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Unlike Athens, which by the fifth century B.C.E. had established a democracy, the political system of Syracuse was a type of monarchy called a “tyranny.” These tyrants took power by force, but once established, they could be very generous to the Greek artisans, musicians, and poets whom they admired; the fifth-century B.C.E.Greek poet Pindar and playwright Aeschylus were among those who received lavish hospitality at the court of the tyrant Hieron in Syracuse. The largest cities in Italy and Sicily boasted open-air theaters comparable to the most majestic amphitheaters in Greece (such as Epidauros). Greek influence on Roman culture became more evident after the First Punic War, during the course of the third century B.C.E., when contact between the Roman people and the Greeks in southern Italy increased. Musical instruments that were popular in Greece—pipes, lyres, horns, rattles—were also played in Rome, albeit in different forms and combinations. The Romans imitated Greek literary and dramatic forms; they adopted and adapted Greek architecture. Wealthy Latins hired Greek teachers and doctors. Greek gods and heroes of myth received Latin names, but were worshipped in comparable ways. By the time the Roman army took Corinth in 146 B.C.E. and brought the whole country of Greece into their empire, the Roman people had already long been captured by Greek culture.

Roman Theater

As in Greece, dramatic dance and song in ancient Italy were central to the various rites and rituals performed to appease or praise the gods. Many early dances were improvised, and accompanied by the tibia—the most popular wind instrument for dancers in both Italy and Greece. The Latin historian Livy related that in 364 B.C.E. Etruscan ludiones (“pantomimists”) were called upon to save Rome from a plague by dancing to a special melody played by a tibicen(“piper”). The Romans adapted this Etruscan dance and added a rhythmically varied song; the new compositions were called saturae (satire). Scenes on vases from Apulia, a region on the coast of southern Italy, show that a popular form of entertainment in the Greek colonies in Italy after the mid-fourth century B.C.E. was the travelling troupe of tragic jesters called phlyakes, who performed satires and burlesque on a portable stage, with music provided by an aulete (“piper”). The Romans adopted Greek forms of epic, lyric, tragedy, and comedy, and music continued to play an important role, although very little is known about its melodies or characteristics. No musical compositions from Roman theater survive. In the third century, Roman theatrical productions favored revivals of fifth- and fourth-century B.C.E. Greek playwrights, especially Euripides, Aristophanes, and New Comedy writers Menander and Philemon; the first writer/composer with a Roman name—Livius Andronicus—was actually a Greek slave brought from Tarentum to Rome and later freed. His Latin successors included the playwrights Ennius, Plautus, Terence, and others, who flourished into the second century B.C.E. These Roman writers translated Greek original plays into Latin, and enjoyed a good deal of poetic license, changing names, mixing scenes, and rearranging the plots in a technique known as contaminatio; they also sometimes turned spoken dialogue from the Greek original into song.

Roman Comedy

The comedies of Plautus (250-184 B.C.E.) and Terence (a generation later) were among the most popular in Rome at least until the end of the first century B.C.E. Their plays, like those of their Greek predecessors Menander and Aristophanes, were full of ribald and often obscene humor. Male actors played all the parts—even the “girlfriends” in the bawdy love stories. Roman comedy featured the canticum, a scene enacted in sing-song manner to the accompaniment of the tibia which would alternate with the deverbia (recited portions). Choral song, which was so central to Greek tragedy, probably played less of a role in Roman theater; the orchestra space, used by the chorus in Greek theater as the dancing place, served as an area for reserved seating in Rome. Solo virtuosity was highly prized in Rome, and the tibicen often introduced a tragic or comic performance with an easily recognizable tune composed specifically for that show. The tibicen also interacted with the actors and the audience during a performance. Production data has survived that lists the names of actors, dates of production, and the name of the festivals, along with some information about the original music composed for the plays. Different kinds of tibia were assigned to each actor in a comedy: “equal pipes” were designated for the “Girl from Andros,” while the character of “Phormio” required “unequal pipes” (possibly an octave apart).

Other Theatrical Forms

After Terence and his generation of playwrights, comedy and tragedy became less prominent in Rome, but a new theater of Pompeii was opened in 55 B.C.E., and the old plays were performed during the Funeral Games for Julius Caesar after his assassination in 44 B.C.E. Mime and pantomime, developed from Etruscan forms, were popular in the Roman repertoire around the first century B.C.E.; the mime was a re-enactment of real or mythical stories performed using speech, dance, and movement, sometimes with the accompaniment of the tibia. Pantomimes might include choral and orchestral music using a variety of instruments: tibiae and other types of pipes, kitharae (lyres), cymbals, and a percussion instrument played with the foot called the scabella. Solo comic and tragic actors—comoedi and tragoedi—were in big demand; the comic Roscius and dramatic actor Aesopus were celebrities in Rome. Suetonius, the biographer of the first twelve Roman emperors, related that the cruel and perverted emperor Nero was, ironically, an accomplishedkitharode who also performed in costume, on stage, along with the professional actors.

Latin Poetry

While the verses of the famous first-century B.C.E. Latin poets Catullus and Horace contain many allusions to music and the musical instruments of the Greek poets, there is no evidence to suggest that Latin lyric was actually performed to the accompaniment of the lyre, as Greek lyric poetry was. Horace did compose a publicly performed poem in Sapphic meter for chorus, to be sung by two groups of 27 girls and boys. Commissioned by the emperor Augustus for the Centennial Games in 17 B.C.E., no evidence for the music survives. The Latin poet Vergil, working under the patronage of the emperor Augustus, composed the Roman national epic the Aeneid using the same meter as Homer—dactylic hexameter—and employing the themes of the Iliad and Odyssey, yet this poem was not sung, nor was it performed to the accompaniment of the lyre, as Homeric epic had been in the Archaic Period.

Roman Female Poets and Musicians

With few exceptions, there were no Latin female poets comparable to Sappho or Nossis of Greece. Male poets, such as Propertius and Ovid, mentioned the names of Roman female writers in their works, but the actual poems of only one Latin woman—Sulpicia (31 B.C.E.-14 C.E.)—survive. Six of Sulpicia’s elegies exist, totalling only forty lines. She was probably the niece of her patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, a historian who also supported other elegiac poets, including Ovid and Tibullus. Although Sulpicia used to good effect the stylistics common during the reign of Augustus—couplets, alliteration, and assonance—she did not allude to music in her poetry, and her poems were meant to be recited, not sung. Some Roman women studied music seriously from an early age, and made a name for themselves as professional dancers, singers, and kitharists (lyre-players); girls as young as nine or ten might perform in public, as Phoebe Vocontia did, in Rome. According to her tombstone (imperial period), Phoebe was an emboliaria, a performer during the interludes in the theater. “Learned in all the arts,” she died at age twelve. Another inscription on a tomb dating to the imperial period reads: “To the gods of the dead. Gaius Cornelius Neritus made this for himself and for Auxesis the kitharist, the best wife.” Female performers were paid a living wage for their craft. A papyrus from Philadelphia in Egypt dating to 206 C.E. records that a castanet-dancer by the name of Isidora was offered the following payment for a six-day wedding-gig at a gentleman’s home: thirty-six drachmas per day, four artabas of grain, and twenty double loaves of bread. In addition, the writer offered to keep all her cloaks and gold jewelry safe, and to provide two donkeys for her round-trip journey. According to Roman law, the social status of actors and actresses was low, although female actresses were admired nonetheless. The actress Bassilla, called “the tenth Muse” by her admirers, “won fame in many towns and cities for her various accomplishments in plays, mimes, choruses, and dances,” according to her third-century C.E. epitaph from the theater at Aquileia.

Music and the Emperors

A rich and diverse musical climate existed in Rome during the imperial period; talented actors, instrumentalists, singers, and dancers poured into the city from all corners of the empire, including Egypt, Syria, and Spain. The emperors enjoyed musical entertainment while they dined, and many were fine musicians themselves. Theatrical performances in the amphitheaters were well-attended throughout the imperial period. During the time of Nero, the mechanical syrinx (water-organ) gained in popularity. This early pipe organ, said to have been invented in the third century B.C.E. by Ktesibios in Alexandria, Egypt, was loud; it was designed for use in Roman amphitheaters, where it could be heard in the back rows. A mosaic from a Roman villa in Germany dating to the third century C.E., shows a pipe-organ with about 29 pipes set upon an altar-shaped wooden base. Despite a lack of detail in the illustration, it appears that the instrument could have played a complete two-octave scale in several different keys. Nero, who spoke Greek and learned to play the kithara from a Greek virtuoso named Terpnos, instituted and participated in musical competitions. The emperor Vespasian hired Terpnos, another kitharode named Diodorus, and the tragoedus Apollinaris to perform at the reopening of the theater of Marcellus. Hadrian, a talented musician, was the patron of the Cretan kitharode Mesomedes; fourteen or fifteen poems by Mesomedes survive, several with musical notation. Large concert performances by choral groups and orchestras were a feature of both secular occasions and religious festivals. Horns such as the tuba, lituus, bucina, and cornu—normally used in the military—were played in ensembles. Rome was host to a number of foreign religious cults; the music associated with these contained foreign melodies. During the worship of Cybele and Bacchus, music of the Phrygian elymoi (reed pipes of unequal length, one of which featured a curved bell at the end) joined with melodies and dances from Egypt.

Military Music

As in Greece, military music played a central role in Roman life. A wide variety of wind instruments blared in marching bands and were used for signalling military maneuvers in battle: kerata (cow horns), the salpinx and lituus (ivory or bronze trumpets), cornu (circular horn), and tuba (brass tuba). The Etruscans employed these horns as early as the fourth century B.C.E., and they remained popular for more than 500 years—well into the late imperial period (fourth century C.E.). A bonafide lituus was found by archaeologists in the town of Caera (modern Cervetri) not too far from Rome. It consists of a 63 inch-long tube with no keys or valves; it would have been blown a bit like a bugle but had a lower tone. The bucina and cornu, originally cow horns but the latter crafted of bronze or other lightweight metal, curved around the player like a modern sousaphone. The tuba, a straight trumpet with a flared bell, had a higher and more striking tone than the lituus. Horns such as these, which were used by the Greeks exclusively as military instruments, were also played in concerts, at weddings, and in funeral processions by the Etruscans and Romans.

Women in Ancient Music

Women in Society

Ancient Greece and Rome were patriarchal societies; men dominated the social and political sphere. Women’s lives were bound to the men in their families and to a system of government that denied women an equal voice in public life. The general rule that women should neither be seen nor heard was enforced into the Christian era and beyond. Most of what is known about Greek and Roman women in music comes not from the women themselves, but from the men who wrote about them, and the male artists who depicted them in vase- and wall-painting. Only if a woman gained enough of a reputation (good or bad) to warrant attention was her name made known. The family was considered the most important unit in ancient Greece and Rome, and women were the center of family life; they played an important role in family religion, and presided over all rites of passage from birth to death. The ceremonies connected with these rites gave women an opportunity to sing, dance, and play music in public. Women also participated in the large state religious festivals, and some became professional poets and musicians. Despite the scant evidence for women writers, poets, and musicians, there is enough to indicate that women did make names for themselves in music, while amateurs enjoyed playing for their own pleasure.


In the Greek Bronze Age, Greek women must have sang and probably played instruments, but they are not represented doing so. Mycenaean art of the second millennium B.C.E. depicts only men playing the phorminx (“lyre”) and the aulos (“double-reed pipe”). As a rule, men and women led separate lives in ancient Greece and Rome. Women normally stayed close to home and tended to domestic affairs, while the men spent time working at their profession or in the public gathering places of the city. Even the private homes were divided into male and female spaces. A vase from a grave in Italy shows a group of women dancing and playing a variety of instruments for each other in the privacy of their quarters. They also entertained each other and listened to music while working wool, baking bread, or nursing children. Hetairai, often highly educated and musically trained prostitute-musicians, entertained men at symposia (drinking parties). Some religious rites and ceremonies were open only to women, especially those connected with fertility, and evidence shows that both Greek and Roman women sang and played musical instruments during these rites.

Instruments for Women

Although both men and women could be professional musicians, certain instruments were thought to be more appropriate for one gender or the other. Since men marched in military parades and moved about more freely in public generally, the horns and the larger lyres were appropriate to them. Women and girls played the smaller lyres, the harp, and the aulos (reed pipe). The wife of Ktesibios, the inventor of the organ, may have given concerts on it. Hetairai were hired to play the aulos and chelys (a type of lyre) at men’s drinking parties, while psaltriai (literally “pluckers”) played the harp at parties for women; certain melodies and instruments, such as the aulos, lute, and chelys, were associated with erotic love. The barbitos (another type of lyre), the pektis (a type of harp), and the Lydian harp were popular instruments for women, and after the fourth century B.C.E., the lute-like trichordos or pandouros appeared in the arms of women. The tympanos (drum), kymbala (cymbals), and other percussion instruments were most often played by female worshippers of Dionysus, the Great Mother, and other deities connected to fertility and fecundity.

Female Poets

It was the job of the pythia, priestess of Apollo at the Oracle in Delphi, to interpret the divine prophecy of Apollo for the pilgrim, and she did so by chanting the god’s words in hexameter verse. While this chanting is not proper poetry, it is one indicator that women had a powerful poetic voice in ancient Greece, even though Homer’s professional bards were men, not women. Between the sixth and the third centuries B.C.E., however, some of the most famous female poets and musicians make their entrance. None came from Athens, perhaps because women’s lives were much more restricted there than in other places. All were highly educated and well-to-do. Sappho, born around 612 B.C.E. on the island of Lesbos, is the most famous of a group of women poets whose work survives: Korinna, Erinna, Nossis, and Anyte. Sappho’s poetry was autobiographical, personal, and often erotic. She wrote passionately about the power of Aphrodite, the Muses, and the Graces. She was an innovative poet, setting the rhythms of her native Aeolic dialect of Greek to new melodies; her form of lyric monody (solo singing), which has been called by scholars the “Sapphic stanza,” was meant to be sung to musical accompaniment. Sappho is depicted in vase-painting holding the barbitos, and she mentions lyre and harp-playing in her poetry. In addition to monody, Sappho also wrote compositions for choral performance. Fragments of her partheneia (maiden-songs) and epithalamia (wedding-songs) survive, albeit without musical notation. Her choral works were performed by separate groups of dancing young men and women. Admired not only by her contemporary male poets, but generations of poets coming after, Sappho was a vivid portrayer of women’s emotions:

Once again that loosener of limbs, Love,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
seizes me.

Very little is known about the other Greek women poets and only small fragments of their poems survive. The traveler Pausanias (second century C.E.) reported that Korinna of Boeotia beat Pindar—a very important male lyric poet of the fifth century B.C.E.—more than once in poetry competitions. Praxilla, another fifth century poet, was famous for herscolia (“drinking-songs”). Of Roman women poets almost nothing is known, despite the fact that in Rome women’s social status was better than in Greece. Sulpicia (first century B.C.E.) was the only Latin female poet whose work survives to any degree, because it was included in a book of poems by Tibullus, a male friend.

Types of Music for Women

In his Republic and Laws, the philosopher Plato prescribed different melodies and rhythms to men and women according to the nature of each gender. Specifically, men should make “masculine” music, and women, music that is “orderly and moderate.” Plato and Aristotle wrote that both girls and boys should be taught mousike, the broad term for “music” that included song, dance, and instrument playing. Plato recommended three years of training on the lyre beginning at age thirteen. These philosophers insisted that there were two types of women musicians: respectable and shameful. In the fourth century B.C.E., education was more available to women than it had been in earlier times, and now a sharp distinction was made between the unsavory hetairai (prostitute-musicians) and other female musicians who had been taught by reputable music teachers from a very young age and were paid to perform concert music during public festivals. An inscription from 186 B.C.E. recognized Polygnota, a Theban, for her kithara performance and recitations during the Pythian Games in honor of the god Apollo at Delphi. It notes that she received a crown and 500 drachmas in payment. Roman female musicians also performed during religious festivals. In Rome and many parts of the Roman Empire, female musicians, singers, and dancers performed every November during the three-day festival of the goddess Isis, who had a temple in Rome despite being an Egyptian deity. The performance involved actors playing the parts of Isis and Nephthys in the mystery plays celebrating the death and resurrection of Osiris. In Roman Egypt, female entertainers were paid quite handsomely. A third-century C.E. papyrus from Philadelphia in Egypt contains a letter in which the services of three castanet-dancers were requested, presumably for a wedding feast. Payment was set at 36 drachmas per day, plus four artabas of grain and twenty double loaves of bread.

Women’s Ritual Laments

In ancient Greece, women generally did not have a public platform in which to express their opinions and sentiments. Ritual lamentation—public mourning for the dead during a funeral—provided women a protected medium to address publicly issues of social importance. Ritual laments were performed by an inner circle of women close to the body of the deceased, and combined weeping and wailing with poetic song and stylized movement. During a ritual lament, women were free to say whatever they felt, no matter how explosive or threatening; in the epic poem the Aeneid by the Roman poet Vergil, the mother of a dead soldier criticizes the war so vehemently in her lament that the men are ordered to drag her away before she disheartens the troops. There were three categories of laments: the threnos, the goos, and the kommos. The threnos was a composed dirge performed, for example, by goddesses in Homeric epic and formal laments of a female chorus in Greek drama. The goos, a more frequent term, referred to the improvised discordant weeping performed by kinswomen and close friends of the deceased. The kommos was specific to tragedy. Aristotle in his Poetics defined the kommos as an antiphonal song of lament between an actor and the female chorus, which was one of the most visually compelling exhibitions of physical and psychological pain. In Greek tragedy, ritual laments were often called “lyre-less” or “undanced” to illustrate their harsh discordance and lack of joy. Euripides, an accomplished composer and playwright of the fifth century B.C.E., often wrote laments into his plays. In his musical tragedy Helen, the queen of Sparta laments her role in the destruction of Troy, wishing that the Sirens could accompany her mourning with the Libyan harp, the syrinx, with lyres, and with tears of their own to match her own “suffering for suffering, care for care, antiphonal chorus to match” the lament (164-166). The so-called Berlin Papyrus (second or third century C.E.) preserves a notated fragment of a dramatic vocal lament on the death of the hero Ajax that appears to be set at the register of the female voice. Traditionally in Greek and Roman theater men played all the roles, but this fragment suggests that a female singer, perhaps playing the role of Ajax’s grieving wife Tecmessa, performed the lament. The Dorian mode, the same melodic system used by the lyric poets, in love songs, and in paeans, was commonly used for formal laments.

Music Theory

Overview of Sources

The study of ancient Greek and Roman music depends on a wide variety of sources: iconographic, literary, and archaeological. Musical scenes, depicted in vase-paintings and frescos, in sculptural decoration and figurines, and on coins and gems, provide one piece of the puzzle. An iconographic image may show the placement of a musician’s hands or mouth on an instrument, and the number of strings on a lyre, or holes in a pipe; the relative size of an instrument and the material used to construct it may, in some cases, be reasonably determined by examining an image; a guess—but no more than that—can then be made regarding pitch, tone, and volume. Images may show which instruments are played in ensemble, by whom, and on what occasion. Ancient poets, historians, lexicographers, philosophers, and theorists—most of them Greek—add much more to modern understanding of the scientific principles of music and the role that music played in society and culture. The archaeological discovery of actual musical compositions, carved into stone or written on papyrus manuscripts, and bonafide musical instruments recovered from excavated settlements and graves can confirm or contradict what has been deduced from written and iconographical sources. Finally, comparative studies of the musical traditions of other cultures that either influenced or were influenced by Greece and Rome have contributed much to the overall understanding of ancient Greek and Roman music.

Written Sources

The earliest written sources on music are descriptions of musical instruments, performances, and musical forms in the epics of Homer (eighth century B.C.E.); in the poetry of Sappho, Alcaeus, Alcman, Pindar, and others (seventh-fifth centuries B.C.E.); and in Athenian tragedy and comedy composed during the fifth century B.C.E. by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Historians, mythographers, and scholars writing after the fifth century ascribed the invention of musical instruments and melodic forms to divinities or to innovative musicians, composers, and singers. During the late sixth-early fourth centuries, the philosophical schools of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle were established; they influenced all later scientific and theoretical thought about music. The best application of Aristotelian science to music is the work of Aristoxenus. Born in Calabria, Italy, around 370 B.C.E., Aristoxenus studied in Athens with the Pythagorean school and was the star pupil of Aristotle. Aristoxenus is said to have written 453 essays on various subjects, but the majority of his writing has survived only in bits and pieces quoted by other authors. Two substantial theoretical works on music by Aristoxenus—Harmonika and Rhythmika—highly influenced later theorists. The mathematical approach to harmony of the Pythagoreans is best preserved in a fourth-century B.C.E. anonymous treatise sometimes (erroneously) attributed to Euclid, known as the Sectio canonis (“Division of the Kanon”). The title referred to the Pythagorean method of using a kanon (“ruler”) to mathematically measure pitches of notes based on string length. The Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy supported this approach to acoustics in his Harmonika. In the first century C.E., the Roman architect Vitruvius contributed to acoustical science by applying the principle of sound waves to the design of a theater auditorium. Vitruvius translated the Harmonika of Aristoxenus into Latin, apologizing to his readers for the lack of Latin equivalents for many of the Greek technical terms used in music theory. Much information about musical life is also found in many non-theoretical works: Athenaeus of Crete (c. 200 C.E.) wrote a dialogue on the Greek symposium called the Deipnosophistai, in which he named, described, and defined 25 skolia (drinking songs), along with their performance techniques; his contemporary, a lexicographer named Pollux, compiled technical terms, discussed the species of aulos (reed pipe) and types of horn (especially the salpinx), and described the Greek theater and structure of comedy in his lexicon, the Onomasticon.

Aristoxenus and His Followers

The Harmonika and Rhythmika of Aristoxenus were two of the most influential treatises on music. Especially important were his discussions and explanations of intervals, tetrachords, and the systems of harmoniai. He identified elements of melody and the three genera of tetrachord: diatonic, enharmonic, and chromatic. A number of important philosophical, theoretical, and historical works composed between the second and the fifth centuries C.E. restate and expand on the work of Aristoxenus, including Cleonides’ Harmonica introductio, Ps.-Plutarch’s De musica, Gaudentius’ Harmonika, Alypius’ Introductio musica, and Aristides Quintilianus’ De musica. These works provide valuable explanations of the Greek musical system, including notation, melody, rhythm, scales, modulation, consonance and dissonance, and scientific problems of acoustics. Later, during the Byzantine Period (tenth-twelfth centuries C.E.), material on music based on the earlier work of Aristoxenus and Aristides was transmitted in manuscripts. One important such collection is the so-called Anonymus Bellermanni, published by F. Bellermann in 1841 C.E., which contains the sole surviving description of rhythmic notation.

Scale and Tuning

As early as the seventh century B.C.E. accomplished kitharodes and aulodes (musicians who sing while playing their instruments) were teaching others to play and sing; they must have developed a vocabulary of terms to explain technique, and demonstrated techniques on their instruments. Their students learned by imitation and practice. From the fifth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. (and even later), the Greeks used the term harmonikoi to designate the teachers, scientists, and philosophers whom they considered knowledgeable about music theory; the study of the basic building blocks of music (notes, intervals, scales, genera, tonoi, modulation, melodic patterns) was known as “Harmonics.” The word harmonia was originally used in Homeric poetry to mean “joint, connection,” so the modern word “harmony” is literally a “fitting together” of notes. The earliest use of harmonia as a specific musical term occurs in a poetic fragment of Lasus of Hermione, an innovative kitharode (a singer-lyre-player) working as a professional composer in Athens in the late sixth-early fifth centuries B.C.E. The line reads: “I sing of Demeter and of Kore, wife of Klymenos, intoning the sweet hymn on the low-roaring Aeolian harmonia.” By the time of Lasus, a harmonia came to represent an entire complex, including text, rhythm and meter, tuning, scale, and melody, associated with a specific geographical region: Aeolian, Phrygian, Dorian, Lydian, Ionian.

Character of Harmoniai

The precise nature of the regional (or tribal) harmonia is not known. Plato, in the Republic, defines the character of two varieties of the Lydian harmonia as “mournful,” the Ionian and Lydian generally as “good for drinking parties,” the Dorian as “manly,” and the Phrygian as “inspiring enthusiasm.” In the Politics, Aristotle—who was sometimes at odds with his teacher Plato on the character of the various harmoniai—agreed that the Dorian was the “most grave, and most suitable for education”; he described the Lydian as “suitable for young children,” but was of the opinion that the Phrygian harmonia, played on the aulos during the ecstatic worship of Dionysus, was too emotional for use in school. Certain harmonia, such as the so-called “tense Lydian,” were more suitable for women, while the “slack” Ionian and Lydian were softer and easier to sing. The Greek poets sometimes expressed a preference for one or the other of the harmonia. The fifth-century poet Pindar praised the Dorian as being the most dignified, and

used the Lydian in several of his epinikian odes (praising athletes). Composers of the dithyramb (choral dance), such as Alcman, employed the Phrygian. The Mixolydian and Dorian were used in tragedy. Perhaps the clearest definition of the harmoniai is to be found in the third-fourth century C.E. work De musica, by theorist Aristides Quintilianus. He listed the notes of six harmoniai, adding that there were other tetrachordal divisions used by “the most ancient people” (likely referring to the fifth century B.C.E.): ‘Tense’ Lydian and Ionian (spanning less than an octave); Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian (spanning an octave); and Dorian (spanning an octave and a tone). He explained that each of these harmoniai had its own particular set of intervallic relationships, forming the so-called “Octave Species.”

The Perfect Systems

The tetrachord—four contiguous notes forming a perfect fourth—was the basic building block of the ancient Greek musical scale. A connected series of conjunct or disjunct tetrachords formed the so-called systema teleion (“perfect system”), first mentioned by Aristoxenus, but defined and explained in the handbooks of Aristides Quintilianus, Cleonides, and other theorists. A conjunct tetrachord is formed when the last note of one tetrachord coincides with the first note of the next; disjunction occurs when two tetrachords are separated by the interval of a tone. Two conjunct tetrachords constitute the heptachordon (seven-note system). Since a fourth plus a tone equalled a fifth, a pair of disjunct tetrachords was, in effect, a fourth and a fifth, making up an octave. A pair of conjunct tetrachords, with an additional tone at either top or bottom, likewise made up an octave (a fourth plus a fifth, or vice versa). The steps within the tetrachords were all either larger or smaller than a tone. The names of the eight notes of the octave refer to the seven strings on the lyre, plus one—the lowest—added later: hypate (“the principal”) was the farthest from the player’s body, parhypate (“next to hypate “), lichanos (“touched by the index finger”), mese (the “middle”), paramese (“next to mese “), trite (the “third” from the highest), paranete (“next to nete “), and nete (the “last”).

The Greater and Lesser Perfect Systems

Two “perfect systems” were described by the theorists. According to Aristides, the systema teleion elatton (“lesser perfect system”) consisted of three conjunct tetrachords plus the proslambanomenos, an “added lowest tone” before the hypate. Four conjunct tetrachords separated by a tone of disjunction, plus the proslambanomenos, constituted the systema teleion meizon (“greater perfect system”). Played together in succession, the two perfect systems were called the systema teleion ametabolon (“perfect immutable system”). Despite a number of theoretical treatises and handbooks that describe and explain the theory of these systems, their application in performance and the sound of the music resulting from their use remains unclear.

Transposition Keys

Aristoxenus used the terms tonoi to refer to “positions of the voice.” Later, Cleonides defined tonos or tropos as note, an interval, a position of the voice, and pitch. Difficulties arise because writers did not always distinguish tonos fromharmonia; Aristoxenus said that the harmonikoi were already associating the “octave-species” with the harmoniai, and Ptolemy applied the term tonoi to the “octave species,” which were explained as “transposition keys” used to solve the problem of different vocal ranges in choral groups. Cleonides attributed thirteen tonoi to Aristoxenus; Aristides Quintilianus observed that the “younger theorists” added two additional tonoi, for a total of fifteen, which were preserved in the notational tables of Alypius. The tonoi were manifested in three genera: diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic; each tonos began on a pitch that was a semitone apart from the next, and was built using a series of tetrachords (four contiguous notes forming a perfect fourth). The five middle tonoi carried the same regional names as the harmoniai: Lydian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Iastian, and Dorian. The highest five tonoi carried the prefix hyper (e.g. Hyperlydian), the five lower, hypo (e.g. Hypodorian).

Meter and Rhythm

In English, meter (or accentuation) is determined by the stress placed on a syllable. In the tongue-twister “Péter píper pícked a péck of píckled péppers” correct pronunciation requires that the stress be placed on the first syllable of every word; this stress dictates the rhythm of the line, and any deviation would ruin the beat. Ancient Greek meter was not based on stress, but on pitch; a rise in the musical pitch of the voice determined the meter. Ancient scholars devised a system of written accents to explain the pronunciation: the oxytone (“acute”) accent signified the raising of a pitch, the barytone (“grave”) marked a lowered or canceled pitch (used exclusively at the end of a word), and the perispomenon (“circumflex”) indicated a combination of up and down pitches on one syllable. The metrical patterns of Greek and Latin song and speech were based on long and short syllables. The ancient metricians explained that the value of one long syllable (-) equaled two shorts (⋃ ⋃). In many poetic meters these two quantities were interchangeable. Aristotle, Aristoxenus, and other writers on rhythm assigned proportional ratios of long and short syllables to each unit (called a “foot”):-⋃ ⋃ (dactyl) = 1:1;–(spondee) = 1:1; ⋃-(iambus) = 1:2;-⋃ ⋃ ⋃ (paeon) = 2:3; and so forth. The 2:1 ratio predominated, and variations were few. Time was kept by tapping the foot: “up” or “lift” was denoted by the word arsis, while “down” or “step” was called thesis. Each measure (or “foot”) of poetry was divided into “up” and “down” segments. Ancient songwriters were bound to the metrical types available to them, and until the middle of the fifth century, the meter simply dictated the rhythm of the verse. From the time of Timotheus of Miletus (c. 450-360 B.C.E.) was the elegiac couplet, a stanza composed of a dactylic hexameter followed by-⋃⋃-⋃⋃-|-⋃⋃-⋃⋃-∥. Iambic (⋃-) was generally combined into the so-called metron ⋃-⋃-seen in many variants. A common pattern was the iambic trimeter ⋃-⋃-⋃-⋃-⋃-⋃-; the first iambic formed the thesis (down-beat), and the second, the arsis (up-beat). Many variations on this rhythm existed, and it was popular in spoken verse as well as lyric poetry, tragedy, and comedy. If the first two note-values of the metron were transposed (-⋃⋃-), a so-called choriamb was created. The opposite of iambic is the “tripping” rhythm trochaic (-⋃-⋃) which, when played in sequence, always ended its metron with a rest (-⋃-×). The paeonic rhythms (-⋃-or-⋃⋃⋃ or ⋃⋃⋃⋃⋃)—also called Cretic—played in quintuple time, were used in serious hymns and war chants, as well as light music of dances; they were favored by certain lyric poets and tragedians. The comic playwright Aristophanes frequently employed the paeonic, which could be alternated with trochaic meters. Among the fragments of ancient Greek musical compositions that survive, two Delphic paeans dating to the second century B.C.E. reveal extensive musical notation almost entirely in paeonic rhythm. The latest extant example of the use of paeonic rhythm is a poem by the composer Mesomedes (patronized by the emperor Hadrian), which shows three new ways of combining the longs and shorts. Thus, the paeonic rhythm evolved from two variants in the seventh century B.C.E. to seven by the second century C.E. The five-syllable Dochmiac (⋃–⋃-) was a diverse and irregular patterned rhythm, and may have been a combination of iambic, anapestic, and paeonic forms. There is no evidence of its use before the fifth century, but it was popular in tragedy, especially in highly charged scenes in Euripides’ plays, where it comprised long strings of many short notes in succession. The Ionic rhythm (⋃⋃–⋃⋃–), first used by the lyric poets Sappho and Alcaeus of Lesbos in the sixth century B.C.E., continued to be popular in all song genres from the tragic chorus to hymns and love songs. Many variations of this rhythm were possible. The so-called Aeolic meter was commonly used by Sappho and Alcaeus, and by other poets between the sixth-fourth centuries B.C.E.This rhythm is characterized by the coexistence of single and paired short notes beginning with a free or undefined series of shorts or longs: the most common was ××-⋃ ⋃-⋃-.


A thorough treatment by Aristoxenus on melody has not survived, but in his Harmonika, he made a distinction between the melody of speech and that of music; melodic speech was based on word-accents, while musical melody moved by definite intervals of greater pitch variation. Very early traditional vocal melodies were simple, constrained by the pattern of long and short syllables in the meter of the verse, and the small number of strings on the lyre or holes in the pipe. Modulation (moving from one key to another) and heterophony (when strings of the lyre sound one melody while the singer sings another) were not commonly practiced. This began to change in the seventh century B.C.E., when poets, such as Archilochus, introduced the combination of differing genera of rhythms, the mixture of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment and singing, and an instrumental accompaniment that did not follow the melodic line in unison. By the middle of the fifth century B.C.E., virtuoso composers and performers expanded and modified their instruments and performance techniques: more strings were added to the lyre, vocal range widened, and use of the chromatic genus of scale added more notes. Melodic ornamentation and melisma (two or more notes sung to a single syllable) occurred on important words (like the names of mythical gods or heroes), and words of songs no longer matched the melody note-for-note. In the Laws, Plato criticized both melodic and rhythmic heterophony as too complex and unsettling to be used in music education. Some Latin writers, such as Cicero, also maligned the melodic complexity of “modern” music, and pined for the old, simple tunes of yore. Nevertheless, the florid style continued to be popular throughout the Roman period, as musical compositions preserved on papyri from the second and third centuries C.E.attest.

Form of Melody

Aristides Quintilianus wrote that before a lyre-player began a song, he would select a register of the voice, decide upon the structure of the scale, the genus, and the key, and consider the style of melody. Two terms were used for “melody, song, composition” in Greek: melos and nomos. The Greeks defined melos simply as “tune,” but more completely as an art form that comprised notes, melody, rhythm, and text. The term nomos (law, custom) was used by poets generally to label a type of song or melodic composition—from the song of birds to the songs in a musician’s repertoire. Professional musicians and theorists used the term nomos more narrowly to identify: (1) a specific melody used for an occasion (e.g. a sacrifice or a funeral); (2) a composition for the kithara (lyre) or aulos (reed pipe); (3) a song for a divinity; (4) a type of ethnic song or melody (e.g. Aeolian); (5) a song named for a composer (e.g. Terpandrean); or, (6) a class of song-types, such as lullaby, choral song, etc. The oldest nomos, the so-called kitharodikos, was a solo song for the lyre-player, said to have been invented by Terpander in the seventh century B.C.E. One of the more famous was the instrumental nomos Pythikos (“Pythic Composition”) composed for the aulos in the early sixth century, either by Timosthenes or Sacadas; the first-century C.E. writer Strabo described this piece as a melos which narrated the mythic battle between Apollo and the serpent Pytho in five distinct parts, or movements. The composition itself does not survive, but according to Strabo it was performed by an orchestra of winds and lyres, each movement employing a different type of melody and rhythm to illustrate the story through music.


The science of acoustics began in the late sixth century B.C.E. with Pythagoras and his followers. They developed mathematical theories about the laws and principles governing the universe, and extended those to music and the concept of the soul. The primary interests of the Pythagoreans were metaphysical and cosmological, but they were intrigued by the problem of defining musical pitch and the relationship between intervals, which they tried to gauge using a monochord—a single string stretched over a board—and other devices. The Pythagoreans held that there was a mathematical relationship between lengths of vibrating string and harmonious sounds, which could be measured using a ruler. According to ancient theorists, the first to apply mathematical principles to musical sound were Hippasus of Metapontum, a Pythagorean, or his contemporary, Lasus of Hermione, a virtuoso kitharode, instructor of dithyrambic choruses, and theorist. They were said to have discovered the 2:1 ratio between two sounds at the interval of the octave, 3:2 between interval of the fifth, and 4:3 between the interval of a fourth; Hippasus demonstrated this phenomenon using bronze discs of equal diameter, but different thicknesses, while Lasus, filling vessels with different amounts of liquid, struck them. The consonances of a fourth, fifth, and octave became models of harmonia, the “fitting together” of two sounds. A contemporary of Plato, the eminent Pythagorean mathematician Archytas (most of whose own work is lost), noted that a sound can only be produced by an impact of two bodies in motion. Sound, he said, was always created this way, but it was not always audible. He explained that the differences of pitch between sounds depended on the force and speed of the impact. Archytas divided the tetrachord system into harmonic ratios in an attempt to determine which numbers are concordant and why. Another work that is reminiscent of Archytas’ acoustic theory, but goes further, is a short anonymous treatise called the Sectio canonis (“Division of the Monochord”), sometimes erroneously attributed to Euclid. The author of this treatise adds to Archytas’ idea that force and speed determine pitch by supposing that some movements are more closely-packed, causing notes of higher pitch, while other notes are more widely spaced, creating notes of lower pitch. The quantification of pitch is perhaps the most advanced of the Pythagorean contributions to acoustic theory. No school of thought on acoustics was beyond criticism, however. Aristotle’s pupil Aristoxenus (fourth century B.C.E.), whose interest in music was more philosophical than scientific, claimed that mathematical calculation of the relationship between sounds and the measure of intervals was not sufficient to explain musical phenomena or to indicate the characteristics of musical composition. He emphasized in his Harmonika that in order to understand music, the listener needs ear, intellect, and memory; for him, sense perception was vital to judging dynamic musical phenomena. Claudius Ptolemy (second century C.E.), who clearly inclined towards Pythagorean mathematics in his explanations, examined critically both the Pythagorean and Aristoxenian definitions of tuning systems, sound, pitch, and consonance in his Harmonika, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. One of antiquity’s finest astronomers, Ptolemy took a scientific approach to the study of music, and held—as did the Pythagoreans—that the principles of harmonic order were mathematical. The Romans, who were ambitious construction engineers, were aided by the application of Greek acoustic theory in the design of their theater auditoria. Vitruvius, a late first-century B.C.E. Roman architect who translated the work of the Greek theorists into Latin, showed an impressive understanding of acoustics when he described a system of resonators that would improve the sound quality in the small and large theater auditorium. He also discussed the importance of using the right materials: wooden structures resonated sound waves more readily than marble or concrete, which did not vibrate in sympathy; he therefore recommended that bronze jars be added to stone-built auditora to improve the acoustics.

Musical Notation

The system of musical notation that was standard for professional use by the mid-third century B.C.E. and seen in all the extant compositions from the earliest (third century B.C.E.) to the latest (third century C.E.) is best represented in the tables of Alypius (fourth-fifth centuries C.E.). He originally mapped each of the fifteen tonoi (transposition keys or modes) over three octaves and a tone and in three genera—diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic—showing the separate and distinct alphabetic symbols used for vocal (leksis) and instrumental (krousis) music. The enharmonic tables are incomplete, and essentially duplicate the chromatic symbols. Vocal notation employed the 24 letters of the standard Ionic Greek alphabet, with some letters altered and inverted. In the fragments the notation always appears above the text. Instrumental notation matched or was derived from letters in sixth-fifth century B.C.E. local Greek scripts, and appears to have been in use before vocal notation. Some rhythmic values were defined using additional signs; the sole surviving description of rhythmic notation, found in the Byzantine Anonymus Bellermanni treatise, includes five types of signs: duration, ligation, articulation, division, and rest. Aristoxenus mentioned the existence of musical and metrical notation in his Harmonika, but scoffs at its use. He remarked that simply having the ability to notate a meter or melody did not prove a person’s ability to understand its nature. Aristoxenus insisted that notation could not be the goal of harmonic science, and evidence shows that the tradition of music in ancient Greece and Rome remained oral, not written, regardless of the existence of a notational system.

The Musical Documents

Music in ancient Greece and Rome was an oral tradition; songs, melodies, and even complex compositions were learned by ear. Aristoxenus believed that notation was unimportant, and went so far as to dismiss it as useless for the understanding of music. Although a system of notation was well-established by the third century B.C.E., it was used only by a handful of professionals for a very long time; the Roman orator Quintilian (first century C.E.) omitted notation from his list of recommended readings for music education. Yet, a number of notated compositions survive in medieval manuscripts, papyri, and in stone inscriptions. Although a few pieces were already known and transcribed in the sixteenth century, most of the surviving music was not known or studied prior to the nineteenth century. Today, a respectable corpus of approximately sixty genuine fragments has so far been compiled; newly discovered notated pieces are being published on a regular basis. In the most recent century, a number of papyri have been recovered from mummy cartonnage dating to the Ptolemaic period in Egypt (third-second century B.C.E.) that contain snatches of notated music. The extant collection of fragments, which date from the fifth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., is conveniently transcribed and explained (but not translated) in the Documents of Ancient Greek Music, edited by Egert Pöhlmann and Martin L. West. The corpus contains four fragments from the classical period (480-323 B.C.E.), fifteen of the late classical to early Hellenistic periods, three Late Hellenistic inscriptions from sanctuaries, and 39 fragments from the Roman period.

Types of Documents

Numerous different types of documents exist that show modern scholars different facets of the musical world. From the fifth century B.C.E., examples include a broken clay knee-guard for sewing, located in the Eleusis Museum, which was decorated with a painting of Amazons, one of whom was blowing a trumpet (Greek letters were painted between her body and the trumpet to imitate the sound of the trumpet-call.); remarks on the melody of Euripides, with an example from his tragedy Orestes, in the work De compositione verborum by Dionysius of Halicarnassus; and two papyrus fragments with notated music of Euripides’ Orestes and Iphigeneia in Aulis. Late fifth century-third century B.C.E. compositions include fragments on papyri of unknown tragedy, and a hexameter hymn inscribed in stone discovered in the precinct of the healing god Asclepius at Epidauros. Examples from the second century B.C.E. include two substantial paeans (to Athenaios and Limenios), inscribed on the south outer wall to the Athenian Treasury at Delphi, and the so-called “Hymn to the Carian god Sinuri” in two block fragments, published in 1945 C.E., but now missing. The last, and largest, group of extant musical documents comes from the Roman period: the grave stele of Seikilos; several compositions by the emperor Hadrian’s court musician Mesomedes of Crete; six Lydian instrumental pieces; a number of excerpts from tragedies and other hymns or paeans, lyric, and instrumental pieces of unknown origin; a selection from Menander’s comedy Perikeiromene with some curious notation; and a Christian hymn to the Trinity, written around the end of the third century C.E. on the back of a list of grain deliveries from the first half of the century. Two examples of notated music provide a general idea of the type of fragments available for study in the collection: seven lines from the tragedy Orestes by Euripides (presented on a papyrus of the third century B.C.E.); and an epigram on the grave stele of Seikilos (second century C.E.).