Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews   entry Jan 2015

Music and Pompeii
Trio of musicians playing an aulos, cymbala,
and tympanum (mosaic from Pompeii)

There are a number of mosaics and frescoes at the archaeological site of Pompeii (and elsewhere) that show musicians and musical instruments. There are also various extant examples of ancient instruments (or reliably reconstructed ones) at the National Archaeological Museum and elsewhere that can help us understand the nature of Roman music. Paleo-anything is a tough nut to crack, particularly ancient speech and ancient music, even from historic times, such as Greece and Rome; you can forget the cave-dwellers of Lascaux. I say that even as I listen to a particularly haunting recreation of ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian music, The Flood, recorded by singer, scholar and composer, Stef Conner. It certainly gets an E for Effort. An A for authenticity? No one really knows. I hope so.

To the case at hand, Pompeii. The museum in Naples has just presented a lecture and discussion on "Eros and music in Ancient Pompeii." It was a combination of a look at genuine or reconstructed Roman instruments in the collection of the museum, such things as the lyre, the aulos (the pipe being played by the musician on the left in the image), and various percussion pieces plus a tour of the “Secret Room” (joshingly called the Pornorama); that is, mosaics and frescoes showing Romans engaged in sexual activities, at least some of which are accompanied by music. Also seen are various depictions from ancient Pompeii of music being performed at banquets, religious rites, funerals, military displays, pantomine and theater, etc. We know that Romans cultivated music as a sign of education and that musicians held a place of honor in the Roman world. Music contests were quite common and attracted a wide range of competition, including Nero himself, who sang publicly in Naples and even traveled to Greece once to compete.

None of that is surprising. There is a vast body of literature about music in the ancient world. Some of it is solid and some is speculative, but that's all right, too. What is surprising is that a local paper welcomed the exhibit as finally shedding light on Roman music; after all, he says, aside from a brief medieval manuscript or two, the rest is in darkness. That is just not true. Maybe in deafness, because you still can't hear the original, but not in darkness because physical remnants of ancient music are all over the place, including Pompeii.

Can you extrapolate what the music might really have sounded like? A bit, but with great difficulty. In a very broad sense, at least early Roman musical theory was Greek in the sense that  it was Pythagorean —that is, based on the relationship of one note (frequency) to another. In other words, like the Greeks, the Romans recognized such intervals as the octave and the fifth, for example. The Romans had read their Plato and knew the Timaeus dialogue, much of which is a detailed Pythagorean explanation of the “harmony of the spheres”. And even very late Roman historians such as Boethius viewed their music as pretty much of a cultural descendant of Greek music. (Most Western music today can still be said to be neo-Pythagorean.) Nevertheless, “In the Graeco-Roman world we cannot without danger apply evidence from one part or period to the whole, and the dividing line between what is to be called Greek and what Roman in any of the arts is never quite certain” (from chapter 10, "Roman Music," by John E. Scott, in The New Oxford History of Music: Ancient and Oriental Music).

Important, too, is the fact that Roman expansion influenced their music. They had some music from the Etruscans in Italy, then north Africa and the Middle East.
It's a safe bet that at least some of that was decidedly non-Pythagorean. Rome at times must have had quite a few cross-cultural jam sessions going on. But a display of instruments and mosaics showing how music was used socially...and even some musical notation...will provide little understanding as to what the music sounded like. Folk music traditions tend to be very stable and you might get insight into such things as approach to pitch, vibrato, use of micro-tones, etc. etc., even from long ago, but it's iffy. I don't mind admitting that this irritates me. It seems to me that if the ancient Greeks in the second century BC (!) could build the Antikythera Mechansim, a sophisticated mechanical computer that calculated and illustrated astronomical information, they might have come up with a simple sound recorder. It's unforgivable! But the museum exhibit was still worthwhile.

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