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Ambivalent Attitudes: The Value of Music in the Augustan Period – P.Clemente (2013)

Ambivalent Attitudes: The Value of Music in the Augustan Period

Pablo Clemente

BA University of Maryland, MPhil University of Dublin

Music in Roman Society

There can be no doubt that music was a part of every Roman’s life in the Augustan period.  It was performed in numerous settings, both privately within the household as well as publicly in theaters, pantomimes, orchestral performances and even during gladiatorial matches.  There were instruments used for military purposes in times of both war and peace and music was most certainly played during military processions such as triumphs, while also having roles in various cults and religious events to the gods.

Music in a Roman citizen’s household (especially a wealthy citizen) as opposed to a public performance is not attested in primary sources quite well enough. It was probably used in private events and gatherings such as birthdays[1] and other similar occasions. While performances such as these would have been viewed by select few, public performances such as theatrical performances and concerts were widespread in Rome and varied in their styles. Some performances, such as pantomimes were rather small setups with one performer possibly assisted by a tibia player.[2] Larger performances such as concerts varied in size. Some, as Seneca wrote, had “a larger number of singers than there used to be spectators in the theatres of old.  All the aisles are filled with rows of singers; brass instruments surround the auditorium; the stage resounds with flutes and instruments of every description; and yet from the discordant sounds a harmony is produced”[3]  The value of these types of performances is evident in the creation of buildings for their express performance including buildings such as the Theater of Pompey, and the Odeon of Domitian.

One of Augustus’ most famous events, the Centennial Games, of 17 BC is well known for its incorporation of music.  It utilized the songwriter Horace’s skill in music to compose a sacred hymn to Rome’s gods.[4]  It would be sung by twenty seven freeborn boys and twenty seven freeborn girls following a final sacrifice to the gods Apollo and Diana on the Palatine Hill.  This song was known as the Carmen Saeculare.  Music here held significance both politically and religiously. He was a direct descendent of the historic, and divine figures laid out throughout the poem, making him the most powerful political figurehead in Rome. Thus, he alone had the power, and music was another tool to emphasize that power.

Music was also extended to the Roman military. Though they may not seem to go hand in hand you only need to look at modern armies to notice that music is, in fact, a common component of the military.  In Augustan Rome this was certainly no different.  Instruments such as the cornu and bucina were used as organizational tools for military formations. Moreover, triumphal military processions used these instruments heavily in honor of the victories celebrated by Roman generals and the emperor himself.

Despite the incorporation of music in Roman society, why did the Romans, and more specifically, the members of the Roman elite, harbor such ill feelings towards music and performance in general?  In order to successfully answer this question we must analyze Roman identity and what exactly it meant in relation to music.

Roman Identity and Music in the Augustan Period

When speaking to Roman identity and the relationship Romans held towards music and performance during this period one must look at it from two distinct angles.  First we must look at Romans and their views towards foreigners in relation to music.  Then we must look at how Romans viewed themselves in terms of their own social status as well as their own duties and responsibilites (both private and public) and how music plays into that.  From both of these angles a consensus can be made concerning how Romans helped create their identity through music and the performing arts.  Once that is understood we can garner a greater idea of how this unique Roman identity underscores their attitudes towards music and how musical instruments in turn help to reinforce these attitudes.

Roman Identity, Foreign Influence and Xenophobia

Romans and their relationship with foreigners have always been a topic which revolves around the incorporation of foreign influences as well as the xenophobic dispositions that Romans held towards them.  To begin, there is no real evidence for a truly Roman instrument.  When looking at the three types of instrument I have analyzed (all of which were used significantly during the Augustan period) each one of them was incorporated into Roman societies from other civilizations.  The lyre and cithara come from the Greeks (and can even be traced back to earlier eastern civilizations) as does the tibia (the Latin term for the Greek aulos).  The cornu and buccina have both Greek as well as Etruscan origins.  This can be seen with other instruments played during the Augustan period as well.[5]  This incorporation and utilization of foreign instruments by Romans suggests to me two things: 1) The Romans were happy to incorporate anything from any culture that they saw fit, especially music and 2) There is an obvious connection that the Romans made between foreigners and music.

This first point can be noticed even prior to the Augustan period.  The Romans incorporated many cultural and artistic elements from other societies whom they conquered from early on.  Disregarding music at the moment the Romans incorporated religious deities, literature (including epic poetry, lyric, elegiac etc.), writing, architecture and performing arts (including theater, gladiatorial matches, orchestra, and pantomimes) from the Greeks, Egyptians and Etruscans into their own society.  Horace even claims that Hellenism’s greatest prize in Italy was Rome.[6]  Speaking to the second point, music was thus easily transferable to Roman culture since much of Roman culture itself was, by the Augustan period, Hellenic.[7]

These influences however also established hostilities and xenophobic feelings towards foreigners in general.  In his Life of Cato Plutarch discusses succinctly the perceived moral decline that Romans felt had been a direct cause of the incorporation of Greek culture into their own.[8]  Greek civilization was in essence replacing the Roman way of life.  This attitude certainly accords with their feelings towards music in Roman society. As Power writes, the idea that musicians were generally foreigners and therefore better than the Romans at music likely led the Romans to compensate this ‘inferiority’ by calling foreigners ‘effeminate’ and therefore, not Roman.[9]   This attitude seems to be directed for the most part toward musicians and those of the performing arts rather than poets, sculptors, architects etc.  By understanding Roman identity within Roman society the reasons for such mindsets become more evident.

Roman Identity within Roman Society

Roman citizens during the Augustan period were, first and foremost, men.  This fact is important in understanding Roman identity and its relationship to music and performing arts.  The role of men, and especially elite men, was to work within the public sphere as public officials moving up the Cursus Honorum, or as soldiers in the military; in essence, functioning for the good of Rome as well as obtaining respect and honor for their families.  Anything that shifted focus away from this role was not considered ideally Roman.  The duties of a member of the Roman elite were thus contrasted both by those who participated in the performing arts as well as the private duties and responsibilities of the female gender.  Music, therefore, plays a role here within the ideas of social status and gender as performance in general became closely associated with both.

When addressing music and social status an overall inclusion of performing arts as they pertain to social status is necessary.  As I stated earlier, a Roman citizen’s duties were within the public sphere.  Educated from a young age in oratory and rhetoric, elite men prepared nearly their entire lives to enter the political world of Roman society.[10]  Braund quite neatly explains, in this sense that a public official’s entire life was a performance, albeit a performance to raise himself up the political ladder.  Performance as a public official was thus much more important than performance for the purposes of entertainment and was the focus of the Roman educational system.[11]  This type of performance in all its manifestations (actors, gladiators, musicians etc.) was associated with the lowest of the low, equated to the status of prostitutes and slaves.  Performers, like prostitutes, sold their bodies “for the delectation of others, if only visually.”[12]  An elite Roman was not to be associated with such.  In fact this distinction between those who could and could not participate within the performing arts was thus made into law (and had been made into law many times previously, though rather unsuccessfully) in 19 AD, shortly after Augustus’ death.  The Senatus Consultum decreed:

“…no  one should  bring  on to the stage  a senator’s  son,  daughter,  grandson,  granddaughter,  great-grandson,  great-granddaughter, or  any male whose  father  or grandfather,  whether  paternal  or maternal,  or brother,  or any  female  whose  husband  or  father  or  grandfather,  whether  paternal  or  maternal,  or brother had  ever possessed  the  right  of sitting  in the seats  reserved for the  knights,  or induce them by means of a fee to fight to the death in the arena or to snatch the  plumes of gladiators or take the foil off anyone or to take part in any way in any similar subordinate capacity;  nor, if anyone offered himself,  should  he  hire him;  nor should  any of those persons  hire himself  out;  and that particular precautions  were for that  reason to  be taken against  that  contingency because persons  having  the  right  to  sit  in  the seats reserved for knights had, for the sake of bringing the authority of that order to nought, seen to it that they either suffered public  disgrace or were condemned  in a case involving them in infamy and, after they had withdrawn  of their own free will from the equestrian seats,  had pledged  themselves  as gladiators or had  appeared on the stage;  nor should  any of  those  persons  who  have  been  mentioned  above, if  they  were  taking  that  action  in contravention  of the  dignity  of their   order,  have  due  burial, unless  they  had  already appeared  on  the  stage  or  hired  out  their  services  for the  arena or were  the  offspring male or female of an actor, gladiator, manager of a gladiatorial school,  or procurer…”[13]

Decrees such as this clearly indicate to us that Roman identity as it pertains to performance among social classes was divided between those of the upper and lower classes.  A member of the Roman elite such as a senator, or an emperor was expected to work within the public and political sphere.  Performance as entertainment was relegated to those of lower status.  Any upper class citizen who did perform for entertainment was spurned for such as they “suffered public disgrace or were condemned in a case involving them in infamy.”[14]  Vice-versa performers of any type were barred from participating in many of the public duties reserved for elite citizens.[15]  Performing arts, including music were thus an important part of Roman society and yet a part held in such contempt and exclusion.  This contempt, in accordance with Roman identity, carries into other social distinctions as the public duties of Roman elite men are opposed by the duties generally allotted to women.

What seems to have distinguished men from women in ancient Rome is related in some sense to what distinguished certain social classes with regards to a Roman citizen’s duties.  It also ties in with the perceived dominance that Roman men were expected to have over women, assuming the role of the active participant (‘penetrator’) rather than the passive (‘penetrated’).[16]  The public duties of men (which I have discussed) along with the private duties of women had a direct bearing on how Romans considered the importance of music and other performing arts.  While men took on the public role of political life, women were not necessarily expected to do so.  This allowed for more opportunities to pursue less public activities, including studies in music.  Women could play and be depicted holding and playing instruments with no social repercussions (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Fig. 1. Seated woman playing a kithara: Room H of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. Photo from Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fig. 1. Seated woman playing a kithara: Room H of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. Photo from Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact they were almost expected to learn music.[17] Elite women such as Pompey’s youthful wife Cornelia, would have been taught, and well-versed in music and instruments such as the lyre.[18] Good knowledge of literature, the lyre and other such subjects seems to have been regarded positively in association with women as long as they didn’t revert to “unpleasant officiousness which such accomplishments are apt to impart to young women.”[19] Roman poetry certainly acknowledged gender specific roles as well.  Because most all Roman literature was written by elite men, the ideals of the masculine citizen are much more prominent.  In Virgil’s Aeneid the ideals that the members of the elite held for both men and women in Roman society can be clearly identified. In chapter nine, the Latin leader Remulus issues this snide remark towards Aeneas’ son Ascanius and his men:

Omne aevum ferro teritur, versaque iuvencum
terga fatigamus hasta; nec tarda senectus
debilitat vires animi mutatque vigorem:
canitiem galea premimus, semperque recentis
comportare iuvat praedas et vivere rapto.
Vobis picta croco et fulgenti murice vestis,
615desidiae cordi, iuvat indulgere choreis,
et tunicae manicas et habent redimicula mitrae.
O vere Phrygiae, neque enim Phryges, ite per alta
Dindyma ubi adsuetis biforem dat tibia cantum!
Tympana vos buxusque vocat Berecyntia Matris
Idaeae sinite arma viris et cedite ferro.

[All our life is worn with iron’s use; with spear reversed we goad our bullocks’ flanks , and sluggish age weakens not our hearts’ strength nor changes our vigour….But ye are clothed in embroidered saffron and gleaming purple; sloth is your joy, your delight is to indulge the dance; your tunics have sleeves and your turbans ribbons. O ye Phrygian women, indeed! – for Phrygian men are ye not – go ye over the heights of Dindymus where to accustomed ears the pipe utters music from double mouths!

…Leave arms to men, and quit the sword”] – Fitzgerald, R. 1990 [20]

What we have here are sentiments and ideals which echo throughout much of Augustan literature.  Men are idealized as warriors who fight heroic battles, assuming a certain virtus while expected to dress in a way as to not overly flaunt themselves;[21] women are idealized in a manner that creates negative dispositions within Roman society.  Not only are women viewed negatively here but music itself is viewed similarly.  Those foreigners who “indulge the dance” and whose “accustomed ears the pipe utters music from double mouths” are associated unequivocally with ‘women,’ ‘sloth,’ and xenophobia and contrasted with the ideology of elite Roman men; men who were expected to be the dominant figure in Roman society, like their valiant warriors on the battle field.   Ascanius himself reasserts his dominance over Remulus and his men by simply shooting an arrow into Remulus’ head.  This issue of male dominance as it pertains to music is an important issue. This aspect ties music and musical instruments to women much more meaningfully in terms of unchecked emotion which Roman men were expected to suppress.


Bonner, 1977, Education in Ancient Rome, Berkeley

Braund, 2002, Latin Literature, London

Duchesne-Guillemin, 1981, ‘Music in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt’, World Archaeology, Vol.12 No. 3, 287-297

Edwards, 1997, ‘Unspeakable Professions’, in J.P. Haslett and M. B. Skinner (eds), Roman Sexualities,Princeton

Griffin, 1976, ‘Augustan Poetry and the Life of Luxury’ The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 66, 87-105

E.G. Hardy, 1914, ‘The Table of Heraclea and the Lex Iulia Municipalis,  Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 4, No.1, 65-110

P.J. Holliday, 1990, ‘Processional Imagery in late Etruscan Funerary Art’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 94, No. 1, 73-93

Horace, trans. D. West, 1997, ‘Odes’, in The Complete Odes and Epodes, Oxford, 25-131

Horace, H. Rushton Fairclough (ed), 1929, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, Cambridge, MA

A.A. Howard, 1893, ‘The Αὐλός or Tibia’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 4, 1-60

Lawergren, 1998, ‘Distinctions among Canaanite, Philistine, and Israelite Lyres, and Their Global Lyrical Contexts’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research Vol. 309, 41-68

Lawergren, 2007, ‘Etruscan musical instruments and their wider context in Greece and Italy’, Etruscan StudiesVol. 10, No. 10, 119-138

Levick, 1983, The Senatus Consultum from Larinum’, Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 73, 97-115

Lyons, 2007, Horace’s Odes and the Mystery of Do-Re-Mi, Exeter

H.I. Marrou, 1956, A History of Education in Antiquity, Madison

Ovid ‘Ars Amatoria’, in R. Ehwald (ed), 1907, Amores, Epistulae, Medicamina faciei femineae, Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris, Teubner

Ovid. Fasti, Sir J. G. Frazer (ed), 1933, Cambridge, MA

Plutarch, trans. B. Perrin, 1919, ‘Cato the Younger’ in Plutarch’s Lives, Cambridge, MA

Plutarch (Pseudo-Plutarch), ‘De Musica’,  in W.W. Goodwin (ed), 1874, Moralia, Boston

Plutarch, trans. B. Perrin, 1919, “Pompey.” in Plutarch’s Lives. Cambridge, MA

Power, 2010, Culture of Kitharoidia, London

Propertius, ‘Elegies’, trans. A.S. Kline, 2012, in Poetry in Translation (last accessed 14/03/2013)

Phaedrus, trans. C. Smart, 1913, The Fables of Phaedrus. London

Seneca. Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, volume 1-3, R. M. Gummere (ed), 1917-1925, Cambridge, MA

Virgil, trans. R. Fitzgerald, 1990, The Aeneid. New York

Walters, 1997, ‘Invading the Roman Body: Manliness and Impenetrability in Roman Thought’, in J.P. Haslett and M.B. Skinner (eds), Roman Sexualities, Princeton

Wiedemann, 1992, Emperors and Gladiators, London

[1] Propertius Elegies 3.10 The birthday that Propertius wants to throw for Cynthia used the tibiainque meum semper stent tua regna caput./ inde coronatas ubi ture piaveris aras,/ luxerit et tota flamma secunda domo,/ sit mensae ratio, noxque inter pocula currat,/ et crocino nares murreus ungat onyx./ tibia continuis succumbat rauca choreis,/ et sint nequitiae libera verba tuae,/ dulciaque ingratos adimant convivia somnos;/ publica vicinae perstrepat aura viae.

[2] Phaedrus Fabulae 5.7 on the tibia player Princeps who accompanied the pantomime Bathyllus

[3] Seneca Epistulae 84 Although Seneca is explaining choral performances in a metaphorical sense he describes the performance of musicians, including choral singers, tibia players and trumpeters in a theatrical context.

[4] It is a debated subject as to whether or not Horace was a musician and did compose music as we may think of it. Lyons 2007: 15-25 offers a compelling argument. An inscription on the song itself, as Lyons notes, says “Carmen composuit Q Hor…ius Flaccus.” In Odes.4.6 he even mentions the girls and boys who would sing this song to Phoebus. By the end of this poem he writes thus: nupta iam dices “ego dis amicum/ saeculo festas referente luces/ reddidi carmen docilis/ modorum/ vatis Horati.  Additionally, Horace attests to his own skill in music throughout his poetry  (Odes 1.1, 1.32, 4.3; Epodes 9.5-6; Epistulae 2.2)

[5] For origins of the lyre and cithara cf. Lawergren, B. 1998; for the origins of the tibia or Greek aulos cf. Howard, A. 1893   and Duchesne-Guillemen, M. 1981; also for Etruscan origins cf. Lawergren, B. 2007. Cf. also Ovid Fasti 6.662 on its divine Greek origins and Pseudo-Plutarch De Musica 5 on its origins outside of Greece; for the origins of the bucina and cornu see Holliday, P. 1990

[6] Horace Epistulae 2.1.156-7 Graecia capta ferum victorum capit et artes/intulit agresti Latio

[7] Cf. Griffin, J. 1976 for an in depth look at the Hellenic influence on Roman culture and society.

[8] Plutarch Cato.23 

[9] Power, T. 2010, p. 54-55 on Juvenal’s description of musicians in Rome: “ the negative characterization of popular music and musicians…as prettified and unmanly, ‘soft’, if still highly sexed…In Rome, a society far more anxious about the threat posed to traditional norms of masculinity by musical performance than was Classical Greece…”

[10] For a better view on overall education in ancient Rome cf. Bonner, S. 1977 and Marrou, H.I. 1956 Part III

[11] Braund, S. 2002. Chapter 6: Performance and Spectacle

[12] Weidemann, T. 1989: p. 26; Edwards, C. 1997 also sheds light on the infamia accorded to those who took on performance in Rome; professions associated with the enjoyment and “vulgar pleasures” attributed to women and not the “self-control” attributed to men.

[13] Senatus Consultum from Larinum, Levick, B. 1983, p. 99

[14] Infamia incurred punishments to individuals including “loss of their identity as respectable citizens” considering them untrustworthy.  This was originally applied to criminals but then extended to entertainers and prostitutes. Cf. Weidemann 1992: 28

[15] Weidemann 1992, p. 29 writes that by the first century BC many legal disabilities were placed on performers such as gladiators and actors as well as prostitutes including Julius Caesar’s Lex Iulia Municipalis which excluded “anyone who is or has been a gladiatorial trainer or an actor.”  Additionally the Tabula Heracleensis banned gladiators, actors and convicted criminals from election to municipal councils.  Though he does not specifically mention musicians, the fact that musicians and actors generally shared the same stage together must suggest similar penalties imposed upon them. Cf. also Hardy, E.G. 1914

[16] The idea of the sexual ‘penetrator’ and ‘penetrated’ is outlined nicely in Walters 1997, p. 29-42

[17] Ovid Ars Amatoria 3.319 on expectations to learn these instruments as to be more attractive to men

[18] Plutarch Pompey 55.1

[19] Plutarch Pompey 55.2

[20] Virgil Aeneid 9.607-620

[21] For more on how men were not expected to dress lest they be considered conniving, and unfaithful cf. Ovid Ars Amatoria 3.334-49


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