In the modern age, music has become such an essential part of everyone’s life. As the success of music streaming sites like Spotify indicates, American society demands non-stop music access. We want it free, we want all of it, and we want it now. We listen to it as a backdrop to so many things in our lives—and hopefully we listen to it as an experience in and of itself, too. Music has almost become a necessity in modern life. We crave it like we crave water and food. So, before the advent of iPods, CDs, cassette tapes, record players and even phonographs, how did people enjoy music? In particular, how did the Ancient Romans enjoy music? Was it a big part of their life and culture? Was it considered as worthy of an art as sculpture or pottery? As a modern human, I can’t even grasp the concept of not having music at my fingertips whenever I desire. I think the desire for music has to be some sort of innate human yearning, so how did the Romans fulfill that desire?
Well, upon first research I’ve found that the idea that “Rome was entirely unmusical” is apparently pretty prevalent. However, not every classicist thinks that. The best article I found that had the pro-music opinion of Rome is called “What Music Meant to the Romans.” Perfect! That’s exactly what I wanted to know. So, according to the article, much of the non-military music in Rome actually happened to originate from the Christians. Aside from this, most Roman music existed for the theater or for military purposes. Unfortunately, though, many Roman historians neglected to mention the music of the people because they associated it with the debauchery of party-animals like Nero. After all, in pretty much every picture of Nero we see him with his lyre.
As for the commoners, music was generally reserved for weddings, funerals, dinners or other social gatherings. What kinds of instruments were played? Archeologist have dug up quite a lot from Germany in the areas occupied during the Roman pediod. A few include the aulos (a type of flute made of ivory), the buccina (a trumpet made from a horn), the cornu (a brass instrument used by the military), the lituus (a horn used in religious ceremonies), and the sambucca (a triangular harp).
(Theatrical troupe with an aulos player. It appears as though he is playing the aulos through his nose. Hm.)
From what I’ve read, it seems that Roman music outside of the theater and military was largely viewed simply as entertainment. The consideration of music as high art wouldn’t evolve as a mainstream concept until later. It’s sad to think that such an advanced society had that kind of concept of music in general. According to the first article, there were a few Roman philosophers who delved into the realms of music theory, but overall it wasn’t an extremely popular field. However, I think I could do a bit more research on this topic before I jump to any conclusions.