Wait… So You’re Telling Me They Didn’t Have Spotify in Ancient Rome??

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.

-Arbiter Bibendi


5 thoughts on “Wait… So You’re Telling Me They Didn’t Have Spotify in Ancient Rome??

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Thanks for the post, it was really well done! I think the concept of music in today’s society is often taken for granted because of how accessible it is. So do you think this requirement for music that many of us feel is something deep inside of us that ties humanity together, or is it something that has evolved with society so smoothly that we are simply taught it very well? I would argue that it is something in all of us, but then again, I’m biased. As to me asking this question, I’m asking you personally because I know you addressed it in the blog post. The accessabilty of music is something that is really interesting, and I think the music and its content can say a lot about art in society and how people value it, then and now.
    There was something that this post made me wonder about, which I thought was very good because you left enough open endedness that I wanted to go do more research after I read it. What were the Romans doing while the music was playing? Was it background music, dinner music, dancing music? I’m curious!

  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Arbiter, if it is sad that an advanced civilization, such as ancient Rome, had such little respect for music, is it not sadder yet that our society–which we consider to be very advanced–has such little respect for and knowledge of classical Roman literature? In class we have routinely demonstrated that many modern musical artists “borrow” lines and themes from elegiac poetry, but the vast majority of people have no idea who original wrote the line “if I told you I like your body, would you hold it against me?” (Martial –> RE: Britney Spears). Our generation may understand pop-culture and respect music, but we are not cultured beings.


  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    This was a really cool post. I have often thought about how much of my day goes to the “background music” of my ipod or computer. I think it’s interesting to think that the Roman’s also had it as a sort of “background” to special events. I think this is a good post because you brought out many facets of ancient Rome and history that are similar to ours. For example, the fact that music was often associated with Nero and cray parties makes me think of Rock & Roll and today’s “pop” music that is centered on partying, drinking, and yoloing. I think another interesting post could be one that looks at how music has affected language. More and more I hear people using words and terms that they learned “in that song.” I think it would be cool to look at a timeline of that.

  4. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    I wonder how much respect Romans gave out to musicians or any kind of artist in general. From my understanding, I know that actors were considered on par or below the status of sex workers. I like to image that there was a young Roman boy who all he wanted to do was play his lyre with his band, but his parentals mocked him and forced him to get a job. I do think there is something lost to our culture when most of our entertainment is instant gratification. Stories and poems were often reserved for long trips or long nights around the camp fire. There was an art to carefully weaving a story.

    Remember kids, eat at St. Alfonso’s Parish Grill n’ Bar where I stole the margarine,
    -The Artist Formerly known as, and Currently known as, and Henceforth known Dr. Sir Rev. Notorious MoonUnit Waafles III jr PHD MD


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