Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.46

Timothy J. Moore, Music in Roman Comedy.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 452.  ISBN 9781107006485.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, Wake Forest University (


Disclosure: the reviewer and this book’s author have collaborated previously on this topic.

This book is a comprehensive guide to music in Plautus and Terence, and a codification of Moore’s paradigm-shifting reevaluation of the evidence for music on the Roman comic stage. It will be essential reading for scholars of the genre. The thorough exploration of ancient performance practices in the early chapters constitutes an important advance also for the scholarship of music in antiquity more generally, and anyone working on a particular play must consult Moore’s analysis of it, here or elsewhere.1

The Introduction is an excellent guide to the intricacies of the subject, at a level accessible to students. Here you’ll find a discussion of the available evidence (including material-culture and comparative data) and methodological problems it presents. Music, Moore points out, is a signal difference between Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy, even while Greek music and musicians have major influence on the latter: we’re encouraged to “envision Roman comedies not as plays with musical intervals, but as musical performances with non-musical introductions and breaks” (16). Any metrical change is, itself, a musical change; in Moore’s view, Roman comedy is less improvisatory than suggested by Marshall or Zwierlein,2 with leeway for improvisation contained mostly in unsung iambic-senarii passages.

Chapter 1, “Tibiae and tibicines,” covers the double-pipe, the plays’ musical accompaniment. The pipe-player “usually stood in front of the stage [so] was a conspicuous presence visually as well as aurally” (35). Tibicines “almost certainly used double reeds and manipulated the reed with teeth and tongue…allow[ing] subtle adjustments in pitch, tone, and…volume” (41). Performers used circular breathing (42–45); pipes played different and differently-changing notes (46–50); and there was huge variety in tuning, tone, and instrument construction and configuration (50–63).

Chapter 2, “Song,” argues that—despite Livy 7.2.8–11, on Livius Andronicus and theatrical cantica—the evidence suggests there weren’t cantores who sang for comic actors (p. 64–77). Singing was a demanding task, requiring loud, clear projection and therefore probably a nasal/palatal tone, as in Arab folk-singing, along with a high register (77–90). Singers would nevertheless have considerable flexibility in pitch, volume, and emotiveness (90–92). Roman comic song can be divided into unaccompanied-but-not-simple-everyday speech (deuerbium or kataloge), accompanied singing, and unaccompanied speech, the last used theatrically only for special effect; Moore recommends wariness of analogies with Western opera and its recitative (92–104).

Chapter 3, “Dance,” begins with “cinaedic” or erotic dance (106–114) at the ends of Plautus’ Persa, Pseudolus, and Stichus: rare, it marks the height of comedy’s Saturnalian spirit, extreme master-slave inversion, and transgressive sexual behavior. Ionic meters and Sotadaeans evidently always imply cinaedic dance (113). More common would be rhythmic gestural (upper-body-based) dance—perhaps not as sophisticated as what Quintilian describes for both actors and orators—and foot-based dancing (114–121). Dance routines befit serui currentes, “antiphonal” delayed-recognition scenes, lively ensemble bits, and eavesdropping (122–131); there’s less dance in Terence than Plautus (124–125), and Plautus’ Rudens features dance prominently its principal scenes (131–134).

Chapter 4, “Melody and rhythm,” tackles the Roman musical concept of modus, which the chapter title translates: melody and rhythm are intrinsically interrelated (154). As Cicero Orat. 3.102 shows, the poet sets the meter, the tibicen sets the basic tempo and rhythm, and actors work within this framework (139). Stichic passages with many verses in the same meter probably had one melody repeated without much line-by-line variation (video example here), with variety or improvisation available to tibicines in dance more than song (141–143). The words—meter, and scansion of specific lines—determine the rhythm, with pitch and accompaniment subordinate; Plautus and Terence probably used chromatic (half-step) and diatonic (whole-step) scales (143–146). Moore offers an almost-scientific explanation of trochaic septenarii, Roman comedy’s most common accompanied meter (146–154), arguing that monotony in stichic passages could be avoided through expressiveness in frequent pauses, tempo changes (even within lines), and stress (156–163). This stress was a sense of metrical pulse, but no added ictus beyond regular spoken stress accent: instead, tibicines could provide meter-reinforcing, pitch-based percussiones. Regularization of “measures,” so to speak, through rests or lengthening is possible but, as Moore persuasively explains, unlikely (164–170).

In chapter 5, “Meter,” we learn that meters don’t have monolithic, static meanings, but audiences could tell subtle differences between meters —and different meters had different effects, especially through their amount of long syllables, amount of allowable variation, unusualness/exoticness, and intra- and inter-textual associations or references. “Almost any meter, regardless of its other associations, can also be used to mark closure or transition,” of course (183). Iambo-trochaic meters (174–190) make up more than 99% of Terence and almost 90% of Plautus. Trochaic septenarius is the most common, default accompanied meter of comedy, communicating forward motion in characters or plot. Unaccompanied iambic senarius is for important words, serious moments, characters with theatrical authority, or unsympathetic characters. Trochaic octonarii communicate heightened emotion; iambic octonarius is used (often) in Terence for structure, characterization, or motifs, while (less often) in Plautus for tragic parody; and the iambic septenarius or comicus quadratus is the meter of love and love objects. Non-iambo-trochaic meters (190–209) are strongly associated with women characters; cretics and bacchiacs are both slower than iambo-trochaics, but where cretics offer surprise, jumpiness or bounce, and farce, bacchiacs represent orderliness, lamentation, solemnity, and mockery thereof. Anapests (in Plautus only) are comedy’s “most exuberant meter,” used for discoveries, panic, fury, joy, seduction, and the superpimp Ballio in Pseudolus. The colon reizianum and versus reizianum are jarring; Aeolics and their choriambs are sing-songy; Ionics are licentious and Saturnalian; and thymelici underscore comic shock.

Chapter 6, “Arrangement of verses and variation within the verse,” continues with metrical analysis. Changes in meter, including “metrical collapse” where stichic meters break down into systems of less-organized metra/feet, convey emotion or excitement, while catalexis (chopping off a line’s last element) marks closure (210–215). There’s wondrous variety within meter types, as Moore shows with the test case of the trochaic octonarius, including: number, placement, and (ir)regularity of longs vs. shorts, especially with regard to the pulse; placement or absence of caesurae; enjambment, which underscores emotion or emphasizes key words; and elision and hiatus, particularly elision across speaker changes (215–236).

Chapter 7, “Musical structure,” concerns play-level analysis of musical arrangements, with Plautus’ Menaechmi as the thematic case. Taken together, Table 7.1 and its later counterparts 9.1 and 10.3 (plus Appendix IV) show that the basic structure of Roman comedy comprises a passage of iambic senarii, then a polymetric passage, then a passage of trochaic septenarii (lather, rinse, repeat), with “structurally significant” sections of anapestic (in Plautus) or iambic (in Terence) octonarii. Initial (spoken, unaccompanied) iambic senarii create a sense of anticipation, and plans hatched in this meter are doomed, while musical openings mark something unusual, such as sympathetic meretrices in Plautus’ Cistellaria (242–245). Trochaics get the plot going, while shorter passages of trochaic septenarii are “false starts,” a tool for emphasizing important words (247–253). Lovers sing, blocking characters don’t; breaking the pattern is something Roman audiences would notice, and produces effective thematic or structural distinctions (253–264). Music marks the final resolution of plays, all of which “end with musical accompaniment, all but two with trochaic septenarii” (265–266).

Chapter 8, “Polymetry,” gives a taxonomy of six types of polymetric passages (274–304), and several interesting analyses of particular passages—e.g., metrical ring composition in Plautus’ Amphitruo (pp. 276–277), a sung competition between brother and sister in his Aulularia (pp. 282–287). Chapter 9, “Pseudolus,” discusses Plautus’ most musical play (alongside the “great experiment” Casina), while chapter 10, “Adelphoe,” examines the sophisticated motivic musicality of Terence’s latest play. Terence becomes less musically elaborate over time, but “[m]ore important…is Terence’s increasing mastery of his own particular semiotics of music and meter” (352).

An excellent Conclusion offers cautions against modern musical parallels and sensibilities, but also discussion of features shared by Roman comedy and modern musical theater, such as the importance of musical conventions or the absence of music used for characterization and contrast.

This book is well-organized and thorough. Its depth and breadth are remarkable, demonstrating equal comfort with nitty-gritty particularities of Latin elision or hiatus, with comparative evidence and supplementation of textual or evidentiary lacunae. Moore’s book enhances its reading of comedy’s performance conditions by drawing on Latin oratory and rhetoric, lexicography, Greek musical theory, and Roman historiography, plus a bevy of outside material including Japanese kyōgen, Broadway musicals, Western opera, Yugoslavian epic, Javanese gamelan shadow-puppet theater, and folk-music traditions of Greece, Sicily, Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East. This breadth is matched by careful, cautious use of sources (e.g., unreliable prefaces to Terentian didascaliae, 57–61). Individual chapters will make for excellent student-presentation assignments, undergraduate or graduate.3 Metrics and ancient musical theory aren’t for the faint of heart. But this book’s strength is that all the metrical/theoretical work is taken care of—left in the background or lucidly, succinctly explained. So if you teach or research Plautus and Terence, or even just want a realer sense of what watching their plays was like, grab this book, dive into the parts you find most interesting, and start singing!


1.   These include articles on Plautus’ Cistellaria, Curculio, Epidicus, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Persa, Poenulus, Trinummus, as well as Terence’s Andria and Heauton Timoroumenos as well as treatments of Menaechmi, Pseudolus, and Adelphoe in the present volume. The book’s Index Locorum points to shorter yet enlightening discussions of particular passages sprinkled throughout.
2.   C. W. Marshall, The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy (2006); O. Zwierlein, Zur Kritik und Exegese des Plautus, 4 vols. (1990–1992). Moore writes (138), contra Marshall (2006: 241), “I doubt, though, that a significant amount of Roman comedy’s music was ‘composed in performance.’…Both actor and tibicen, knowing the playwright’s text, could work out in rehearsal the music of even the stichic sections with a great deal of certainty.”
3.   For easy entry into singing and scansion of the more straightforward meters see his “Don’t Skip the Meter! Introducing Students to the Music of Roman Comedy,” CJ 108 (2012/2013) 218–234; Recordings of Plautine Cantica. Armed with Moore’s information, teachers can create a productive class session, drawing on selected passages from Roman comedy and online materials to help students understand how Roman comic music might have sounded. For starters, I offer a relevant sampling of sounds and sights on YouTube. Videos from the 2012 NEH summer institute on “The Performance of Roman Comedy.” Folk pipes comparable (but not identical) to the tibiae: the Sardinian launeddas and Iranian sorna. Nasal singing techniques: Iranian folk song, Beijing opera. Gestural dance from Cambodia.

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