BMCR 2006.07.46

Music and Image in Classical Athens

, Music and image in classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi, 256 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm. ISBN 0521848067 $80.00.

Bundrick (henceforth B.) presents a thorough discussion of the iconographical evidence for the role of music in Athens in the fifth century, during which the rise of democracy coincided with rapid advances in musical performance and a flourishing of musical imagery in the visual arts. The author notes that pictorial evidence for many aspects of musical activity in the fifth century is more plentiful than literary evidence, much of which dates from the fourth century or later. This gives us the opportunity to expand our understanding of the classical perception of music from that which can be drawn from literary sources alone. The book produces some measured conclusions about how and why the presentation by Athenian artists of various aspects of music-making changes through the course of the fifth century.

The introductory Chapter 1, “Music and Image in Fifth Century Athens” sets out B.’s premise. Athens, arriving on the musical scene after some other Greek states, in the sixth century laid the foundations for the rapid development of musical activity and discussion in the fifth. Musical imagery on vases in the sixth century had a limited number of contexts and subjects — mainly Apollo and a few other musicians, Panathenaic contests, and symposia. As Athens becomes a centre for musical innovation in the fifth century (witnessing the rise of the technically challenging “New Music”), the iconography of music also changes. B. argues that this alteration of subjects and scenes is not coincidental, and presents three concepts central to the change: first, the discipline of mousike and its social role in the increasingly institutionalised education amongst the elite in Athens; second, the theory of ethos and its context in the Athenian perception of character; and third, the idea of harmonia, reflected in the tuning of a musical instrument and used as a metaphor for the stability of the polis. While none of these concepts works entirely independently from the literary evidence, B. shows how our understanding of the attitudes to music in fifth-century Athens can by dramatically expanded by the visual material.

Chapter 2, “Representing Musical Instruments” systematically covers images and the significance of stringed instruments (chelys lyre, kithara, barbitos, phorminx, Thracian kithara, and harp), wind instruments (aulos, syrinx, and salpinx), and percussion. In relation to stringed instruments, the author notes that while the terminology in literary sources can be imprecise, the visual evidence is consistent and clear in the associations of particular instruments. For example, the chelys lyre has connotations of the elite and the amateur, the kithara of competitions and virtuosi. Further, the semantic value of particular instruments in literature can be expanded by the visual sources. In particular, the aulos’ negative image in some fourth-century literature (especially in Plato Republic 399d and Aristotle Politics 1341a) is contrasted with its appearance in vase paintings in a wide variety of contexts in the fifth century. It occurs in scenes depicting the respectable education of boys of the elite, but it is present also in raucous and erotic scenes. Where our literary evidence for the fifth century is limited, B. argues that there is significant visual material. By the fourth century the aulos is strongly associated with New Music and the increasing professionalism of music, which possibly explains Plato and Aristotle’s lack of enthusiasm for it.

With the significance of each instrument established, the third chapter ” Mousike : The Art of the Muses” turns to the first of the three concepts anticipated in the introduction. It outlines how mousike formed the backbone, along with athletics ( gymnastike), of the traditional education ( archaia paideia) associated with the elite classes, and then uses visual imagery to interpret changing attitudes to music in education. B. arranges her discussion for this and the following two chapters into scene types. The discussion first focuses on the art of the Muses (instrumental music, dance and the singing of poetry), and the introduction of new iconography representing the Muses not just as companions for Apollo, but as musical virtuosi. They promote the benefits of music as a cultural and educational good, but they appear less frequently on vases by the end of the fifth century. The role of music as a social good is supported by images representing the idea of a mousikos aner (a phrase used by Plato in the Laws), suggesting one who is in possession of an elite education and, among other things, is capable of contributing an appropriate performance at a symposion. Presentations of this idea become less frequent during the fifth century with the rise of the power of the demos and the refocusing of education on rhetoric and literacy. Other types of scene include those depicting Herakles and Linos, the music teacher he murdered. These scenes further emphasise the civilising nature of mousike in contrast with Herakles’ behaviour. Representations of mousike and gymnastike together on the same vase reflect the combined role they play in Athenian education. B. discusses the changing attitude to music in the fifth century in her discussion of music and the symposion. During the course of the fifth century, B. argues, the symposion becomes more democratic, and the elite education required to participate musically as a guest is considered old fashioned compared with a new style of symposion which increasingly employs professional, often female, entertainers. The chapter closes with a discussion of citizen women and their relationship to mousike. Although the literary sources make no reference to women receiving musical education, we do find images of them making music in domestic settings amid the general increase of images of women during the fifth century. B. argues that although these women may represent hetairai, Muses or other mythological figures, the domestic setting of many of these images suggests that these are respectable citizens, and she effectively examines this evidence in the light of what we can know about the lives of Athenian women.

Chapter 4, ” Ethos and the Character of Musical Imagery” opens with a discussion of the idea of ethos, which considers how music affects character or behaviour. Although the concept occurs early in Greek literature (B. uses the example of the Sirens in the Odyssey), there is little literary material until theoretical discussion in the fourth century. Again, the lack of fifth-century literary sources is contrasted with the range of visual evidence. The chapter focuses on the musical iconography of four mythological figures: Dionysos, Orpheus, Thamyris, and Marsyas. In the discussion of images of Dionysos, B. recalls the opposing associations of Dionysos with the aulos and Apollo with the lyre and argues that modern scholars have exaggerated the Greeks’ view that the aulos is something wild to be rejected by the polis. She argues, as she does in Chapter 2, that the aulos had a legitimate place in Athenian society and that music (and drinking) in the context of the symposion are seen to have kathartic function and are therefore beneficial in moderation. The images of Orpheus demonstrate again the issue of the effect of music on listeners: they primarily focus on Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Thracian women and, later in the fifth century, on Orpheus with the Thracian men. B. suggests that both scene types refer to music’s ability to arouse the emotions. Two further figures which appear regularly in the iconography, Thamyris and Marsyas, are depicted as examples of how a lack of moderation in musical matters is devastating. The third and final of B.’s essential concepts is the subject of Chapter 5, ” Harmonia and the Life of the City”, in which she argues that harmonia, an idea connected primarily with music in the sixth century, develops social and political connotations in the fifth. Visual images of instruments and performance in scenes of sacrifice, musical contests, and weddings represent a broader idea of harmonia of the household and the polis. B. highlights the role of Apollo as a musician, who appears profusely on vases in the fifth century and embodies ideas of harmonia and eunomia, and suggests how images of Apollo can be seen to promote and support democratic values. Further, the rise in representations of cult ritual — including images of musicians, for example in processions and in the rituals associated with sacrifice — exemplify the civic associations of music and harmonia. Similarly, changes during the fifth century to representations of musical contests show a shift from elitist to democratic priorities. They coincide with and confirm the rise and popularity of professional musicians and virtuosi, reflected in the emphasis on the individuality of performers on some vase scenes. B. argues that these and other changes to the iconography (representations of Nike, judges of musical competitions, aulodic contests, and changes in vase shapes), reflect changes that Perikles made to the musical competitions of the Panathenaia. Continuing her discussion of representations of music in institutional performance, B. examines depictions of music in the theatre (with due caution about the possibilities of identifying theatre productions with certainty), in which the aulos was the principal instrument. Similarly, B. emphasises the civic and social function of harmonia in her discussion of representations of music as part of different stages of the wedding ritual. The final type of scene examined is that of Harmonia personified, as a bride (of Kadmos), with Aphrodite or the Muses, with Eunomia, and in domestic scenes. The brief, concluding chapter 6, “Musical Revolution in Classical Athens”, suggests that the sudden fall in the representation of certain types of musical scene on vases at the end of the fifth century reflects again a change in social attitudes.

The book is beautifully presented and richly illustrated with over 100 black and white photographs, mostly of vases (which have been well reproduced), and is practically free from typographical errors (I noticed only one, “annd” on p. 51). There is a brief but useful glossary which includes both musical and Greek cultural terms — it might also have been helpful to include further terms relevant to material culture for those more familiar with literary and philosophical evidence. There is an extensive bibliography.

Music and Image in Classical Athens provides a valuable contribution to the discussion of the social significance of music in Ancient Greece. With a thorough examination of a wide range of visual evidence, B. constructs a coherent narrative about the significance of musical images. While some sections are more compelling than others — the chapter on harmonia as metaphor for the stability of the democratic polis is less consistently convincing than the sections on mousike and ethos — each chapter contains stimulating discussion about the semantic value of each type scene. B. demonstrates clearly the dangers of overlooking the visual evidence in favour of literary sources, and thereby encourages a cross-disciplinary approach to the study of ancient music.