BMCR 2021.07.07

A companion to ancient Greek and Roman music

, , A companion to ancient Greek and Roman music. Blackwell companions to the ancient world . Hoboken: Wiley, 2020. Pp. 544. ISBN 9781119275497 $210.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Blackwell Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Music is an important and timely contribution to the growing body of scholarship concerning the study of music in the ancient world, greatly increasing accessibility and visibility for the discipline within, and ideally outside of, Classical studies. The Companion’s editors, Tosca A.C. Lynch and Eleonora Rocconi, have compiled attentive, comprehensive, and insightful introductions to the many sub-fields of the study of Greek and Roman music, resulting in this volume’s commendable utility for non-specialists and specialists alike. The editors are further to be applauded for soliciting contributions from both established and emerging scholars and for including representation from a wide array of universities and nationalities, thus fostering a true sense of the breadth of research trends in the discipline on both sides of the Atlantic. The Companion covers the topics related to music in both Greek and Roman cultures with admirable thoroughness, commendably allocating substantial attention to the meaningful consideration of Roman evidence. However, the three contributions concerning the reception of ancient music (Panti, Restani, and Castaldo) are necessarily selective, rather than exhaustive, and the Companion does not provide a systematic discussion of attempts to reconstruct ancient soundscapes through experimental archaeology, the reperformance of ancient scores, and the representation of ancient music in media, three areas which may well provide the first encounter with ancient music for many students and non-Classicists.

A brief Introduction, written by the volume’s editors (Lynch and Rocconi), provides an excellent summary of the history of the discipline and the current state of scholarship concerning music in both Greek and Roman cultures. The Introduction further establishes the thematic organization and purpose of the Companion: namely to “allow readers to gain an inclusive and ‘polyphonic’ understanding of the culture of mousikē in Greek and Roman antiquity” (5). The volume is accordingly divided into five collections of essays on related topics – I. Mythical Paradigms, II. Contexts and Practices, III. Conceptualizing Music, IV. Music and Society, and V. Rediscovering Ancient Music – rather than grouping contributions by chronological periods.[1] This organization makes the volume especially useful for scholars wanting to acquire an overview of individual areas of inquiry within the broader discipline of ancient music. The thematic structure of the volume, however, limits its use as a general introduction to ancient music or as a resource for scholars desirous of a concise historical overview of the discipline. Individual contributions are helpfully followed by suggestions for further reading, a limited number of endnotes, and extensive bibliographies on the specific topic discussed in that article. This self-contained layout admirably suits what I suspect will become one of the primary uses of the Companion: consultation of the individual contributions for research or teaching purposes. Therefore, although a supplementary combined bibliography might have been helpful for select readers, the addition of so many pages to an already lengthy volume would not have been justified.[2] Furthermore, the editors’ decisions to transliterate all Greek, provide translations of most Latin and Greek (including most titles of works), and to employ internal citations[3] greatly increase the accessibility of this volume for students and the broader academic community interested in ancient musical culture. Although the volume is provided with ample cross-references that enable readers to chart their own path through related topics, the absence of an over-arching chronological framework may prove disadvantageous to a broader readership outside Classics (e.g., music historians), who would otherwise benefit greatly from the individual essays, since the historical and cultural contextualization of specific topics varies greatly across the volume. A specific example of this phenomenon is Egert Pöhlmann’s contribution (Acoustics), which provides excellent depth of analysis of the philosophers and schools he chooses to discuss, but which neglects to provide any clear historical or chronological framework, even for philosophers who are unfamiliar outside of specialist circles. At a minimum, the Companion should have provided consistent parenthetical dating for authors and texts under discussion to supplement its other commendable efforts towards broad accessibility within and outside Classics.

Although the space constraints for this review make it impossible to go into detail about each individual contribution, particular highlights include the following articles (listed in order of appearance in the Companion) that either approach existing material from new perspectives or introduce new approaches to the study of ancient music. LeVen’s discussion of Pan and natural soundscapes explores the ambivalent relationship between Greeks and Romans and the natural world and opens up a new avenue for the discussion of music in pastoral poetry. The emphasis on music as an inherent feature of Roman culture in Moore’s article about Roman drama effectively counters the persistent stereotype that Roman culture was unmusical, if not openly anti-musical.[4] Melidis’ article on vocal training and technique provides a valuable template for the judicious use of modern musical practice to help elucidate confusion and/or lacunae in ancient sources concerning musical training and performance practice. Franklin’s article delivers a rare but much-needed attempt to connect Greek musical culture to that of other near-Eastern cultures,[5] including his exceptional complication of the Greek stereotypes of foreignness (barbarity) associated with music (233), echoed later in the volume by Griffith (383-384; 389-392). Of these contributions focused on philosophical discourse, Rocconi’s discussion of aesthetics forms a particular highlight through her careful explication of the differences between ancient and modern assumptions about the beauty of music. Schulz provides a stimulating exploration of the evidence for the role of music in Roman rhetorical training and practice, again exemplifying that music was hardly excluded from Roman cultural experience. And finally, De Simone’s article on music and gender provides a much-needed exploration of the topic that moves beyond the sensationalizing overemphasis on auletridae, the women musicians who often doubled as sex workers at Greek symposia. Other notable passages include Ieranò’s thought provoking reading of Euripides’ Bacchae (43-44); Martinelli’s case study of P.Oslo inv. 1413 (108-110); Bundrick’s discussion of the Amiternum relief (122) and her suggestion that a musical score may be present on an Athenian hydria (124); Ercoles’ excellent discussion of parakatalogē (132) in his lucid summary of music in classical Greek drama; Power’s brief suggestion that Theocritus’ Idyll 15 includes a reference to an agon specifically for women musicians (189); and Dessì’s discussion of the use of music in Roman imperial spectacle (437-440). Barker (on harmonics) and Lynch (on rhythmics) both provide exemplary presentations of complex technical material explicitly designed for non-specialists, and, although Hagel’s discussion of musical notation is somewhat harder for non-specialists to follow,[6] his conclusion that most modern transcriptions of ancient Greek notation are “at least a minor third too high” (304) is certainly correct and logically presented. I also find Hagel’s conclusion about the circulation and use of musical scores (309) more persuasive than Martinelli’s restrictive interpretation of similar evidence (112), although I am deeply appreciative that the editors chose to include both perspectives in the Companion and resisted the temptation here (and elsewhere in the volume) to oversimplify the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the discipline.

Despite the impressive depth and breadth of the discussions included in the Companion, there were instances where I would have liked to have seen particular topics explored in greater detail. I was particularly disturbed by the absence of any detailed discussion of Minoan or Mycenean music apart from brief mentions by Terzēs (215) and Griffith (389), and a bibliographic endnote in Ieranò (45). In addition to an overly brief analysis of the complex genre known as the nomos(29), Rutherford’s omission of the broad Latin poetic tradition surrounding Apollo formed one of the few instances where Greek source material was not balanced by Roman evidence, either within a contribution or by another contributor.  Perrot’s concentration on case studies of three theaters (Athens, Epidaurus, Delphi) and two odea (Athens, Pompeii) neglected discussion of the wide distribution of theatrical space throughout the Mediterranean, perhaps leaving non-specialists with the impression that theatrical culture and performance were more limited than the evidence actually suggests. Galasso’s discussion of musical transformations, while providing stimulating readings, warranted greater development in, for example, the discussions of Syrinx (76-78) and Marsyas (83). Fernández’s perspective that Roman choral dance is “the appropriation of Greek cultural heritage” (174) undermined her subsequent discussion of Roman religious dance (175-177), while conforming to the scholarly prejudice that Roman artistic production is inherently inferior to and derivative of Greek models. The editorial decision to devote only a single article to musical instruments placed its author, Terzēs, in an awkward position, necessitating a hyper-restricted focus on the two primary instruments of Greek musical culture: the lyre/kithara and the aulos/tibia. Consequently, the Companion lacks any systematic discussion of the typology, function, and cultural implications of other instruments and instrument families, which only receive occasional references in other contributions. The connected sequence of four articles that address the many discussions of music by ancient philosophers (Raffa, Rocconi, Pelosi, Provenza) necessarily had a lot of overlap in their sources, and I might have wished that the editors encouraged these contributors to explore other sources for their topics. For example, Raffa’s brief discussion of Sempronia’s and Calpurnia’s musical education left me wanting a more thorough explication (315), while Pelosi’s omission of the perspective of poets from his discussion of music and the emotions seems surprising. And finally, Panti’s contribution would have benefitted from greater contextualization of her sources for readers unfamiliar with late antique or medieval authors and musical traditions.

The hardback edition of the Companion is well-constructed and appears durable, and the volume is provided with a comprehensive index. Considering the length and variety of subject matter, typographical errors and inconsistencies are remarkably rare. However, the following should be noted: the omission of Franklin 2013, referenced on page 40, from the bibliography following Ieranò’s article; the odd partial translation of the title “On Mousikoi Agōnes” (188); “Hesiodos” (204), where the Companion normally uses Latinized authorial names (i.e., Hesiod); “ascenting and descenting” for ascending and descending (218); “Sophokles” (234) instead of Sophocles; and “cinetic” (245) instead of the more normal spelling, kinetic. Only one significant error caught my attention: a mistake in the diagram illustrating the division of the octave into two disjunct tetrachords (258, in Barker’s contribution on Harmonics), whereby the left-hand line demonstrating the “fifth” does not extend across the tone separating the tetrachords and consequently is presented as equal in length to the “fourth” above it. Unfortunately, this relatively minor error in formatting could easily mislead a reader unfamiliar with either the tetrachordal system of ancient Greek theory or the modern musical terms, rendering an already difficult subject (Greek scale construction) even more confusing, even though the associated text is clearly and concisely written.

Chapter Titles and Authors

“Introduction” (Eleonora Rocconi and Tosca A.C. Lynch)

Part I Mythical Paradigms
1 “The Mythology of the Muses” (Penelope Murray)
2 “Apollo and Music” (Ian Rutherford)
3 “Dionysus and the Ambiguity of Orgiastic Music” (Giorgio Ieranò)
4 “Pan and the Music of Nature” (Pauline LeVen)
5 “Musical Heroes” (Susanna Sarti)
6 “Musical Metamorphoses in the Roman World” (Luigi Galasso)

Part II Contexts and Practices
7 “Ancient Musical Performance in Context: Places, Settings, and Occasions” (Sylvain Perrot)
8 “Documenting Music” (Maria Chiara Martinelli)
9 “Visualizing Music” (Sheramy D. Bundrick)
10 “Music in Classical Greek Drama” (Marco Ercoles)
11 “Music in Roman Drama” (Timothy J. Moore)
12 “Ancient Greek Choreia” (Naomi A. Weiss)
13 “Roman Dance” (Zoa Alonso Fernández)
14 “Musical Competitors and Competitions in Greece and Rome” (Timothy Power)
15 “The Vocal Art in Greek and Roman Antiquity” (Konstantinos Melidis)
16 “Musical Instruments of Greek and Roman Antiquity” (Chrēstos Terzēs)
17 “Ancient Greek Music and the Near East” (John C. Franklin)

Part III Conceptualizing Music: Musical Theory and Thought
18 “Acoustics” (Egert Pöhlmann)
19 “Harmonics” (Andrew Barker)
20 “Rhythmics” (Tosca A.C. Lynch)
21 “Notation” (Stefan Hagel)
22 “Music in Greek and Roman Education” (Massimo Raffa)
23 “Musical Aesthetics” (Eleonora Rocconi)
24 “Music and Emotions” (Francesco Pelosi)
25 “Music and Medicine” (Antonietta Provenza)
26 “The Music of the Words in Roman Rhetoric” (Verena Schulz)

Part IV Music and Society: Musical Identities, Ideology, and Politics
27 “Between Local and Global: Music and Cultural Identity in Ancient Greece” (Mark Griffith)
28 “Music and Gender in Greek and Roman Culture: Female Performers and Composers” (Mariella De Simone)
29 “‘Old’ and ‘New’ Music: The Ideology of Mousikē” (Armand D’Angour)
30 “The Politics of Theater Music in Fifth‐ and Fourth‐Century Greece” (Eric Csapo and Peter Wilson)
31 “Music, Power, and Propaganda in Julio‐Claudian Imperial Rome (27 BC–68 AD)” (Paola Dessì)

Part V Rediscovering Ancient Music: The Cultural Heritage of Mousikē
32 “The Reception of Greek Music Theory in the Middle Ages: Boethius and the Portraits of Ancient Musicians” (Cecilia Panti)
33 “Ancient Greek Music in Early Modern Italy: Performance and Self‐Representation” (Donatella Restani)
34 “The Visual Heritage: Images of Ancient Music before and after the Rediscovery of Pompeii” (Daniela Castaldo)

“Diagrams of the Ancient Modes (Harmoniai) as Aulos and Lyre Tunings” (Tosca A.C. Lynch)


[1] Contrast, for example, the largely chronological ordering of the two other books most likely to be employed for introductory coursework or independent reading: M.L. West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) and J.G. Landels, Music in Ancient Greece and Rome(Routledge: New York, 2000).

[2] Readers in search of a combined bibliography for the discipline of ancient music would do well to consult De Musicis, an annotated bibliography published online by the MOISA Society and accessible through MOISA’s website:

[3] Contributions also include a small number of endnotes, which are generally reserved for complicated bibliographical discussions and comments on material tangential to the primary focus of the contribution.

[4] E.g. Landels, “The role of music in Roman life and literature was very limited indeed compared with its all-pervading influence in Greek culture,” (Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, 172).

[5] See also Franklin’s definitive exploration of the history of the lyre in the eastern Mediterranean in his monograph Kinyras: The Divine Lyre (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016).

[6] For example, Hagel’s diagram of the notational system (299) is far more complex and confusing than West’s presentation of the same material in Ancient Greek Music (256-257); however, Hagel’s contribution to the Companion is substantially more approachable than the relevant passages from his monograph, Ancient Greek Music: A New Technical History (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2009).