BMCR 2023.06.07

Music and memory in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds

, , Music and memory in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781108831666.


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


Amid increasing attention to ancient music and sound studies, the volume under review brings together scholars working on topics of “music and memory” across the disciplines of classics, and especially “to bridge the often surprisingly wide divide” between such scholars working on Greece and those working on Rome (5).[1] Editors Lauren Curtis and Naomi Weiss make clear these themes are understood capaciously to accommodate wide-ranging interdisciplinary perspectives on how music communicates, constructs, and transforms memory at both individual and cultural levels. The volume does not address technical, theoretical, or organological aspects of music, but makes a valuable contribution to the study of premodern performance cultures with a welcome focus on the sources of their transmission. Readers may find the collection especially insightful at the intersection of its themes: that is, regarding the media that preserve the cultural memory of music in the ancient Mediterranean. Several essays also demonstrate how productive cultural and critical theory can be for approaching and framing the study of ancient performance.

Mark Griffith completes the opening section with “a survey of ancient Greek ideas about music and memory” (26). Griffith posits an etic distinction between individual and collective memory, arguing that Greek writers appear not to recognize individual memory, but widely discuss collective memory. He argues further that in contrast to the value placed on music’s verbal components, “the purely musical elements (melody, rhythm, timbre, etc.) do not seem to be recognized as being especially significant or memorable” (27). While verbal components may have been more valued in some contexts, this is an odd point to argue. Griffith’s claim bespeaks a logocentric perspective of Greek culture that ignores, among other things, the extensive visual record of responses to instrumental music. But there are textual sources that complicate the argument as well. For example, Griffith concedes that certain melodies like “the aulos tunes of Olympus” were easily recognized but adds that sources do not say what effect such recognition had on the listeners (31, n. 21); he further concludes that “we do not find Greek writers describing the phenomenon” of listeners experiencing mental, spiritual, and physiological alterations through music (35). But in Plato’s Symposium (215b8-e3), Alcibiades explains at length how his own experience of listening to Socrates makes his heart race and tears flow, reminding him of the divine power of the aulos when it plays the tunes of Olympus.[2] Against Griffith’s argument, this passage offers an individual recollection of mental, spiritual, and physiological responses to the affective power of “purely musical elements,” and there are others one can adduce. While Greek writers may not have written about individual memories of music in the same way that modern writers have, it is misleading to suggest that Greek musical culture lacks individual memory.

Addressing performances preserved in archival texts, the three essays of Part II engage closely with Diana Taylor, whose work explores cultural memory in the Americas by considering the “repertoire,” with its ephemeral, embodied modes of cultural transmission, alongside the more conventional, hegemonic “archive” of texts and artifacts.[3] Within this framework, Sarah Olsen examines Plutarch’s account of how Theseus commemorated his Cretan exploits at Delos through both a dedicated statue (archive) and a choral dance tradition (repertoire). But Plutarch’s description of how the Athenians preserved Theseus’ ship complicates the typical archive-repertoire categories, since the ship is an archival object that dissipates into the ongoing performance of its repair and replacement. Olsen concludes with a compelling reading of Plutarch’s style as evoking the labyrinthine dance forms it describes, an experience that potentially activated embodied memory for its readers. As both archival object and cultural medium for recalling the repertoire, Plutarch’s text thus “transmits and transforms the archive and repertoire” (80).

Lauren Curtis reconsiders Livy’s interest in documenting a significant early moment in Roman appropriation of Greek culture. In response to the portent of a hermaphrodite during the Second Punic War, the decemvirs decreed that a chorus of twenty-seven young maidens must expiate the prodigy, dancing to a hymn by Livius Andronicus. Despite Livy’s choice not to record the hymn directly for aesthetic reasons, Curtis’ reading underscores how Livy presents the episode as engaging past and current musical rites at Rome, while also inaugurating a new tradition through the technologies of re-performance and official archives. Expiatory hymns of this type are logged in archival documents that allowed re-performance for over a century. Curtis compellingly concludes that Livy’s omission of the original song’s lyrics is in fact an essential part of the reader’s experience, one that allows the commemorative structures of his own archival text to re-create this musical culture for readers based on their own familiarity with Roman traditions. Taking up the carmen of the Arval Brethren, Zoa Alonso Fernández offers us lyrics that have been transmitted, focusing on an inscription considered to be “the oldest surviving Latin liturgical text” (107). Beginning with Varro’s notion of memory as illustrated through two principal methods (inscribed monuments and ritual dance), Alonso Fernández introduces social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s work, distinguishing “inscribing practices” (monuments) from “incorporating practices” that specifically use the body (dance).[4] Alonso Fernández shows how this fourth-century BCE song was reperformed and documented for centuries through the Brethren’s inscribed minutes or Acta. While these Acta constitute an “inscribing” practice at one level, Alonso Fernández argues for a two-way relationship between the written and the performed: her essay concludes with a reading of the inscribed Arval hymn’s choreography as a practice of “incorporation,” one that created “a unifying space of ritual co-participation, where they effectively consolidated their status as an elite religious body” (116).

The following two essays comprising Part III address “technologies of musical memory.” Yvona Trnka-Amrhein brings us to Alexandria to consider how two early Ptolemaic epigrammatists use the language of technology to craft complementary discourses about musical memory. Emphasizing the presence of Arion’s lyre at the Temple of Arsinoe at Zephyrium, Posidippus celebrates Greece’s musical past while looking forward to the object’s potential in a Hellenistic context. Much like Livy’s maiden chorus (Curtis, above), Posidippus thus preserves Arion’s music for a later context—promptings for the subject to reminisce and re-create the legendary performance. Hedylus commemorates another dedicated object at Zephyrium, specifically a rhyton in the image of Bes attributed to the engineer, Ctesibius. But instead of building a context for individual reminiscence, Hedylus’ rhyton uses pneumatic automata to provide eternal, direct access to a recorded tune, one that blends Greek and Egyptian cultural traditions. The nature of these sources necessitates many assumptions along the way, but Trnka-Amrhein’s essay highlights an important cross-cultural moment of technological efforts to preserve musical memory while removing the ephemerality of performer and occasion. Peter McMurray offers a broader, more diachronic perspective focused on the sonic (after)lives of walls, or “teichoacoustics.” In contrast to the wall as anti-medium that divides and repels, McMurray cites media theorist Friedrich Kittler to cast the wall as an object of sonic mediation that “stores, processes, and transmits” the auditory phenomena that make up cultural activity (155). [5] It is through Troy’s walls, for example, that Helen in the Iliad is demarcated as a weaver who can recreate epic in another medium; then as viewer atop the wall, she herself becomes “an extension of the wall, engaging in the bard’s primary activity of transducing incoming signals…” (160). Moving to tragedy, McMurray traces how sonic engagements at the walls of Thebes span choral reminiscence of the city’s sonic founding, the violent din of its siege, and its mournful aftermath. In closing, McMurray considers the inscription of hymns to Apollo on the Athenian treasury along with records of their performance histories, where the wall performs its functions of storing sonic data and social context.

The next three essays of Part IV center on audiences, beginning with Tim Power’s piece on the Athenian audience of Aristophanes’ Frogs. Power investigates how in the parodos, the audience would have experienced the unseen chorus crying “Iacchus,” a shout familiar from the ritual procession from Athens to Eleusis during the Great Mysteries. Citing sound theorist R. Murray Schafer, he identifies the cry as a “soundmark,” a distinctive sound that evokes a culturally privileged ritual or set of associations (183).[6] Power traces the development of the cry itself, underscoring the procession’s total suspension in the decade leading up to Aristophanes play (save for Alcibiades’ notably silent procession in 407, an event that must have exacerbated nostalgia for the traditional cry). Power makes a compelling argument that the cry’s dramatic unfolding from unseen sound to an embodied chorus in the underworld would have inspired “shared exuberance, hopefulness, and feelings of unity,” an “acoustic emblem of Aristophanes’ salvific vision of harmonious political reintegration” (192-3). Conceiving of an ancient Greek audience in a much broader sense, Naomi Weiss explores how images of animal choruses on archaic sympotic vases would have engaged a viewer’s experience of performance. Rightly resisting the tendency to connect images with specific performances or productions, Weiss admittedly brings a wide lens to her investigation of “theatrical” performances, focusing on how the images may have activated individual and collective memory. This wide lens allows Weiss to establish broad continuities in cultural memory of performance. Although readers may not accept every aspect of her identifications, her essay offers an insightful reading of how the affective potentialities of choreia proliferate in these types of images.

Bringing us to a Roman theatrical audience, Timothy Moore shows how Roman comedy relied upon audience memory of metrical patterns for some of its key effects. Making comparisons with American musicals, Moore argues that audience memory in Roman comedy drew upon metrical repetition both within individual plays and across other plays more generally. Moore demonstrates these claims through the case study of musical memory in Plautus’ Amphitruo, where four different metrical motifs (iambic senarii, trochaic septenarii, iambic octonarii, and bacchiacs) engage previous scenes as well as other plays to create the effect of “generic uncertainty surrounding this unique tragicomoedia” (256). Moore’s judicious analysis of the twenty-nine bacchiacs in Alcumena’s song is highly suggestive of the viability of metrical repetition as a culturally marked form, showing how nuanced musical memory can be in effecting the aesthetics of a tragicomoedia like Amphitruo.

The final section on “music and memorialization” extends the volume’s scope beyond archival texts and inscriptions to material objects of commemoration for the dead. Seth Estrin offers a well-argued essay on how the mournful sirens of classical Attic funerary monuments bring their viewers into a process of remembrance and lament precisely by highlighting the limits of stone and the monument’s lack of voice. Estrin shows through several examples how such sirens are vulnerable, pathetic figures lacking scale and often occupying a nonexistent architectural space, but nevertheless analogous to the human figures in their sculptures through shared postures. This paradox becomes meaningful, for Estrin, through the siren’s notorious feature of musical control. “Poised on the edge, as if on the tip of the monument’s tongue, the Siren recalls and anticipates lament—gives it a permanent form and image—while leaving the production of its ephemeral sound to us” (286). Shifting our attention from Athenian funerary monuments to white-ground lekythoi, Sheramy Bundrick’s essay completes the volume with a nuanced discussion of music and musical instruments on these funerary vessels. Bundrick carefully situates scenes on lekythoi not as photographic or documentary, but as cultural and ideological constructions layered with memory. While music is not an especially common theme, it is widespread and typically suggests reminiscence between the object’s user and the deceased (often depicted as a ghost or eidōlon). Such scenes feature the primitive tortoise-shell lyre or archaizing phorminx, suggesting the solace of music after death, musical education as a marker of status in life, and even the more elevated and archaizing memory of achievements in life (kleos andrōn). While the subjects in such scenes are often male, Bundrick reviews an important group of lekythoi showing that women, too, would perform, commemorate, and remember through music.


Authors and Titles

Part I: Approaching Music and Memory

Lauren Curtis and Naomi Weiss, “Introduction”

Mark Griffith, “Music, Memory, and the (Ancient Greek) Imagination”


Part II: Music, Body, and Textual Archives

Sarah Olsen, “Musical Memory on Delos: Theseus in the Archive and the Repertoire”

Lauren Curtis, “Remembered but Not Recorded: The Strange Case of Rome’s Maiden Chorus”

Zoa Alonso Fernández, “Incorporating Memory in Roman Song and Dance: The Case of the Arval Cult”


Part III: Technologies of Musical Memory

Yvona Trnka-Amrhein, “Do Alexandrians Dream of Electric Sound? Recording Music in the Early Ptolemaic Empire”

Peter McMurray, “Teichoacoustics, or the Wall as Sonic Medium in Antiquity”


Part IV: Audience, Music, and Repertoire

Tim Power, “Iacchus Resonatus: Sound, Memory, and Salvation in Aristophanes’ Frogs

Naomi Weiss, “Performance, Memory, and Affect: Animal Choruses in Attic Vase Painting”

Timothy J. Moore, “Meter, Music, and Memory in Roman Comedy”


Part V: Music and Memorialization

Seth Estrin, “Sirens on the Edge of the Classical Attic Funerary Monument”

Sheramy D. Bundrick, “Music as Mnēma on Athenian White-Ground Lekythoi



[1] See, e.g., Shane Butler and Sarah Nooter (eds.), Sound and the Ancient Senses (London and New York: 2018); Tom Phillips and Armand D’Angour (eds.), Music, Text, and Culture in Ancient Greece (Oxford: 2018); Tosca Lynch and Eleonora Rocconi (eds.), A Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Music (Hoboken: 2020); Pauline LeVen and Sean Gurd (eds.), A Cultural History of Music, Vol. 1, Antiquity (London: forthcoming).

[2] On the aulos tunes of Olympus, see especially Andrew Barker’s essay, “The Music of Olympus” in Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 99.3 (2011: 43–57).

[3] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: 2003).

[4] Paul Connerton’s study of collective memory, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: 1989), recognizes the centrality of embodiment in the social reproduction of memory. The idea of performance as an “act of transfer” (39) proves foundational for Diana Taylor’s model.

[5] Friedrich Kittler’s essay, “The City is a Medium” in New Literary History 27.4 (1996: 717-29).

[6] R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, VT: 1994).