BMCR 2023.09.39

Musique et danse dans le monde gréco-romain: l’apport des papyrus

, , Musique et danse dans le monde gréco-romain: l'apport des papyrus. Cahiers du CEDOPAL, 10. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2022. Pp. 121. ISBN 9782875623317

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


This is a 121-page book containing a mere four papers, carrying, however, a rather grandiloquent title that promises that it will inform the reader about the contribution of papyrological sources to the history of music and dance in the Greco-Roman world.

The Centre de Documentation de Papyrologie Littéraire series is intended to be easily accessible , aimed at a wide public, and showcasing the state of the art in papyrology, not restricted to the literary papyri that are CEDOPAL’s primary brief, but embracing all of ancient“culture, daily life and society.”

This volume, originating in an international day of study in Liège in 2019, is, according to the introduction, indeed aimed at a general public—a public that is said to be showing a mounting interest in the music and dance of the Greco-Roman world, because of recent archaeological and papyrological advances and, more generally, because such an interest is in tune with the centrality of the auditory and visual in our contemporary society. This public, however, did not have recourse to any publications in French outlining the important contribution of papyri—supposedly a keenly-felt need that this volume sets out to fulfil. Its focus is on papyri carrying musical notation and papyri informing us about performances and performers. Almost all examples are from Greco-Roman Egypt, so understandably (but unfortunately, if the full scope of our papyrological evidence is to be addressed) there is no mention of the Daphne papyrus, which has no musical notation, and dates to the 5th century BC.[1] Less easy to understand is why early Christian sources are neglected.[2]

When we delve into this volume, we cannot but conclude that “the general public” will be scared away: there is lots of Greek (most of it fragmentary, accompanied by equally fragmentary translations), there is quite a good deal of scholarly annotation, and probably more scholarly jargon than the average reader is prepared to cope with. That being said, the four papers are interesting enough. The introduction by Marganne and Nocchi Macedo on the other hand, can only be described as disappointing: it offers some information on papyrology at Liège and its musicological dimension, but does not say a word about what exactly we should understand by dance and music in Antiquity—even the crucial concept of mousikē goes unmentioned. The uninitiated are left to fend for themselves without any clue or context. With the first paper, they are plunged in medias res.

Egert Pöhlmann sketches in very broad brushstrokes the historiography of notated Greek music from Vincenzo Galilei in the late 16th century onwards, then continues with six thematic paragraphs: on the relationship between melody and prosody; Greek hymns with musical notation; music for the stage in the 5th and 4th centuries BC; post-classical tragic texts set to music in the imperial period; more specifically: the prologue of a tragedy about Orestes, and a scene from the Medea by Karkinos. This chapter does a reasonable job as a general introduction to the subject of music in epigraphic (!) and papyrological sources—in the limited space allotted. However, sentences like “Les péans delphiques sont des examples remarquables aussi bien de la forme astrophique de West, que des mélodies qui reflètent la prosodie des textes poétiques respectifs” seem to presuppose a certain amount of prior knowledge; a newcomer to the study of ancient music might find this somewhat daunting. Pöhlmann’s introductory text is limited to music: it should be noted there is no such general overview of dance anywhere in the book.

From this establishing tableau we progress to a single papyrus: Sylvain Perrot discusses the transmission of Greek music on the basis of P. Yale CtYBR inv. 4510.[3] Taking CtYBR 4510 as an example (but referring to several other papyri as well) Perrot explains how to approach a papyrus with musical notation. He discusses the possibilities, but also the many difficulties: the “aléas” of his title. These include the crucial issue of transmission: is the music that is notated with a fragment of tragedy a composition by the original tragedian, or by some later adapter? Much of what one would have expected of an introduction is to be found here. CtYBR 4510 shows itself not very amenable to the drawing of any firm conclusions, but that is not Perrot’s point. His paper is a model of clarity, elucidating both papyrological and musicological methodology. Nevertheless, some parts of his account as well will be over the heads of the “general audience.”

Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux asks whether the papyri with musical notation were supposed to give indications about dance. In some instances this is impossible to say, in others it is quite likely, considering the fact that music and dance commonly went together, especially in a theatrical context. It turns out that Delavaud-Roux is actually in pursuit of a different problem, namely whether dancers were singing at the same time, or were accompanied by others. In an extensive analysis of musical examples, she rejects the arguments of those who have stated the virtual impossibility of dancing and singing at the same time, usually because of a supposed shortage of breath. I think she could have spared herself the trouble: I have watched countless dancers, often elderly, around the Mediterranean who obviously had quite enough breath to dance and sing for hours on end.

Delavaud-Roux moves off in several quite speculative directions, such as an attempt at establishing a possible correspondence between scales and the part performed by the dancer-singer or chorus. She concludes that the audience’s recognition of the characters on stage depended less on the vocal aspect and more on the kinetic (which makes the dance “indispensable” (p.72); but how about masks and the poetry itself?) and that the tempi were likely to be rather slow (because of the singing and dancing at the same time). I cannot really find fault with her conclusions, but I do not think they arise from the papyri. Musical notation allows the study of ancient music, and not of ancient dance – something Delavaud-Roux almost seems to admit herself when she writes “les quelques partitions que nous avons etudiées ne prouvent pas de manière absolue qu’elles ont été écrites pour la danse” (p.72).

This is not to say that the papyri have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the study of ancient dance. But then we have to approach them in a different way, and also turn to a different kind of papyrus. Mathilde Kaisin in the most substantial contribution to this volume, attempts to give something like a complete conspectus of musical life in Roman Oxyrhynchus. To this end she discusses the papyri with musical notation, the papyri with fragments of musical treatises, and relevant documentary papyri. As to the notated music, she offers a detailed discussion of nine papyri (P. Oxy 25.2436; 44.3161; 53.3704-5; 65.4461, 4463-5, 4467), followed by an equally detailed examination of P. Oxy 36.2746, a fragment of a post-classical tragedy with “stage directions,” marking some lines as “song,” and P. Oxy 79.5203, a list of compositions by the choraules Epagathos and others. More summarily are the overviews of the fragmentary musical treatises, and documentary papyri mentioning the technitai, the professional actor-dancers who were part of travelling troupes of theatrical performers, and the agonistic tradition concerning musical competitions in Oxyrhynchus or competitions elsewhere in which Oxyrhynchites partook. All texts seem to belong to the same “production musicale écrite ‘savante’” (p.108), the relics of a rich musical culture. In addition, Kaisin distinguishes a more ‘popular’ form of entertainment, that has left fewer traces in our sources, and of a different kind: besides the cosmopolitan technitai there are the symphoniai, rather less grand performers who within a relatively circumscribed area travelled from the one village festival to the other: Kaisin lists six contracts that stipulate their obligations and remuneration. In combining these different kinds of papyri, Kaisin shows very convincingly that Greco-Roman Egypt is one of the very few places where we can get something of a fairly complete view of music and dance as important aspects of social life.

However interesting, even outstanding, the papers by Perrot and Kaisin may be, and however hard they try to compensate for what the introduction should have provided, they cannot save this volume, because it does not do what it promised to do: give a general overview of the contribution of the papyri to the study of ancient music and dance. It is a piecemeal collection of case studies. There is no context: nothing about music and dance in general, indeed hardly anything about papyri in general, or the interplay of papyrology with archaeology, classics and ancient history.

The general reader interested in music and dance in the ancient world—the intended audience—will lose their way in four quite specific and often rather technical studies. Modern re-performance is something that certainly would interest the non-specialist reader who has just read that we have sixty-four examples of musical notation (besides archaeological examples of instruments and a lot of theoretical writings), and thus might have concluded, with reason, that it must be feasible to give some impression of what at least some of these notated bits of music sounded like. But the issue, though repeatedly touched upon, is never explicitly addressed. Perrot gives a clear exposition of what we can know about the basis of ancient notation—and where we have to resort to educated guessing: “il n’y a pas de restitution…possible, sans certaines licences ou certains partis-pris, voire une certain imagination ou fantaisie” (p.43), but that is about it. Although Annie Bélis and Stefan Hagel are referred to several times, there is nothing here about their efforts to make ancient music sound again, except for two references hidden in the minimalist list of internet resources which concludes the bibliography. A fortiori, any others who have worked on this go unmentioned.

Specialists will find parts of the book useful, especially the close reading of several papyri and musicological detail in all four papers, but the whole somewhat slight. They might worry about the callous use of “Greek” when speaking of Roman period material from Egypt.[4] They also cannot but note everything that is not there: the surprising lacunae already mentioned above. And they will note strange omissions in the bibliography. As to this last issue: how is it possible to write on ancient Greek music without once mentioning the two volumes of A. Barker’s Greek Musical Writings, Cambridge 1989? And how can a volume on “the contribution of the papyri” possibly fail to mention the foundational Teresa Grassi, ‘Musica, mimica e danza secondo i documenti papiracei Greco-egizi’, Studi della Scuola Papirologica Milano 3 (1920) 117-135; W.L. Westermann, ‘The castanet dancers of Arsinoë’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 (1924) 134-144; Mariangela Vandoni, Feste pubbliche e privati nei documenti greci, Milan 1964; Gennaro Tedeschi, Intrattenimenti e spettacoli nell’Egitto ellenistico-romano, Trieste 2011; Maria Terzidou, Η μουσική ζωή στην Ελληνορωμαϊκή Αίγυπτο μέσα από την μαρτυρία των παπύρων, Thessaloniki 2013; and the major study by Marjaana Vesterinen, Dancing and professional dancers in Roman Egypt, Helsinki 2007?[5] One can go on and on: e.g., Sergio Daris, Silloge di papiri greci documentari, Trieste 2015, with an intriguing text (P. Daris 7) about the orchestopalaistodidaktos Stephanos,[6] is lacking, as is Egert Pöhlmann, ‘The Delphic Paeans of Athenaios and Limenios between Old and New Music’, Greek and Roman Musical Studies 6 (2018) 328-338, which has some pertinent observations on papyri. (We do have references to eleven other titles by Pöhlmann.) Bibliographically, there seems to be no rhyme nor reason. It is not a question of language: there are references to publications in English, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Latin.

Despite definitive points of interest, noted above, this volume is flawed in ways that are not really acceptable, and that is likely to disappoint everyone: it is neither fish nor fowl. The specialist will come away with some nuggets of information. The general reader—whether francophone or not—will have to wait a bit longer for a proper overview.


Authors and Titles

Introduction par M.-H. Marganne & Gabriel Nocchi Macedo

  1. Pöhlmann, Le retour de la musique grecque ancienne et la contribution de la papyrologie
  2. Perrot, La transmission du répertoire musical grec et ses aléas: l’exemple du P.CtYBR inv. 510
  3. -H. Delavaud-Roux, La musique des papyrus grecs antique était-elle conçue pour la danse?
  4. Kaisin, Des « acteurs-chanteurs » à Oxyrhynque à l’époque romaine: l’apport des papyrus grecs



[1] Special issue of Greek and Roman Musical Studies 2013.1. Ioanna Karamanou, ‘The Papyrus from the ‘Musician’s Tomb’ in Daphne (MΠ 7449, 8517-8523). Contextualizing the Evidence’, Greek and Roman Musical Studies 4 (2016) 51-70.

[2] See Charles H. Cosgrove, An Ancient Christian Hymn with Musical Notation: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1786: Text and Commentary, Tübingen 2011 Mohr Siebeck (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 65). P. Oxy 15.1786 is mentioned on pp. 79-80 of the present volume, but dismissed as “abondamment commentée” – but the “general public” is not likely to have any intimate knowledge of those previous publications.

[3] There is no list of abbreviations explaining what this lingo stands for, though a truly observant reader might deduce it from Perrot’s text—P. CtYBR has replaced P. Yale, or the two are conflated as here, since the papyri were transferred to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, the moniker of which is CtYBR.

[4] The recent exhibition organized by the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung in the Neues Museum, Berlin, in 2021-2022, titled Klangbilder – Musik im Alten Ägypten, spoke of “Egyptian music” also when the music of the Greco-Roman period was intended—surely a commendable approach.

[5] Elena Esposito, ‘Intrattenimenti e spettacoli nell’Egitto ellenistico-romano. A proposito di una recente pubblicazione’, Annali Online di Ferrara – Lettere (AOFL) [] 7.2 (2012) 203-217 (not referred to either), lists several other relevant titles as well (please note that M. Satama in that list is a ghost author; Manna Satama = Marjaana Vesterinen).

[6] See now Sylvain Perrot, ‘Toute peine mérite salaire. L’orchēstopalaistodidaktos Stephanos (P Daris 7)’, in: Karin Schlapbach (ed.), Aspects of Roman dance culture: religious cults, theatrical entertainments, metaphorical appropriations, Stuttgart 2022.