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Singing for the Gods under the Empire: Music and the Divine in the Age of Aelius Aristides

Francesca Modini

King's College, London, UK

The aim of this paper is to investigate the forms and functions of sacred musical performances in the classizing culture of the Roman Empire, by singling out two works by the second-century AD sophist Aelius Aristides as fascinating examples of the relation between music and the divine in imperial times.

Despite being apparently dominated by rhetoric, Greek literature and culture of the imperial period were far from deaf to poetry, or music. In their dazzling public displays, imperial sophists often recalled and mimicked the heroes of ancient Greek song culture like Terpander and Stesichorus, presenting their orations as prose versions of archaic and classical lyric songs (Power 2010). More to the point, actual songs were still being composed and performed, above all in cult contexts: epigraphical evidence from imperial Greece and Asia Minor points explicitly to hymns and paeans tied to sacred centres such as Epidaurus and Claros (Bowie 2006; Golab 2018).       

Against this lively and still mainly uncharted background of sacred music, the figure and works of Aelius Aristides stand out as a useful case study to explore both imperial cult music and the echoes left by sacred song traditions in imperial Greek texts: Aristides’ engagement with music and song was constantly framed by his deep religious concerns. In particular, for reasons of time, the paper will focus exclusively on two works: Aristides’ famous Sacred Tales and his (usually neglected) Eleusinian Oration.

Scholars interested in musical performances under the Empire have long been attracted to Sacred Tales 4.31-47, where Aristides describes his first-hand experience as a composer of hymns and director of sacred choral performances at the Asclepieium of Pergamum (Downie 2013). A closer look at the Sacred Tales as a whole, however, suggests that musical performances marked a variety of moments and rituals in the religious life of Aristides and his community (see e.g. HL 1.30; 2.53). Together with the traces left by cult music in other contemporary sources, this evidence will be compared with archaic and classical sacred performances, in order to understand if and how the role of music in sacred contexts changed under the Empire.

If imperial cult music may be compared with ancient sacred song traditions, these latter could also be mirrored in sophistic orations: this is the case of Aristides’ Eleusinian Oration. Written immediately after a barbarian tribe had attacked and burnt the sanctuary of Eleusis, the speech mourns the age-old mystery centre by evoking an array of ancient songs and singing figures; from the mystic poets Orpheus and Musaeus to Linus’ song and the orgiastic choruses performed by the worshippers of Attis (Or. 22.1, 11). When read carefully, the Eleusinian Oration reveals a vivid memory of song traditions rooted in the remotest age of Greek sacred music, precisely at a time when historical changes had begun to jeopardize ancient religion.

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Music and the Divine

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