You are here

The Empire Sings Back: Greek Music and Musicians Under Rome

Francesca Modini

University of Bristol

My paper offers an exploration of the role of music in the everyday life of the Roman Empire, an issue that remains surprisingly understudied. My focus is a case study illuminating both contexts and contents of imperial music: the fortune of Timotheus of Miletus among imperial musicians. Ranging from the second century BCE to the third century CE, the musical revival of Timotheus offers the opportunity to reconsider the function of musical performances in imperial culture. I will argue that how music was played and enjoyed can tell us much about the endurance of local traditions in the global setting of the Empire. I will also demonstrate that imperial music involved wider audiences than the one reached (or assumed) by elite-authored literature.

The imperial era is the period for which most musical evidence survives. Musical scores preserved on papyri of the Roman period illuminate the performance of sacred songs and dramatic arias (Pöhlmann and West 2001), while the activity of artists has left substantial traces in imperial inscriptions (Stephanes 1988). This evidence has attracted attention as a source for the theory and practice of ancient music (Hagel 2010), but I maintain that exploring the cultural significance of imperial music more broadly can transform our understanding of the Roman period by countering the traditional picture of imperial culture as dominated by elite-authored prose. Alongside poetry (and accompanying it), music was a very popular alternative to the dazzling oratory of sophists, and throughout the Mediterrenean continuous musical spectacles and festivals attracted audiences from ‘every level of society’ (Skotheim 2016: 98).

Imperial musical festivals also bring to the fore the complex interconnectedness between Greek culture and Roman rule. As suggested by epigraphical evidence (Di Nanni 2016; Miranda 2018) and literary sources alike (Athen. 20b), newly-founded festivals such as the Sebastea in Naples combined the celebration of the imperial family and power with the tradition of Greek-style mousikoi agōnes. At the same time, even in the cosmopolitan setting of imperial contests, musical traditions tied to specific locales could serve communities as effective strategies to revive their links with the independent, pre-Roman past of Greece.

To illustrate my two-fold argument concerning non-elite audiences and the epichoric significance of music among imperial Greek communities, the central part of my paper will concentrate on the apparent fortune of Timotheus among Ionian musicians. In the first half of the second century CE, the citharode Gaius Aelius Themison from Miletus repeatedly won contests in Greece and Asia Minor by reperforming Euripides, Sophocles and Timotheus (SEG 11.52c). Whereas scholars have analyzed Themison’s case from a strictly musical perspective (cf. Prauscello 2006), I will argue that Themison’s Ionian origin played a central role in his interest in Timotheus, by comparing his repertoire with that of other Ionian musicians from the second century BCE to the third century CE. Themison’s popularity among diverse audiences, moreover, will allow us to assess the importance of music for all parts of imperial society.

Session/Panel Title

Breaking the Paradigm: Greek Poetry in the Roman Empire

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy