Roman Culture/Musical Instruments of Rome

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Musical Instruments of Ancient Rome: Music was deeply intertwined in many aspects of Ancient Roman culture. It belonged as much in the arts as it did in rural life, political campaigns, and religious rituals. The following instruments were found in a recent archaeological excavation in Germany and are believed to be from a period during Julius Caesar’s reign over Gaul (58-51B.C.)

Metal Wind • Cornus • Lituus • Bucina • Tuba • Conch horn Woodwind • Tibiae • Monaulos • Hydraulis • Fistula (pan pipe) • Small Flutes • Ocarina Stringed • Cithara / Lyra Percussion • Tympanum • Crotala • Cymbala • Sistrum • Clapper Cymbals • Bells • Earthenware Rattles • Scabellum

Metal Instruments: Roman instruments cannot simply be referred to as ‘brass instruments’ in this era because of the development of new alloys which would be used to improve instruments as they became available. The hoop-like cornu was used in funeral processions, sacrificial processions, and to communicate military procedures. The lituus is a hook-belled wind instrument adapted from the Etruscans and used for funeral ceremonies as well as for signaling military instructions, especially for cavalry. The bucina was initially an instrument of the shepherd but would later be incorporated into a military context. Their compact form must have been more ideal for the cavalry than the tuba and cornu.

Woodwind Instruments: The tibia, a double shawm with double reeds adapted from the Greek aulos, is considered a national instrument of Ancient Rome. Its tonal quality may have resembled modern bagpipes. Tibiae were used in sacrificial offerings, funeral rites, and in the theatre. The hydraulis, a hydraulic organ, exists as one of the most significant achievements in the musical craftsmanship of antiquity. It was used in amphitheatres, theatres, and in the household. The hydraulis required pneumatic pressure produced by a water pump to generate sound. The fistula consists of several tube pieces of different lengths side by side with one tube significantly shorter than the rest. They were used as a shepherd’s tool as well as in pantomimes.

Stringed Instruments: The cithara is another adaption from Greek and Etruscan culture. Cithara and lyra existed as interchangeable names for the instrument during this time. The cithara’s two arms were linked by a yoke from which the strings ran to a resonator. This instrument could be either plucked or played with a plectrum. This stringed instrument could be used in funeral music, sacrificial offerings, the theatre, for dancing, or in concerts.

Percussion Instruments: The tympanum, flat tambourine, and the crotala clappers are distinctly portrayed in Roman art. Cymbalum resemble modern cymbals with a bowl shape and a diameter of roughly 180mm. Cymbalum are paired instruments that served religious purposes along with the tympanum. Clapper-cymbals are one of the most relevant instruments of Roman heritage; they are still used in modern jazz. A final discovery of note from this excavation was a series of hand bells and earthenware rattles resembling birds.

In Summation: A number of instruments noted belong exclusively in a setting of mythical art and religious worship. However, the fragments of instruments found along with these illustrations depict an impressive array of Roman musical culture. The musical instruments served purposes in all aspects of Roman daily life. This is exemplified in instances like the tibiae used in sacrificial rites, the cymbalum used as a baptismal tool, or the metal wind instruments used in the military arena. Some instruments, such as the hydraulis, exemplify Roman technical innovation. The influence of Rome’s musical contribution is found in modern R&B music today.

Citation: Found in JSTOR, the online database, through the AOK Library portal

Information paraphrased from:

The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period Maria E. Ginsberg-Klar World Archaeology , Vol. 12, No. 3, Archaeology and Musical Instruments (Feb., 1981), pp. 313-320 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Article Stable URL: