Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Instrumental Accompaniment

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Instrumental Accompaniment

The music that accompanied the pantomime scenes was largely instrumental. But the scale of instrumental ensembles remains obscure. Visual and literary representations of musical accompaniments rarely indicate more than three instruments, even though the Romans were capable of assembling huge orchestras, often consisting of only a few different types of instruments, for grandiose state ceremonies, such as triumphs, funeral processions, and arena spectacles. According to the Historia Augusta (Vopiscus Carinus 19.2), the Emperor Carinus (ca. 250-285 AD) sponsored a gigantic orchestra consisting of 100 trumpets, 100 horns, 100 flutes, and 100 tibia players accompanying 1000 pantomimes and gymnasts. The Romans enjoyed the music of a fairly wide range of instruments, but the pantomime culture was quite selective in its use of them. It is therefore useful to summarize the qualities and functions of the instrument repertoire.

The tibia (or aulos) was the most commonly used instrument for accompanying theatrical performances of all kinds, including the pantomime. This instrument was a woodwind, double-piped and double-reeded, made from a specific Mediterranean reed, arundo donax (Landels 1999: 28), although Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), in his history of plants, observed that tibias could also be made of tree wood, bone, or ivory. Each pipe, divided into three sections, contained holes for six notes. Although it often mistranslated as a “flute,” the tibia actually sounded more like an oboe, giving off an intense, piercing, and wailing tone. The instrument appears to have entered Greek culture from Asia at a quite ancient time, for evidence (from Crete) of similar instruments dates as early as 2300 BCE (Aign 1963: 122). Depictions of male and female tibia players in tomb paintings and mirror engravings indicate the Etruscan fondness for the instrument. Some representations of tibia players show the performer using a mouthpiece, called a phorbeia, strapped around the neck and over the head, to hold the instrument steady [Figures 3, 5]. The tibia became so strongly identified with a distinctive Roman musical tradition that in 115 BCE conservatives succeeded in enacting legislation that forbade any kind of performance except the music of Latin tibia players, singers, and clothed dancers, although this decree apparently had no effect in diminishing the expanding popularity of stringed instruments (Wille 1967: 219). 

The Greeks developed five types of tibia roughly equivalent to soprano (parthenikos), alto (paidikos), tenor (kitharisterios), baritone (teleios), and bass levels (hyperteleios), with the kitharisteriosso named because it was played with the cithara. But the Romans appear to have modified the instrument by introducing pipes of unequal length at least as early as the second century BCE. The reason for the unequal lengths is obscure, but the longer, right reed undoubtedly produced a deeper tone. A contrapuntal relation between left and right reeds was, however, unlikely; left and right played in unison or, perhaps, the right reed produced a drone tone under the melody played on the left reed. Production notes attached to the manuscripts of Terence’s six plays (ca. 160 BCE) indicate the use of a different tibia to accompany each play (Landels 1999: 188; Wille 1967: 169-170). The combining of tibia types most probably did not occur. A few artworks depict a tibia player performing with a lyre player or, even more rarely, with a syrinx (pan-pipes). Otherwise the overwhelming majority of images representing tibia players shows this instrument as the sole source of musical accompaniment for a scene, and only occasionally does a figure clashing cymbals or tapping the tympanum supplement this solitary accompaniment. The Romans lacked the polyphonic or contrapuntal consciousness to build orchestral compositions that combined the different types of tibia, and indeed, in the theater, they do not seem to have imagined compositions containing more than two parts, except for percussion punctuation. Orchestras containing many instruments, such as the huge ensembles assembled by Carinus, functioned almost entirely to amply a single melodic line; the multiplication of instruments simply increased the volume of a unison sound and thrilled audiences by the sheer magnitude of sonic power. A large mosaic in Zliten, near Tripoli, probably dated somewhere in the second century CE, twice represents two horns, one trumpeter, and an organist accompanying the contests of five pairs of gladiatorial combatants; the same instruments, but clearly not the same musicians, accompany gladiatorial performances on two different days (Ville 1965: 147-154) [Figure 27]. It’s possible that this combination of instruments could introduce interesting polyphonic effects, but most likely the horns and perhaps even the organ simply sustained a drone or pedal point under the melody or fanfare of a single instrument. In any case, none of these instruments accompanied a theatrical performance. 

Figure 27: Part of the late first century Zliten mosaic, from a villa near Tripoli, showing musicians integrated with gladiatorial spectacle. Photo: Public domain.

The Romans associated musical instruments with specific occasions and did not permit any instrument to be used for any occasions other than those prescribed for it. The tibia served a wider set of occasions than any other instrument, including theatrical performances, sacral-cult performances, and private concerts. Because of its reedy sound, the tibia was the most appropriate instrument for evoking energies or spirits identified with the earth, especially the divine powers celebrated by the Dionysian and Cybelian cults. Roman artists delighted in depicting both outdoor and interior occasions for tibia playing, and theater audiences regarded the tibia player as a visible and engaging element of the performance, for the player could move with choreographic calculation to reinforce the emotional ambience of a scene. The player could point the reeds upward, horizontally, or downward; the player could sit or stand while playing; and he or she could sway with the melody or even dance. On the basis of a passage in Cicero (Lucullus 2.7.20), Wille (1967:169) contends that, “Roman theater performances began with a musical overture from the tibia player, which preceded the prologue.” But the evidence is not sufficient to make this claim more than plausible. It is clear, however, that the tibia, more than any other instrument, stimulated (or at least announced) an atmosphere of emotional-psychic release, a mood of relaxation from constraints on the expression of desire, an amplified sense of freedom, and thus, an appeal for movement. 

In images of them, tibia players never appear alone; they always accompany an action or interact with another instrument. It seems unlikely, then, that in the pantomime program, a tibia player would perform a solo piece without collaborating with a dancer, a singer, or another instrumentalist. Harpists are another matter. Roman art contains numerous images of solitary lyre players, both male and female, and quite possibly the appeal of the instrument lay in its capacity to detach the performer from the rest of humanity and amplify the uniqueness and even loneliness of his or her individuality. The lyre was of ancient origin; the Egyptians appear to have developed an elaborate harp culture as early as 3000 BCE, but lyres probably entered the Greek cultural domain from the Middle East with the legacy of the Babylonian civilization. Greek rhapsodes favored the lyre for the singing of epic poetry, hymns, and paeans. The poets accompanied their own singing. As the rhapsode tradition decayed, the lyre ceased to become the exclusive property of poets, and audiences valued the instrument for qualities that were independent of the language the poets had expected it to “support.” The Greeks devised chamber orchestras of lyres and introduced interactions between the lyre and other instruments, such as the aulos, the cithara, and the syrinx. The Egyptians, however, remained the culture most preoccupied with the possibilities of harp music, although the instrument probably had its origin in Mesopatamia before 3000 BCE. Harp technology in Egypt was so sophisticated, even before the Minoan civilization, that the lyre was perhaps an adjunct to larger and more complex harps containing 21 to 29 strings. The Greeks in the fifth century began to show some fascination with the large, sometimes giant, “arced” and “angular” harps used by the Egyptians, but these instruments do not seem to have gained a secure place, other than as beautiful objects for display, in the Greco-Roman civilizations and certainly not in the theater culture of either civilization. It is not clear why the large harps did not acquire a strong presence in the Mediterranean world. Most likely, both the Greeks and especially the Romans believed that large harps inhibited the mobility of the performer and undermined the expectation that music should stimulate movement in the performer or expand the power of music to migrate to new and different performance sites. Large harps, as represented in Egyptian art, connoted an excessively stable performance environment in which music remained “entombed,” sealed off from other sectors of a rigid social hierarchy.

As perfected by the Greeks and adopted by the Romans, the lyre was a small harp that the performer cradled in the left arm and plucked with the right hand. Some performers used a plectrum to pluck the strings. Lyres came in slightly different shapes and sizes, made of wood formed into a U with a small resonating box. The conventional lyre contained seven or eight strings of equal length, with each string tuned to a different note according to the “mode” of a piece. The lyre could encompass an octave and, by dividing the strings with one hand while plucking with the other, move upward or downward another octave. The sound was bright, sparkling, shimmering. The Greeks devised a kind of large lyre, the cithara, from the Greek kithara (string player) and Assyrian chetarah; the word guitar derives from this earlier nomenclature. This instrument contained a larger resonating box and thicker strings than the lyre to produce heavier and deeper plucking tones [Figure 29]. Lucian (De saltatione 26, 68) uses the word kithara(rather than lyra) to describe musical accompaniment of pantomimes, so perhaps he makes no distinction between lyres and citharas, as his translator, A.M. Harmon, apparently assumes, or we can assume that a cithara was as likely as a lyre to accompany the pantomimes (Lucian 1936: 238-239; 270-271). The lyre player could sit or stand while playing the instrument and could accompany himself or herself while singing. The player could walk while strumming and even participate in certain stunts, such as playing while standing on the shoulders of another performer. In Homer’s time, the lyre was associated with mythic storytelling in an aristocratic warrior milieu, the Orpheus myth being the most obvious example of the instrument’s power to release the male hero from chthonic darkness and return him to Apollonian radiance. But by the fifth century BCE, it had become the favored instrument of Greek heterae. Privileged Roman women studied the lyre and produced concerts within a salon milieu, and by the third century CE, Athenaeus could observe that the lyre was a “feminine instrument.” The pantomimes could thus select the lyre as an appropriate accompaniment because the implied “feminization” of the music served to sustain the association of the pantomime with the evocation of an aristocratic aesthetic. The Romans designed exquisitely ornate and gorgeous lyres that could glitter with jewels and golden details, and as such, these glamorous instruments could function as captivating elements of a theatrical spectacle. 

Although the lyre was the most satisfying instrument for solo performance, it collaborated well with other instruments, including other lyres, the syrinx, the tibia, the tympanum, and cymbals, but not horns or trumpets, for these never appear with lyres in either literary or visual descriptions of musical performances. Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae XIV, 618) quotes Ephippus as asserting that “the music of the flutes [auloi] and the lyre is a joint partner in our stage plays; for when one adapts his mood skillfully to that of his associates, then, and only then, do we get the greatest delight” (Athenaeus 1937: 329). A painting of an outdoor Bacchic rite from Herculaneum in Monaco shows a female tibia player and a female lyre player accompanied by three other women playing, respectively, cymbals, tympanum, and crotali, with the crotali player also using her foot to work the scabellum (Guidobaldi 1992: 62) [Figure 28]. Otherwise Roman era descriptions of lyre performance do not mention a combination of more than three instruments, with a conventional limit of “orchestra” size consisting of one lyre, one tibia (or syrinx), one cymbal player, and one tympanum. Of course, some pieces on the pantomime program could well involve musical accompaniments requiring smaller combinations of these instruments. One of the panels of the first century CE ritual wall paintings at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii depicts a nearly nude older man playing the lyre while a boy plays the syrinx; on a panel opposite these musicians appears the nearly nude figure of a female dancer performing the pyrrhic step while clashing cymbals over her head [Figure 9]. The meaning of this vast and fascinating depiction of a mysterious cultic rite is the subject of endless, tortured debate, so it is by no means clear how the viewer was expected to read the represented temporal relation between the numerous figures in the entire painting (cf., Sauron 1998; Grieco 1978; Kirk 2000). But even if the solo cymbal player represents a later (or earlier) moment in the narrative logic of the painting, the spatial design of the painting produces in the viewer the effect of being surrounded by numerous figures performing actions simultaneously, as if to suggest that actions in different times and spaces are related to each other without actually causing each other according to a strictly linear narrative logic. This mode of abstraction strengthens the idea that music and movement in one place and time are part of the music and movement of another place and time. 

From this way of thinking arises an antiphonal aesthetic of sound diffusion. Enthusiasm for antiphonal effects raises the question of the physical relation of the musicians to each other. As mentioned earlier, visual artists seemed to treat the musicians as part of the “scene,” placing them close to the actor, to other musicians, and sometimes to the spectators. But the extent to which this closeness to other figures was a convention of performance or a convention of visual representation remains obscure. In the Zliten gladiatorial mosaic, the musicians seem to share the same space as the combatants, which is probably a misleading representation of the actual conditions of performance [Figure 27]. Another mosaic, now in the Vatican Museum, depicts a bizarre scene of two male tibia players accompanying two female dancers. One tibia player assists a male crotali player, and the other tibia player apparently assists two other crotali players. Each tibia player also taps the beat with a scabellum attached to his foot, which makes clear that each player is performing different music. Some sort of arch apparently separates the two dance performances, and a male dwarf stands under the arch next to a table with crooked legs [Figure 28].

Figure 28: Top: Template of a painting from Herculaneum in Monaco depicting an orchestra. Photo: from Guidobaldi (1992: 62). Bottom: Vatican mosaic depicts dancers and musicians beneath a wild beast competition. Photo: from Buranelli (2002).

Perhaps the artist wished to depict a kind of improvised dance contest or celebration, so that what the viewer sees is two dance performances occurring at the same time in different places or in the same place at different times. The picture invites the viewer to compare two slightly different performances that in reality could not have been seen simultaneously. Yet this visual distortion of space-time relations has its correlate in performance, not only through the synoptic organization of the pantomime program, but in the spatial relations between the musicians and the dancers. In imagery of cultic ritual processions, artists tend to expand the space between musicians to intensify a sense of freedom and movement. Cymbal players, perhaps invariably female, always seem to dance. 

Figure 29: Second century CE statue of Apollo carrying a cithara, Berlin Pergamon Museum. Photo: Public domain.

The Romans encouraged mobility in their musicians because they associated music with the movement of powers or energies across temporal and spatial boundaries. The broad, even vast stages of Roman theaters, up to 200 feet wide, accommodated a processional, frieze-like organization of action, but the action never included more than several bodies. The purpose of these monumental stages was not to fill them with awe-inspiring masses of bodies, but to dramatize the space between bodies, to reveal the possibilities of movement. The tibia player may be “close” to the dancer, in the sense that the spectator keeps both in the same field of vision. But the reason for keeping the musician close to the actor is to signify that persons who may seem “remote” from an action are nevertheless a part of it, just as the actor himself is “close” to the “remote” mythic figure he impersonates. If the musician is “close” to the dancer, she does not necessarily stay in a designated spot on the stage; she follows the dancer. Quite likely, if both tibia and lyre accompanied the dancer, the dancer would perform between the two musicians, allowing for them to produce a sort of stereophonic effect. If cymbal players always danced, they certainly had plenty of space to dart in and dart out for dramatic clashes. When present, the chorus, which, at full strength, probably consisted of no more than six or seven members, was always “there,” watching, when individuals within it were not performing some small part, but never so “present” that it undermined focus on the pantomime’s virtuosity. At least in relation to theatrical performances, Roman audiences showed little interest in seeing large masses of bodies in movement; their taste in this direction found fulfillment in “reality,” in the huge scale of triumphs, grandiose funeral, wedding, or cult processions, military parades, and spectacular games. The pantomime culture never glorified group unity or the power of crowds. It focused relentlessly on the beauty of unique soloists, and a group, always small, was attractive only insofar as it was possible for a few talented soloists to work together. 

The pantomime aesthetic also admitted the syrinxor pan-pipes, but the function of this instrument in the theater is quite uncertain. The instrument is of very ancient and unknown origin. It produced a flute-like sound by blowing directly into the bores of dried reed stems. The Greeks tended to make the stems of equal length bound together by twine or beeswax. Different tones resulted from using beeswax to seal off a portion of the bottom of the pipe to raise its pitch. A typical Greek syrinx contained five to seven reeds, capable of quite limited tonal range and dynamic contrast. Evidence of female players of the syrinx is scanty, but this is no doubt due to the loss of the archeological legacy (Behn 1954: fig. 145). In his second century CE novel Daphnis and Chloe, Longus (1916: 160-161) observed that Echo “was educated by the Nymphs, and taught by the Muses to play on the hautboy [tibia] and the pipe, to strike the lyre, to touch the lute, and in sum, all music” (Longus 1916: 160-161) The Greeks associated the haunting sound of the instrument with the gamboling or playfulness allowed in a rural setting, with evocations of Pan, but not necessarily with agricultural activities. Because it conjured up a mood of primitive simplicity, the Greeks do not seem to have ascribed a high status to the syrinx (Landels 1999: 69-71). The Roman world, however, saw greater possibilities for the instrument. Roman syrinxes, following models established by the Etruscans and Italians, contained as many as twelve reeds, and they were cut to different lengths to produce different tones. Syrinx makers produced beautiful instruments made of wood or bronze and embellished with elegant decorations. Moreover, the music of the syrinx no longer evoked an exclusively pastoral mood. Roman musicians brought the instrument indoors and allowed it to participate in a refined, closed off environment—or rather, they allowed the spirit of Pan to inhabit elegant villa interiors. Nevertheless, in the theater, the syrinx remained a subsidiary instrument, incapable of transcending its ancient association with a primeval stirring of nature. It was therefore not the appropriate accompaniment for the great majority of tragic mythic scenes performed by the pantomime. A syrinx accompaniment to the Atreus scene described above was probably unimaginable in the Roman world, even as a travesty of tragic pretensions in the comic domain of the mimes. The visual evidence indicates that a more appropriate use of the syrinx was in the articulation of romantic themes involving the adventures of Hercules, the intrigues of Venus, the pastoral fantasies containing Dafnis and Chloe, Pan and Echo, the sylvan dreaminess that Claude Debussy evoked so exquisitely in The Afternoon of the Faun (1892). 

Roman spectators enjoyed the sound of powerful, metallic horns that were of Etruscan origin. The Greeks devised a kind of trumpet, the salpinx, containing a long thin tube with a cupped bell that they used almost exclusively in relation to military maneuvers and ceremonies. But this instrument seems to have disappeared with the ascent of Roman civilization, which adopted horns favored by the Etruscans. “Horns and trumpets are an invention of the Etruscans,” Athenaeus declares (Deipnosophistae IV. 183; II 1928: 311). The Etruscans cultivated two types of horns appropriated by the Romans: the tuba and the bucina (cornu). The Etruscan trumpet, the lituus, had a long, widening bore with a curved bell. The Roman trumpet, the tuba, perfected by the first century BCE, had a narrower bore and a flared bell. It made a loud, intense, searing sound that reverberated across great distances. Ennius described the sound as “terrifying.” Some visual artists depict players in procession raising the instrument high, as if launching the sound into the sky and filling the air with an enormous announcement. The instrument functioned almost entirely in a military atmosphere. It was used to signal attack, retreat, and formation and to add solemnity to military ceremonies, triumphs, and grandiose funeral processions of military leaders. The players were always male. The Etruscan bucina was a large curved horn, but the Romans made it an even larger instrument with a wider bore that coiled around the body of the performer and a much wider bell so that it became what nowadays people would consider a sousaphone. It made a deep, droning sound that underpinned a melody played on another instrument. Like the tuba, the bucina was primarily an instrument for martial occasions, in which groups of tubas and bucinas in procession collaborated to amplify the mood of solemn spectacle. Neither the tuba nor the bucina had keys, so it is not clear how the instruments could produce variations in tones. Perhaps in groups different instruments had different pitches that permitted the production of chords or overlapping tones. Although Virgil, in the Aeneid (VII.511-515) describes Allecto, a female fury, blowing a “long, hellish note” on the bucina to rally the Latins to war against Aeneas, women in Roman civilization did not play this instrument.

Neither the tuba nor the bucina had any “place” in theatrical productions or performances involving imaginary persons or dances. However, both instruments contributed to the excitement of arena spectacles. The Zliten mosaic in Tripoli shows pairs of bucina players and single trumpet players, along with single organ players performing accompaniment to gladiatorial combats [Figure 27] (Ville 1965: figs. 15 and 16). Dated around 230-240 CE, another monumental mosaic, covering the floor of an opulent villa in Nennig near Trier, contains an image of a bucina player and an organ player; this image is part of a complex design that also includes images of gladiatorial combats (Parlasca 1959: 35-36, plates 36-37). The idea of musicians accompanying human combats, although explored by the Greeks, was a passion with the Etruscans (Thuillier 1985: 232-233). The Etruscans used either tubas or tibias to announce the start and the end of contests and to celebrate the victor of a contest. But the tibia was the favored instrument for accompanying the contests themselves, with the tuba replacing the tibia when a city lacked tibia players capable of assuming the musical aspects of the contests: a “character more provincial, more barbaric” was the result of allowing the trumpet to “replace” the tibia in “not only giving the signal for combat but also in accompanying the entire action” (Thuillier 1985: 239-241).  However, it is not clear how the tuba could replace the tibia in connection with musical accompaniment when the tuba was simply incapable of the tonal variety provided by the tibia. The Romans, on the basis of the mosaic evidence, developed musical accompaniments to gladiatorial combats by replacing (probably around the end of the first century BCE) the tibia with the water organ and adding tubas and bucinas to create small (but loud) ensembles, although Thuillier himself points to two Etruscan funeral steles, dated, respectively, 450-420 BCE and 390-360 BCE, that depict two and three tuba players accompanying boxing matches (1985: 144-145; 223-224). If the tibia was the favored instrument for accompanying the combats, why would a funeral memorial insist on tubas to evoke the memory or afterlife of the dead chief? It would seem, then, that aesthetic rather than logistic values defined the nature of musical accompaniments to gladiatorial combats. Did this aesthetic impulse provide the tuba and the bucina with a place in the hippodrome, where the pantomimes became attached to the different chariot racing factions? Did the pantomime ensembles employ trumpets and horns to accompany the processions glorifying the chariot claques and teams? 

But these questions do not provoke confident answers. Jean-Paul Thuillier (1985: 81-109) does not discuss any musical effects in relation to Etruscan horse or chariot races, for he has no information to support such a discussion. Despite widespread representation and commentary on the chariot races in the literary and artistic record of the Roman world, scarcely any reference to musicians has emerged. A single tuba player appears in only two images depicting events in the hippodrome. One of the mosaics in the huge complex at Piazza Armerina (ca. 315-350 AD) shows a tuba player standing beside an official (editor) preparing to bestow the victory palm on a charioteer (Humphrey 1986: 226-233) [Figure 30]. A complicated terracotta mould, probably from Rome in the late fourth century CE but now missing from the British Museum, shows three charioteers bearing victory palms with the central figure standing between the other two victors; next to him (on his right) stands a tuba player and on his left stands a woman holding the reins of horses while a child poses before her. And behind all these figures and horses rises the hippodrome obelisk, two pillars topped with statues and a two-storey “pavilion” (Humphrey 1987: 250-251). But the absence of musicians from the extant visual record of the hippodrome races probably doesn’t signify much anyway about the relation of music to the spectacle, because neither the pantomimes nor the claques appear at all in the record. What is clear, however, is that the artists in both cases associate the tuba player with an official task, the bestowing of the victory palm. Most likely, occasions for tuba playing were the responsibility of the hippodrome administration and not the chariot teams and factions or the aristocratic families that sponsored them. These occasions would include fanfares for ceremonies and processions celebrating the races as a whole (not individual teams) and fanfares signaling the start of the race, the end of the race, the bestowing of the victory palm, and perhaps the sinking of the dolphin effigies that indicated which lap had begun. Whatever music accompanied the processions of individual teams and pantomime entourages for the claques was “private” insofar as it symbolized an aristocratic rather public sponsorship. Like the arena spectacles, the hippodrome contests were the responsibility of public authorities. These authorities, representing the army, the imperial cult, or provincial or municipal governments, preserved the symbolic signification of music. Tubas and bucinas belonged to the realm of “public” music; they were the “sound” of the state, the army, the public. Control over musical sound was a measure of state authority. Governments sometimes allowed aristocrats to own gladiatorial units and produce venationes (wild beast shows) in the arena (Wiedemann 1995: 41-43). But it was necessary for the music that accompanied the gladiatorial contests to project an “official” status that did not give one team or combatant an advantage over another. The circus (hippodrome) was a similar performance environment, in which the administration of the contest could not appear to favor one team over another, including music choices that could stir crowds and disturb the contest. Music did not accompany the races (as it did the gladiatorial contests), so the main use of music in relation to the pantomimes was in the processions promoting the individual teams and factions to which the pantomimes were attached. The appropriation of the trumpets and horns by the state, the army, and the emperor detached the pantomime from the military culture that originally gave rise to the pyrrhic movement. The pantomimes and the aristocratic patrons who sponsored them had no claim to a “sound” and a power owned by the state and by the military that assured the “reality” of the state. This sound designated a limit to the power of the aristocracy in its control over public spaces and pleasures. Thus, the exclusion of tubas and bucinas from the pantomime musical repertoire resulted from political, not aesthetic or logistic motives.

Figure 30: Fourth century CE mosaic from Piazza Armerina in Sicily showing tuba player beside official bestowing a victory palm on a chariot racer. Photo: Public domain.

Another wind instrument with an uncertain relation to the pantomime was the water organ. In his Pneumatika, Hero of Alexandria (ca. 62 AD) described the complex construction of this instrument along with many other mechanical devices and automata (Hero of Alexandria 1851: section 76). But the Greek engineer Ctesibios (ca. 270 BCE) probably devised the instrument described in Hero’s treatise. The organ used water pressure to control the flow of air pumped (using foot bellows) into a set of eight to ten pipes rising from a “small altar of bronze” holding the water. The performer pressed “keys” that allowed air to flow into the pipes, but it is not clear how many keys were available. A second performer was necessary to tread on the bellows. The mechanics of the instrument were intricate, and Landels (1999: 267-270) has attempted to explain them in even greater detail than Hero. The organ made a very loud, reedy sound, as if created by an extremely powerful and complicated tibia. This sound, along with tubas and bucinas, was an appropriate accompaniment to the gladiatorial games; a section of the Zliten mosaic shows a female organ player. One might therefore suppose that, like the trumpets and horns, the sound was arena-oriented and “public” and belonged to the state. However, the large and beautiful mosaic from Mariamin, in Syria, dating from the late fourth century CE, depicts an orchestra of six female musicians preparing to perform a concert on an indoor stage [Figure 31]. One of the women stands behind a large organ while two little boys tread the bellows. The instrument is ornately decorated and contains many more pipes than organs represented elsewhere, perhaps twenty-four or twenty-six altogether. The refinement of the garments, along with the blatant frontal posing of the women, indicates that the performers were aristocrats. The mosaic “came from an apsidal room, evidently a dining room; the diners would recline in the apse, while the entertainers performed in the rectangle space in front” (Dunbabin 1999: 171). It would appear, then, that at least in the eastern sector of the late empire, the organ was compatible with indoor entertainments and could accompany pantomime performances or participate in program interludes. The organ, along with an expansion of the orchestra, would constitute an innovation in the pantomime aesthetic. The mosaic depicts an unusually large orchestra that includes, beside the organ, a tibia player, a cithara player, and three percussionists. Whether such a large orchestra actually supported pantomime shows cannot be confirmed or denied. But the extraordinary refinement of the image, along with the monumental effort to memorialize the performance, does indicate that aristocratic entertainments in the late empire had evolved toward an expanded repertoire of sounds, sensations, and precision effects, to accommodate the expectations of an audience for rarified, exquisite pleasures. The pantomimes depended on aristocratic patrons, not audiences in the public theaters, for their livelihood. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that the pantomimes enjoyed access to musical resources of the scale and variety shown in the mosaic. What is peculiar about this orchestra is that it does not achieve its size through multiplication of instruments; the orchestra has expanded by including different individual instruments. State-sponsored orchestras tend to favor a doubling or multiplication of favored instruments, like tubas, bucinas, and tibias, to produce powerful sounds that reverberate across vast spaces and above the rumble of crowds, with Carinus’s extravaganza of 284 CE attempting to set some sort of precedent in this regard. By contrast, the aristocratic aesthetic glorified in the mosaic emphasizes the ensemble as an interplay of highly distinct, individual sounds, and indeed, by placing the tibia player next to the organ, the picture further implies that the sound of the tibia differed from the sound of the organ, which here may have resembled tones similar to those ranging from a bassoon to an alto flute. If pantomimes could acquire an orchestra of this size and diversity, they could rely on a large number of subtle sonic effects to embellish, amplify, or color their movements. Such sounds, which in the pantomime aesthetic always followed the movement rather than anticipated it, would encourage the performer to complicate the choreography, so that particular physical gestures—the turn of the head, the sweep of the left arm, the thrust of the right arm, the teetering of the whole body—would, in a particular scene, prompt an associated sound from a particular instrument, perhaps in a manner somewhat similar to the relation between actor and orchestra in a traditional Chinese opera theater. If its function as accompaniment to gladiatorial shows and venationesis any guide, the water organ would have supported the pantomimes only in those mythic scenes that depicted heroic combats. However, the Mariamin mosaic presents the organ within a highly feminized performance space, far removed from the martial masculinity of the gladiatorial arena, although, as the woman organist in the Zliten mosaic implies, some Roman audiences did not find a woman out of place contributing, on this instrument, to a blaring, exhorting sound that perhaps also served to stir the crowd yet resounded above its roar. 

Figure 31: Late fourth century or early fifth century mosaic of female musicians from a villa in Mariamin, Syria. Photo: Public domain.

Pantomime musical accompaniments also sometimes included a variety of percussion instruments. But enthusiasm for these instruments served to satisfy a delight in the peculiar sounds they made rather than to explore or strengthen the rhythmic structure of a composition. Except for the tympanum, Greek and Roman music made no use of drums, although the Assyrians had already developed a type of kettledrum and deployed sets of them in large-scale processions. To the extent that they were aware of them, the Romans disclosed no interest at all in complicated African drumming techniques, but probably not because they regarded drumming as a manifestation of an inferior culture. The barbarian tribes from Germany also displayed a complete lack of interest in drumming. The Greeks and Romans were obviously uncomfortable with music that established the primacy of rhythm over tonality or indeed allowed music to function as a power controlling the movement of the body, which is the case when the “beat” is strong enough to “drive” the body to synchronize its movement with a rhythmic configuration. Music signified freedom insofar as the movement of the body inspired it rather than the other way around. Thus in the pantomime, the music followed the dancer. The pantomime located the source of dance-like movements within the body rather than in sensations or pulses external to it. In a sense, the dancer was “free” of musical rhythm or even tonality, which act as coloring devices to establish the mood of a scene rather than as the “drive” determining the movement of the body. The external sound world became synchronized with the movement of the dancer, which meant that musicians had to watch the dancer, the body in motion, to guide the performance of the music. It further meant that that a powerful, predictable beat could not enslave the body to synchronized movement patterns that would suggest that the dancer has surrendered to the music or “obeys” its “natural” impact on the nervous system. 

One drum was ubiquitous in the ancient world: the tympanum. The Roman cultural domain never employed any other drum. The tympanum resembled a tambourine, except that it had no bells or jingles. It was a wooden ring covered by an animal hide on only one side of the ring. The performer held the ring with one hand and tapped the hide with the fingers of the other hand. Performers never struck the hide with both hands, nor did they use any beaters, which means they never tapped out any sort of complex rhythmic pattern. They purpose of the drum was not to provide a “pulse” for the music or to sustain an ostinato motif. From a musical perspective, the tympanum provided a dramatic tone that resounded either regularly or at special moments that coincided with unique gestures or harmonic climaxes. Visual evidence of tympanum players across centuries indicates that performers used drums of different sizes to produce higher or deeper tones. But Roman paintings, mosaics, and reliefs never show more than one tympanum player in a scene; while tympanum players in the pantomime ensembles may have used different drums for different scenes, it is quite unlikely that more than one drummer ever performed in relation to any scene. Probably the most famous image of a tympanum player is the first century mosaic of street musicians from Pompeii attributed to Dioscurides of Samos, which shows a masked male tapping the inner surface of the hide as he holds the instrument level with the floor [Figure 32]. Lansdel (1999: 81) speculates that this curious performance technique might have produced a unique “low, muffled sound,” but it is not clear how such a sound was useful. It may be that tapping the drum on the inside did not produce a sound any different from tapping the outside surface of the hide, in which case, the choice to hold the instrument level with the floor was the result of seeking a special visual effect. At any rate, this image is by no means representative of tympanum performance in the visual record. Nearly all images of tympanum players show female performers (always only one), maenads, participating in a Dionysian procession or bacchanale. The female performer always holds the instrument high, with the hide facing the spectator, and she dances and tilts her head back or upward to signify an ecstatic mood, quite the opposite of the almost grotesque delicacy and intimacy Dioscurides depicted in his image of the street musicians. Artists associated the instrument with an atmosphere of intoxication or revelry. It therefore is quite probable that in the context of pantomime performance the instrument appeared only in those program pieces and mythic themes related to exultant celebration or euphoric abandon. The drum never appears in other, non-Dionysian processions, nor in relation to any other rituals. The performer contributed an exciting image to the pantomime performance, striking the drum while swirling or spinning and always to punctuate a dramatic gesture or twist of the body; the drum itself often contained beautiful decorations and tassels on the ring. But these effects would occur only intermittently in any pantomime program. The primary purpose of the tympanum was not, as Landels (1999: 81) suggests, to “emphasize the rhythm that was already inherent in the melody.” It was to show the “wildness” and “striking” power of female excitement, perhaps further strengthened by the stark juxtaposition of the animal percussive tone and the shrieking cry of ecstasy.

Figure 32: First century mosaic of street musicians from the villa of Cicero, Pompeii, in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, showing the large tambourine, accompanied by cymbals and tibia, a combination unlikely to create complex rhythmic patterns, even if the rhythms themselves were complex and unstable. 

To “emphasize the rhythm,” musicians sometimes employed the scabellum. This was a clapper attached to the foot of the musician, who tapped out a simple rhythm while playing another instrument. The purpose of the scabellum was to produce a kind of ticking sound that imposed, simultaneously, a sense of urgency and steadiness on the music. It was physically impossible for the performer to produce a rhythmic configuration anymore complex than a simple metronomic beat, and musicians never seemed to have used more than one clapper at any one time. Moreover, the scabellum appears only occasionally in images of musicians, nothing approaching the ubiquity of cymbals and tympani. As the Vatican mosaic suggests [Figure 28], the clapper was useful for infusing a measure of “liveliness” into a dance number that had no specific mythic content and was simply a display of physical agility. Indeed, the mosaic contrasts this device for amplifying “liveliness” with the use of wooden hand clappers or crotali to inject “liveliness” into the performance of the competing dancer. The use of crotali was much more common in the ancient world than the use of the scabellum, and representations of crotali players appear across many centuries, from at least the eight century BCE to the fourth century CE Mariamin mosaic (Aign 1963: 106). The performer could dance while playing crotali and create many striking visual-sonic effects by swinging body and arms while piercing the air with clusters of clicking or snapping sounds. Clappers were usually attached to both hands and could produce much more complicated rhythmic configurations than the scabellum, which is probably why they did not function primarily to “emphasize the rhythm” of the music. Rather, the crotaliprovided a peculiar sound that was appealing to audiences in relation to particular kinds of music and dance. In the visual evidence, crotali players are largely female and represented as solo dancers whose use of the instrument enhanced the visual interest of the performance, but no evidence has emerged to indicate that pantomimes themselves handled crotalito support their movements. The clicking sound would occur only occasionally, to introduce a uniquely mysterious mood that was memorable because of the surprising rather than expected effect of the sound. 

Cymbals, on the other hand, apparently enchanted audiences so much that they resounded frequently. Indeed, cymbal performance was so interesting that spectators delighted in the spectacle or the image of solo cymbal players. But ancient cymbals, made of bronze, produced a different sound from the cymbals of today. They were smaller and transmitted a high-pitched, bell-like tone when struck together as a pair of metal plates each containing a hollowed out cup within a bronze disk. Cymbals came in different sizes: some were very small and produced a delicate tinkling sound, while others reached the size of a salad plate and shattered the air with explosive crashing sounds. These instruments were ancient well before the Romans started using them. The Old Testament includes several references to the use of cymbals in religious processions and rituals (Psalm 150: 5; Ezra 3: 10; 1 Chronicles 25: 12 Chronicles 5: 12; 2 Samuel 6: 5). The Egyptians only began using cymbals around 800 BCE, so it is likely that the origin of the instrument was the near east. But only in the Roman world did cymbal playing become a sign of refined voluptuousness. As with tympanum players, cymbal players in paintings and reliefs were everywhere female, maenads performing ecstatic dances; artists showed them nearly nude and often with the cymbals clashing above their heads and their heads turned or tilted upward, while their bodies, poised on tip-toes, assumed elongated or “aroused” poses. Images, of course, never show more than one cymbal player in the scene, for the audience accepted that an instrument individualized a player rather than subordinated her to the instrument’s power to duplicate or multiply its sound. But cymbal playing had less to do with perfecting a musical effect than with enhancing the image of the power of a hard, hammering, metallic tone to animate the female body toward ecstasy, to signify its “wildness.” Thus, the technique of cymbal playing entailed the display of a choreographic technique, which may well have included the performer’s skill in making the polished plates flash and gleam or in devising unusual ways to strike the plates. Performers struck the plates over the heads or spun around while striking them or fluttered their arms between crashes. A fascinating second century CE mosaic from Madaba, Jordan depicts a female dancer with cymbals attached to her wrists and ankles; her pose indicates that she drops her hand and raises her foot to allow the wrist cymbals to strike the ankle cymbals [Figure 33]. 

Figure 33: A second century CE mosaic of a woman dancing with cymbals attached to her ankles along with a nude male or hermaphrodite dancer, from a villa in Madaba, Jordan. Photo: Madaba Museum.

Here cymbal playing has become an acrobatic art, and as the mosaic artist assumed in choosing his subject, it was an art capable of solo performance. It’s true that the Dioscurides mosaic of the street musicians in Pompeii shows a masked male cymbal player delicately clinking a pair of small cymbals [Figure 32]. But, as with the depiction of the tympanum player, this mosaic is hardly typical in its representation of cymbal performance in the pantomime, even if the scene renders fairly realistically a typical street concert. While pantomime cymbal players might play as delicately as the street musician, the class distinctions between mime and pantomime or between popular and aristocratic entertainment make the mosaic unhelpful in giving an accurate image of cymbal performance in the pantomime. The pantomime, with its emphasis on competitive star personalities, required that even the most incidental performers infuse theatrical performance with mythic glamour, which is to say with an aura of voluptuousness that emerges above all when the performance space’s abiding function is to signify magnitudes or capacities for luxuriousness. 

Small bronze bells were perhaps another percussion instrument whose sound delighted audiences for the pantomime. Archeological excavations have retrieved these bells from numerous locations; I have not found any reference to them in the visual and literary sources. Graves from the Villanova period (1100 BCE-700 BCE) in Northern Italy contained flat, iron or bronze plates in the shape of bells that were incised with intricate geometric decorations. Little beaters were found with these bells, but these instruments assumed a largely symbolic rather than practical function in protecting the dead, for in some cases they make no sound at all when struck (Beck 1954: 128, fig. 166). Etruscan grave sites also contained bronze bells, often fairly large and of exquisite design. The Etruscans were unique among the societies of antiquity in ascribing a special power to bells. Beck (1954: 135) suggests that bells were widespread in the Etruscan culture. They hung from a metal cord, chain, or string at the entrances to dwellings and sounded when stirred by the wind. Because of their mysterious power to ward off malevolent, invisible spirits in the air or earth, bells may have cast an appealing aura in processional or theatrical performances when women walked or danced while striking them, although it is difficult to find visual or literary evidence to support this function for the excavated artifacts. The reason I feel somewhat comfortable in supposing such a function is the Mariamin mosaic (ca. 350 CE) found in an aristocratic house from the Syrian town of that name [Figure 31]. In this enchanting image, a woman with two beaters strikes eight bronze or brass bowls set in two rows on a table. The bowls thus should produce an entire octave of bell tones. Dunbabin (1999: 171) says this mosaic, now in the Hama Museum, belonged to a room that contained a stage, and the mosaic itself places the female musicians on a stage. The mosaic implies considerable sophistication in the use of bell sounds in concert performance. By using two beaters, the performer is capable of producing chords as well as complex melodies and a carillion effect. True, the bowls on the table immobilize the performer to a greater extent than bells carried in the performer’s hands, just as the organ stabilizes the performer. Nevertheless, the mosaic suggests the richness of “color” or chromaticism that audiences in the Late Empire could expect of bell sounds in a theatrical milieu. The archeological evidence of an enthusiasm for bells, combined with the lack of any evidence to indicate a prohibition or convention against the use of bells in theatrical performances, inclines me toward the probability that pantomimes felt free to exploit these delicate sounds in performance. 

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