Music for the Masses

Mark de Kreij

In this time of social distancing, enjoying music in public seems a distant memory, and since social get-togethers and musical events are all currently off the table, the study of song and festival in the ancient world can at least provide us with vicarious cultural experiences! The following texts all offer glimpses into the soundscape of Graeco-Roman Egypt, a topic that the current literature pays little to no attention to (a fact that I hope to soon rectify!). 
The first text contains the minutes of the meeting of a social club in Philadelphia, a village in the Fayum. There is much of interest in this little text, a fragment of a longer document containing the minutes of multiple meetings, which took place at least once a month. To start with, the meeting took place in the tack room, where saddles, bridles, and other riding accoutrements are kept. In combination with the peculiar names of the attendants, this location for a meeting suggests that this was a dining club consisting of slaves. 

[.] Choiak. In the tack room.
Dikaios to perform the rites.
Present: Hermias, Bakchos, Demas, Karpos, Kamax, Psammetichos, Dikaios.
Free entry: Hermias.
Money spent on:
Memphite wine 2̣[  ̣]
Hellanicus the flute-player [  ]
And the cinaedus [  ]

Edgar 1925 = C.Ptol.Sklav. I 91

Hermias presided over the club for this year, and was therefore exempt from contribution. Not so for Dikaios, whose turn it was to be the hieropoios for this meeting – probably the one to (provide and?) perform a small sacrifice or libation at the start of the meeting. As the final entries show, this was to be an evening (or afternoon) of drinks and entertainment. The participants shared wine from Memphis as they enjoyed the song and dance of a cinaedus (a male performer in effeminate dress) to the accompaniment of the flute-player’s music. Even among these least wealthy of people, entertainment was enough of a priority to spend money on at least once a month.
During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, when these texts were written, Egypt had an intricate multi-faceted society, where layers of Egyptian tradition, imported Greek culture, and superimposed Roman bureaucracy clashed and interwove in complex ways. One could witness this phenomenon especially clearly in the religious enclosures in villages and towns all over Egypt. The very fragmentary hymn preserved on a papyrus in the Vienna collection gives us a tantalising glimpse:

P.Vindob.Gr. 29248b (c) Papyrussammlung der Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

In the annual […] of Bacchus [
where blessed Sarap[is
of great hymns [

MPER III 28 (= P.Vindob.Gr. 29248b)

Bacchus is a designation of Dionysus, but also the Roman name for said god. Here he is mentioned in concert with Sarapis, an Egyptian name (syncretism of the gods Osiris and Apis) given to the hybrid Egyptian-Greek god whose worship emerged in the Ptolemaic period. Unlike Egyptian gods, the image of Sarapis was completely anthropomorphic (that is, only ever shown in human form), under the influence of the Ptolemaic rulers who pushed the cult. The papyrus that preserves these scanty verses is written in a hasty hand, illustrating the ephemeral nature of such texts. Unlike the classics of literature and song, occasional hymns rarely made it into any form of manuscript tradition, so the papyrological record is our only hope for any evidence of such performance events. We can only speculate where and when such a song may have been performed: perhaps during an annual festival of Bacchus, or in one of the many of the smaller sanctuaries of Sarapis spread throughout Egypt.

Bronze bust of Zeus-Serapis, from Alexandria – 19 cm in height! (c) The British Museum (inv. 1970,0216.1)

The performances we read about are all lost, but we can get an idea about their effect on the audience by an unusual and evocative document from Oxyrhynchus. Contained in it are a letter and its response (in reverse order), dated 3rd November 182 AD, concerning a tragic accident in the village Senepta.

Hierax, strategus of the Oxyrhynchite nome, to Claudius Serenus, assistant. A copy of the application which has been presented to me by Leonides also called Serenus is herewith sent to you. Take a public physician and view the dead body referred to, and having delivered it over for burial make a report in writing. Signed by me. The 23rd year of Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Caesar the lord, Athyr 7.
To Hierax, strategus, from Leonides also called Serenus, whose mother is stated as Tauris, of Senepta. At a late hour of yesterday the 6th, while a festival was taking place at Senepta and the castanet-players were giving their customary performance at the house of Plution my son-in-law…, his slave Epaphroditus, aged about 8 years, wishing to lean out from the bed-chamber of said house and see the castanet-players, fell and was killed…

P.Oxy. III 475

From the flute-player and mime performing at an informal symposium, to priests singing hymns to Greek and Egyptian gods alike, and castanet-players dancing in a village courtyard, music was an integral part of the culture of Graeco-Roman Egypt. The ephemeral nature of musical performance makes it easily forgotten, but it is worth exploring the traces it has left in the papyrological record.  We learn about this lost song culture from documents as varied as village club minutes, rough copies of religious hymns, and official correspondence. Despite its virtual absence in the handbooks, we would be wise to assume that song was no less important to the people of Graeco-Roman Egypt than it is to us.

*Editor’s note: for the survival of musical instruments from Roman Egypt, see the work taken as part of the project ‘Roman and Late Antique Artefacts from Egypt’, which included an exhibition on instruments in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (‘Sounds of Roman Egypt’), which you can read about here.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Egypt: Philadelphia (texts 1), Soknopaiou Nesos(?text 2), and Oxyrhynchus (text 3)
Date: 2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Text 1: Istituto Papirologico ‘Vitelli’ (?); Text 2: Papyrussammlung der Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (P.Vindob.Gr. 29248b); Text 3: Charterhouse School 
Designation: Text 1: C.Ptol.Sklav. I 91 (=SB 3 7182); Text 2: MPER III 28; Text 3: P.Oxy. III 475 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: C.C. Edgar, ‘Records of a village club,’ in Raccolta di scritti in onore di Giacomo Lumbroso, ed. by A.E.R. Boak (Milan, 1925) pp. 369-377 [text 1]. Note that Text 3 has received attention for reasons other than music and song, and you can see the bibliography connected to these aspects in the Trismegistos database (TM 20611).

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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