A Roman playing the lyre

Round 15

Going to Gigs

The last instalment of the series Going To Gigs

by Trevor Locke

What did the Romans ever play for us?

This is the last edition of my series Going To Gigs. I might have explained, elsewhere, that none of the instalments – or ’rounds’, as I called them – are definitive accounts. Each article has been a work in progress. Sharing each of the pieces has been a way of working with a topic. For some time now – many, many years – I have had an aspiration to write the definitive work on the history of music in Leicester. That work forms part of my magnum opus on Leicester – the other volume being the history of Leicester, seen through the lens of the built environment. When will the book about music come out? I don’t know. A lot of water needs to flow under the bridge before I ever get to putting pen to paper, on that one.

In this issue: What did the ancient Romans ever play for us?

Remember that film – The Life of Brian? In it, Reg says: “REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” That inspired me to ask: “What did the Romans ever play for us?” Let me take you back to the year 145 AD. We are in a town called Ratae Corieltauvorum, a Roman town on the banks of the River Soar, not far from the Fosse Way, an imperial motorway that ran between Exeter and Lincoln. Let me show you round.

Over here we have the baths. Very impressive; a big place and a key part of the town. Water comes in via an aqueduct; it gets heated and supplied to the baths and washing fountains. A great place to get scrubbed up and meet your mates.

Ratae is a pretty good place to live, really. There’s an imposing shopping mall and a big forum were we get together to talk about stuff. Gets a bit political at times, but then that’s what it’s for, I guess. We have a big open market here in the centre of the town, where they sell almost anything and everything. Very good for fresh fruit and vegetables. Now and again you can also buy slaves there, it’s the main slave exchange for the whole region.

The houses are quite nice too. Most of the residences have underfloor heating. We need it in the cold and wet climate of the province of Britannia. Many of the big houses have a sizeable lounge. In the evenings, the owner can entertain a few guests. There’s always plenty to eat; Ratae is a pretty good place for meat and veg; outside the walls there are loads of small farmsteads and the land is very productive. No shortage of grain for bread and the forests are full of deer, wild boar and birds. We even get deliveries of fresh fish and sea food which are brought in from the east coast by cart, several times a week. Things like wine, grapes and olive oil are shipped in from Europe by boats that come up the Soar from the North Sea. Dinner parties are very laid-back affairs. We lay sideways on couches and get served loads of dishes by the slaves; they have to make sure we never run out of anything we want and that our glasses are always filled.

Then some musicians come in and play for us. They play wind instruments, flute-like things and there are usually a few drums and some metal jangly things and sometimes a stringed instrument. It’s all very refined; except they all sing in posh Latin and Greek and some of us can’t understand it. Well whatever. It sounds good. Most of the songs are brought over from Europe; they don’t seem to have much locally-written stuff. You only hear the local stuff when there is a market and the farmers come into town for a few days. It’s like a festival – market days. In the evenings the market traders start singing folk songs – mainly local stuff, singing in words us Latin-speakers can’t understand. It’s some kind of Coritani dialect, used by the farmers. They sing the old tribal songs that go back for ages, even before the time we came here.

We can hear them; they sing in loud, rough voices and they laugh a lot at the end of the songs. They are taking the piss out of us Romans, I shouldn’t wonder. They drink a concoction they call ‘beer’; its a lot stronger than our wine and it’s not long before they are all off their heads. That’s when they start singing those Celtic chants. They know we can’t understand the words so they feel safe. One of the slaves knows a bit of Celtic and he told me what they were singing about. Not very nice stuff, I can tell you.

A group of diners in a Roman villa


In 43 AD, the Romans arrived in Britain. They landed in the south of England and gradually made their way northwards. By 50 AD, the Romans had set up a fort on the banks of the Soar near to where the present city of Leicester stands. This probably was built on an earlier iron age settlement. The site has chosen because it was a point where the river is shallow and easy to cross.

Leicester, during the time of the Roman occupation (43 AD to around 400 AD), would have seen an
influx of people from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East. These people would have brought their musical instruments and traditions with them. Just as they do today. The four centuries of Romanisation would have had a fundamental influence on the culture of the people in Leicester as much as they did on the rest of England, Wales and other of the British Isles. The province of Britannia was the edge of the empire.

Musicians playing instruments from a detail from the Zliten mosaic

We know that The Romans had musical instruments, but what did their music sound like? Little is known about music and dance in Roman Britain, although Cicero wrote, in 53 AD, that he did not think that there were many people that were musically educated, in the British Isles. There is some evidence from Rome itself and other parts of continental Europe. Mosaics show instruments being played and people dancing; some show the pan pipes and the tambourine being played. Music was played at religious festivals and in theatres and wealthy houses might have had musicians to play at dinners. Drums and Lyres were common. The ancient Celts had musical instruments and their music spread across Europe. Some of the tunes were inspired by Arabic sounds from the middle east and north Africa. The Roman empire was a diverse culture, drawing on the arts and traditions of the many people it drew in as its boundaries grew ever larger. The movement of people was pretty extensive. People moved around a lot and settled in other parts of the empire, bringing their music with them. It was a melting pot of musical genres.

A sistrum made of bronze

We know that The Romans had musical instruments, but what did their music sound like? Back in 2015, Arts in Leicestershire magazine reported that a group called Manike Music had produced an album of ancient Roman and Greek Music, played on instruments that could have been around in Roman times. The ancient Roman and Greek album ‘SPQR’ was the result of years of research by Maryann Tedstone to recreate pieces of music that haven’t been heard in thousands of years.

A Roman lyre

Find out more about this project. Includes audio tracks of pieces being played and sung.

So, we cannot be sure what the Romans played for the people of Leicester; we can only guess from remaining archaeological evidence of Roman music generally. My guess is that it would have sounded very different from the songs sung by the indigenous peoples before they were Romanised. But, as this series had shown, people have always been influenced by outside sounds and genres. That was as true during the time of Roman Britain as it is today.

So, that is the end of the series; I hope you found it interesting.

See also

The general page on the Going To Gigs series of articles.

About The Editor 536 Articles
The Editor of Music in Leicester magazine is Kevin Gaughan assisted by Trevor Locke