Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The music of the ghosts

The civilization of ancient Rome lasted about a thousand years, from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD (in the lands around Greece an offshoot successor state lasted until 1453). From its beginnings as a tiny village in Italy, Rome came to rule the entire Mediterranean world. A map of Rome's empire in AD 117, when the march of the legions reached its farthest point, looks like this:

Across the immensity of that territory the Romans built cities, towns, roads, and farms. In their thousands upon thousands of settlements, built up over centuries of conquest, the Romans constructed not only their famous arenas, roads and aqueducts, but also villas, baths, sewers, temples, forums, amphitheaters, granaries, harbors, ships, mines and a myriad of the other complex edifices that make up the infrastructure of a thriving, economically vibrant, militarily powerful society. From that society, much remains. We have Roman poetry, drama, literature, history, and philosophy. We have the Latin language. We have sculpture and painting, and the heritage of Roman achievements in law, government, architecture, engineering, and war.

In AD 117, people with Roman citizenship occupied three thousand miles of land from the North Sea to the river valleys of Mesopotamia. No doubt it was unthinkable to the Romans that such a massive, monumental presence as Roman power would one day disintegrate. No one could imagine the day when people who thought of themselves as Roman disappeared from the face of the Earth. But that's what happened. Four hundred years after Roman rule reached its greatest extent, it was a memory.

The enormous physical and cultural scale of Roman civilization meant that at least some of it would survive that civilization's death. And much of it did, from the roads and buildings to the works of literature and art. Among the items salvaged from the wreckage were musical instruments. We know the Romans played music, that it was an important part of their customs and rituals.

But of all the things Rome built and did, all the vast stores of relics that survived the fall, we only have a single 25 second fragment of Roman music. That's all that remains of the songs and melodies played in houses and streets across the immensity of the Roman world for hundreds upon hundreds of years. The surviving fragment of music was composed by the musician Flaccus for the performance of a play by the dramatist known as Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, circa 195 to 159 BC).

This music has been performed by a Spanish ensemble called Atrium Musicae de Madrid. The fragment is entitled "Terencio. Hecyra 861." You can listen to part of it at the Amazon listing for an album by the group.

Rome left much, but its music has been lost. All of it, save one tiny little scrap. For all time.

I can't help thinking of this as a catastrophe. I read about the fragment from Flaccus in the most recent book by John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. Greer mentions the 25-second musical remnant in order to illustrate how easily a priceless cultural heritage can be lost. The Romans didn't imagine their society going away, so they took no special steps to preserve their culture. Some of it survived anyway, because it took durable physical form, like the aqueducts. Some of the less durable items, like the literature, survived because they were methodically copied by medieval monks. But the Romans seem not to have written down their music. So all of it was lost.

Greer cautions that the same thing could happen to our culture in the decades and centuries ahead. Our books and periodicals are printed on paper that in a few decades will crumble to dust. Our digitized knowledge rests in computers that depend on a growing, fossil-fueled economy, for maintenance, parts, and electricity. Even with these things, hard drives don't last forever. In the coming age of depletion and decline, they will last even less. Our main means of storing information, including music, are paper, electrons, and silicon. Soon, Greer maintains, their economic and technological support system will begin to disappear. We have to start planning now, he says, for alternatives, in hopes of saving what we can.

Or our music could be as dead as the silent music of Rome.

* * * * * *

Anthropologists, historians, and other researchers can't conjure Roman music back into being. But they have managed to rebuild Roman musical instruments, from the records that survived. The researchers make informed guesses about the sort of music those instruments, catering to Roman tastes, might have made.

And then they ask musicians to play the results. Here's one of them. The echo of music played by ghosts, from a world that was lost.

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