Echos of an Empire


In general, the term aerophones is used to classify the musical instruments that produce sound by the vibration of air that is contained within the instrument. Research has verified the existence of ten different instruments that belong to this category. From the most to the least frequently observed, these instruments are: the trumpet; the aulos; the horn; the transverse flute; the double aulos; the syrinx (panpipe); the seashell horn (natural horn); the bagpipe; the pipe organ and the oliphant.

The aulos was derived from an ancient Greek wind instrument, whose earliest evidence dates back to 6th century BC. The double aulos or diaulos was another popular ancient aerophone which consisted of two separate pipes, attached at their base.

A characteristic example of an aulos can be found on an ivory casket, preserved at the Museum of Ravenna. On the bottom left corner of the casket, David is shown playing aulos.

The syrinx, the ancient pipes of Pan, consisted of a set of 4 to 18 pipes of canes, secured together in one structure. In this silver plate from the 4th century, Pan, the ancient Greek god of shepherds and hunters, is shown as playing a syrinx. He is accompanied by a maenad, a female follower of the Dionysian cult, who is playing a double aulos.

A transverse flute is a flute that is held in a horizontal position when played. In the 12th century manuscript illumination below, a musician is shown (on the upper part of the miniature) playing a transverse flute.

The horn (keras) is depicted as a curved musical instrument, either handmade or natural. The seashell horn (kochlos), again depicted as a curved musical instrument, is made from a seashell.

An example of an artificial horn, is seen in a mosaic panel from Ravenna.

From historical texts, as early as the 4th century, it is known that the pipe organ featured in private and public celebrations of the Byzantine Empire. In some cases, the pipe organ was present at wedding feasts, official meals and special events such as the celebration of the birth of an emperor’s child, coronations, the triumphant return of the emperor from a military campaign, and in honour of a foreign dignitary’s visit. Later on, the instrument took a primary role in the hippodrome.

Dated from the 4th century, on the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius located in the hippodrome of the Byzantine Empire’s capital, two pipe organs are visible on both ends. The scene illustrates events held at the hippodrome and next to the pipe organs, there are several dancers and two musicians playing double aulos.