An Ancient Spartan Military Secret—Musical Instruments

Military order, discipline and the logistics of feeding troops were deemed so important to the Spartans that, according to Herodotus (490-425/420 BCE), the very occupations of being a military woodwind musician or an army chef were supposedly strict hereditary jobs, contained to certain families that passed the skill from one generation to the next. In short, to enter one of these two occupations, your family already had to be firmly established in those lines of work. The importance of reliable cooks, obviously, was to keep the soldiers well fed and content while they risked their lives fighting in all too persistent waves of warfare. Similarly, skilled military musicians who knew what they were doing were vital to the Spartan military, for it is thought that Spartan military maneuvering was assisted and directed with the help of musicians. Like horn musicians and percussionists that would be utilized by other militaries throughout history, the Spartans used woodwind music to keep their formations orderly.

Although Herodotus did not go into detail about what woodwind instrument the hereditary musicians were trained to use, the most common instrument of that style in the ancient Greek world was the aulos. The oldest known examples of the aulos have been found in Thessaly, dating back to around 5,000 BCE. Those incredibly old auloi were made of bone, but later aulos instruments were also made of wood, ivory and metal. Pipes made of these substances had holes precisely placed down their length to create standard musical notes, which could be achieved by blowing into the pipe through mouthpieces equipped with reeds. While the aulos could be played by simply placing one’s fingers over the holes in the flute, keys similar to those found on modern woodwind instruments were eventually added to the device. It was common (especially in Herodotus’ day) for aulos musicians to play two pipes at the same time, with the individual pipes connecting into a “V” shape, with the mouthpieces meeting at the point of the V. With two pipes active at the same time, the double aulos added the potential for musical chords and more complex melodies. One major drawback of the aulos was the significant air pressure that a musician had to create to produce a decent sound. Playing the aulos could be so tiring that some musicians used straps to support their mouths while they played.

The aulos was not only used by the Spartans to keep their military in order, but was also heavily present in many other aspects of ancient Greek life. There is evidence that they were used in festivals, parades, theatre and other social events. Birthday celebrations and funeral processions, too, could both be accompanied with music from the aulos. The aulos, and other instruments, were also associated with religion, and were often used in the worship of gods. The cult of Dionysus was particularly known to use the aulos in its ceremonies and gatherings.


 (Aulos player. Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 490 BC. From Vulci. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Written by C. Keith Hansely.


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