Introducing the aulos of Poseidonia

Last week, I had the honour of playing the aulos of Poseidonia beside the original in the ancient city of Poseidonia, 100km south of Naples. Here I am with Marco Sciascia, who made a reproduction for the EMAP exhibition in 2015:


Marco finished making a reproduction for me in October 2016. Since then, I have been slowly learning to play it with the help of excellent reeds and mentoring from Robin Howell.

The original was buried in around 480 BCE, two centuries before the Romans took control and gave this prosperous city its modern name of Paestum. This is also the date of the site’s most famous mural, the Tomb of the Diver, which depicts a symposium featuring two aulos players and two lyre players.

Poseidonia was founded in the 6th century BCE by Greek colonists. The aulos of Poseidonia could have been played in two of the city’s great temples, the so-called Basilica (to Hera or Apollo?) and the Temple of Athena. Building work on the largest sanctuary, the Temple of Neptune, was just beginning around the time the aulos was buried.

The aulos was found in 1969. Detailed studies were published by Paul and Barbara Reichlin-Moser in 2012 and by Stelios Psaroudakis in 2014, each with meticulous measurements and close-up photographs.

It is an exceptionally well-preserved instrument from a time and place that represents a summit of ancient Greek culture. Music was prominent in the social life of Poseidonia and music-making revolved around the aulos. The fancier types of aulos with more holes and elaborate mechanisms, I suggest, would rank lower in the estimation of master players – these would be the instruments favoured by amateur players and popular audiences. The “Classical” aulos of the Poseidonia or Pydna type, perhaps, may be compared to a violin or the human voice, and the precision-engineered doublepipes with moving parts to a clarinet or saxophone. The point of this comparison is that the repertoire for violin and voice dwarves that for clarinet and saxophone: a more complicated instrument does not imply greater artistry in the players, a more refined type of music, or any fall in status of the apparently ‘primitive’ instrument.

Despite lacking chromatic mechanisms, this type of aulos is compatible with the modulating style that became popular in the 5th-century BCE, called the ‘new music’ by fourth-century musicologists. In the following videos, I demonstrate how it is possible to play any scale with accurate intonation. Although I would not exclude half-holing, I find it relatively clumsy. For precision and speed, I find it preferable to use tiny movements from the elbow in combination with micro-adjustments in lip compression.

My playing in these videos represents humble beginnings, miles short of what the instrument is capable of. I am just far enough down the path to know that this type of aulos is a noble musical instrument, promising rich rewards in proportion to the hours spent practising. The professional auletes of ancient Greece probably put in as many hours as music students do today. I wish I was starting in my teens, not in my 40s! I certainly want to continue and hope others will join me.

Thanks to Angelo Meriani (Università di Salerno), Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the staff of the Parco Archeologico di Paestum and residenza “Il Granaio dei Casabella”.

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