I have often wondered what Roman music sounded like. We know it had a strong beat, and occasionally induced a trance-like state. We know the ancient Romans had instruments like guitars (lyres). We know they had drums, flutes, cymbals and tambourines. Maybe even some form of castanet. My favourite music has always been jazz. I often get some good ideas while listening to music.
To hear what scholars and archaeologists think Roman Music sounded like, go to
Below are some of my favourite CD's, works which have inspired me while writing The Roman Mysteries.
In The Thieves of Ostia, Nubia sings a haunting song. What I had in mind was something very middle-eastern and unusual. Nubia isn't Jewish but it might have sounded like Love Song on a CD by the Yemenite singer Ofra Haza. The CD is called Shaday and you can listen to it by clicking on the image and then clicking on the cover and finally chosing Love Song further down the page. It's not jazz, but it is very beautiful. This song is sung without any instruments. The language is ancient Hebrew, the language Jonathan and his sister Miriam spoke.
In the second book of The Roman Mysteries, The Secrets of Vesuvius, Nubia plays a flute and Lupus pats a beat on the ship's mast. Later he learns to play the drums, and he gets better and better. One of my favourite CD's of 2001 is Down to the Bone's The Urban Grooves. It has a strong beat and a happy flute. I especially like Yo Man It's Herbie. Click on the image and scroll down to find this song. Can you visualize Lupus and Nubia playing that song on the beach after dinner, while Flavia, Jonathan and Doctor Mordecai dance? Oh, all right. Maybe not.
My favourite CD of 2001 was Fingerprints by Californian guitarist Larry Carlton. And my favourite track is Slave Song. This song inspired a whole scene in my third book The Pirates of Pompeii. At a dinner party, Flavia is trying to impress someone and she asks Nubia to play. This is the song Nubia composes. In later books the four friends and Aristo play this song together. Aristo plays the guitar - I mean lyre. You can also hear Lupus on the drums, Jonathan on bass lyre, and Flavia's playing something strange instrument that makes a curious sparkling noise. When you hear the sax, that's Nubia on her big brass flute again. Listen to it by clicking on the image to the left.
I don't want to say too much about book four, but this musician inspired one of my characters: You'll learn more about him in The Assassins of Rome. I will only say that he introduces Jonathan to the Syrian Barbiton, which is the Roman equivalent of a bass guitar. As soon as he hears it, Jonathan knows that this is 'his' instrument. The bass reflects Jonathan's personality. He is the steady one of the group. In Roman times there was such an instrument known as a barbiton, and although there could have been a Syrian barbiton we don't have any evidence for it. In other words, this is one of the few things I've made up in The Roman Mysteries!
Luc Besson is one of my favourite directors and although this film is overlong and a bit confusing, I still have a soft spot for it. While I was writing Roman Mystery book five, The Dolphins of Laurentum I listened to this CD over and over again. I also watched the video, which is mysterious, atmospheric, and poignant. Plus it has Jean Reno! Quite a few scenes in my book were inspired by tracks from this CD and images from the film. And I've stolen one line:
Nubia: 'How will he breathe?'
Aristo: 'He won't'
Roman Mystery book six is about love, romance, marriage and an escaped lion. I often use jazz musicians to inspire my characters. I don't really know their personalities so I let their appearance and their music inspire me. In The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina a young Roman widow named Cartilia Poplicola decides it's time to remarry. The object of her attention is Flavia's father, the sea captain Marcus Flavius Geminus. Is Cartilia genuinely interested in Marcus? Or is she just after his money? Or has she an even darker motive? To get Cartilia in my mind, I played this CD a lot. Especially the track called 'Callie' which is one of my all time favourite smooth jazz tracks.
Roman Mystery book seven, The Enemies of Jupiter is about a plague and fire in Rome in the winter following the eruption of Vesuvius. It is dark and will make The Assassins of Rome look like a teddy bear's picnic. I wanted to mix up a potion of apocalyptic doom with a dose of madness and just a touch of surrealism. And I wanted a sprinkling of middle eastern exotica on top. So when I take a break from writing or go for a walk, I put on Purple Electric Violin Concerto by Ed Alleyne-Johnson. It was recorded live with just Ed and his purple electirc violin. It's perfect to set a mood of oriental disorientation.
No page about Roman music would be complete without the soundtrack to the film Gladiator. It was composed by Hans Zimmer, one of my favourite film score musicians. Listen to the tracks called 'The Wheat' or 'Sorrow'. They sound a lot like Ofra Haza, above. And that brings us full circle. The nice thing about ancient Roman music is that nobody knows exactly what it sounded like. So you can let your imagination soar. Click on the image to hear some tracks from the film.
As I come in for the home stretch of this series, I find my characters in Egypt and North Africa. This 3 disc compilation called Arabic Beats, together with a companion set called Arabic Cafe are the perfect listening music. Middle-eastern flavoured music with a strong beat and interesting vocal thems. Plus camels on the cover. I am listening to it all the time as I write The Beggar of Volubilis and The Scribes from Alexandria. It is helping me get my characters across the north African desert to the Atlas Mountains and then up the Nile to Nubia. Perfect.