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Song Of Seikilos

2,000 years ago Seikilos wrote a song for Euterpe, and carved it into her tombstone. Today it’s the oldest surviving complete song in the world.

Here’s an English translation of the song’s lyrics:

While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
and Time demands his due.

The lyrics give us the song’s time signature. The notes above the lyrics indicate what pitches to sing, and how long to sing them for. Here’s what it would look like if you stretched it out flat:

Here’s what it looks like transcribed into modern letters on a clean background:

Here’s one way to annotate it in modern musical notation:

And here’s a 3-minute performance of the piece.

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Ancient Greek poetry is musical theater

The oldest known Greek poet was Homer. His poetry was set to music and sung out loud in public theaters like this one, built in Epidaurus in the 4th century BC.

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What Ancient Greek Music looks like

This shows the first and second verses of the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo, carved in marble for the Athenian Pythaides festival in 128 BC in Delphi. The composer’s name is Athenaios Athenaiou (Athenaios, son of Athenaios).

The melody is written above the lyrics, and shows which notes to sing (according to the Greater Perfect System).

The rhythm is inherent in the poetics of the verse. For example, we see cretics (instead of, say, iambs or dactyls) so we know the time signature is 5/8.

Here is a performance of the hymn.

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Ogilby’s Iliad

People often overlook John Ogilby’s English translation of Homer’s Iliad. The frontispiece of this 1660 edition was engraved by Wenceslas Hollar.

It was published just after George Chapman’s famous translation, which he wrote in long-lined non-rhyming verse, in installments starting in 1598.

It was published just before Alexander Pope’s timeless translation, which he wrote in rhyming iambic pentameter couplets, in installments starting in 1715.

But Ogilby’s English translation was one of the first to be annotated, and his editions were always beautifully illustrated.

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What Ancient Greek music sounds like

This 16-minute video is an interesting attempt to recreate authentic Ancient Greek music.

They cover some fundamental instruments like the kithara and the aulos. They play a jazzy version of Homer. It finishes with a really cool semi-authentic performance of the actual music Euripides composed for Orestes, which was a musical, not a play.

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12-minute summary of the Iliad

This 12-minute video summarizing the Iliad is awesome and hilarious, but it skips over the ending, and so kinda misses the whole point of the Iliad.

They later posted this video explaining the ending better.

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Euripides wrote musicals, not plays

People perform the works of Euripides today as a play (without music) often unaware that they were written as musicals.

If you’ve ever seen the famous Orestes by Euripides, composed in 408 BC, you probably saw a stage play with no music and no singing.

But this fragment, written 125 years after Orestes was composed, actually shows the melody, and proves it was a musical.

In Euripides’s Greece, according to the “Greater Perfect System”, each octave is divided into exactly 21 notes, and each note is assigned a letter of the alphabet. You can indicate which octave the note belongs to by turning the letter on its side, inverting it, or amending it. In this way, the Ancient Greeks wrote music with letters instead of drawing music as dots. We do this today (a melody line can be written E4, A4, B4, C5) but our octave is limited to twelve notes.

This fragment shows six well-known lines from Orestes, with the musical notes above them indicating which notes to sing, and rhythm marks indicating the timing.

It’s fortunate we know all the lyrics for Orestes, but sad this is all we know of its music.

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Venetus A

One of the reasons we know the works of Homer better than Shakespeare is because the Iliad was so popular, and published so widely, that we have multiple complete editions of the Iliad from independent sources. The Venetus A is one of those sources.

The Venetus A is a complete book – a published edition of Homer’s Iliad written in the tenth century AD.

It includes illustrations of the Trojan War, a ton of commentary in the sidelines of the text, and a bunch of supplemental reading that follows. It’s been described as a “Director’s Cut” version of the Iliad.

The entire book was recently scanned and is now free to view on the Homer Multitext Project.