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Mastering the Music of Nature in the Ptolemaic Empire

Prof. Yvona Trnka-Amrhein, U. of Colorado-Boulder
Friday, March 13, 2020
4:00-6:00 PM
2175 Angell - Classical Studies Library Angell Hall Map
Among its many intellectual achievements, the Ptolemaic court theorized and produced a variety of automata that ranged from simple vessels to complex mythological tableaux. Some automata relied on sound to create their effects, while others were designed to mimic natural sounds (e.g. birds). Since many automata exploited the compression effects produced by regulating the flow of water discovered by the Ptolemaic scientist Ctesibius, the sound of running water was a by-product of their function. In this paper I begin from the Ptolemaic epigrammatist Hedylus’ interpretation of an automated ryhton’s sound as the song of the Nile, eternally celebrating Egypt’s great river and its queen Arsinoe II (Epigram 4 G-P). If we learn from Hedylus that Ptolemaic machines could produce “music,” the display of automata in Ptolemaic festivals and temples takes on new implications. Beyond advertising scientific innovation or creating novel spectacles as “toys,” these automata may have served as instruments of an imperial music. To reach this conclusion, I situate the machines within the context of Greek poetic and scientific discussions of the relationship between noise, sound, and music and meditations on which natural sounds counted as musical (e.g. in Pindar, Theocritus, and Aristoxenus). I argue that such discussions would have allowed the Ptolemaic court to recast the limited sonic potential of their automata as a form of “natural music” on command. Like many imperial rulers, the Ptolemies were interested in manifesting their power through the control of nature. If their machines could be interpreted as replicating the music of natural phenomena such as birds and rivers, musical automata could provide a truly powerful soundtrack to Ptolemaic power. In addition to presenting the Ptolemies as masters of nature, such “imperial” music would also transcend the borders of ethnic and cultural traditions. Since the Ptolemies ruled Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, and others, a supra-ethnic form of “natural music” would be the ideal anthem for their empire.
Building: Angell Hall
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: Classical Studies, Lecture