Sound and the Ancient Senses

Continuing with my investigation of soundscapes through time, this collection of essays touches on various aspects of sound in ancient Greece and Rome, handed down to us through what does survive time, unlike sound itself. Sound leaves behind no trace, no ruin or residue; the ephemerality of sound can represent the impermanence of human existence. The introductory essay by Sarah Nooter and Shane Butler is a great start, and for once it makes sense to go deep on etymology, tracing the historical roots of how we felt about sound through the words that were used. Voice, song, music hugely important (Homer’s opening lines of Iliad, “Sing, divine wrath/ ménin a-ei-de” ). Poetry (then as now, but much more then) was spoken, stories passed down through the ages orally.

Seneca’s Epistles give us a detailed glimpse into the Roman soundscape:

Petrarch, reading Cicero 14 centuries later reminds us that ancient texts can be experienced as soundscapes, voices from the past.

Where sound doesn’t observe its proper boundaries, it disrupts our sense of place sometimes violently, a common problem in urban environments.

Most entertaining essay award goes to Joshua T. Katz’s Gods and Vowels, with a delightful playful tone and topic that refreshed after many pages of a bit dry academic prose. Also enjoyed the acoustic rendering of late Republican Rome by Erika Houlter, Susanne Muth and Sebastian Schwesinger (Sounding out public space) and Pamela Zinn’s Lucretius on sound.