Musica rustica: the nature of ancient Roman pastoral music

Rodney Cross

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


While the poetry of Vergil’s Eclogues has received considerable deliberation in recent scholarship, the nature of the musica rustica (or pastoral music), alluded to throughout these poems, has been overlooked to some extent. The association between notions of ‘the bucolic’ and music is particularly evident, not only in the lyrical style of bucolic poetry (including the works of the earlier Greek poets: Theocritus, Moschus and Bion) but also in the strong reference to ‘shepherd-musicians’ across a range of ancient literary and visual texts. Vergil especially, conjures up this image of the ‘shepherd-musician’ and clearly associates music with the pastoral experience in the Augustan period. Vergil’s third eclogue itself refers specifically to the practice of wagered musical contests between shepherds (Verg. Ecl. 3). The presence of the syrinx (Pan-pipe) was extremely common in pastoral poetry, largely due to its strong symbolic connection with its mythical inventor, Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and the woodlands. Varro however, also notes the use of the Roman bucina (a Roman lip-vibrated aerophone or ‘brass instrument’) in herding swine, most notably in the form of “having them gather at the sound of the horn... [so] that they might not become lost when scattered into wooden country” (Varro. Rust. 2.4.20). This source indicates that pastoral music may have also had significant practical applications in the agricultural sphere. With particular reference to the Eclogues of Vergil, this paper will consider the representation of Roman ‘shepherd-musicians’ and the nature of their pastoral music in literary and visual sources, in order to call further attention to this area of study.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventSymposium Cumanum 2016: Music in the Time of Vergil - Villa Vergiliana, Cuma, Italy
Duration: 22 Jun 201624 Jun 2016


ConferenceSymposium Cumanum 2016
Internet address


  • ancient Roman social history
  • music
  • pastoral literature
  • Virgil
  • singing contests
  • pan-pipes
  • bucina
  • tuba
  • brass instruments
  • pigs
  • herding
  • shepherd-musician


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