Learning to sing, and a dead master of song

2018.03.14 | By Gregory Nagy

This essay recapitulates a part of a larger project concerning the craft of singing to the accompaniment of song—as the craft was practiced in Athens and its environs around the fifth century BCE (Nagy 2012). The focal point of interest is a red-figure painting, by an artist named Douris, on a drinking-cup produced between 490 and 480 BCE. I show here a line drawing of what is pictured in the painting. We see in this picture two scenes showing boys being educated in the learning and the performance of song and musical accompaniment. I will compare these two scenes with what is known about a dead man, buried in a tomb dated to the fifth century BCE, who must have been a master of such song.

Berlin, Staatliche Museen, ARV2 431, 48 and 1653; CVA II pp. 29-30, with plates 77 and 78; line drawing by Tina Ross.
Berlin, Staatliche Museen, ARV2 431, 48 and 1653; CVA II pp. 29–30, with plates 77 and 78; line drawing by Tina Ross.


I start with a brief analysis of the two scenes: the one labeled “A” is at the top, while the one labeled “B” is at the bottom.[1]


Side A.
Side A.


Side B.
Side B.


On the left in both scenes A and B, a seated ephebe (A) or adult (B) is playing the aulos ‘reed’ (A) or the kitharā ‘lyre’ (B). On the right in both scenes, a seated pedagogue, with a cane, looks on. In the middle is a young boy standing and facing a seated ephebe who holds a tablet, on which he is writing (A) and a young boy standing and facing a seated adult who holds a scroll of papyrus, which he is reading (B). The text that he reads is represented as epic in theme but lyric in form:


‘Muse tell me about Scamander flowing far and wide I begin to sing it.’

(In another project, I will attempt to justify this translation, which reflects an interpretation that is different from that of Calame 1989:51–52, also from that of Sider 2010.)

Another young boy is standing and facing the seated reed-playing ephebe on the left (A), and a seated lyre-playing ephebe faces the seated lyre-playing adult on the left (B). In scene B, there are musical instruments—both lyres and reeds—represented as levitating above the action, and they are framed on either side by representations of drinking-cups shaped just like the one painted by Douris. The songmaking apprenticeship of the boys, with distinct implications of homoerotic undertones (on both sides, there is an erotic inscription designed to touch the lips of whoever drinks from the cup), is being represented as a prerequisite for the integration of adolescents into the symposia of adult citizens, which is the context for which the drinking-cup of Douris is destined.[2]

These symmetrical scenes of “musical” education refer to whatever the boy learns—by way of songs and the erotic sensibilities conveyed in the songs—as preparation for participation in the symposium. I connect these scenes with what Aristotle says about the preferability of this kind of musical education at private symposia to the kind of musical education that is open to the population at large, on the occasions of public performances at festivals:

It should be ordained that younger men not be theater-goers [theātai] of iamboi or of comedy until they reach the age where they have the opportunity to participate in lying down together at table and getting intoxicated [that is, to participate in symposia], at which point their education [paideiā] will make them altogether immune to the harmful effect of these things.

Aristotle Politics 1336b20–22

In general, Aristotle “advises his elite readership to avoid the demotic culture of the mousikoi agōnes” (Politics 8.1341a9–13, b10–321342.16–27).[3]

The kind of education that led to proficiency in citharodic and aulodic performances at symposia is exemplified, I argue, in the Clouds of Aristophanes, with its informative description of old-fashioned Athenian paideiā ‘education’ (961). Boys learn selected compositions of old lyric masters in the house of the kitharistēs ‘master of the kitharā’ (964), who teaches them to learn by heart (promatheîn 966) the performance of famous lyric compositions (967) and who insists on his pupils’ adherence to performing these compositions in the proper harmoniā ‘mode’ that had been ‘inherited from their forefathers’ (968; in the context of 969–972).[4]

I think that it was such a kitharistēs ‘master of the kitharā’ whose body was found within a tomb excavated in May 1981 at Daphni, Athens, Odos Olgas 53. The basic facts about this excavation have been described this way:

The body occupied one of two tombs, and it was buried along with (1) a lyre or “harp,” (2) “a writing-case,” (3) “an ink-pot,” (4) “fragments of a tortoise shell,” (5) “a saw,” (6) “a set of knuckle-bones,” (7) “an aulos tube with mouth-piece,” (8) “a bundle of writing-tablets,” (9) “a papyrus-roll,” (10) “a chisel,” and (11) “a stylus.”[5]

The similarities with the details represented on the vase painting by Douris are most striking. In the initial publication about the excavation, however, the authors mention the Douris painting only once, with reference to item 8, one of the writing tablets: in the Douris painting, the authors note, we see “the teacher writing on the second tablet of a triptychon: the first tablet is raised away from him like the lid of a modern laptop.”[6] Many other points of comparison could have been mentioned. For how, however, it will suffice for me to note that the tomb dates to the fifth century BCE and that the lettering on both the writing tablets and the papyrus, though it is regrettably most fragmentary, is not Attic but Ionic, showing eta and omega. The authors describe the deceased man who is buried along with the papyrus and the writing tablets and the lyre as “a musician and probably a poet.”[7] Such a description is I think too general: the term kitharistēs, as used by Aristophanes, would be a far better fit.

Here is a passage from Plato showing the role of a kitharistēs in the teaching of the young:

So if someone asked you this further question “So you yourself are going to Protagoras to become who exactly?” He [= Hippocrates] blushed—there was already enough light of day to see it—and said: if it is anything like the previous examples, then clearly the answer is: to become a sophist [sophistēs]. —But then wouldn’t you, I said—and I swear by the gods when I say this—wouldn’t you be ashamed in front of all the Hellenes that you would be advertising yourself as a sophist [sophistēs]? —Yes, I swear by Zeus I would be, Socrates, if I may say what is really on my mind. —But then you are assuming, Hippocrates, that the course of study that you take from Protagoras will be this kind of course, and not the kinds of courses of study that you had been taught by, say, an expert in letters [grammatistēs][8] or by a kitharā-player [kitharistēs] or by a trainer [paidotribēs].

But you see, you had taken each one of those courses of study not for the sake of the craft [tekhnē], in order to become an artisan [dēmiourgos], but for the sake of your education [paideiā], as is fitting for a private citizen and a free man.[9] —So then I think it is rather this kind of course, he said, I will be taking from Protagoras. —So do you know what you are about to end up doing, or is it unclear for you? —I said. —About what? —About the fact that you are about to hand over your own psūkhē to be cared for by a man who is, as you say, a sophist [sophistēs]. As for what on earth a sophist [sophistēs] is, I would be surprised if you really knew. But if you are ignorant of this, then you don’t really know to whom you are handing over your psūkhē—whether it is to a noble or a base person, or whether it is for a noble or a base purpose. —Well, he said, I think I know.[10]

Plato Protagoras 311e–312c



Allen, R. E., ed. 1996. Ion, Hippias Minor, Laches, Protagoras. New Haven.

Calame, C. 1989. “Apprendre à boire, apprendre à chanter: L’inférence énonciative dans une image grecque.” La part de l’oeil 5:45–53.

Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.

———. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Poetry_as_Performance.1996.

———. 2012. “Oral Poetics through the Lens of the Panathenaic Festival in Athens.” Comparative Literature and World Literature (Vol. II) (ed. Yuehong Chen and Hui Zhang) 1–14. Beijing.

Pöhlmann, E., and West, M. L. 2012. “The Oldest Greek Papyrus and Writing Tablets: Fifth-Century Documents from the ‘Tomb of the Musician’ in Attica. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 180:1–16.

Power, T. 2010. The Culture of Kitharōidia. Hellenic Studies 15. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

Sider, D. 2010. “Greek Verse on a Vase by Douris.” Hesperia 2010:541–554.



[1] Nagy 1996:163n37.

[2] Calame 1989:53.

[3] Power 2010:462–463.

[4] Nagy 1990:97–98 = 3§31.

[5] West and Pöhlmann 2012:2. About the lyre or “harp,” I add the important information collected by Power 2010:127, 128, 173, 411 (cf. barbitos); Power analyzes the differences between plucking (psallein) vs. striking (krouein).

[6] West and Pöhlmann 2012:3n22.

[7] West and Pöhlmann 2012:10.

[8] This term grammatistēs ‘expert in letters’ is applied to Maiandrios as ‘scribe’ of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos (Herodotus 3.123.1). On Maiandrios of Samos: Nagy 1990:324 = 11§20n53, 324–325 = §21n58.

[9] The paideiā ‘education’ of the eleutheros ‘free man’ is the aristocratic concept of ‘liberal education’, as opposed to the ‘servile’ status of artisans who are educated to make a living as professionals.

[10] Translation after Allen 1996:172-173.

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