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Reading and listening at the 'Colossi of Memnon' by Cameron Heagney (April 2024)

Herodotus was among the first Greek authors to write of the “so many marvellous things” found in Egypt (Herodotus, The Persian Wars 2.35), contributing to a developing interest in Egypt as a region conceived to be full of curious and obscure wonders. But for the growing communities of Greeks and Romans making their journey down the Nile, few spectacles could attract as many visitors as the so-called ‘Colossi of Memnon’. These two enormous sandstone statues depicted Pharaoh Amenhotep III, and were built in the ancient city of Thebes (modern day Luxor) during the fourteenth century B.C. (Fig. 1). Gazing out into the eastern horizon, the two 18-metre statues mark the entrance to the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III and dominated the landscape as the largest monuments in the area. Their magnificent size and antique age were the subject of marvel, but the most wonderous of all of their qualities were the sounds that one of the statues could reportedly produce.

Fig. 1. Photograph of the ‘Colossi of Memnon’ from the 19th century. Brooklyn Museum Accession No. 86.250.23. Image: Photograph by Antonio Beato, Brooklyn Museum.

Indeed, as a result of damage and natural erosion, the slight dislocation of the statue’s stones allowed wind and air to pass through the northern Colossus and produce sounds at certain times of day. This curious phenomenon is reported by several Graeco-Roman authors, but it is Strabo who relates that the sound was so lifelike that he was unable to distinguish whether the noise was produced by the statue, or the men stood around its base (Strabo, Geography 17.1.46). Attracting frequent visitors for centuries, the sound of the Colossi of Memnon is referenced to in dozens of graffiti that cover the legs of the statue pair (Fig. 2). These inscriptions attest not only to the fascination with the statues by Graeco-Roman tourists, but also their desire to capture the fleeting moment of marvel in time forever.

Fig. 2. Graffiti covering the right foot of one of the Colossi of Memnon. Image from: Bernand & Bernand (1960) pl. VII).

But how could one capture such a moment of wonder with a graffito? For some, a scribble of ‘Agathocles was here’ would do; but in other cases, we can find striking examples of metrical inscriptions that accompany the marvel of the speaking Colossus. One, dated between the first two centuries A.D., is by a certain centurion named Julius, and reads as follows (Fig. 3.):

Fig. 3. Julius' inscription (=Bernand & Bernand 101). Image from: Bernand & Bernand (1960) pl. LVI.

Εἴ γε μὲν οὖν Ἠὼς τὸν ἑὸν [ϕί]λον υἷα δακρύει,
ἠνίκ’ ἂν ἀντέλλῃσι ϕαεσϕόρος ἤμασιν αἴγλην
ἐ[κ] γαίης μύκημα θεοπρεπὲς [ἐκπ]έμπουσα,
ἴστω θεῖος Ὅμηρος, ὃς Ἱλίου ἔ[ννε]πε μῦθον·
αὐτὸς δ’ ἐνθάδ’ ἔων τοῦ Μ[έμ]ν[ον]ος [ἔ]κλυον αὐδῆς.
Ἰούλιος ἦλ[θο]ν ἐγὼν [ἑκα]τόνταρχος λεγεῶνος.

(Appendix 2.101, Rosenmeyer (2018) 238)

If Eos weeps for her own dear son
whenever the bearer of shining light brought radiance to the days,
letting out a roar from the earth worthy of a god,
Know this, divine Homer, he who tells the tale of Troy;
but I myself, standing here, heard the voice of Memnon.
I, Julius, came here, centurion of a legion

(Author's own translation)

It is clear that in attempting to make sense of the Colossi, Julius has chosen – like many others inscribing at the monumental statues – to interpret their marvel with the tools of Homeric storytelling. Indeed, Homer is mentioned by name to “know” the statue pair as Memnon, and the vocabulary used in the first two lines are recognisable from the mention of Eos’ mourning of Memnon in the Odyssey (Odyssey 4.188). But this inscription, composed in dactylic hexameter, is consciously Homeric in its choice of language: Eos is ϕαεσϕόρος, the ‘bearer of shining light’, ringing of Homeric divine epithet; by the same measure αἴγλη (‘radiance’) is found repeatedly in Homeric poetry (Iliad 2.458; Odyssey 4.45, 6.45, 7.84), formulated in dazzling and specifically visual terms. Moreover, Julius makes use of the Homeric Ionic dialect of Greek, electing to use lengthened and epic forms of verbs throughout.

The inscriber clearly identifies the statue with the Memnon of Homeric poetry, and this interpretation is enacted in the vocalisation of this graffito. But Julius’ inscription, capturing the moment of spectacle as if the statue produces a heroic roar, can conversely be read to provide a commentary on Homeric storytelling. Indeed, it is in the Odyssey that Eos weeps for her fallen son Memnon, but Julius recognises in the monumental statue of Amenhotep III that the heroic Memnon is alive and passionately vocal. In doing so, the heroic ‘roar’ of the Colossus is turned into a moment of reflection upon the veracity of Homeric storytelling. Julius, a Roman centurion presumably garrisoning Upper Egypt, chooses to interpret Egyptian antiquity through expression of Greek cultural heritage; as an occupying force, his appropriation of the monument may speak to Roman cultural tastes and value judgements of ‘Greek’ arts over ‘Egyptian’ ones.

Another inscriber identified on the Colossi of Memnon is Julia Balbilla, a learned poet who travelled in Hadrian’s imperial retinue across the Roman Empire. In one of her poems (Fig. 4.), dated to 130 A.D., Balbilla’s encounter with the empress Sabina is memorialised in the shadows of the miraculous statues:

Ὅτε τῇ πρώτῃ ἡμέρᾳ οὐκ ἀ-
κούσαμεν τοῦ Μέμνονος.
Χθίσδον μὲν Μέμνων σίγαις ἀπε[δέξατ’ ἀκ]οίτα[ν],
ὠς πάλιν ἀ κάλα τυῖδε Σάβιννα μό[λοι.]
Τέρπει γάρ σ’ ἐράτα μόρϕα βασιλήϊδος ἄμμας·
ἐλθοίσαι δ’ [α]ὔται θήϊον ἄχον ἴη
μὴ καί τοι βασίλευς κοτέσῃ· τό νυ δᾶρον ἀτά[ρβης]
τὰν σέμναν κατέχες κουριδίαν ἄλοχον.
Κὠ Μέμνων τρέσσαις μεγάλω μένος Ἀδρι[άνοιο]
ἐξαπίνας αὔδασ’, ἀδ’ ὀΐοισ’ ἐχάρη.

(Appendix 2.30, Rosemeyer (2018) 147-148)

When on the first day
we did not hear Memnon.
Yesterday Memnon received Hadrian’s wife in silence,
so that beautiful Sabina might come here again.
For the lovely form of our royal mother pleases you;
when she arrives, let a divine shout come for her;
lest the king grows angry with you. And now fearlessly
you have captivated his noble wedded wife for too long.
Memnon who trembled at the power of great Hadrian
suddenly spoke, and she rejoiced in hearing it.

(Author's own translation).

Fig. 4. Balbilla's inscription (=Bernand & Bernand 30). Image from: Bernand & Bernand (1960) pl. XLIX.

Balbilla’s poetry on the Colossi has been described as having a ‘Sapphic voice’ for two reasons. First, her choice to write in the distinctive Aeolic dialect (the same dialect of Ancient Greek as the lyric poet Sappho), setting her graffiti apart from the Homeric-Ionic dialect of other metrical inscriptions. Second is her framing of erotic encounters in such fluid temporalities. Balbilla trains her lyric-poetic voice on the fleeting moments of the past, present, and imminent future, and seems less interested in the monumental ‘Homeric’ Memnon as she is in the empress’ presence at the epic encounter (cf. Sappho fr. 16). Sabina, the wife of Hadrian, is the real object of marvel for Balbilla; her eroticised descriptions of the empress have been read as pastiches of Sappho’s own description of feminine beauty (Sappho fr. 16.17-18, 17.2), and Balbilla’s poetic gaze seems fixed upon Sabina despite the epic miracles at present.

What does it mean for Balbilla’s poetry to be inscribed very publicly upon the Colossus? Her verses celebrated the imperial visit to Upper Egypt, and are testament to her learned poetic skill, but they frame a very different encounter to the other inscriptions at the Colossi. Where the hexametrical inscriptions in epic dialect and Homeric language ask their listeners to interpret the space in the world of early Greek epic, Balbilla’s Aeolisms and Sapphic voice mark the Colossi as a place of erotic, lyric encounters. As we have seen, both types of inscriptions are intentionally archaising, making use of older vocabulary and dialects to associate themselves with the rich Greek literary tradition. But Balbilla’s inscribed poetry is unique even in this sense; her choice to imitate Sapphic lyric invites an alternate, reinterpretative reading – perhaps listening – of the space as the site of a fleeting erotic encounter.

In our interpretation of these metrical inscriptions, we can hear a polyphony of voices, genres, and gendered encounters recorded by previous visitors. This aspect, of reading and listening had great sway over how the Colossi were remembered by Graeco-Roman tourists. But how can we incorporate the miraculous ‘voice’ of the statue into our understanding of the ‘soundscapes’ of these material and epigraphical encounters?

Some authors report a deep, vocal sound emerging from the northern Colossus: for Pliny, it was a creaking rattle at dawn (Pliny, Natural History 36.11), and Lucian reports “a roar” heard from the statue (Lucian, Toxaris or Friendship 27). Julius’ inscription, consciously reflecting upon Homeric storytelling, dictates a heroic ‘listening’ of these sounds. We are asked to hear a heroic roar in the Colossus’ μύκημα (‘roar’), and interpret the statue with reference to the Homeric world of epic. In this way, the reader (or rather, the listener) and the inscriber collaborate to affirm the appropriation of the Egyptian monument. Should one consent to the interpretation of the statue’s roars as the roars of the Homeric Memnon, as Julius and many others have, the statues of Amenhotep III are rendered objects of Greek cultural reflection and discourse.

Other authors, however, reported that the statue’s voice was far more musical in quality. Pausanias likened the Colossus’ ‘voice’ to “a kithara when a string has been broken” (Pausanias, Periegesis 1.42.3); Philostratus’ artistic description recorded that the sound was like a plectrum striking a lyre (Philostratus, Imagines 1.7.20-25). Should this have been the case, Balbilla’s markedly Aeolic lyric poetry, when read aloud, may have been accompanied by the musical song of the monument’s ‘voice’. Her poetry sought to capture a fleeting and deeply personal moment in time, less interested in the Colossus and more in her time with the empress; yet, in this ‘listening’, the Colossus’ musical voice may have had the potential to compliment the poem’s registration of the monument as the site of erotic encounter and personal storytelling.

By the third century A.D., it is thought that the northern statue was repaired (perhaps during Septimius Severus’ visit, cf. Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 17.4) and, as a result, had stopped producing the miraculous noise. For this reason, we may never be able to know if the Colossus’ ‘voice’ accompanied an epic or lyric ‘listening’ of the inscribed poetry. There is potential, however, that visitors encountered both; Callistratus’ account of the statue’s voice reports both “joy and delight” at dawn as well as “piteous and mournful groans in grief” at dusk (Callistratus, Descriptions 9.1). In whatever manner we choose to understand the ‘soundscapes’ of the Colossi of Memnon, the metrical inscriptions on the statues nonetheless had the capacity to determine a visitor’s experience and interpretation of the space. They triangulated meaning around highly allusive poetry, the audible ‘voice’ of the Colossus, and the listener’s experience of the site. Perhaps it is a greater marvel that such short, rhythmic verses could determine concepts as large as time, myth, and memory for Greek and Roman visitors!


Primary sources:

Herodotus, The Persian Wars, books 1-2, trans. A. D. Godley, Loeb Classical Library 117 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920).

Strabo, Geography, book 17, trans. H. L. Jones, Loeb Classical Library 267 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932).

Homer, Iliad, books 1-12, trans. A. T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library 170 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924).

Homer, Odyssey, books 1-12, trans. A. T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library 104 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919).

Sappho, Lyric fragments, trans. D. A. Campbell, Loeb Classical Library 142 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Pliny, Natural History, books 36-37, trans. D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library 419 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).

Lucian, Toxaris, or Friendship, trans. A. M. Harmon, Loeb Classical Library 302 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936).

Callistratus, Descriptions, trans. A. Fairbanks, Loeb Classical Library 256 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931).

Pausanias, Description of Greece, books 1-2, trans. W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library 93 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918).

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, trans. A. Fairbanks, Loeb Classical Library 256 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931).

Historia Augusta, Septimius Severus, trans. D. Magie, Loeb Classical Library 139 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022).

Secondary sources:

Baumbach, M. (2017) ‘Poets and Poetry’ in The Oxford Handbook to the Second Sophistic, eds. D. S. Richter & W. A. Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press) 493-508.

Bernand, A. and Bernand, E. (1960) Les Inscriptions Grecques et Latines du Colosse de Memnon (Paris: Institut Francais d'Archéologie Orientale du Caire).

Bowersock, G. W. (1984) ‘The Miracle of Memnon’, The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 21 (1): 21-32.

Moyer, I. (2011) Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Rosenmeyer, P. A. (2008) ‘Greek Verse Inscriptions in Roman Egypt: Julia Balbilla’s Sapphic Voice’, Classical Antiquity 27 (2): 334-358.

Rosenmeyer, P. A. (2018) The Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus (New York: Oxford University Press).

This post was written by Cameron Heagney, a postgraduate student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick working towards a taught MA in Visual and Material Culture of the Ancient World. Cameron’s interests lie in expressions of identity, ethnicity, and community in the Mediterranean world. He has most recently been working on textiles, religion and personhood in Late Antiquity.

A Macedonian Grey Ware Mug from Thessaloniki: 'terra sigillata' or not? by Vaggelis Papaioannou (February 2024)

´Terra sigillata´ is a term which refers to the pottery produced, distributed and used throughout the Roman Empire. Pots which belong to that very broad category were produced in every corner of the Mediterranean and European world, from Spain, France and Germany to Tunisia, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, over 9 centuries (from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD). The term generally denotes vessels used on tables, such as plates and cups, that bear a glossy red slip with various kinds of decoration, while the manufacturers very often leave their mark with a stamp.

On looking at ´terra sigillata´ objects exhibited in museums all around Europe the lack of uniformity is obvious. All the above-mentioned production centres made different kinds of ´terra sigillata´, distinguished by the color of the clay and the slip, and the repertory of shapes, or the decoration. A visit to the Roman Agora Museum in Thessaloniki offers a glimpse of different classes of red-slipped productions from the Mediterranean, for instance the African and Phocean Red Slip Ware. Eventually, the visitor will come across a series of table vessels with a glossy slip, which in many ways is unlike all the other ´terra sigillata´- red slipped products (Fig.1). Its name is Macedonian Grey Ware (MGW hereafter).

Fig. 1. Macedonian Grey Ware mug in the Roman Agora Museum, Thessaloniki, (author's own photo).

Our object (Fig.1) is exhibited in the Ancient Agora Museum of Thessaloniki ( ΡΑ1728) and was found inside a late Roman shop, at the south wing of the ancient (Roman) agora. We are looking at a mug, a vessel for drinking. It has an outcurved rim, conical lower body with a flat ring base and has no handles. On the exterior surface it bears stamped decoration, which is divided into two zones. The upper zone consists of circle stamps, while the lower has semi-crescent motifs. The two zones are divided by two shallow grooves and a third one separates the lower zone from the rest of the body. Its distinctive features are the glossy grey slip and the sparkly micaceous grey fabric, that differentiate it from the rest of the ´terra sigillata´ family and result from a burnishing procedure and a lack of oxygen during its firing in the kiln (Fig.2). All the examples of the MGW are made of grey clay and bear grey slip, apart from only very few examples fired in brownish clay and coated with a red slip.

Fig. 2. Stereoscopic shot of an MGW sherd section from Phillippi. Image: Zachariadis (2018) Fig. 4a.

MGW is known by many other terms, some more helpful than others, such as ´Macedonian terra sigillata grise´ or ´terra nigra´, and is a category of tableware that covers the chronological span of the late Roman era, especially the spectrum from the second half of the 4th century until the middle of the 6th century AD. Unlike the more widely distributed ´terra sigillata´, it was circulated mostly around Macedonia and the southern Balkans. The majority of the published material comes from Stobi (North Macedonia), sites of Northern Greece (e.g. Philippi, Thessaloniki, Thassos), as well as sites in Bulgaria and Romania, while few examples managed to reach southern Greece, e.g. Athens and Corinth (Fig.3). The high frequency of the ware in the northern area has always been among scholars an adequate reason to attribute the production of MGW to Macedonia, with Stobi (Axios Valley), Upper Strymon Valley and Thessaloniki having been proposed as possible production centres. More intensive petrographic examinations of finds from Northern Greece and Southern Balkans will hopefully give an answer to the question of provenance.

Fig. 3. Maps depicting sites where MGW has been found. (Images: ©

Google Earth, Vaggelis Papaioannou).

The repertoire of MGW vessel shapes consists of open and closed forms alike, while bowls and dishes predominate over mugs and jugs. The first typology, after only a brief presentation of the ware in Late Roman Pottery (1972) and A Supplement to Late Roman Pottery (1980) by John Hayes, was established by Anderson-Stojanovic (1992) based on the material from Stobi, North Macedonia and contained 11 shapes, of which 7 are bowls and dishes. The remaining four are mugs and jugs. Recent excavations and studies of pottery material from Thessaloniki and Philippi (in Zachariadis 2018) have considerably expanded Stojanovic´s typology and led to a list of 17 types and still counting (Fig.4). Our mug belongs to the type drawn under number 13. It is often hard to distinguish between those main types and their many alternatives, given also the fragmentary state of the majority of those, so the actual repertory has to be even greater (Fig.5). Pots and lids produced with the same fabric are also reported, along with shapes associated with special functions, like bowls with plastic (made with a mould) handles. Currently, my collaboration with the French School at Athens and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Serres in an excavation of another Roman and Early Byzantine city in Northern Greece, Terpni, and its pottery study has yielded valuable information regarding the ware´s vessel variety and distribution.

Fig. 4. The typological spectrum of MGW, based on finds from various sites in Northern Greece.

Image: Zachariadis (2018) Fig. 1.

Fig. 5. MGW sherds from Philippi.

Image: Zachariadis (2018) Fig. 5.

The decoration of these vessels varies quite a bit, although, apart from the metallic grey slip that gives significant aesthetic value to the ware, is common feature of MGW (Fig.6). Impressed and stamped floral and geometric patterns, incised ridges, are often combined as in the mug from Thessaloniki and are found on the rims, on the interior bottom and sometimes on the external surface of the vases. One of the most distinctive types of decoration of the MGW, hardly attested in other tableware shapes, is the presence of scallop shaped rims. These are usually combined with the other decoration options. All in all, taking into consideration the grey metallic slip and the decoration as described above, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the ware likely initially imitated metallic prototypes.

Fig. 6. Decorative motifs on finds from Philippi.

Image: Zachariadis (2018) Fig. 2.

Fig. 7. Repertory of shapes and decoration of Gaulish Grey Ware.

Image: Rigoir (1968) Fig. 14.

Speaking of imitations, despite the fact that MGW stands alone compared to the other slipped tablewares, it has some features that are very reminiscent of other wares and indicate stylistic influences. For example, the stamped motives on MGW are identical to those attested in other late Roman fine wares, as well as in terms of shape. Many scholars have highlighted the resemblance of some of the shapes with African forms, while in Philippi we have evidence that an African Red Slip form (Type 61 of the Hayes typology for the Tunisian products) was directly copied (Fig.4.8). So far, my recording of the material from Terpni has enabled me to add two more forms directly copied in MGW -simultaneously expanding the typology even further-, the form 67 and form 1 of Hayes typology for African and Phocean red slipped vessels respectively.

The Western equivalent of MGW is the Gaulish Grey Ware. The resemblance between the two wares is striking, in terms of fabric and decoration, but also of shapes, even though the latter does not appear to produce jugs (Fig.7). For instance, our mug from Thessaloniki is quite similar to the mug under number 17. But how can that uncanny resemblance be convincingly explained, given the restricted number of Gaulish imports in Northern Greece, the regional character of the MGW distribution and the dependance of the Gaulish shapes on those of the earlier Samian production? That question, in my view, could be answered only in light of new finds from the area of Northern Greece.

One might argue that Macedonian Grey Ware is treated, bibliographically speaking, as the ´´black sheep´´ (or should we say … grey?) of the ´terra sigillata´ family, since very little attention has been given to it and given the features that separate it from the other slipped tablewares of the time, such as the slip color or the restricted distribution patterns. MGW does not fall short in terms of quality or significance of the information it is capable of giving, especiallyin relation to the late Roman pottery production and distribution patterns of Macedonia. All these assets and the veil of mystery still covering matters of typology, chronology and production create the imperative need for approaching these research desiderata, so that this grey ware can finally exit the … grey zone!


Abadie-Reynal, C. andSodini, J-P. (1992) La Ceramique Paleochretienne de Thasos (Aliki, Delkos, Fouilles Anciennes) (Athens, French School at Athens)

Anderson-Stojanovic, V.R. (1992) Stobi. The Hellenistic and Roman pottery (New Jersey, Princeton University Press).

Chrysostomou, A. (2010)´´ Late Antique pottery from Edessa and Almopia in the prefecture of Pella´´[in Greek],in Late antique pottery from Greece. Proceedings of Scientific Meeting. Thessaloniki, 12-16 October 2006, eds. D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi and D.Kousoulakou (Thessaloniki, Aristostle University), pp 505-519.

Graekos, I. (2010) ´´Closed pottery assemblages from cemeteries dating from Late Antiquity at Nea Kallikrateia, Chalkidiki´´ [in Greek],inLate antique pottery from Greece. Proceedings of Scientific Meeting. Thessaloniki, 12-16 October 2006, eds. D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi and D.Kousoulakou (Thessaloniki, Aristostle University),pp 429-443.

Grigoropoulos, D. (2010)´´ Tablewares and amphorae in Late Roman Piraeus: General trends in ceramic supply between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD´´ [in Greek], in Late antique pottery from Greece. Proceedings of Scientific Meeting. Thessaloniki, 12-16 October 2006, eds. D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi and D.Kousoulakou (Thessaloniki, Aristostle University),pp 671-688.

Hayes, J. (1972) Late Roman Pottery (London, The British School at Rome).

Hayes, J. (1980) A Supplement to Late Roman Pottery (London, The British School at Rome).

Hayes, J. (1997) Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery (London, British Museum).

Karivieri, A., Forsell, R., andTulkki, C. (2010) ´´Late Roman and Early Byzantine pottery from Arethousa´´[in Greek], in Late antique pottery from Greece. Proceedings of Scientific Meeting. Thessaloniki, 12-16 October 2006, eds. D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi and D.Kousoulakou (Thessaloniki, Aristostle University), pp 421-428.

Mpoli, K. and Skiadaresis G. (2001) ´´The stratigraphy from the southern wing´´ [in Greek], in Ancient Agora of Thessaloniki. Proceedings of the two-day conference for the works of the years 1989-1999, ed. P. Adam-Veleni (Thessaloniki, University Studio Press), pp 87-104.

Panti, A. (2010) ´´Late antique pottery from the eastern cemetery of Thessaloniki´´ [in Greek],in Late antique pottery from Greece. Proceedings of Scientific Meeting. Thessaloniki, 12-16 October 2006, eds. D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi and D.Kousoulakou (Thessaloniki, Aristostle University), pp 466-485.

Rigoir, J. (1968) ´´Les sigillées paléochrétiennes grises et oranges´´, Gallia, Vol.26, No 1, pp 177-244.

Tsoneva, A. (2016) ´´Towards the typology of Macedonian Gray Ware: unpublished vessels from the territory of Parthicopolis, Bulgaria´´, Studia Academica Šumenensia, Vol 3, PhD Suppl., pp 42-55.

Zachariadis, S. (2018) ´´Regarding the gray ware from Philippi´´ [in Greek], in LEPETYMNOS. Studies in Archaeology and Art in memory of Georgios Gounaris. Late Roman, Byzantine, Postbyzantine period, eds. Ath. Semoglou, I.P.Arvanitidou, Em.G. Gounari (Thessaloniki, Vizantinos Domos), pp 499-520.

This post was written by Vaggelis Papaioannou, MA by Research student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, at the University Warwick. Vaggelis has worked on archaeological sites and material around Greece, includingThassos, Epidauros and Kos and his research interests include Roman and Late Roman/Early Byzantine pottery of the Eastern Mediterranean and lychnology, with special emphasis on matters of production, regionality and distribution of Roman pots. He is currently studying pottery assemblages from Rafina in Attica and from Terpni in Northern Greece.

Once a musician, always a musician by Francesca Modini (January 2024)

Probably in the last quarter of the third century CE, a Roman citizen with Greek origins named Marcus Sempronius Nicocrates was laid to rest in a fairly elaborate marble sarcophagus, whose lid is now in the Townley ‘Bronzes and Sculptures’ Collection at the British Museum (Figs. 1 and 2). The lid was found on the Via Flaminia in Rome at the end of the seventeenth century; it features two scenes flanking an inscription, in addition to what must have been the portrait of Nicocrates, on the right side. If we look at the two reliefs, we get the sense that Nicocrates must have been some sort of artist and performer: the two female figures in the scene are obviously Muses, the Muse on the right is leaning on what looks like a lyre, whereas a scroll and a scroll box can be found in the panel on the left. The male figures on the lid are reading or declaiming to the Muses in front of them; even more clearly, actor masks decorate both scenes.

Fig. 1. Nicocrates' sarcophagus. Recto. Townley - 'Bronzes & Sculptures, British Museum No. 1805,0703.152. Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Fig. 2. Engraving of the same sarcophagus, from the Townley Archive, TY 12/4, fo. 94. Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Yet it is only when reading the inscription flanked by the reliefs (IGUR 1326 = GVI 1049) that we find out precisely what kind of performer Nicocrates was:

Μ(άρκος) ∙ Σεμπρώνιος Νεικοκράτης

ἤμην ποτὲ μουσικὸς ἀνήρ,

ποιητὴς καὶ κιθαριστής ∙

μάλιστα δὲ καὶ συνοδείτης ∙

πολλὰ βυθοῖσι ∙ καμών ∙ (5)

ὁδηπορίες δ’ ἀτονήσας ∙

ἔνπορος εὐμόρϕων γενόμην,

ϕίλοι, μετέπειτα ∙ γυναικῶν ∙

πνεῦμα λαβὼν δάνος οὐρανόθεν

τελέσας χρόνον αὖτ’ ἀπέδωκα, (10)

καὶ μετὰ τὸν θάνατον ❦

Μοῦσαί μου τὸ σῶμα κρατοῦσιν.

M. Sempronius Nicocrates

I was once a musician,

a poet and a kithara-player,

and above all the member of a synod of artists.

After labouring much at sea (5)

exhausted from the journey

I then became, friends, a merchant

of beautiful women.

I received my breath on loan from the sky

and come to the end of my time, I returned it. (10)

Even after death,

the Muses are in charge of my body.

(Author’s own translation)

As the deceased himself explains, he was ‘once a musician, a poet’ and played the kithara, a concert lyre with a wooden soundbox bigger than common bowl lyres, and therefore able to produce a more powerful sound (Figs. 3 and 4; West (1992)). At first, Nicocrates pursued a professional career through his association with a synod of artists, which may have performed at numerous festivals and contests throughout the Empire, and it is as a musician that Nicocrates is recorded in repertoires of ancient performers (Stephanēs (1998) no. 1781; Fauconnier (2023) no. 207; Since this activity forced him to go on exhausting musical tours, however, at last Nicocrates decided for a career change: he gave up performing and – in his own words – reinvented himself as a ‘merchant of beautiful women’. Much as in our own time, in antiquity, performative arts were clearly not the most profitable of activities; on the contrary, besides being legal and largely morally accepted, human trafficking, slavery and prostitution were always in high demand.

Fig. 3. . Cyzicus, 460–400 BC, elektron stater with kithara. Berlin MK AM 18203046. Image: © ArchaiOptix, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Fig. 4. Seated woman playing the kithara (possibly in the process of tuning the instrument), with a younger female behind her chair. Wall painting from Room H of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, ca. 50–40 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, MET 03.14.5. Image: public domain.

Despite the detailed and strikingly honest account of his professional woes and choices, however, Nicocrates’ personal narrative has only been partially unpacked. In one of the earliest modern analyses, Henri-Iréné Marrou (1938) listed the sarcophagus as an example of ‘intellectual scenes on Roman funerary monuments’, only mentioning Nicocrates’ career change as sign of his ‘lively and picaresque life’ (1938). Similar treatments are found in studies such as Wegner’s (1966) repertoire of Muses on sarcophagi, or Webster’s (1995) collection of monuments featuring dramatic elements, where the focus is on iconographical features and their significance. Even when closer attention has been paid to the shift between Nicocrates’ former artistic life and his later activity as a procurer of women, the inscription has not always been taken seriously. According to Susan Walker (1990), for example, ‘the text is self-mocking in tone’ and ‘was evidently composed to amuse the passer-by’.

Yet, while we cannot exclude the presence of an ironic undertone in the epitaph, the way Nicocrates decided to portray his life after his death must also have been a very serious affair for him (cf. Ewald 1999). Indeed, no matter how we read the mention of his career change and the reasons behind it, the once-musician still chose to be remembered as a poet and kithara-player, an idea that culminates in the closing image of the Muses ‘in charge’ of his body, in turn mimicked by the word order of l. 12 (Μοῦσαί and κρατοῦσιν ‘surround’ τὸ σῶμα; and the verb κρατοῦσιν may also be read a clever allusion to Νεικο-κράτης). This element creates a striking symbiotic relationship between the inscribed text and the sarcophagus lid and its iconography: it is precisely the Muses carved on the lid who are now in power of Nicocrates’ human remains. In a sense, the motif of female beauty mobilised by Nicocrates’ second career is thus recalled and sublimated through his intimate relationship with the Muses. At the same time, the Muses’ control, both textual and iconographical, over Nicocrates after death serves to remind the passer-by that, no matter what Nicocrates ended up doing professionally, his identity as ‘man of the Muses’ (μουσικὸς ἀνήρ, l. 2) continued to be self-defining for him, and will now be what he is forever remembered for.

As if to confirm this, Nicocrates’ artistic self-presentation is further enhanced by the epic character of his personal narrative. The description of his tiring tours as a professional musician (‘after labouring much at sea | exhausted from the journey’, πολλὰ βυθοῖσι ∙ καμών ∙ | ὁδηπορίες δ’ ἀτονήσας, ll. 4–5) is a deliberate echo of the voyage undertaken by Odysseus, who ‘suffered many woes in his heart at sea’ (πολλὰ δ᾿ ὅ γ᾿ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν, Homer Odyssey 1.4). As was fitting for such an impersonation, this epic portrait is delivered in dactylic metres, a metrical form, that is, related to the dactylic hexameter of the Homeric tradition (West 1982).

Overall, Nicocrates’ sarcophagus reveals the role – so far mostly neglected – that music played in the culture and self-presentation of Roman Greeks down to Late Antiquity. For imperial era musicians, it was clearly a source of pride, and a mark of identity, to be recognised as such – even when one stopped being a professional performer like Nicocrates. And while Nicocrates left his musical profession, dozens of imperial inscriptions point to kithara-players and other musicians who, despite hardships and uncertain profits, continued touring imperial cities with success, receiving crowns, citizenships and similar honours.


Ewald, B.C. (1999) Der Philosoph als Leitbild: Ikonographische Untersuchungen an römischen Sarkophagreliefs (Mainz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern) pp. 111–13, 117, 122, 124–5, 216 no. 17.

Fauconnier, B. (2023). Athletes and Artists in the Roman Empire: The History and Organisation of the Ecumenical Synods (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Hemingway, C. (2002) ‘The kithara in ancient Greece’,

Marrou, H. (1938) MOYCIKOC ANHP: Etude sur les scènes de la vie intellectuelle figurant sur les monuments funéraires romains (Grenoble, Didier et Richard) pp. 94–5 no. 93, pp. 194, 209–13, 230, 246–7.

Stephanēs, I.E. (1988) Διονυσιακοί τεχνίται. Συμβολές στην προσωπογραϕία του θεάτρου και της μουσικής των αρχαίων Ελλήνων (Hērakleio, Panepistēmiakes Ekdoseis Krētēs).

Walker, S. (1985) Memorials to the Roman Dead (London, British Museum Publications) p. 60 no. 48.

Walker, S. (1990) Catalogue of Roman Sarcophagi in the British Museum, CSIR Great Britain, vol. 2.2 (London, British Museum Publications) p. 28 no. 25.

Webster, T.B.L. (1995) Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, 3rd ed. revised and enlarged by J. R. Green & A. Seeberg (London, Institute of Classical Studies) p. 502 no. 6RS.24.

Wegner, M. (1966) Die Musensarkophage (Berlin, Verlag Gebr. Mann) p. 25 no. 45.

West, M.L. (1982) Greek Metre (Oxford, Oxford University Press) p. 176.

West, M.L. (1992) Ancient Greek Music (Oxford, Oxford University Press) p. 50.

Online Resources:

British Museum sarcophagus:

Database on post-classical agonistic networks, including musicians:

Dr Francesca Modini is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. Her current research explores the role of poetry and music in the self-definition of individuals as well as social and ethnic groups living under Rome. She has published on the post-classical reception of archaic song culture (her latest article can be found here). Her book, forthcoming for Cambridge University Press, is the first study of the persistence and significance of ancient lyric poetry in imperial Greek culture.

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