Ancient Arcadia; interesting notions on Music by Polybius

The Arcadian nation on the whole has a very high reputation for virtue among the Greeks, due not only to their humane and hospitable character and usages, but especially to their piety to the gods.

Cynaetheans, though unquestionably of Arcadian stock, they so far surpassed all other Greeks at this period in cruelty and wickedness.

polybius     Polybius

The reason was that they were the first and indeed only people in Arcadia to abandon an admirable institution, introduced by their forefathers with a nice regard for the natural conditions under which all the inhabitants of that country live. For the practice of music, I mean real music, is beneficial to all men, but to Arcadians it is a necessity. For we must not suppose, as Ephorus, in the Preface to his History, making a hasty assertion quite unworthy of him, says, that music was introduced by men for the purpose of deception and delusion; we should not think that the ancient Cretans and Lacedaemonians acted at haphazard in substituting the flute and rhythmic movement for the bugle in war, or that the early Arcadians had no good reason for incorporating music in their whole public life to such an extent that not only boys, but young men up to the age of thirty were compelled to study it constantly, although in other matters their lives were most austere.

For it is a well-known fact, familiar to all, that it is hardly known except in Arcadia, that in the first place the boys from their earliest childhood are trained to sing in measure the hymns and paeans in which by traditional usage they celebrate the heroes and gods of each particular place: later they learn the measures of Philoxenus and Timotheus, and every year in the theatre they compete keenly in choral singing to the accompaniment of professional flute-players, the boys in the contest proper to them and the young men in what is called the men’s contest. And not only this, but through their whole life they entertain themselves at banquets not by listening to hired musicians but by their own efforts, calling for a song from each in turn. Whereas they are not ashamed of denying acquaintance with other studies, in the case of singing it is neither possible for them to deny a knowledge of it because they all are compelled to learn it, nor, if they confess to such knowledge can they excuse themselves, so great a disgrace is this considered in that country. Besides this the young men practise military parades to the music of the flute and perfect themselves in dances and give annual performances in the theatres, all under state supervision and at the public expense.

Now all these practices I believe to have been introduced by the men of old time, not as luxuries and superfluities but because they had before their eyes the universal practice of personal manual labour in Arcadia, and in general the toilsomeness and hardship of the men’s lives, as well as the harshness of character resulting from the cold and gloomy atmospheric conditions usually prevailing in these parts conditions to which all men by their very nature must perforce assimilate themselves; there being no other cause than this why separate nations and peoples dwelling widely apart differ so much from each other in character, feature, and colour as well as in the most of their pursuits. The primitive Arcadians, therefore, with the view of softening and tempering the stubbornness and harshness of nature, introduced all the practices I mentioned, and in addition accustomed the people, both men and women, to frequent festivals and general sacrifices, and dances of young men and maidens, and in fact resorted to every contrivance to render more gentle and mild, by the influence of the customs they instituted, the extreme hardness of the national character.

The Cynaetheans, by entirely neglecting these institutions, though in special need of such influences, as their country is the most rugged and their climate the most inclement in Arcadia, and by devoting themselves exclusively to their local affairs and political rivalries, finally became so savage that in no city of Greece were greater and more constant crimes committed. As an indication of the deplorable condition of the Cynaetheans in this respect and the detestation of the other Arcadians for such practices I may mention the following: at the time when, after the great massacre, the Cynaetheans sent an embassy to Sparta, the other Arcadian cities which they entered on their journey gave them instant notice to depart by cry of herald, but the Mantineans after their departure even made a solemn purification by offering piacular sacrifices and carrying them round their city and all their territory.

I have said so much on this subject firstly in order that the character of the Arcadian nation should not suffer for the crimes of one city, and secondly to deter any other Arcadians from beginning to neglect music under the impression that its extensive practice in Arcadia serves no necessary purpose. I also spoke for the sake of the Cynaetheans themselves, in order that, if god ever grant them better fortune, they may humanize themselves by turning their attention to education and especially to music; for by no other means can they hope to free themselves from that savagery which overtook them at this time.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.II, Book IV, Loeb Classical Library)

Arkadia_idyll_Peloponnese

Landscape from modern Arcadia

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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