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Dance, Music and Song in ancient Latium Italy


From the defectiveness of our traditional information it is not possible to trace the development of artistic ideas among the
several groups of nations in Italy; and in particular we are no longer in a position to speak of the poetry of Italy; we can only speak of that of Latium.

Latin poetry, like that of every other nation, began in the lyrical form, or, to speak more correctly, sprang out of those primitive festal rejoicings, in which dance, music, and song were still inseparably blended. It is remarkable, however, that in the most ancient religious usages dancing, and next to dancing instrumental music, were far more prominent than song.

In the great procession, with which the Roman festival of victory was opened, the chief place, next to the images of the gods
and the champions, was assigned to the dancers grave and merry. The grave dancers were arranged in three groups of men, youths, and boys, all clad in red tunics with copper belts, with swords and short lances, the men being moreover furnished with helmets, and generally in full armed attire.

The merry dancers were divided into two companies - "the sheep" in sheep-skins with a party-coloured over-garment, and "the goats" with a buck's skin thrown over them. In like manner the "leapers" (-salii-) were perhaps the most ancient and sacred of all the priesthoods and dancers (-ludii-, -ludiones-) were indispensable in all public processions, and particularly at funeral solemnities; so that dancing became even in ancient times a common trade.

But, wherever the dancers made their appearance, there appeared also the musicians or - which was in the earliest times the same thing - the pipers.

They too were never wanting at a sacrifice, at a marriage, or at a funeral; and by the side of the primitive public priesthood of the "leapers" there was ranged, of equal antiquity although of far inferior rank, the guild of the "pipers" (collegium tibicinum), whose true character as strolling musicians is evinced by their ancient privilege - maintained even in spite of the strictness of Roman police - of wandering through the streets at their annual festival, wearing masks and full of sweet wine.

While dancing thus presents itself as an honourable function and music as one subordinate but still necessary, so that public corporations were instituted for both of them, poetry appears more as a matter incidental and, in some measure, indifferent, whether it may have come into existence on its own account or to serve as an accompaniment to the movements of the dancers.