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Bill Thayer

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p622 Hydraulaa

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp622‑623 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

HYDRAULA (ὑδραύλης), an organist. According to an author quoted by Athenaeus (IV.75; compare Plin. H. N. VII.38) the first organist was Ctesibius of Alexandria, who lived about B.C. 200. He evidently took the idea of his organ from the Syrinx or Pandean pipes, a musical instrument of the highest antiquity among the Greeks. His object being to employ a row of pipes of great size, and capable of emitting the most powerful as well as the softest sounds, he contrived the means of adapting keys with levers (ἀγκωνίσκοι), and with perforated sliders (πώματα) to open and shut the mouths of the pipes (γλοσσόκομα), a supply of wind being obtained, without intermission, by bellows, in which the pressure of water performed the same part which is fulfilled in the modern organ by a weight. On this account the instrument invented by Ctesibius was called the water-organ (ὕδραυλις, Athen. l.c.; ὑδραυλικὸν ὀργάνον, Hero, Spirit.; hydraulica machina, Vitruv. X.8; Schneider, ad loc. — Drieberg, die Pneum. Erfindungen der Griechen, pp53‑61; hydraulus, Plin. H. N. IX.8; Cic. Tusc. III.18). Its pipes were partly of bronze (χαλκειὴ ἀρούρα, Jul. Imp. in Brunck's Anal. II.403); seges aëna, Claud. de Mall. Theod. Cons. 316),º and partly of reed. The number of stops, and consequently of its rows of pipes, varied from one to eight (Vitruv. l.c.), so that Tertullian (de Anima, 14) describes it with reason as an exceedingly complicated instrument. It continued in use so late as the ninth century of our era: in the year 826, a water-organ was erected by a Venetian in the church of Aquisgranum, the modern Aix-la‑Chapelle (Quix, Münster-kirche in Aachen, p14).

[image ALT: A woodcut of a circular medallion showing a small pipe organ with a man standing next to it waving a leaf or branch, and the inscription 'LAVRENTINICA'. It is a representation of the ancient Graeco-Roman hydraula.]

The organ was well adapted to gratify the Roman people in the splendid entertainments provided p623for them by the emperors and other opulent persons. Nero was very curious about organs, both in regard to their musical effect and their mechanism (Sueton. Ner. 41, 54).b A contorniate coin of this emperor in the British Museum (see woodcut) shows an organ with a sprig of laurel on one side, and a man standing on the other, who may have been victorious in the exhibitions of the circus or the amphitheatre. It is probable that these medals were bestowed upon such victors, and that the organ was impressed upon them on account of its introduction on such occasions (Havercamp, De Num. contorniatis; Rasche, Lex. Univ. Rei Num. s.v. Hydraulicum Instrumentum). The general form of the organ is also clearly exhibited in a poem by Publilius Porphyrius Optatianus, describing the instrument, and composed of verses so constructed as to show both the lower part which contained the bellows, the wind-chest which lay upon it, and over this, the row of 26 pipes. These are represented by 26 lines, which increase in length each by one letter, until the last line is twice as long as the first (Wernsdorf, Poetae Lat. Min. vol. II, pp394‑413).

Thayer's Notes:

a Another copy of this article (minus the links, some of the Greek and some of the references) can be found on this interesting page containing also two other articles on the hydraula and related instruments, with additional drawings and engravings.

b He is also reported by Dio to have said that he had discovered a way in which the instrument would produce louder and more musical tones, which gives an indication of the character of the 1c hydraula. Whether Nero had actually found an improvement is open to doubt, in view both of his track record and of the particular circumstances — see the passage (63.26.4).

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Page updated: 26 Feb 09