On sounding vases in theatres

1. Ita ex his indagationibus mathematicis rationibus fiant vasa aerea pro ratione magnitudinis theatri, eaque ita fabricentur, ut, cum tangantur, sonitum facere possint inter se diatessaron diapente ex ordine ad disdiapason. Postea inter sedes theatri constitutis cellis ratione musica ibi conlocentur ita, uti nullum parietem tangant circaque habeant locum vacuum et ab summo capite spatium, ponanturque inversa et habeant in parte, quae spectat ad scaenam, suppositos cuneos ne minus altos semipede; contraque eas cellas relinquantur aperturae inferiorum graduum cubilibus longae pedes duo, altae semipede.


l. Hence in accordance with these enquiries, bronze vases are to be made in mathematical ratios corresponding with the size of the theatre. They are to be so made that, when they are touched, they can make a sound from one to another of a fourth, a fifth and so on to the second octave. Then compartments are made among the seats of the theatre, and the vases are to be so placed there that they do not touch the wall, and have an empty space around them and above. They are to be placed upside down. On the side looking towards the stage, they are to have wedges put under them not less than half a foot high. Against these cavities openings are to be left in the faces of the lower steps two feet long and half a foot high.

2. Designationes autem eorum, quibus in locis constituantur, sic explicentur. Si non erit ampla magnitudine theatrum, media altitudinis transversa regio designetur et in ea tredecim cellae duodecim aequalibus intervallis distantes confornicentur, uti ea echea quae supra scripta sunt, ad neten hyperbolaeon sonantia in cellis quae sunt in cornibus extremis, utraque parte prima conlocentur, secunda ab extremis diatessaron ad neten diezeugmenon, tertia diatessaron ad paramesen, quarta ad neten synhemmenon, quinta diatessaron ad mesen, sexta diatessaron ad hypaten meson, in medio unum diatessaron ad hypaten hypaton.


2. The planning of them and the places in which they are to be are to be thus set forth. If the theatre is not of large dimensions, in the middle of the height, a transverse line is to be drawn. in that, thirteen cavities separated by twelve equal distances are to be arched over, so that those vases above referred to, giving the note of the nêtè hyperbolaeon, may be placed at each end; second from the end, vases of the nêtè diezeugmenon at an interval of one fourth from the last; third from the end at the paramese (another fourth); the fourth set of vases at the nêtè synhemmenon; the fifth at the mesè (interval of a fourth); the sixth set at the hypatè mesôn (interval of a fourth); in the middle one vase at the hypate hypatôn.

3. Ita hac ratiocinatione vox a scaena uti ab centro profusa se circumagens tactuque feriens singulorum vasorum cava excitaverit auctam claritatem et concentu convenientem sibi consonantiam. Sin autem amplior erit magnitudo theatri, tunc altitudo dividatur in partes IIII, uti tres efficiantur regiones cellarum transverse designatae, una harmoniae, altera chromatos, tertia diatoni. Et ab imo quae erit prima, ea ex harmonia conlocetur, ita uti in minore theatro supra scriptum est.


3. Thus by this calculation the voice, spreading from the stage as from a centre and striking by its contact the hollows of the several vases, will arouse an increased clearness of sound, and, by the concord, a consonance harmonising with itself. But if the theatre is larger, then the height is to be divided into 4 parts, so that three lines of cavities are drawn crosswise, one enharmonic, a second chromatic, the third diatonic. The first from the bottom is to be arranged for the enharmonic kind as described above for the smaller theatre.

4. In mediana autem prima in extremis cornibus ad chromaticen hyperbolaeon habentia sonitum ponantur, in secundis ab his diatessaron ad chromaticen diezeugmenon, in tertiis ad chromaticen synhemmenon, quartis diatessaron ad chromaticen meson, quintis diatessaron ad chromaticen hypaton, sextis ad paramesen, quod et in chromaticen hyperbolaeon diapente et ad chromaticen meson diatessaron habeant consonantiae communitatem.


4. In the middle series on the extreme wings, the first vases are to be put with a note of the chromatic hyperbolaeon; in the second cavities at the interval of a fourth, the chromatic diezeugmenon; in the third the chromatic synhemmenon; in the fourth cavities, at the interval of a fourth, the chromatic meson; in the fifth at the interval of a fourth the chromatic hypaton; in the sixth the paramese, which has a fifth interval to the chromatic hyperbolaeon, and an interval of a fourth to the chromatic synhemmenon.

5. In medio nihil est conlocandum, ideo quod sonitum nulla alia qualitas in chromatico genere symphoniae consonantiam potest habere. In summa vero divisione et regione cellarum in cornibus primis ad diatonon hyperbolaeon fabricata vasa sonitu ponantur, in secundis diatessaron ad diatonon (diezeugmenon), tertiis ad diatonon synhemmenon, quartis diatessaron ad diatonon meson, quintis diatessaron ad diatonon hypaton, sextis diatessaron ad proslambanomenon, in medio ad mesen, quod ea et ad proslambanomenon diapason et ad diatonon hypaton diapente habet symphoniarum communitates.


5. In the centre nothing is to be put, because no other quality of sound has a share in the concords of the chromatic kind. In the top division and line of cavities, vases are to be put in the extreme wings, made to sound the diatonic hyperbolaeon; in the second at the interval of a fourth the diatonic diezeugmenon; in the third the diatonic synhemmenon; in the fourth (at the interval of a fourth) the diatonic meson; in the fifth at the interval of a fourth at the diatonic hypaton; in the sixth at the interval of a fourth the proslambanomenos; in the middle the mese, between which and the proslambanomenos is an octave, and a fifth to the diatonic hypaton.

6. Haec autem si qui voluerit ad perfectum facile perducere, animadvertat in extremo libro diagramma musica ratione designatum, quod Aristoxenus magno vigore et industria generatim divisis modulationibus constitutum reliquit, de quo, si qui ratiocinationibus his attenderit, ad naturas vocis et audientium delectationes facilius valuerit theatrorum efficere perfectiones.


6. If anyone wishes to bring all this to execution, let him note at the end of the book a diagram drawn in accordance with the method of music, which Aristoxenus, employing a sound and careful method, has left to us arranged with the modulations according to their kinds. If he attends to these calculations, he will the more easily be able to erect theatres adapted to the nature of the voice and the pleasure of the audience.

7. Dicet aliquis forte multa theatra quotannis Romae facta esse neque ullam rationem harum rerum in his fuisse; sed errabit in eo, quod omnia publica lignea theatra tabulationes habent complures, quas necesse est sonare. Hoc vero licet animadvertere etiam ab citharoedis qui, superiore tono cum volunt canere, avertunt se ad scaenae valvas et ita recipiunt ab earum auxilio consonantiam vocis. Cum autem ex solidis rebus theatra constituuntur, id est ex structura caementorum, lapide, marmore, quae sonare non possunt, tunc echeis hae rationes sunt explicandae.


7. Someone will say, perhaps, that many theatres are built every year at Rome without taking any account of these matters. He will be mistaken in this. All public wooden theatres have several wooden floors which must naturally resound. We can observe this also from those who sing to the zither, who when they wish to sing with a louder tone, turn to the wooden scenery, and, with this help, gain resonance for their voice. But when theatres are built of solids, that is of rubble walling, stone or marbie which cannot resound, the use of bronze vases is to be followed.

8. Sin autem quaeritur, in quo theatro ea sint facta, Romae non possumus ostendere, sed in italiae regionibus et in pluribus Graecorum civitatibus. Etiamque auctorem habemus Lucium Mummium qui diruto theatro Corinthiorum ea aenea Romam deportavit et de manubiis ad aedem Lunae dedicavit. Multi etiam sollertes architecti, qui in oppidis non magnis theatra constituerunt, propter inopiam fictilibus doleis ita sonantibus electis hac ratiocinatione compositis perfecerunt utilissimos effectus.


8. But if you ask in what theatre this is done, we cannot show any at Rome, but we must turn to the regions of Italy, and to many Greek cities. We find a precedent in Lucius Mummius who destroyed the theatre at Corinth, and transported these bronze vessels to Rome, and dedicated them, from the spoils, at the temple of Luna. Further many clever architects, who in towns of moderate size have built theatres, have chosen, for cheapness' sake, earthenware vessels with similar sounds, and arranging them in this way have produced very useful effects.


Since theatres were not covered, acoustics were a major problem for the builders. Normally the slope of the cavea provided already satisfying results, but the aim of the architects was to improve the clarity of the sound, music as well as the spoken word. To that effect in some theatres a wooden soundboard was placed above the scene as was the case (among others) in Orange and Aspendos.

Reconstruction of the theatre of Aspendos with the wooden soundboard

In other theatres sounding vessels were added. As is proven by Vitruvius' remark about the sack of the theatre at Corinth of wich the bronze sound vessels were brought to Rome by Lucius Mummius in 146 BC the practice was well known in Greece. We can even find an echo of it in the famous letter of saint Paul to the Corinthians I, 13: "If I were to speak with the human or angelic tongues, but if I had not love, I would have become only a resonating jar or a reverberating cymbal." The Greek word ήχϖν used by the apostle is also used by Vitruvius when he speaks about echeia (plural ending of echon).
Despite of Vitruvius' the accurate description of location, number and tuning of these vessels there are only few Roman theatres where possible traces of some kind of sounding vases have been found. The reason for this seems clear. These vessels, when placed like suggested in our text, produced a reverberating sound which can be wanted for musical performances but which is highly undesirable when it comes to the spoken word. Since both Greek and Latin are inflected languages it is important to hear the endings of the words to understand the text. A reverberation of only one or two seconds produced by these jars would have made the understanding of the endings very difficult if not almost impossible. Among the many hundred theatres over the Roman world I found only 8 cases where possible traces of the use of sound vases are mentionned.

Since many theatres are partly or completely in a ruinous condition it might be possible that there were more examples of these sounding vases, but at the present state of our knowledge nothing more can be said about their presence.

From this perspective one can ask why Vitruvius pays so much attention to these acoustic devices. First of all we must be aware that in his days theatres were a new kind of building in Rome. There were theatres in southern Italy, in the cities of Magna Graecia but the first real 'Roman' theatres are datable around the beginning of the 1st century BC. The best known example of these early theatres is the great theatre at Pompeii of which the first phase is dated at the beginning of the 2nd century BC and which was adapted to 'Roman taste' around 75 BC, after the colonisation in 80 BC.
In Rome, during the republic, theatrical performances were given in temporary wooden theatres. Pompey dedicated the first stone theatre in 55 BC. soon followed by the theatre Marcellus. Construction of this theatre started in 44 BC and it was inaugurated by Augustus in 13 or 11 BC. Since Vitruvius published his books around 25 BC he could only know the theatre of Pompey, while the theatre of Marcellus was still under construction. From this point of vue Vitruvius wanted to give new precepts for the layout and functioning in which acoustics was one of the main concerns. In Vitruvius' opinion these acoustic problems were closely related to music and they could be solved by adopting musical theories. This is already announced in book I,1,9 where he claims that an architect must have knowledge of music to be able to tune sounding vases in a theatre. In this chapter of book V he elaborates this opinion by applying the musical theory of Aristoxenos. This theory is based on mathematics and applies mathematical relations to the different modes (enharmonic, chromatic, diatonic). In my opinion this theory fits to the character of Vitruvius who, in other parts of the work shows his concern to reduce architecture to a play of mathematical interrelated relations. So following reconstruction can be tried: