Listen to a Performance from the Western World’s Oldest Surviving Song
2013-11-01 0:00

By John Farrier | Neatorama

This is the Seikilos Column.
It’s a marble tombstone from the first or second century A.D. A railroad engineer found it 1883 in Tralleis, Turkey. He sliced off the bottom so that his wife could use it as a flower display. Fortunately, the damage did not destroy the essential parts of this archaeological wonder. The Seikilos Column has an inscription of the Greco-Roman world’s oldest surviving completely intact song—both the lyrics and the musical notation.

Here are the Greek lyrics in modern English:

While you live, shine
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll

It is a timeless sentiment.


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Fragments of ancient music have been found going back as far as the eighteenth century B.C., the most ancient ones recorded on cuneiform tablets, but there is only one complete song from antiquity known to have survived: the Seikilos epitaph. It was discovered carved on a marble column-shaped stele in Tralleis, near Ephesus, Turkey, in 1883, and is now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Dating to the first or second century A.D., the stele announces its function clearly in the inscription. “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The last line is damaged, reputedly by Anglo-Irish railway engineer Edward Purser who was on site building the Smyrna-Aidin Ottoman Railway when the stele was discovered and who sawed off the base so his wife could use it as a flower display, but it appears to be a dedication from Seikilos to a Euterpe, perhaps his wife?

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