A Greek reed instrument. It was the most important of the ancient Greek wind instruments.


The aulos occupied an important place in Greek civilization. Information about the instrument and its use is to be found in many and varied sources extending over a period of some ten centuries. The sources fall into three main categories: texts and written records, iconographic sources and archaeological sources.

Numerous references to the aulos exist throughout Greek literature, but several works (or parts of works) contain information of a more technical nature: for example, books iv and xiv of Athenaeus’s Sophists at Dinner; Pseudo-Plutarch’s On Music; fragments of treatises with remarks about the instrument’s bore; notes by lexicographers; and scholia to tragic and comic writers and lyric poets. No works specifically devoted to the aulos appear to have survived: only the titles of works and the names of certain authors are known, for example, the treatises On Auloi by Aristoxenus of Tarentum and by the Pythagorean Euphranor. Several inscriptions and various papyri (musicians’ contracts etc.) contain technical terms designating auloi.

Iconographic records, which extend uninterruptedly from the earliest times (the Cycladic and Minoan periods) to the 4th and 5th centuries ce, are numerous and range from Greek ceramics to mosaics, reliefs and wall paintings. After the 1st century bce and most notably during the Roman period, relief techniques and the quality of depictions are such that a ‘realistic’ view of the instruments and especially their mechanisms, which are never shown on Attic ceramics, becomes possible.

Several hundred (maybe as many as a thousand) auloi, many of them fragmentary but some almost complete, have come to light during archaeological investigations. Often capable of being dated accurately, these remains provide direct evidence of what auloi were like in a given place at a given time. Instruments dating from the 6th century bce to late antiquity have been discovered in countries as far afield as Greece, Italy, France, the Low Countries, Egypt, Sudan, Israel, Turkey and Tajikistan. Systematic study of this evidence is yet to be made, although work has begun on the tibiae of the Roman world


The Greeks never regarded themselves as the inventors of the aulos: they saw it as an instrument of foreign origin (Aristoxenus classed it among the ekphula organa). Some writers considered it to have come from Libya, but most thought it was from Phrygia. If the lexicographers are to be believed, some of the instrument’s indigenous names passed into Greek (i.e. phōtinx, elumos). In line with the typically Greek habit of identifying a ‘first inventor’ (prōtos heuretēs), authors invariably attributed the aulos’s invention to one or another personnage, including Seirites, a Libyan ‘of the people of the Numidians’ (Athenaeus, Sophists at Dinner, xiv.9, citing the historian Douris of Samos, an attribution taken up by Pollux, Dictionary, iv.174), the semi-legendary auletes Olympus and Hyagnis, and even the Phrygian satyr Marsyas. Beginning in the the first half of the 5th century bce, however, there were attempts to ‘Hellenize’ the origins of the aulos, a trend that became particularly dominant at the end of the 4th century bce. The instrument’s invention was no longer ascribed to some barbarian character but to a Greek divinity, either Apollo himself (Anticleides and Istrus, as quoted in Pseudo-Plutarch, On Music, 1136a–b) or Athena, who is described as immediately rejecting it (Pindar, Pythian, xii.7ff; Epicharmus as quoted by Athenaeus, op. cit., ii.84; and many Latin texts referring to the tradition).

The true origins of the aulos remain obscure, even though Mesopotamian, Cypriot, Egyptian and Anatolian iconographic records attest the existence of the double aulos at very early periods around the Mediterranean basin as well as in Cycladic culture (Minoan marble statuettes dating from c2200 bce). Nonetheless, the Hellenic aulos with two straight pipes of equal length always remained distinct from its supposed ancestor the Phrygian aulos, one of whose pipes ended in a joint that was either curved or made of horn, hence its Greek and, later, Latin name keras

Prepared Zyle Rexha By Grove Dictionary

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