The most important stringed instrument used by the Greeks was calledkithara in Greek, and, since there is no obvious equivalent amongmodern instruments, will henceforward be called kithara in English. Thisis the normal practice among translators of the Classics, though many usethe Latin spelling cithara.There were two distinct basic forms of the kithara, the earlier one ofwhich had a round base (Figure 2b.1).This form appears very early in the pictorial evidence. It is shown in apainting on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus dating from the fourteenthcentury BC or earlier1 and in geometric vase-paintings from the Greek main land from the mid-eighth century BC onwards. As these vase paintings are roughly contemporary with Homer, it is generally held that the stringed instrument played by the bards in his narrative was of this type. He uses two names for it: kithar is, an older form of the word kithara (also used by later poets who wish to sound archaic), and phorminx; his choice between the two seems to depend only on the  rhythm of the verse. As the instrument has the general appearance of a horse shoe, I propose to call it the ‘horseshoe-kithara’, though other names have been used.2

A great deal has been written about the earliest forms of this instrument, and its probable ancestry in similar, older instruments of the near East. The only important question as far as Greek music is concerned is whether there was a stage in its development when it had only four strings. The trouble is that, though some early pictures clearly show four strings, we cannot be certain whether this represents the reality, or whether the number of strings is limited by the artist’s medium or technique. In vase-paintings the four lines representing the strings occupy most of the available space between the arms of the instrument, but areas thin as any in the picture. The same limitation applies to a few surviving miniature models in bronze—at this stage of the art, the strings could not have been made thinner. This problem is complicated still further by the fact that some of the earlier Mycenaean paintings are of a superior artistic quality, and show a more elaborate design of instrument, with more ornamentation than the later ones, and apparently as many a seight strings. The horseshoe kithara is the only one to appear before about 520 BC. After that, however, the flat-based type seems to take over as the standard instrument for the professional musician—indeed, for the great divine musician, Apollo himself.The horseshoe type more or less disappears for a time, but then reemerges in a different context—that of indoor, informal music-making in a relaxed atmosphere. Curiously enough, it is commonly shown hanging on the wall at the back of a scene, but not so often being played as part of an ensemble; it should therefore perhaps be viewed as a ‘scene-symbol’ rather than an actual instrument, comparable to the mirrors which indicate a lady’s boudoir, or the gravestone which indicates a funeral context without necessarily being a physical part of it. In the meantime, it has undergone a slight change of shape, whereby the arms seem to be set a short distance from the outer edges of the curved base. Whether this is a change of design, or a more accurate drawing of the older shape, it is difficult to say. By this date it has seven strings, like the flat-based version(Figure 2b.2).A few vase-paintings show a variant of this design which has a bar across the front of the strings, fixed to the arms each side. Its function is doubtful, but it may be significant that it appears to be about one-third of the vibrating length of the string above the bridge. If so, it might have been possible for the fingers of the left hand to use it as a fret by pressing the strings against it, and to play all the notes of the normal register a twelfth (that is, an octave and a fifth) higher. If, as I shall suggest later, the octave harmonic could also be sounded, this would greatly increase the range of notes (Figure 2b.3).

The flat-based kithara was the ‘concert instrument’ of the ClassicalGreek world, through antiquity until the late years of the western Romanempire. It was the instrument of the solo kitharist (kitharistes), thekithara-singer (kitharodos) and the accompanist for a choros in all itsvarious functions. It first appears in vase-paintings about 520 BC, and thefact that a number of representations by various different artists showclose similarities suggests that the design was standardized (Figure 2b.4).

The flat-based kithara seems to have been made in five distinctparts. The soundbox (A), rather larger than that of the horseshoekithara, has a flat bottom and straight sides which diverge up to apoint about one-third of the height of the instrument. Instead of thewide, solid-looking arms of the older instrument, this type has twopointed extensions (B), which are sometimes shown as obviouslyjointed into the top of the body. Rising from the tops of these, whichslope at an angle of about 30 degrees, there are two vertical posts (C),of about the same height as the body of the instrument. They extendwell beyond the height required by the length of the strings—thecross-bar (D) runs between them about half-way up.

There appears tobe a curiously weak point where the body extensions join the verticalposts, and a quite elaborate wooden structure (E) is inserted betweenthe top of the body and the bases of the vertical posts, presumably toreinforce the structure as a whole. The central part of this woodenstructure is in the form of a horseshoe turned on its side (F); this isbraced from the top of the body by a curving strut (G), and a round ormushroom-shaped element (H) is wedged between the top of the‘horseshoe’ and the base of the vertical post. It seems hardly crediblethat this elaborate design was merely decorative. There is no inherentreason why the body of this type of kithara should not have extendedupwards into two wide arms, exactly as the early horseshoe type haddone, and as the ‘Italiote’ kithara (see p. 168) did later. We mustassume, therefore, that it had some acoustical function; but it isdifficult to see what that might have been. It has been suggested thatthe instrument was deliberately designed to bend at the apparent weakpoint when extra stress was applied, and then to resume its former  shape exactly when the extra stress was removed.

This will be discussed later, in connection with the playing technique (see p. 60below).In some of the earliest pictures (of Mycenaean date) the strings are bunched together at the lower end, and diverge towards the crossbar at the top, but in the classical period they are shown exactly parallel. They were anchored at the bottom end to a ‘string-stretcher’ (chordotonon) which apparently consisted of two vertical pieces with a round metal rod stretching across between them. In contrast to the bridge, this part is drawn in outline, and not blocked in in black by the red-figure vase-painters,which suggests that it was metal—not surprising, since it had to take the tension of all seven strings.3 The exact shape of the bridge cannot be determined with any certainty from the two-dimensional drawings, but it seems to have been remarkably large. Its width from side to side was obviously determined by the spacing of the strings, but from top to bottom it appears to have been at least 5 cm (more than 2 inches) as compared with the bridge of a modern guitar, which is about 1 cm, and usually has a sharp metal ridge across its centre. It is not possible to say whether the top surface of the bridge on which the strings pressed had a clearly-defined ridge, or a gentle curvature. This might affect the tone of the vibrating string to some extent, but would certainly not cause the rattling effect of the Indian sitar strings, which are steel wires. It has been suggested that the vertical lines at each end of the bridge in some illustrations represent legs which stand on the soundboard, and support the bridge itself a short distance above it, looking like a miniature coffee-table when seen from the side. In other pictures the bridge seems to rest on its own top and bottom edges, and curve up like an arch between them.A further problem, created by the preference of the vase-painters for painting a ‘full frontal’ kithara, is that we cannot be sure whether the front of the instrument was straight and flat, or concave. Certainly, there are some sculptures which show a very marked vertical curvature, but these belong to the Hellenistic period at the very earliest (third to second century BC) and most of them are Roman. Another feature which can be seen in some illustrations is a vertical ridge down the centre of the back,which makes the base, when viewed from below, look triangular. This feature may well go back to the earliest instruments.4The strings ran over the bridge and up to the crossbar, which the Greeks called the ‘yoke’ (zygon). Here we come to one of the most problematic areas—the tuning mechanism, which was apparently the same for the lyre and the kithara. There is no doubt whatsoever that it was situated on the crossbar, since a number of illustrations show a player tuning the instrument, usually plucking the string with the left hand while making some adjustment with the right hand on the crossbar. But here,instead of a consistent and recognizable pattern, the vase-painters show a variety of different arrangements, some with round black tabs, some with round dots above and below the bar, some with the string in line with the tab and others with the string to one side of it. What are we to make of them?There are two general considerations which must be borne in mind.First, it is surely unwise to assume that there was only one method oftensioning the strings, and to insist that all the illustrations must bere conciled with one and the same device. Since the subtle intonations of Greek music required very accurate tuning, it is likely that the mechanism was developed and improved over a period of three or four centuries,and its appearance may have been changed in the process. Second, when studying the vase-paintings we have to deal with an artist’s impression,not a technical draughtsman’s diagram. Just as an artist, for his own reasons, might have drawn the aulos to look more elegant than it really was, so the tuning mechanism of the kithara may appear in illustrations tohave been much tidier than it was in real life.As it happens, there is a mention of the tuning device, which wascalled kollops in Greek, as early as the seventh century BC, in the Odysseyof Homer.5 Odysseus is described as having strung his bow ‘as easily as a skilled kitharist and singer stretches a string on to (or around) a new kollops’, which tells us at least that it was something which might wear out and need replacement. It also tells us (in the next line) that the string was made from twisted sheep-gut, which seems to have been the material most commonly used on Greek instruments. Cord made from flax fibres(linon) was a possible alternative, and so also was animal sinew (see p.141). Commentators from much later times6 give us the information that a kollops was a strip of hide cut from the neck of an ox. It has been suggested that some vase-paintings show this. The tabs which appear above and below the crossbar represent the ends of a tongue-like strip,bound to the crossbar by a criss-cross set of thongs, so that it could be pulled up to sharpen the pitch, or downwards to flatten it. But I find it difficult to believe that the hide would not stretch after adjustment, unless it was hardened by some process. There is also the problem that leather(whether cured or raw) extends and contracts with changes in humidity,and this would put the tuning out very badly.Another explanation of the tuning mechanism depends on an expanded version of a commentator on Homer, according to which the strips of leather from the neck of an ox ‘still had the fat adhering to them’.This suggests that the string was somehow interleaved with the greasy strip of hide, and both were rolled around the crossbar. Comparative musicologists assure us that this method is used on the kissar (a lyre-type instrument from Ethiopia). It is difficult to see how an accurate tuning could be achieved, but apparently it is possible. A similar method, usings trips of cloth instead of leather, has been successfully used on a reconstruction of the Greek lyre by Dr Psaroudakis. With the leather strips there is the added problem that the fat would eventually dry out, and(presumably) allow the kollops to slip; perhaps that is why the Homeric bards, if they really used this method of tuning, might have had to fit anew one from time to time.Another suggested explanation of the word kollops is based on a passage in Aristotle’s Mechanics.7 Here a detailed analogy is drawn between the kollops (which apparently rotates around the crossbar of a kithara) and a form of capstan, called a ‘donkey’ (onos). The point of the comparison is that in each device the force required to turn it depends on the length of the lever or handle—the longer the handle, the easier it is to turn. In fact, the text might possibly be taken to mean that kitharists used an extension arm of some kind to help in turning the kollopes, which might have been wooden collars of some kind. They must have fitted tightly enough around the crossbar to prevent slipping, and may perhaps have been rubbed with resin. A slight problem is that the handles of the kollopes would normally be at various different heights when the strings were tuned, whereas they appear on one level in the vase-paintings; but this may be artistic licence. A relief sculpture on the ‘Ludovisi Throne’shows a lyre-player (who would have used the same tuning mechanism)with what look like wooden collars on the crossbar, and they are not neatly in line. Finally, the explanation derives some support from rude popular slang. The comic poets of the late fifth and early fourth century BC use the word kollops and the derived verb kollopeuein to refer to the homosexual activities of young aspiring politicians, ‘running around and making friends’, as the ancient dictionaries politely put it.8Another interpretation of the tuning mechanism has been put forward by Dr Helen Roberts.9 The word kollops is sometimes confused by ancient writers with the word kollabos, which apparently meant a kind of breadroll.10 This may be a simple confusion of similar-sounding words, but itmay have more significance. The kollopes may have been short woodenrods, shaped roughly like a baguette, about 8–10 cm (3–4 inches) long.They could have been placed against the crossbar, with the top end of each string anchored to the middle of its rod, and wound around above and below the crossbar in a particular way, so that turning the kollops would adjust the tension.This explanation is commended by the fact that it has been used by Dr Roberts on reconstructed models of the kithara and lyre, and was found to work effectively. Once again, there is the problem that the rods should be in various different positions, and not in a neat line as they usually appear, but once again, artistic licence can be invoked.

The crossbar runs across between the arms, some distance below their tops, and the vase-painters seem quite concerned to show that it was a separate element, jointed or slotted in some way on to the arms as though  it was made to be removable. I have previously thought that it fitted into slots on the front faces of the arms, but after a meticulous examination of a section of the Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Museum Dr Psaroudakis concluded that the arms actually pass through rectangular slots in the crossbar. I have since examined more carefully the kithara shown in a black-figure vase painting11 which gives (most unusually) a rear view. The crossbar cuts across the backs of the arms of the instrument exactly as it does across the front in the usual view. This would give a firm fixing, and would enable the tuning mechanism to be rotated around the cross bar without any danger of the bar itself twisting. It would also, since the arms are straight and parallel, allow the crossbar to be moved a short distance up or down the arms, which might be useful (assuming that the strings had enough spare length) for re-tuning the whole instrument to play in a higher or lower key. It is certain, however, that the spirals which are often shown on the arms below the crossbar were purely decorative, and could not have represented any sort of device for moving the crossbar up anddown.12The two vertical lines near the ends of the crossbar represent two round discs, which may have had the effect of transmitting to the air vibrations of very high pitch, which the main mass of the instrument would tend to absorb owing to its inertia. The fact that they are discs can only be inferred from much later illustrations in sculpture, since the vase painters almost invariably show the front face of the instrument. They were probably made of metal for high speed of sound transmission; they correspond to the very small cones in modern hi-fi loudspeakers, which transmit the very high audio frequencies.In the vast majority of vase-paintings of the Classical period the kitharahas seven strings, and the old names given to the strings were regularly used by the musical theorists for the notes of the basic scale; they are in fact feminine adjectives, with the word for string (chorde) understood.Some useful information can be gleaned from them.


BY John G.Landels



There is an excellent account of these instruments, with copious illustrations, inMaas, Martha and Snyder, Jane M., Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece (YaleUniversity Press, New Haven 1989).

1 In the Heraklion Museum, cat. 396. Illustrated in Martin Robertson, GreekPainting (Macmillan, London 1978), pp. 26–30

.2 Max Wegner uses the term ‘cradle-kithara’ (Wiegenkithara), apparently seeingit as a lateral cross-section through the cradle, without baby.

3 Dr Helen Roberts emphasises this in her account of the reconstruction of thelyre (World Archaeology 12/3 (1981):303–312).

4 This question is examined by R.A.Higgins and R.P.Winnington-Ingram, ‘Luteplayersin Greek Art’, Journal of Hellenic Studies LXXXV (1965):69.

5 Book 21, 406–409.

6 Under kollops in the Etymologicum Magnum, Scholiast on Aristophanes’ Wasps572, etc.

7 852b 11–21.

8 Plato Comicus fr.186K, Eubulus fr.11K and Eustathius s.v.

9 World Archaeology 12/3 (1981):305–308.10 Scholiast on Aristophanes, Frogs 5

10 and elsewhere.

11 British Museum cat. B 300—the same vase from which Figure 2a.14 is derived

12 See the discussion of the strobilos on p. 59.


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