The harmony of the spheres


One of Pythagoras’ many fascinating theories is known as the harmony of the spheres. I remember first hearing this theory mentioned in a lecture almost twenty years ago and being utterly captivated by it. It struck me as such a beautiful idea that I simply had to learn more. The theory is that each heavenly body in the universe emits its own distinct sound as it travels through space. The intervals between the heavenly bodies are said to replicate the intervals between notes on the musical scale, and taken together, these sounds combine to create a celestial and wondrous music:

Pythagoras, employing the terms that are used in music, sometimes names the distance between the Earth and the Moon a tone; from her to Mercury he supposes to be half this space, and about the same from him to Venus. From her to the Sun is a tone and a half; from the Sun to Mars is a tone, the same as from the Earth to the Moon; from him there is half a tone to Jupiter, from Jupiter to Saturn also half a tone, and thence a tone and a half to the zodiac. Hence there are seven tones, which he terms the diapason harmony meaning the whole compass of the notes. [Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, 2.20.]

Plato adopts the idea and writes about it in book ten of his Republic. In the myth of Er, Plato describes the journey of a soul after death, the judgement of souls, and the structure of the entire cosmos. At the heart of the cosmos is the spindle of Necessity around which all the orbits of the universe turn. On each orbit, a Siren stands, singing a single note. Together, these eight singing Sirens combine to create a wonderful harmony. Singing along with this music are the three daughters of Necessity, known as the Fates: Lachesis who sings of things that were, Clotho who sings of things that are, and Atropos, the things that are yet to be. [Plato, Republic, 10.616c-617d]


Necessity and the Fates

The idea reappears in the writings of Cicero many centuries later. The universe is described as linked together in nine circles or spheres. The outermost sphere embraces and holds together all the others. As the planets revolve within their spheres, they produce a note, depending on the speed of their revolution. The celestial zone, full of stars, revolves quickly and is said to produce a sharp, high note while the moon is said to produce the lowest tone of all. The combined effect of these sounds is captivating and beautiful:

“What,” I asked, “what is this sound that fills my ears, so loud and sweet?” “This,” he replied, “is that sound, which divided in intervals, unequal, indeed, yet still exactly measured in their fixed proportion, is produced by the impetus and movement of the spheres themselves, and blending sharp tones with grave, therewith makes changing symphonies in unvarying harmony.

Cicero suggests that earthly music can open a pathway back to this celestial harmony:

Now the revolutions of those eight spheres, of which two have the same power, produce seven sounds with well-marked intervals; and this number, generally speaking, is the mystic bond of all things in the universe, And learned men by imitating this with stringed instruments and melodies have opened for themselves the way back to this place, even as other men of noble nature, who have followed godlike aims in their life as men.

The problem for mankind is that, according to Cicero, “the ears of men overpowered by the volume of the sound have grown deaf”. [Cicero, The Dream of Scipio]

This theory of the music of the spheres continued to be influential throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, and reappears in Shakespeare:

Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1.

The harmony of the spheres has clearly inspired poets, mystics, philosophers, musicians and writers for many centuries. Astronomers have even found their own version of the truth, making recordings of the many amazing sounds of space. But can we recapture the inner harmony that Shakespeare suggests we are capable of? For my part, I’m going to close my books for a moment, unplug the headphones, step outside on this late Spring evening and watch the stars. It is time to respond to Cicero’s exhortation: “Come!…how long will your mind be chained to the earth?”


BBC Radio 4: In Our Time – The Music of the Spheres:

Sounds of the universe:

Online texts:

Plato’s Republic, 10.614d:

Cicero’s Dream of Scipio:



Out and about in fourth century BCE Athens

If you should find yourself out and about in Athens in the fourth century BCE, here are some things to be mindful of:

1. Dress Code and Grooming


One’s cloak should reach down to the calves. An ankle-length cloak is a sign of affectation, while a short cloak is the mark of a poor person, a penny-pincher, a pro-Spartan or a philosopher. The cloak should be thrown over the left shoulder, so that it hangs in folds, held in position by the left arm, leaving the right arm free. One should definitely wear undergarments. The right combination is thin undergarments, with a thick cloak, not the reverse. When sitting, the cloak should be pulled down below the knees.

Long hair is the sign of a rich young dandy, but hair cut too often, whitened teeth, and strong perfume are the signs of an oligarch or an arrogant man. Conversely, to smell of garlic, or strong herbs is boorish. As for tattooes – it is best not to have them, or at least, to cover them up. In Thrace, a tattoo is the mark of noble birth, but in Athens it is the mark of a runaway slave.

2. Shopping


In ancient Athens, men do the shopping, not women. It is appropriate to be accompanied by a slave who will carry one’s purse and the shopping and walk behind at a distance. A respectable man does not carry his own shopping, or use the front pocket of his cloak as a shopping bag. In the market, one must be careful not to be seen outside the perfumer’s or the hairdresser’s shops for this is where loungers and gossips congregate. And one mustn’t associate with market-traders, riff-raff or people who have lost lawsuits. By all means, one can talk to the nut and fruit sellers, but not when the market is really busy, and it’s not fair to eat their produce while talking to them.

3. Meeting and greeting

When shaking hands, only the right hand is used, the left hand is kept inside the cloak. Double-handed clasping is considered over familiar and to embrace someone with both arms is excessive and obsequious. Only a boorish type talks at the top of his voice, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, or spits in public. Slandering others is bad form, particularly slandering one’s friends and relatives. To speak ill of the dead is unlawful.

4. The bathhouse

There are only four rules to remember in the Athenian bathhouse: bring your own oil flask (it must be fresh oil, not rancid); respect the bath-attendant (it is his job to douse you with water, not yours); don’t practice wrestling moves or wriggle around; and don’t sing.

5. Attending a symposium


If you are invited to dinner, it is important to remember that shoes are not normally worn indoors. Modest praise of the host and the host’s children and the house and the wine is appropriate. The place of honour is beside the host but only a man of petty ambition would insist on sitting next to the host. If you are minded to spit, you mustn’t spit across the table and hit the wine-waiter.

6. Hosting a symposium

If you are hosting the dinner, it pays to remember that a respectable host will never answer the door himself because that is his slave’s job. Make sure that there is enough food, especially meat and bread. A host must dine with his guests – only an arrogant man would ignore his guests and instruct one of his employees to look after them. It is important to mix the right amount of wine, to have the flute girls ready to go, and only to dance with those who are sufficiently intoxicated.

*This is a selection and summary of material I presented at the 2017 FAAIA Annual Fundraising Dinner.

Sources: J. Diggle (2004) Theophrastus: Characters, Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 43, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Images: Watercolour sketches by Peter Connolly (sourced online).


A time-traveller’s guide to etiquette in fourth century Athens


To be a classicist is to be a type of time-traveller. Every day, with the help of a set of wondrous keys known as ‘texts’, ‘artifacts’, and ‘material remains’ we step into our cerebral time-machines and return to the ancient world. We wander the landscapes, witness battles, overhear debates and visit the sacred temples. We walk the streets of ancient cities, visit the marketplaces and the Stoas, the bathhouses and the gymnasia. We watch theatre performances, wander through private homes and sit in on symposia. It is an extraordinary experience and a great privilege.

One of our jobs is to bring back the information that we have learnt from these experiences and to articulate it in a clear and comprehensible way for a modern audience. To close the gap in time, to bring the ancient world into the present and to share what we have observed and understood about these ancient and fascinating peoples.

Tomorrow night, I look forward to presenting the end of year speech at the Annual Fundraising Dinner for the Friends of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens. In my speech, I will present a set of findings and observations about etiquette in fourth century Athens, based on a recent time-travelling experience conducted along with twelve students, with the help of an extraordinary guidebook from 319BCE known as the Characters of Theophrastus.

Theophrastus’ little book gives us a wonderful insight into the subtleties of social etiquette and behaviour in the ancient world: how long should one’s cloak be? what sort of pets should one keep? how should one shake hands? how should one behave in the bathhouse and theatre? how should one behave as a guest at dinner, or as a host?  All of this, and more, is revealed by a careful reading of this unique work. I look forward to presenting a compact guide to social faux pas, and how to avoid them, in late fourth century Athens.

[The dinner will take place at 7.00pm on Friday 3 November 2017 in the Aegean Room at the Hellenic Club of Canberra in Woden. Tickets are $65 (and $50 for students). With special thanks to the ANU Canberra FAAIA.]