1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cithara

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CITHARA (Assyrian chetarah; Gr. κιθάρα; Lat. cithara; perhaps Heb. kinura, kinnor), one of the most ancient stringed instruments, traced back to 1700 B.C. among the Semitic races, in Egypt, Assyria, Asia Minor, Greece and the Roman empire, whence the use of it spread over Europe. The main feature of the Greek kithara, its shallow sound-chest, being the most important part of it, is also that in which developments are most noticeable; its contour varied considerably during the many musical ages, but the characteristic in respect of which it foreshadowed the precursors of the violin family, and by which they were distinguished from other contemporary stringed instruments of the middle ages, was preserved throughout in all European descendants bearing derived names. This characteristic box sound-chest (fig. 1) consisted of two resonating tables, either flat or delicately arched, connected by ribs or sides of equal width. The cithara may be regarded as an attempt by a more skilful craftsman or race to improve upon the lyre (q.v.), while retaining some of its features.

Fig. 1. — Nero Citharoedus (Mus. Pio-Clementino), showing back of a Roman Cithara.

The construction of the cithara can fortunately be accurately studied from two actual specimens found in Egypt and preserved in the museums of Berlin and Leiden. The Leiden cithara (fig. 2), which forms part of the d'Anastasy Collection in the Museum of Antiquities, is in a very good state of preservation. The soundchest, in the form of an irregular square (17 cm. X 17 cm.), is hollowed out of a solid block of wood from the base, which is open; the little bar, seen through the open base and measuring 2½ cm. (1 in.), is also of the same piece of wood. The arms, one short and one long, are solid and are fixed to the body by means of wooden pins; they are glued as well for greater strength. W. Pleyte, through whose courtesy the sketch was revised and corrected, states that there are no indications on the instrument of any kind of bridge or attachment for strings except the little half-hoop of iron wire which passes through the base from back to front. To this the strings were probably attached, and the little bar performed the double duty of sound-post and support for strengthening the tail-piece and enabling it to resist the tension of the strings. The oblique transverse bar, rendered necessary by the increasing length of the strings, was characteristic of the Egyptian cithara,[1] whereas the Asiatic and Greek instruments were generally constructed with horizontal bars resting on arms of equal length, the pitch of the strings being varied by thickness and tension, instead of by length. (For the Berlin cithara see Lyre.)

Fig. 2. — Ancient Egyptian Cithara from Thebes. Museum of Antiquities, Leiden.

The number of strings with which the cithara was strung varied from 4 to 19 or 20 at different times; they were added less for the purpose of increasing the compass in the modern sense than to enable the performer to play in the different modes of the Greek musical system. Terpander is credited with having increased the number of strings to seven; Euclid, quoting him as his authority, states that “loving no more the tetrachordal chant, we will sing aloud new hymns to a seven-toned phorminx.”

What has been said of the scale of the lyre applies also to the cithara, and need therefore not be repeated here. The strings were vibrated by means of the fingers or plectrum (πλἢκτρον, from πλἠσσειν, to strike; Lat. plectrum, from plango, I strike). Twanging with the fingers for strings of gut, hemp or silk was undoubtedly the more artistic method, since the player was able to command various shades of expression which are impossible [ 396 ] with a rigid plectrum.[2] Loudness of accent and great brilliancy of tone, however, can only be obtained by the use of the plectrum.

Quotations from the classics abound to show what was the practice of the Greeks and Romans in this respect. The plectrum was held in the right hand, with elbow outstretched and palm bent inwards, and the strings were plucked with the straightened fingers of the left hand.[3] Both methods were used with intention according to the dictates of art for the sake of the variation in tone colour obtainable thereby.[4]

Fig. 3. — Apollo Citharoedus, showing Cithara with box tail-pieces.

The strings of the cithara were either knotted round the transverse tuning bar itself (zugon) or to rings threaded over the bar, which enabled the performer to increase or decrease the tension by shifting the knots or rings; or else they, were wound round pegs,[5] knobs[6] or pins[7] fixed to the zugon. The other end of the strings was secured to a tail-piece after passing over a flat bridge, or the two were combined in the curious high box tail-piece which acted as a bridge. Plutarch[8] states that this contrivance was added to the cithara in the days of Cepion, pupil of Terpander. These boxes were hinged in order to allow the lid to be opened for the purpose of securing the strings to some contrivance concealed therein. It is a curious fact that no sculptured cithara provided with this box tail-piece is represented with strings, and in many cases there could never have been any, for the hand and arm[9] are visible across the space that would be filled by the strings, which are always carved in a solid block.

Like the lyre the cithara was made in many sizes, conditioned by the pitch and the use to which the instrument was to be put. These instruments may have been distinguished by different names; the pectis, for instance, is declared by Sappho (22nd fragment} to have been small and shrill; the phorminx, on the other hand, seems to have been identical with the cithara.[10]

The Greek kithara was the instrument of the professional singer or citharoedus (κιθαρῳδός) and of the instrumentalist or citharista (κιθαριστής), and thus served the double purpose of (1) accompanying the voice — a use placed by the Greeks far above mere instrumental music — in epic recitations and rhapsodies, in odes and lyric songs; and (2) of accompanying the dance; it was also used for playing solos at the national games, at receptions and banquets and at trials of skill. The costume of the citharoedus and citharista was rich and recognized as being distinctive; it varied but little throughout the ages, as may be deduced from a comparison of representations of the citharoedus on a coin and on a Greek vase of the best period (fig. 4). The costume consisted of a palla or long tunic with sleeves embroidered with gold and girt high above the waist, falling in graceful folds to the feet. This palla must not be confounded with the mantel of the same name worn by women. Over one shoulder, or hanging down the back, was the purple chlamys or cloak, and on his brow a golden wreath of laurels. All the citharoedi bear instruments of the type here described as the cithara, and never one of the lyre type. The records of the citharoedi extend over more than thirteen centuries and fall into two natural divisions: (1) The mythological period, approximately from the 13th century B.C. to the first Olympiad, 776 B.C.; and (2) the historical period to the days of Ptolemy, A.D. 161. One of the very few authentic Greek odes extant is a Pythian ode by Pindar, in which the phorminx of Apollo is mentioned; the solo is followed by a chorus of citharoedi. The scope of the solemn games and processions, called Panathenaea, held every four years in honour of the goddess Athena, which originally consisted principally of athletic sports and horse and chariot races, was extended under Peisistratus (c. 540 B.C.), and the celebration made to include contests of singers and instrumentalists, recitations of portions of the Iliad and Odyssey, such as are represented on the frieze of the Parthenon (in the Elgin Room at the British Museum) and later on friezes by Pheidias. It was at the same period that the first contests for solo-playing on the cithara (κιθαριστύς) and for solo aulos-playing were instituted at the 8th Pythian Games.[11] One of the principal items at these contests for aulos and cithara was the Nomos Pythikos, deescriptive of the victory of Apollo over the python and of the defeat of the monster.[12]

Fig. 4. — Cithara or Phorminx, from a vase in the British Museum.

The Pythian Games survived the classic Greek period and were continued under Roman sway until about A.D. 394. Not only were these games held at Delphi, but smaller contests, called Pythia, modelled on the great Pythian, were instituted in various provinces of the empire, and more especially in Asia Minor. The games lasted for several days, the first being devoted to music. To the games at Delphi came musicians from all parts of the civilized world; and the Spaniards, at the beginning of our era, had attained to such a marvellous proficiency in playing the cithara, an instrument which they had learnt to know from the Phoenician colonists before the conquest by the Romans, that some of their citharoedi easily carried off the honors at the musical contests. The consul Metellus was so charmed with the music of the Spanish competitors that he sent some to Rome for the festivals, where the impression created was so great that the Spanish citharoedi obtained a permanent footing in Rome. Aulus Gellius (Noct. Att.) describes an incident at a banquet which corroborates this statement.

Fig. 5. — Asiatic Cithara in transition (or rotta). From a fresco at Beni-Hasan (c. 1700 B.C.).

The degeneration of music as an art among the Romans, and its gradual degradation by association with the sensual amusements of corrupt Rome, nearly brought about its extinction at the end of the 4th century, when the condemnation of the Church closed the theatres, and the great national games came to an end. Instrumental music was banished from civil life and from religious rites, and thenceforth the slender threads which connect the musical instruments of Greeks and Romans with those of [ 397 ] the middle ages must be sought among the unconverted barbarians of northern and western Europe, who kept alive the traditions taught them by conquerors and colonists; but as civilization was in its infancy with them the instruments sent out from their workshops must have been crude and primitive. Asia, the cradle of the cithara, also became its foster-mother; it was among the Greeks of Asia Minor that the several steps in the transition from cithara into guitar[13] (q.v.) took place.

Fig. 6. — Roman Cithara in transition, of the Lycian Apollo (Rome Mus. Capit.).

The first of these steps produced the rotta (q.v.), by the construction of body, arms and transverse bar in one piece. The Semitic races used the rotta at a very remote period (1700 B.C.), as we know from a fresco at Beni-Hasan, dating from the reign of Senwosri II., which depicts a procession of strangers bringing tribute; among them is a bearded musician of Semitic type bearing a rotta which he holds horizontally in front of him in the Assyrian manner, and quite unlike the Greeks, who always played the lyre and cithara in an upright position. A unique specimen of this rectangular rotta was found in an Alamannic tomb of the 5th or 6th century at Oberflacht in the Black Forest. The instrument was clasped in the arms of an armed knight; it is now preserved in the Völker Museum in Berlin. This old German rotta is an exact counterpart of instruments pictured in illuminated MSS. of the 8th century, and is derived from the cithara with rectangular body, while from the cithara with a body having the curve of the lower half of the violin was produced a rotta with the outline of the body of the guitar. Both types were common in Europe until the 14th century, some played with a bow, others twanged by the fingers, and bearing indifferently both names, cithara and rotta. The addition of a fingerboard, stretching like a short neck from body to transverse bar. leaving on each side of the finger-board space for the hand to pass through in order to stop the strings, produced the crwth or crowd (q.v.), and brought about the reduction in the number of the strings to three or four. The conversion of the rotta into the guitar (q.v.) was an easy transition effected by the addition of a long neck to a body derived from the oval rotta. When the bow was applied the result was the guitar or troubadour fiddle. At first the instrument called cithara in the Latin versions of the Psalms was glossed citran, citre in Anglo-Saxon, but in the 11th century the same instrument was rendered hearpan, and in French and English harpe or harp, and our modern versions have retained this translation. The cittern (q.v.), a later descendant of the cithara, although preserving the characteristic features of the cithara, the shallow sound-chest with ribs, adopted the pear-shaped outline of the Eastern instruments of the lute tribe. (K. S.)


  1. A drawing of an Egyptian cithara, similar to the Leiden specimen, may be seen in Champollion, Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie, ii. pl. 175.
  2. See Plutarch, Apophthegm. Lacon.
  3. Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, No. 10, “Amphion,” and Philostratus the Younger, Imagines, No. 7, “Orpheus,” p. 403.
  4. Tibullus, Eleg. iii. 4. 39.
  5. Le Antichità de Ercolano, vol. iii. p. 5.
  6. Idem, vol. iv. p. 201.
  7. Thomas Hope, Costumes of the Ancients, vol. ii. p. 193; also Edward Buhle, Die musikalischen Instrumente in den Miniaturen des frühen Mittelalters (Leipzig, 1903), frontispiece.
  8. See De Musica, ch. vi.
  9. See Visconti, Museo Clementino, pl. 22, Erato's cithara, and in the same work that of Apollo Citharoedus (fig. 3 above).
  10. See Od. i. 153, 155; Il. xviii, 569-570. In Homer the form is always κίθαρις.
  11. See Pausanias x. 7, § 4 et seq.
  12. For a description of the Nomos Pythikos in its relation to Greek music see Kathleen Schlesinger, “Researches into the Origin of the Organs of the Ancients,” Intern. Mus. Ges. Sbd. ii. (1901), 2, p. 177, and Strabo ix. p. 421.
  13. For a discussion of this question see Kathleen Schlesinger, The Instruments of the Orchestra, part ii. and especially chapters on the cithara in transition daring the middle ages, and the question of the origin of the Utrecht Psalter, in which the evolution of the cithara is traced at some length.