Hydraulis : The Ancient Hydraulis and its Reconstruction

The hydraulis is the first keyboard musical instrument in the history and the ancestor of the later church organ. It consisted of one or more sets of metal pipes of different sizes, which were supplied with air at constant pressure by a hydraulic mechanical device and activated, so as to produce sound, by special keys. The Hydraulis was a simple but ingenious structure, which demonstrates the high level of technological thought, developed in the ancient Greek world. According to the ancient accounts of Athenaeus, of Philon of Byzantium and, indirectly, of Vitruvius, the Hydraulis was invented by the famous engineer Ctesibius, who lived in Alexandria in the third century BC. Apart from the many interesting ancient references to the hydraulis, two detailed descriptions have survived: that of Vitruvius (De Architectura x, 8) and Heron of Alexandria (Pneumatica, I, 42). These descriptions deal primarily with the mechanical device by which the instrument was supplied with air, and its key mechanism.

The hydraulis, after its invention, spreads quickly in the Hellenistic and Roman world. In Rome, it was played in theatres, festivals and even in the amphitheaters, and became the favorite instrument of the ruling class and of emperors such as Nero, Ancient references to the hydraulis and the many depictions of it reveal that the instrument was constructed in numerous types which varied in size, sound and number of pipes.

Little by little instruments began to appear in which the hydraulic mechanism was replaced by bellows. By the early third century AD, the two types must have been almost equally represented. After the late fifth century AD, with the collapse of the Western Empire beneath the barbarian invasions, the organ disappeared in Western Europe. It lived on in the East, however, in the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was now Constantinolpe. By this time, the bellows organ had prevailed. At the Imperial court in Constantinople, the organ was a symbol of prestige, playing music at public festivals and during the visit of foreign quests, in order to impress them. The Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos (912-959) formally established the organ in court protocol and decreed that it was to play at parades and during specific ceremonies in the Great Palace and the Hippodrome. In 757, the Emperor Constantine II Copronymos sent an organ as a gift to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks and father of Charlemange. Over time, the organ became part of the musical tradition of the West, was accepted by the Catholic Church, and developed into the church organ familiar to us today. In Byzantium, it remained in use but was confined to the Imperial Palace. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, it disappeared.

In August 1992, during excavations at the site of ancient Dion (at the foot of Mt Olympus) the archaeologist Professor Dimitris Pantermalis of the University of Thessaloniki and his associates discovered the upper parts of an instrument consisting of a set of bronze pipes and a horizontal metal base-plate with decorative motifs. Professor Pantermalis dates the find to the first century BC. In early 1995, the European Cultural Center of Delphi (ECCD), in consultation with Professor Pantermalis and with the support of the Ministry of Culture, initiated a research project for reconstruction of the Dion hydraulis.

In order to reconstruct the hydraulis, all the ancient sources mentioning the instrument were studied in detail, research was conducted into the ancient Greek musical scales, and the use and manufacture of various materials in antiquity (metal, wood, leather, welding, rivets, screw, etc) were investigated. The problems facing the research team during reconstruction were of three kinds, concerning: a) the hydraulic mechanism, b) the key mechanism, and c) the pipes. In connection with the first two problems, the text of Hero was used as a particular starting-point and regarding the pipes the archaeological find was of great importance. The reconstruction project was completed in July 1999 and the presentation in Japan is the first public appearance of the hydraulis in modern times.

Since then our hydraulis has obtained its own dynamics. It has become subject to curiosity and admiration. Invitations pour in from many countries of the world. The hydraulis tours playing music, amazing and fascinating its audience. Up to this moment, over a hundred reports and articles in greek and foreign newspapers and magazines have been written.


Ancient Representation of the Hydraulis.


The final reconstruction of
the Hydralis of Dion .


The Hydraulis - Keyboard and pipes.


The Hydraulis - intermediate model.

The Hydraulis of Dion: the arcaeological finds.

Church Organ.