Barbiton, Or Barbitos (Gr. βάρβιτον or βάρβιτος; Lat. barbitus; Pers. barbat, barbud), an ancient stringed instrument known to us from the Greek and Roman classics, but derived from Persia. Theocritus (xvi. 45), the Sicilian poet, calls it an instrument of many strings, i.e. more than seven, which was by the Hellenes accounted the perfect number, as in the cithara of the best period. Anacreon,[1] (a native of Teos in Asia Minor) sings that his barbitos only gives out erotic tones. Pollux (Onomasticon iv. chap. 8, § 59) calls the instrument barbiton or barymite (from βαρύς, heavy and μίτος, a string), an instrument producing deep sounds; the strings were twice as long as those of the pectis and sounded an octave lower. Pindar (in Athen. xiv. p. 635), in the same line wherein he attributes the introduction of the instrument into Greece to Terpander, tells us one could magadize, i.e. play in two parts at an interval of an octave on the two instruments. The word barbiton was frequently used for the lyre itself.

Although in use in Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, and Greece, it is evident that the barbiton never won for itself a place in the affections of the Greeks of Hellas; it was regarded as a barbarian instrument affected by those only whose tastes in matters of art were unorthodox. It had fallen into disuse in the days of Aristotle,[2] but reappeared under the Romans.

In spite of the few meagre shreds of authentic information extant concerning this somewhat elusive instrument, it is possible nevertheless to identify the barbiton as it was known among the Greeks and Romans. From the Greek writers we know that it was an instrument having some feature or features in common with the lyre, which warranted classification with it. From the Persians and Arabs we learn that it was a kind of rebab or lute, or a chelys-lyre,[3] first introduced into Europe through Asia Minor by way of Greece, and centuries later into Spain by the Moors, amongst whom it was in the 14th century known as al-barbet.[4] There is a stringed instrument, as yet unidentified by name, of which there are at least four different representations in sculpture,[5] which combines the characteristics of both lyre and rebab, having the vaulted back and gradual narrowing to form a neck which are typical of the rebab and the stringing of the lyre. In outline it resembles a large lute with a wide neck, and the seven strings of the lyre of the best period, or sometimes nine, following the decadent lyre.

Most authors in reproducing these sculptures showing the barbiton represent the instrument as boat-shaped and without a neck, as, for instance, Carl Engel. This is due to the fact that the part of the instrument where neck joins body is in deep shadow, so that the correct outline can hardly be distinguished, being almost hidden by hand on one side and drapery on the other.


Barbiton, from a bas-relief in the Louvre, "Achilles at Scyros."

The barbiton, as pictured here, had probably undergone considerable modification at the hands of the Greeks and had diverged from the archetype. The barbiton, however, although it underwent many changes, retained until the end the characteristics of the instruments of the Greek lyre whose strings were plucked, whereas the rebab was sounded by means of the bow at the time of its introduction into Europe. At some period not yet determined, which we can but conjecture, the barbat approximated to the form of the large lute (q.v.). An instrument called barbiton was known in the early part of the 16th[6] and during the 17th century. It was a kind of theorbo or bass-lute, but with one neck only, bent back at right angles to form the head. Robert Fludd[7] gives a detailed description of it with an illustration: - "Inter quas instrumenta non nulla barbito simillima effinxerunt cujus modi sunt illa quae vulgo appellantur theorba, quae sonos graviores reddunt chordasque nervosas habent." The people called it theorbo, but the scholar having identified it with the instrument of classic Greece and Rome called it barbiton. The barbiton had nine pairs of gut strings, each pair being in unison. Dictionaries of the 18th century support Fludd's use of the name barbiton.

G. B. Doni[8] mentions the barbiton, defining it in his index as Barbitos seu major chelys italice tiorba, and deriving it from lyre and cithara in common with testudines, tiorbas and all tortoiseshell instruments. Claude Perrault,[9] writing in the 18th century, states that "les modernes appellent notre luth barbiton" (the moderns call our lute barbiton). Constantijn Huygens[10] declares that he learnt to play the barbiton in a few weeks, but took two years to learn the cittern.

The barbat was a variety of rebab (q.v.), a bass instrument, differing only in size and number of strings. This is quite in accordance with what we know of the nomenclature of musical instruments among Persians and Arabs, with whom a slight deviation in the construction of an instrument called for a new name.[11] The word barbud applied to the barbiton is said to be derived[12] from a famous musician living at the time of Chosroes II. (A.D. 590-628), who excelled in playing upon the instrument. From a later translation of part of the same authority into German[13] we obtain the following reference to Persian musical instruments: "Die Sänger stehen bei seinem Gastmahl; in ihrer Hand Barbiton(i.) und Leyer(ii.) und Laute(iii.) und Flöte(iv.) und Deff (Handpauke)." Mr Ellis, of the Oriental Department of the British Museum, has kindly supplied the original Persian names translated above, i.e. (i.) barbut, (ii.) chang, (iii.) rubāb, (iv.) nei. The barbut and rubab thus were different instruments as late as the 19th century in Persia. There were but slight differences if any between the archetypes of the pear-shaped rebab and of the lute before the application of the bow to the former - both had vaulted backs, body and neck in one, and gut strings plucked by the fingers.

(K. S.)

[1] See Bergk's Poetae Lyrici Graeci (4th ed., 1882), p. 291, fr. 143 [113]; and p. 311, 23 [1], 3; and 14 [9], 34, p. 306.

[2] Polit. viii. (v.), 6, ed. Susemihl-Hicks (1894), pp. 604 (= 1341a 40) and 632; Daremberg and Saglio, Dict. d'ant. gr. et rom., article "Lyre," p. 1450, for a few more references to the classics.

[3] Johnson's Persian-Arabic-English dictionary: barbat, a harp or lute, barbatzan, player upon lute, pl.barābit; G. W. Freytag, Lexicon Arabico-Latinum, i. p. 102; barbat (Persian and Arabic), barbitus, genus testudinis, plerumque sex septamve chordis instructum (rotundam habet formam in Africa); Lexicon Aegidii Forcellini (Prato, 1858; "Barbito aurataque chely ac doctis fidibus personare" (Martianus Capella i. 36); G. B. Doni, Lyra Barberina, ii. index.

[4] Enumeration of Arab Musical Instruments, xiv. c.

[5] (a) See C. Clarac, Musée du Louvre, vol. i. pl. 202, No. 261. (b) Accompanying illustration. See also Kathleen Schlesinger, "Orchestral Instruments", part ii., "Precursors of the Violin Family," fig. 108 and p. 23, pp. 106-107, fig. 144 and appendix. (c) Sarcophagus in the cathedral of Girgenti in Sicily, illustrated by Carl Engel, Early History of the Violin Family, p. 112. A cast is preserved in the sepulchral basement at the British Museum. Domenico, Lo Faso Pietra-Santa, le antichità della Sicilia (Palermo, 1834), vol. 3, pl. 45 (2), text p. 89. (d) C. Zoega, Antike Basreliefe von Rom (Giessen, 1812), atlas, pl. 98, sarcophagus representing a scene in the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra.

[6] In Jacob Locher's Navis Stultifera (Basil, 1506), titulus 7, is an illustration of a small harp and lute with the legend nec cytharum tangit nec barbiton.

[7] Historia Utriusque Cosmi (Oppenheim, 1617), tom. i. tract ii. part ii. lib. iv. cap. i. p. 226.

[8] Lyra Barberina, vol. ii. index, and also vol. i. p. 29.

[9] "La Musique des anciens," oeuvres complètes (ed. Amsterdam, 1727), tom. i. p. 306.

[10] De Vita propria sermonum inter liberos libri duo (Haarlem, 1817). See also Edmund van der Straeten, La Musique aux Pays-Bas, vol. ii. p. 349.

[11] See The Seven Seas, a dictionary and grammar of the Persian language, by Ghazi ud-din Haidar, king of Oudh, in seven parts (Lucknow, 1822) (only the title of the book is in English). A review of this book in German with copious quotations by von Hammer-Purgstall is published in Jahrbücher der Literatur (Vienna, 1826), Bd. 35 and 36; names of musical instruments, Bd. 36, p. 292 et seq. See also R. G. Kiesewetter, Die Musik der Araber, nach Originalquellen dargestellt (Leipzig, 1843, p. 91, classification of instruments).

[12] The Seven Seas, part i. p. 153; Jahrb. d. Literatur, Bd. 36, p. 294.

[13] Fr. Rückert, Grammatik, Poetik und Rhetorik der Perser, nach dem 7ten Bde. des Hefts Kolzum (Gotha, 1874), p. 80.