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Seventeenth Annual Graduate Student Colloquium, Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday, March 23, 2011.

Light My Fire: And Overview, Typology, and Analysis of Erotic Roman Lamps | Dreaming of Amor: Ovid's Error in Epistulae ex Ponto 3.3 | Can you hear me now? Rome's Nocturnal Soundscape | Dueling Dreamers: Divine Dreams as Propaganda During the Second Punic War | A Light in the Dark: Redefining the Function of the Lighthouses in the Adriatic Sea During the Roman Age, in Light of the Archaeological Research | Counteracting Night's Song: Image, Sound, and Theology in Iliad 5 |

Can you hear me now? Rome's Nocturnal Soundscape

Jason Linn, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
 

         On a moonless night Hannibal ordered his elephants to break into a nearby Roman camp. Thereafter, his troops snuck into the camp, blaring their war-trumpets and speaking Latin, telling the awakened Romans to evacuate and occupy a hill, where Carthaginians waited in ambush. The Carthaginians needed no disguises to accomplish this stratagem. Instead, Hannibal had confidence that the sounds of trumpets and Latin would suffice to deceive Romans, who could only rely on sound to confirm the orders' authenticity.
         Darkness shifted the ratio of senses away from vision towards hearing. This paper examines the implications of this shift. Using literary references from the first century BC to late antiquity, I argue that Romans used nocturnal sounds to gauge morality, challenge authority, and ignite imagination. Combining these three theses, I conclude that nighttime amplified the emotional power of sounds.
         Romans gauged each other's morality by the sounds they made at night. The loud individuals lacked self-control, while the quiet were virtuous. Cicero, for instances, lambastes Verres' dinner parties for loudness. Roman literature abounds with revenge fantasies against snorers, whose snorts were attributed to gluttony. Nocturnal sounds could also be subversive. Germanicus' supporters woke up Tiberius by singing 'Rome is safe, our country safe, for our Germanicus is safe'. Some Romans loved to sing in the streets at night, which created an emotional zero-sum game: one's happiness became another's annoyance.
         Other nocturnal sounds ignited Roman imagination. Sometimes uncertain sounds scared people, but other times Romans attributed an unexplained sound to divinity. For example, in the middle of the final night of Ptolemaic Alexandria, inhabitants heard musical instruments and Bacchic revelry passing through the city. When it departed out of the gates, some attributed those strange sounds to Antony's god Dionysius abandoning him.