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Martem Accendere Cantu: Trumpets and Bloodlust in Hellenistic Aesthetics

Spencer Klavan

University of Oxford

This paper argues that the military trumpet occupies a liminal space in Hellenistic aesthetics between musical instrument and disciplinary tool. It is thus an important test case for the relationship between melodic sound and the human soul. Does the trumpet’s wordless melody have an inherent power to stir our emotions, as the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon believed? Or is it simply a conventional symbol designated to communicate strategic directives, as claimed by the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara? The war trumpet gives each critic an opportunity to make his case.

In what survives from Philodemus’ On Music, the use of the trumpet (σάλπιγξ) as a call to arms becomes a point of vigorous theoretical contention. Diogenes asserts that the trumpet’s blast can rouse a soldier’s lust for battle (θυμός), but Philodemus denies that musical sound can affect its listener’s emotional disposition. The trumpet, says Philodemus, is actually a sign based on preexisting agreement (σημεῖον ἐξ ὑπολήψεως) just like a battle cry. This is how it ‘rouses desperate courage in the face of dangers’ (ἐγείρεται παρά[σ]τ̣ημα πρὸ[ς τοὺ]ς κινδύνους, Phld. Mus. 4.lxviii.33-lxix.12 Delattre, cf. xxxix.35-44).

This disagreement typifies a central dispute between the two critics. Diogenes appropriates, with modifications, Damon of Oa’s ἦθος theory as interpreted by Plato (see Wallace; Lynch; Woodward; Barker; Scade). For the Stoic, musical sound irresistibly transforms its listener’s emotional state (and thereby his actions and habits) via the kinship between melody and soul (see especially Phld. Mus. 4.xiv.3-23). Philodemus retorts that music is naked sensory stimulation, incapable of representing or conveying anything besides the mere fact of its sound. Thus melody cannot influence our actions, which are only affected rationally via the noetic content encoded in language (see Phld. Mus. 4.xci.36-xcii.9, cxii.33-42, cxv.26-cxvi.15, cxliii.27-39; cf. Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus 75.6-76.7 with Mackey). So if the trumpet blast rouses soldiers to war, it must be a kind of quasi-word endowed by members of a community (in this case, an army) with a semiotic value identical to that of the cry, ‘charge!’

Why are military trumpets the flash point for this argument? The question has not often been raised. Delattre (2001, 2007), Porter (1995, 2001, 2010), Janko (2000, 2010), and Asmis (1992, 1995) have ably explored the back-and-forth between sound’s psychagogic power for Diogenes and its utter meaninglessness for Philodemus (see also, but with caution, Bartol). Anderson examines evidence from Xenophon for the precise significance affixed to trumpet calls in Greek armies (cf. Th. 6.32.1). Delattre (2004) argues further that Vergil, who knew Philodemus, leaves open the possibility that the trumpet really is a disciplinary signal rather than an emotional stimulant. What has not been noticed is that this ambiguity was possible for Vergil precisely because the trumpet in wartime straddles the boundary between musical instrument and communications device. My paper examines this fact and its significance for Philodemus and Diogenes.

Unlike instrumental compositions used to motivate manual laborers, trumpet calls convey definite communicative content whose meaning is only minimally open to interpretation. Philodemus can dismiss the songs which galvanize workers as pure sensory pleasure which mitigates the pain of physical exertion (see Phld. Mus. 4.cxxii.2-36; Ferguson; Borthwick). Trumpets, though, seem to furnish clear proof of Diogenes’ thesis that melody impels emotion and action. But Philodemus can counter this argument by noting that what a trumpeter plays in the heat of battle is hardly a melody at all. It is, rather, a repetitive series of notes with an assigned significance. The trumpet’s sound is not a stirring melody but a conventional utterance, semantically endowed with cognitive meaning. In Philodemus’ and Diogenes’ hands, then, the trumpet touches off a debate not only about how sound affects the soul, but about what counts as music.

Session/Panel Title

The Sounds of War

Session/Paper Number


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