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Did Roman legionaries sing songs during march?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Life in the army has always been hard and required soldiers to have strong will, perseverance and physical strength. Long and demanding marches caused that the soldiers tried to diversify time in various ways, including singing. Did Roman legionaries do the same?

We do not have a large number of sources to confirm this. However, Suetonius in his biography of Caesar left us evidence that they songs in Roman legions were present. And so, during Caesar’s triumph in 46 BCE. veterans were mockingly sang (Suetonius clearly used the verb “sing”):

Caesar vanquished the Gauls, Nicomedes Caesar, Caesar who vanquished the Gauls now triumphs. Nicomedes does not triumph, who vanquished Caesar […]
(Gallias caesar subegit, nicomedes caesarem, ecce caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit gallias. Nicomedes non triumphat, qui subegit caesarem.)

Citizens, keep an eye on your wives, we’re bringing back the bald adulterer. He’s fucked away the gold in Gaul that you loaned him here in Rome. […]
(Urbani, servate uxores, moechum calvum adducimus. Aurum in gallia effutuisti, hic sumpsisti mutuum.)

Suetonius, Julius Caesar, 49, 51

Tłum z kolei innym razem śpiewał:

Caesar leads the Gauls in triumph, likewise into the Senate House. The Gauls have laid aside their trousers and put on the broad purple stripe.
(Gallos caesar in triumphum ducit, idem in curiam, galli bracas deposuerunt, latum clavum sumperunt.)

Suetonius, Julius Caesar, 80

We don’t really know how the words were sang. Few facts about the music or rhythm of the Romans have survived to our times. On the website of the reconstruction group “The Roman Military Research Society” we can find an interpretation of the account of the late Roman poet Prudentius in the work “Psychomachia”. According to this interpretation, the rhythm would be as follows:

  • one, two, three, four
  • five, six, seven, eight
  • nine, ten, eleven, twelve
  • one, two, three

We know that music was part of everyday life, and some musicians in Rome enjoyed great popularity. However, taking into account the unique technological development of the Roman army and professional approach, in my opinion it cannot be crossed out that Roman legionaries would not sing during the march. Directors of the movie “Ben Hur” from 2016 presented an interesting performance:

The filmmakers used here the method of singing known among others in the US Army, where ranks respond to the call of an officer. You cannot say that it does not sound impressive.

In addition, it should be mentioned that musical instruments were used in the Roman army. Of the instruments, the best known and associated with military life were trumpets and signal horns, in particular the bronze or wood tube, stuck with leather. On the bronze tube music was played at the victory, on the wooden tuba in turn during the retreat. Also known were horns (cornu) in bronze, bent in a semicircle, lituus in the shape of the letter “J” and buccina (bucina).

Sources

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