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Did Romans use whistles on the battlefield?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman whistle
Ancient roman whistle, dated to the 1st-3rd century CE | Appels & Laycock, Roman Buckles & Military Fittings

In the teritory, which was once under the rule of the Roman Empire, scientists find many interesting objects. Among them are whistles. But the question is whether the whistles, apart from everyday life, were also used in the Roman army, including during warfare?

In the HBO TV series “Rome” – in one of the initial scenes, we are shown a clash of Roman forces in the middle of the first century BCE. The creators of the series decided to reproduce how it could look like issuing orders, moving troops and withdrawing the first line, so that soldiers with fresh forces can the fight. In the series we see how the centurion commands its unit with the help of a whistle.

It should be noted, however, that we do not have any information in ancient sources saying that Roman centurions or other military officers were issuing orders with whistles. Such version of events is still discussed among scientists, but with no clear conclusions. What’s more, none of the found whistles was located strictly in the Roman fortifications, which would suggest its use for war or training activities.

When searching for materials, I did not find any reliable information supporting the use of whistles in legions. For this reason, I believe that during battle Romans used banners / flags or instruments. From the instruments most known and associated with military life were trumpets (tuba) and signal horns (1. cornu used by a soldier cornicen; or 2. buccina used by bucinatora).

On long distances, for example between forts, messages were transferred through light signs – using campfire on the hills.

  • Military Signaling, "The Romans in britain"
  • Roman Army Talk

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