Why Does Juvenal Hate Trumpets?

Trumpet PlayerRoman satirist Juvenal was not one to pull his punches. He skewered Roman society, taking aim at his fellow Romans (and fellow non-Romans) in ways that are, to the modern reader, shocking and offensive. Read enough Juvenal and one quickly picks up his personal pet peeves: women, foreigners, and trumpets.

Trumpets? Yes, Trumpets.

Now, to me, this would be perfectly understandable if Juvenal simply hated the sound of trumpets. For example, I have a strong hate-on for “Jazz Flute” and flutes in rock music (looking at you Black Keys). Flutes are like nails on a chalkboard for me. I try to be open-minded, but I just can’t with the flutes.

Juvenal’s irritation isn’t quite the same as mine, but he certainly hates trumpets. Although he is frequently complaining about trumpets, his complaints mask a deeper concern: foreigners, and women and men who participate in “foreign” activities.

Let’s look at a few example passages to see exactly what Juvenal is up to.

He says the following with respect to women and the rites of Magna Mater:

Sed more sinistro exagitata procul non intrat femina limen: solis ara deae maribus patet. “Ite, profane,” clamatur, “nullo gemit hic tibicina cornu.”

But, according to their perverse custom, the woman who has disturbed their threshold is kept far away and cannot enter: The altar of the Goddess lies open for men only. “Go away, profane, woman!” is shouted, “No Trumpetess will make noise with her horn in this place!”

Juvenal, Satires 2.87-90 (Translation mine)

Juvenal seems to kill two birds with one stone here. First, he is offering a critique of the male priests of Magna Mater. These were foreign men who, to Juvenal, were excessively feminine and participated in strange rituals such as castration. Heads up: For an elite Roman male, castration was pretty much the worst thing you could ever do. So we have that dynamic going on.

But Juvenal also seems to be critiquing women, perhaps also followers of Magna Mater who were not allowed in the more sacred places which were permitted for her male priests to inhabit. We do know that the rituals of Magna Mater were very loud and musical events, and here we have indication that women played the trumpets in their celebrations. Whatever the situation, Juvenal does not approve.

Let’s look at another example:

Quadringenta dedit Gracchus sestertii dotem cornicini… O proceres, censore opus est an haruspice nobis?

Gracchus gave four hundred sesterce as a dowry to a horn-player…Oh Noble men! Do we have need of a censer or haruspex?

Juvenal Satires 2.117-121 (Translation Mine)

This passage critiques the marriage of a Roman woman to a horn player who is also a devotee of a foreign cult—he is later described as adopting feminine dress at the wedding. It is no surprise that Juvenal disparages his religious affiliations. While Juvenal is critiquing the corruption of Roman values by so-called new religions, it is clear that he is developing a handy short-hand for this sub-group of Roman society: They are often described as trumpet players.

One more. This time Juvenal is critiquing the state of Rome. In this passage, the city is described as overrun with foreigners by a man named Umbricius who intends to leave the city. This is what he says:

Cedamus patria. Vivant Artorius istic et Catulus, maneant qui nigrum in candida vertunt, quis facile est aedem conducere, flumina, portus, siccanden eluviem, portandum ad busta cadaver…these Quondam hi cornicines and municipalis harenae perpetui comites.

Let us leave the fatherland! Let Artorius and Catulus live in that place. Let the ones who turn black into white remain there, the one who is easily able to take on work at a temple, or at rivers and ports, who can dry up overflows of water, who are able to carry a corpse to the funeral pyres…At a former time, these men were horn players and the constant companions of the local arenas.

Juvenal Satires 3.29-35 (Translation mine)

Here Juvenal seems to say that Rome has become a place where only persons of low status should live. He signals this by listing a slew of jobs which would be unfit for a proper Roman and then demotes these individuals even further by saying that their original status was as entertainment in the arenas (gladiators, perhaps) and as carnival entertainers, aka trumpeters.

We can see that Juvenal not only dislikes foreigners (and Romans who act like foreigners), but that he connects them to the musical instrument of the trumpet. Juvenal does not seem to hate trumpets so much as he does the people who play trumpets—women, Romans corrupted by foreign ways, and foreigners. The trumpet becomes a shorthand way of signalling a whole host of ideas for Juvenal, including the state of Rome and, quite frankly, his raging xenophobia. Does Juvenal hate horns? Maybe. We can certainly say that his trumpet-rage signals the real target of his critiques.