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March 23 – The Tubilustrium: Hear the Trumpet’s Call

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Roman soldiers marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

March 23 was the date for an ancient Roman festival called the Tubilustrium. This was a day of important social and military significance, because it was the mustering day for the Roman Army, and was the official beginning of the military campaigning season.

As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, “The Tubilustrium ‘Purification of the Trumpets’ is named from the fact that on this day the tubae ‘trumpets’ used in the ceremonies lustrantur ‘are purified’ in Shoemaker’s Hall” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189).

The tuba (plural tubae) was the name that the Romans gave to what was a long straight thin tube made of brass with a small mouthpiece and a flared muzzle, similar to the stereotypical cartoon images that we have of a Pilgrim’s musket. (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

The trumpets that were sanctified on March 23 weren’t just any old trumpets. It appears that these were specifically used only for religious rituals. They are referred to as tubicines sacrorum, “sacred trumpets”, and would have been used by the priests for many religious purposes. They were often played to initiate games and were played during parades, funerals, and sacrifices (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

There were, apparently, three Tubilustria festivals, not one. One took place on either March 22 or 23 (of the two, March 23 is the more common date that’s given), another took place on May 23 (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23), and yet another on June 11. However, I must state that aside from one mention by one modern source, I have not seen any mention of such a ritual occurring on June 11, so this might be an error (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209).

In an earlier post, I described how the Feast of Minerva on March 19 initiated a five-day celebration known as the Quinquatria, meaning “the Festival of Five Days”, which lasted from March 19 to 23. Legend says that it was clever Minerva who invented the war trumpet, hence this festival took place on the last day of the Quinquatria. In reference to the ritual that took place on March 23, which was the last day of the Quinquatria, Ovid states “The last day of the five [days] exhorts us to purify the tuneful trumpets, and sacrifice to the mighty god [Mars]”. The purification ritual took place at the Atrium Sutorum, “Hall of the Shoe-Makers”, and the trumpets were made pure with the sacrifice of a lamb (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 23; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 129; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 64).

Concerning the festival held on May 23, Ovid states, “The next dawn belongs to Vulcan: they call it Tubilustria: when trumpets he makes are purified” (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23). Henry Riley, who translated Ovid’s works during the 19th Century, stated that the Tubilustria were held in honor of the gods Mars and Vulcan, because it was crafty Vulcan who created the weapons of war upon his heavenly forge, and it was war-like Mars who put them to use in battle. Concerning the gods that were worshiped or honored at these festivals, it appears that the first Tubilustrium in late March was dedicated to Mars while the second festival in late May was dedicated to Vulcan; why this distinction existed isn’t clear (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

March 23 and May 23 were necessary for purifying the religious trumpets because on the following days (March 24 and May 24 respectively) the Comitia Curiata met to sanction wills (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 63).

As I mentioned earlier, these trumpets weren’t only used for religious reasons. Trumpets also had important military functions, usually for issuing commands upon the battlefield. Also, at the beginning of every campaign season, the troops were called to the assembly area by a blast of the trumpet or tuba in Latin. For this reason, March 23 marks the beginning of the year’s offensive. Upon their assembly into ranks, the army’s herald yelled out three times to the men assembled “Are you ready for war?”, and in response three times, the men answered that they were (The Roman War Machine, episode 1; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”).

March is the month of Mars, god of war. The battle trumpet calls men to their ranks. The army is assembled, the men stand armed and ready. The herald calls to them “Sons of Mars, are you ready for war?!”, and from their mouth come the thunderous roar “READY!!! READY!!! READY!!!”

As an added bonus, I discovered that there is a piece of classical music entitled “Tubilustria”, written by the Estonian composer René Eespere. Here is the link to listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHSxaLVZfF4.

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