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The Roman Cornu: history and sound of a military horn

sound and history of the roman cornu
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

Table of Contents

Shape of the instrument

In this article I’m going to take you back in time to learn more about the Roman cornu, a horn belonging to the brass group of the instruments used in the ancient Rome.

As you will notice from the picture below, there were no holes or valves in the roman cornu which means that players could change the notes only through the regulation of the air flow.

The bell is quite small and the tube is roughly 3 meter long.

A good reproduction of the Roman cornu can be found at MET museum: it is a 19th century replica of the horn of Pompeii, donated to the Museum by the renown instrument collector Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown:

facsimile of the cornu found at Pompeii
Fac simile of a Roman cornu found at Pompeii, Public domain

A more complete replica of the Roman cornu from Pompeii can be seen on the website of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

cornu from pompeii, replica from the Museum of fine arts, Boston
Public domain

As you can see from the picture, the instrument was braced with a turned wooden rod that supported the instrument’s weight on the player’s shoulder.

 

Sound of a Roman cornu

The sound of a Roman cornu is produced by the vibrations of the lips, a procedure that generates a buzzing sound quite similar to that made by a french horn’s player.

Once the cornicen (that’s how a cornu player was called) creates the vibration, it hits the mouthpiece and then moves along the g shaped curved body of the instrument.

In terms of sound, a roman cornu can generate some really powerful, exciting and even scary moments, a blasting wall of vibrations that perfectly justified its use within Roman armies.

In this video you can hear Abraham Cupeiro experiment with the sound of a perfect replica of the cornu of Pompeii:

 

Iconographic sources

There are many iconographic sources for studying the Roman cornu and its contexts of use.

Among all these, the most important ones are:

• the Zilten mosaic
• the Nennig mosaic
• the Trajan’s column

The Zilten mosaic is located in Lybia and dates back to the 2nd century AD.

As you can see from the picture below, the mosaic shows a musical ensemble consisting of a series of musicians playing a Roman tuba, a water organ (hydraulis), and a pair of cornua:

detail of the zilten mosaic depicting a cornu player
Public domain, via Wikimedia commons

The group of players was involved in the musical accompaniment of a gladiatorial contest.

Moving to the mosaic found in the Roman villa at Nennig (Germany), we can see another association between the cornu and the world of gladiatorial games.

Here the sound of the roman cornu is supported by the hydraulis:

nennig mosaic depicting a cornu player and a hydraulis
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The last example comes from the Trajan’s column.

As you can see from this cast of Trajan’s column housed in the Victoria and Albert museum of London, the cornu players are depicted while marching with the army:

cornu players from the Trajan's column
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Cornicen: the soldier musician

The cornu player was called by the Romans cornicen and played a key role in the correct and efficient management of the army.

His function was primarily to produce a series of sonic signals rather than complex melodic phrases and comprised short, loud and powerful military motifs used to impart orders on the battle field.

In addition to that, his job was to signal salutes to officers.

Being part of the army, the cornicen was a soldier himself that stood close to the Sergent and marched at the head of the legion.

His wage was twice as big as that of the other ordinary soldiers.

The best way to deepen the function of instrumental music in ancient Roman army is through Vegetius‘ book, De Re Military.

 

The Roman cornu in action: some interesting videos from Youtube

Youtube is a golden mine of inspiring examples that can help you get an idea of how a Roman cornu might sound like.

Let’s start with a video where you can see and hear the cornu playing in the context of a fictional Roman army.

This footage is not much useful to get a philological reconstruction of the pieces of music and signals produced by the cornicen for his fellow soldiers.

However, it proves how this kind of horn is still played during thematic meetings organized by groups of people passionate about the ancient world of Roman legions and their soundscapes.

 

 

This next video has been recorded during a concert of Musica Romana, a German ensemble of scholars and musicians specialized in researching and performing the music from the ancient Rome.

Here you can see the cornicen playing with the accompaniment of the hydraulis, a peculiar kind of hidraulic organ.

Again, the pieces of music performed in the video have nothing to do with the original military repertory played by the cornicen.

 

 

Where to buy a cornu online

Given the fact that certain groups of people love to organize public events and gigs inspired by the ancient Roman civilization, it should not surprise you to know that it is not that difficult to buy a cornu online.

Nowadays, finding a roman cornu for sale has become quite easy thanks to the original work of a group of instrument makers and artisans.

Here’s a list of some of the websites that allow their visitors to purchase a Roman horn with prices starting at 150 $:

Medieval Shop
Medieval Arms
I Love Swords
Wulflund
Celticwebmerchant

 

Suggested readings

Richmond, I. A. “Trajan’s Army on Trajan’s Column.” Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 13, 1935, pp. 1–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40310440. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

Meucci, Renato. “Roman Military Instruments and the Lituus.” The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 42, 1989, pp. 85–97. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/842625. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.

Alexandrescu, Cristina-Georgeta. “The Iconography of Wind Instruments in Ancient Rome: Cornu, Bucina, Tuba, and Lituus.” Music in Art, vol. 32, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 33–46. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41818803. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.

Pelosi, C. & Agresti, Giorgia & Holmes, P. & Ervas, A. & De Angeli, Stefano & Santamaria, Ulderico. (2016). An x-ray fluorescence investigation of ancient roman musical instruments and replica production under the aegis of the European Music Archaeological Project. International Journal of Conservation Science. 7. 847.

Cross, Rodney. (2014). Bold as brass: ‘brass instruments’ in the Roman army. Macquarie Matrix: Undergraduate Research Journal 1839-5163. 4. 1-18.

 

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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