The Nightmare of the Roman Soldiers “Carnyx”

The Carnyx was a brass musical instrument used as a psychological weapon of war by the ancient Celts between 300 BC and 200AD  in western and central Europe and beyond.

The carnyx was once widespread throughout much of Europe, although only a dozen or so fragments are known to us.

It was carried by bands of Celtic mercenaries; it was present at the attack on the Greek sanctuary at Delphi in 279 BC; it defied Julius Caesar in Gaul; and it faced Claudius when he invaded Britain. They are even shown on a Buddhist sculpture in India, proof of the far-flung connections of the Iron Age world.

However, they were not only used by the Celts; they were also used by the Dacians in modern Romania. The term “Celtic” is a complicated one. The concept of a pan-European Celtic culture is a myth; rather, aspects of art and technology were shared across vast distances by diverse cultures. The carnyx was one example of this.

A 12-foot-long, thin bronze tube with right-angle bends on both ends made up the carnyx. The lower end ended in a mouthpiece, and the upper end flared out into a bell that was usually decorated to look like a wild boar’s had. Historians believe it had a tongue that flapped up and down, increasing the noise made by the instrument. The carnyx was played upright so that the boar’s head bell protruded well above the warriors’ heads. Its primary goal was to create more noise and confusion on the battlefield.

Three carnyx players depicted on plate E of the Gundestrup cauldron. Photo: Wikipedia
Three carnyx players depicted on plate E of the Gundestrup cauldron. Photo: Wikipedia

The Greek historian Polybius (206-126BC) was so impressed by the clamor of the Gallic army and the sound of the carnyx, he observed that “there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo”.

And the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus wrote, “Their trumpets are also of a peculiar and barbaric kind which produce a harsh, reverberating sound suitable to the confusion of battle.”

Archaeologists discovered a hoard of ritually destroyed weapons in 2004, including a dozen swords, scabbards, spearheads, a shield, bronze helmets, an iron helmet shaped like a swan, a cauldron, animal remains, and seven carnyces. Before the Tintignac discovery, the remains of only five actual carnyces had been found.

Tintignac Carnyx

The finest was unearthed in Deskford, Scotland in 1816. The Deskford carnyx only has the boar’s head bell and is missing the mane, tongue, and tubing. Images of Carnyx players have been found as well. A Roman denarius, dating from 48 BC bears a representation of a Carnyx. Three carnyx players are featured prominently on the Gundestrup Cauldron, which was found in a Danish peat bog.

One of the seven found at Tintignac, on the other hand, was almost entirely complete. The Tintignac Carnyx was broken into 40 pieces. When puzzled back together, it was found to be just an inch short of six feet long with a single missing section of the tube. The bell was a boar’s head with protruding tusks and large pointed ears. Once restored, the Tintignac Carnyx proved to be the first virtually complete carnyx ever found.

Cover Photo: Patrick Ernaux/Inrap

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