Secession of the Flute Players (311 BC)

There have been many famous secessions in Ancient Rome (the multiple secessions of the plebeians immediately springs to mind).

However, until recently reading a passage in Livy (9.30.5-10), I was unaware of another potentially damaging secession, that of the flute players!

Importance of flute players in Ancient Rome

In Livy’s account of the secession, the opening line reveals the importance of flute players in ancient Rome:

I would have passed over an incident of the same year as being hardly worthy of mention, had it not seemed to concern religion (Livy, History of Rome 9.30.5).

Livy indicates that the flute players had a significant role within religion. These cult practices have been previously defined as traditional, formulaic and the foundation of the state.

Pliny the Elder reveals the extent of the formulaic nature of cult practice and the role of the flautist (flute-player):

We also notice that our highest magistrates have adopted set prayers, and, so that no word is omitted or spoken in the wrong place, one attendant reads the prayer from a written text, another is assigned to check it, and a third is put in charge to ensure silence, while a flautist plays so only the prayer can be heard (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 28.11).

Therefore, the role of the flute player was to drown out any ill-omened noises so that the prayer can be performed correctly. An important role when trying to appease the gods.

The timing is also extremely important due to the Etruscans in the north and the second Samnite war coming to conclusion.

Reasons for the Secession

The flute-players seceded to Tibur (modern Tivoli) in 311 BC as a result of the censors forbidding them to hold feasts in the temple of Jupiter as per ancient custom. There is some debate here though, Ovid records a different reason as a numerical limit being imposed on musicians performing at a funeral.

Regardless, like modern trade unions, the flute players knew their worth and waited for the delegation from the Senate to arrive to begin negotiations.

Reconciliations by the Senate

The Senate had been unable to persuade the flute players through the normal recourse of duty (Livy is unclear here but we can assume that ‘duty’ was the approach taken).

The Senate then resolved to take a different approach and what is extremely amusing is that even 2300 years ago, artists had a reputation for alcoholism and revelry.

they handled them with a measure not inappropriate to their natural dispositions (Livy, History of Rome 9.30.7).

The flute players were invited to a party and given wine until they passed out drunk. They were then placed in a cart while still asleep and taken back to Rome.

When the musicians awoke, they were implored to stay in the city and resume their duties. In return, they were given a three day period each year in which they could wander the city in festive dress and enjoy the licence that comes with being a musician. Furthermore, they were once again permitted to hold feasts in the temple of Jupiter.

A victory for the worker and a confirmation of the true nature of musicians 😀

About the author

For the past two decades, Scott McCulloch has worked with a variety of distributed computing technologies. He is currently focused on cloud-native applications.