Whistling in antiquity
CITATION: Van Stekelenburg, A. V. 2000. Whistling in antiquity. Akroterion, 45:65-74, doi:10.7445/45-0-164.
The original publication is available at http://akroterion.journals.ac.za/
Plocamus, one of the guests at Trimalchio’s dinner-party, when encouraged by his host to give proof of his histrionic and musical talents, is only too keen to oblige: oppositaque ad os manu nescio quid taetrum exsibilavit quod postea Graecum esse affirmabat (“and he put his hand to his mouth and whistled out some terrible stuff I couldn’t identify. Afterwards he told us it was a Greek air”; transl. Lindsay 1960). If we were to pose ourselves the question whether antiquity knew the phenomenon of people whistling tunes, this episode from Petronius’ Satyricon (64.5) seems to provide us with an affirmative answer. Unfortunately, however, though most translators take exsibilavit here to mean “whistled”, it is also possible that the verb is used by Petronius in a metaphorical sense, as it is by others (Seneca De Ira 3.4), to describe a squeaky voice. And this possibility dashes our hope of ever finding an answer to the question whether Greeks and Romans did whistle tunes, because this episode in Petronius is the only one that seemed to hold a promise of providing us with a positive answer. It must be added, though, that such an answer would here in any case not be satisfying. Plocamus would have been doing what Hesychius calls αὐλωλάζειν: τό συρίττειν διὰ τῶν δακτύλων (“whistling through the fingers”) i.e. imitating the sound of a flute (αὐλός) while using one’s fingers as a substitute for an instrument. This is a different way of whistling from that which one practices purely with the lips, which is the kind of whistling in which we are interested here.