The Carnyx’s Eerie Cry Struck Fear Into Soldiers On Antiquity’s Battlefields

Throughout history, from ancient times to more modern conflicts, intimidating the enemy through aggressive noises and sounds has played an important part of warfare. During the Iron Age and Greek/Roman periods, a specific instrument was used to make the loudest, and most fear-inducing sounds possible — the carnyx. 

These valveless, trumpet-like instruments were colossal — standing as tall, or even taller, than the people who played them. Made of beaten metal in a distinctive ‘ſ’ shape, the carnyx featured a long central tube section, allowing for low bass and shrieking high notes to be created, with a mouthpiece for blowing at one end. Typically, they had an ornately crafted horn at the top end sculpted into the shape of an animal’s head — often in the style of a boar, symbolizing the harsh, guttural sounds produced. 

Although the word ‘carnyx’ is used to describe these objects in the present, that particular phrase was rarely used in historical texts in reference to them. Instead, they were usually referred to by the Greek or Latin words salpinx and tuba, meaning ‘trumpet.’ It’s through Greek and Roman texts that we know the most about them.

Textual references, as well as archeological discoveries, indicate the carnyx was used widely throughout western and central Europe between 300 BC and 200 AD, with the instrument having a particular affinity within various Celtic tribes. However, it should be noted that they were used further afield too, with representations of the carnyx having been discovered within Buddhist sculptures in India from the period. The carnyx was clearly seen, and heard, far and wide as Celtic mercenaries expanded the outer reach of Iron Age society.  

Carnyx replica being played by a historical reenactor. National Museums of Scotland

It was through their interactions with Iron Age contemporaries on the battlefield that exposed Greek and Roman soldiers to the disturbing sounds of the carnyx. According to the Greek historian Polybius (206-126 BC), for example, the cacophony of sounds produced by Gallic forces using carnyces was truly terrifying:

“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.”

Illustration of a Gaul playing the carnyx. Unknown author

The Roman historian Diodorus Siculus similarly describes the trumpets of a “peculiar barbarian kind” used by Western European tribes. “They blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war.”

The carnyx wasn’t just used to intimidate the enemy. It also served an important command and control function. With many Celtic tribes relying primarily on infantry in battle, the loud sounds produced by the instruments would signal the start of swift, violent assaults, where timing was critical.

It was the association of the carnyx with barbarian tribes of Iron Age Britain and Gaul — encompassing modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy — that led the Romans to use its image to project military power and might. Roman monuments and tombstones often depict carnyces, using their image to symbolize military victory. They can be seen on Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, which commemorates Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars.

Carnyces and other Dacian weaponry on the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome. Ursulbrun via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0
Carnyx highlighted in red. Ursulbrun via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Archeologists have also uncovered Roman coinage commemorating past military victories over tribal opposition which feature the instruments as trophies from successful campaigns.

Roman coin depicting two carnyces. Unknown author

Gaulish coinage also shows the instruments in relation to warfare, too. The example below shows a warrior holding a carnyx and a board standard.

Copyright: © National Museums of Scotland

Physical remains of the instruments are far rarer than their description in text or their visual depiction on coins, however; with very few of them having survived and been discovered by archeologists. Up until the early 2000s, fragments of only five carnyces had been unearthed across Western Europe.

In 1816, the bell of the Deskford carnyx was discovered in Banffshire, north-east Scotland, which can be seen below. Crafted from sheet bronze and brass, the horn section of the instrument was specifically crafted to resemble a wild boar’s head with an upturned snout.

Deskford carnyx. Copyright: © National Museums of Scotland
Illustration of the Deskford carnyx, 1868. John Alexander Smith

As National Museums Scotland highlights, the use of sheets of bronze and brass not only points to regional variations in how these instruments were made, but also allows them to be dated. As brass isn’t native to Scotland — the material used to make it represents recycled Roman metal — it allows it to be dated to around AD 80 and 250 for its construction.

Other archeological carnyx remains have been found since the nineteenth century. In 2004, for example, carnyx fragments were discovered in Tintignac, located in France’s Corrèze region, along with a host of other objects including swords, spearheads, and helmets. Significantly, one carnyx discovered there — featuring a boar’s head — was found almost completely intact, which can be seen below.

Largely inytact Tintignac carnyx. Claude Valette via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Of course, exactly how these instruments would have sounded to contemporaries remains unclear given that even the best-preserved Tintignac carnyx is unplayable. Modern-day replicas fashioned on those that have been found have been used to get a sense of the tones achievable when playing them.

Both the Tintignac and Deskford carnyces have been ornately replicated. The Tintignac replica project was driven by musician John Kenny — co-founder of Carnyx & Co. and a central figure within the European Music Archaeology Project  — and was constructed entirely by hand in beaten bronze by Jean Boisserie.

Tintignac carnyx replica. European Music Archeology Project

The Deskford replica project was masterminded by Dr John Purser and constructed by craftsman John Creed

Deskford carnyx replica. dun_deagh via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

These replicas have revealed that the instruments are actually capable of far greater tonal ranges than one might assume from their design. In the video below, for example, John Kenny can be seen playing the Deskford carnyx replica, which is capable of a range of sounds similar to that of a trumpet.

Other musical recordings produced by Kenny with the Tintignac carnyx can also be heard in the videos below.

In the case of both replicas, Kenny has described how playing the instruments upright is almost impossible; requiring them to be positioned at an angle by the player. However, other replicas have been seen played vertically.

That these replicas are capable of a greater and more subtle range of sound indicates that they may have had other uses within Iron Age society outside the context of war. Remnants of these instruments found in Deskford, Tintignac, Kappel (in Switzerland), and Sặluştan (in Romania) were all ritually discarded as part of burial ceremonies. This suggests that they may have had religious or even superstitious connotations and, in turn, could have been played differently in certain settings than on the battlefield. 

Other forms of British and Gaelic art from the broad time period which the instruments were played, such as the Gundestrup Cauldron, a lavishly decorated silver vessel dating from the early Iron Age, depicts three carnyx players as part of some form of ritualistic/religious scene.

Carnyx players depicted on the cauldron found at Gundestrup, Himmerland, Jutland, Denmark. Bloodofox via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Today the carnyx’s eerie call has made its way into more popular culture, including in the scores and battle scenes of blockbuster movies.

The carnyx was seen and heard in the audio mix in the opening battle of Gladiator. Dreamworks/Screencap

Of course, the use of loud and intimidating noises to frighten and dominate opponents has been used in more recent conflicts; albeit with the aid of modern technology. The U.S. military, for example, is well known for its use of strange noises — including blasting crying sounds, recording of troops pretending to retreat, and other confusing audio — through a mix of different sound equipment. You can delve more deeply into all that in these past War Zone pieces.

While the carnyx symbolizes a particular period of history, how and why it was used on the battlefield connects with a timeless aspect of warfare.

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Oliver Parken Avatar

Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent's Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone's military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.