Tibicines, professional flute-players, held an awkward position within the society of Republican Rome.
On the one hand, they were admired for their skills and regarded as quintessential for maintaining the sacred order of the state. Unsurprisingly, due to their quintessential role in many central aspects of religious and cultic life, they enjoyed many privileges, several of them introduced as early as the Roman Kingdom.
On the other hand, like most artists, they held little actual influence, and they were an easy target for ridicule, not least due to their presence at holidays, feasts, and celebrations on occasion of which copious amounts of alcohol were consumed.
In 311 B. C., however, as the Roman historian Livy reports, the following, remarkable incident occurred (Liv. 9.30.5):
I should omit, as an incident hardly worth narrating, a little thing that happened in that same year, but that it seemed to concern religion. The flute-players, angry at having been forbidden by the last censors to hold their feast, according to old custom, in the temple of Jupiter, went off to Tibur in a body, so that there was no one in the City to pipe at sacrifices.
The flute-players’ established right to feast in the temple of Jupiter appears to have dated back to Rome’s legendary second king, Numa Pompilius, as Plutarch reports in his Quaestiones Romanae on the same incident (ch. 55):
This sort of men (as it seems) had great privileges accruing to them from the grant of King Numa, by reason of his godly devotion; which things afterward being taken from them when the Decemviri managed the government, they forsook the city.
Whether it was the censors (as Livy says) or the Decemviri (as Plutarch claims) who chose to interfere with what the flute-players regarded as their sacred entitlement, we cannot know. In fact, Ovid gives yet third version of the story in his work Fasti (6.657–664):
In the times of your ancestors of yore the flute-player was much employed and was always held in great honour. The flute played in temples, it played at games, it played at mournful funerals. The labour was sweetened by its reward; but a time followed which of a sudden broke the practice of the pleasing art. Moreover, the aedile had ordered that the musicians who accompanied funeral processions should be ten, no more.
Whatever may have happened, the flute-players clearly felt that they were confronted with a withdrawal of long-enjoyed privileges and potentially a significant threat to their livelihoods. Consequently, they chose to withdraw to Tibur (Tivoli) and to go on an indefinite strike – after all, why should one show gratefulness, or even tolerance, in a situation in which such proposals are made, when there is no apparent need for such measures other than the desire of a few (usually significantly better-off) leaders to present themselves in a certain light?
The strike of the flute-players, to the mind of the Romans anyway, was a very dangerous situation indeed. It posed a supreme threat the sacred order and therefore the well-being of the city of Rome herself.
Livy continues his report (9.30.6–10):
Troubled by the religious aspect of the case, the senate dispatched representatives to the Tiburtines, requesting them to use their best endeavours to restore these men to Rome. The Tiburtines courteously undertook to do so; and sending for the pipers to their senate-house, urged them to return.
When they found it impossible to persuade them, they employed a ruse, not ill-adapted to the nature of the men. On a holiday various citizens invited parties of the pipers to their houses, on the pretext of celebrating the feast with music. There they plied them with wine, which people of that profession are generally greedy of, until they got them stupefied. In this condition they threw them, fast asleep, into waggons and carried them away to Rome; nor did the pipers perceive what had taken place until daylight found them – still suffering from the debauch – in the waggons, which had been left standing in the Forum.
The people then flocked about them and prevailed with them to remain. They were permitted on three days in every year to roam the City in festal robes, making music and enjoying the licence that is now customary, and to such as should play at sacrifices was given again the privilege of banqueting in the temple.
These incidents occurred while men were preoccupied with two mighty wars.
One can almost feel from this just how intense the situation must have been when the flute-players faced the people whom they had deserted in anger, with an acute need to make a decision – to carry on striking, or to do what was expected of them for the common good (and what they, of course, enjoyed).
Ovid’s version of this stand-off, as well as the events that led up to it, is even more intense (Fasti 6.669–692):
At Tibur there was a certain man who had been a slave, but had long been free, a man worthy of any rank. In his country place he made ready a banquet and invited the tuneful throng; they gathered to the festal board. It was night, and their eyes and heads swam with wine, when a messenger arrived with a made-up tale, and thus he spoke (to the freedman): ‘Break up the banquet without delay, for see here comes the master of thy rod!’ Immediately the guests bestirred their limbs, reeling with heady wine; their shaky legs or stood or slipped. But the master of the house, ‘Off with you all!’ says he, and when they dawdled he packed them in a wain that was well lined with rushes. The time, the motion, and the wine allured to slumber, and the tipsy crew fancied that they were on their way back to Tibur. And now the wain had entered the city of Rome by the Esquiline, and at morn it stood in the middle of the Forum. In order to deceive the Senate as to their persons and their number, Plautius commanded that their faces should be covered with masks; and he mingled others with them and ordered them to wear long garments, to the end that women flute-players might be added to the band. In that way he thought that the return of the exiles could be best concealed, lest they should be censured for having come back against the orders of their guild. The plan was approved, and now they are allowed to wear their new garb on the Ides and to sing merry words to the old tunes.
Prima facie Ovid seems to provide a rationale for the use of peculiar garments worn in his own times. But in doing so, he offers much deeper insights into the dynamics of such strikes. With a powerful collegium (‘guild’), and thus essentially the ancient equivalent of a modern-day trade union, in the background, and the need to escape the blame of being traitors to the cause (or ‘scabs’, as one would call it now), individuals still need to make difficult, personal choices – weighing up their own interests against the common good.
Ovid (and other authors) suggest that the flute-players, in response to the booze-fuelled trap into which they fell, came up with a cunning plan that allowed the strikers to preserve face when finding their way back into the society from which they chose to withdraw in response to the shabby treatment that they had received.
Yet, and this is also clear from Ovid, and even more so from Livy’s account: the harsh, collaborative, action was a successful response to an act of profound injustice – a threat to established rights – and repeated acts of disrespectful behaviour towards their profession, which, though easily ridiculed for its faults, played a central role in its society.
At the beginning of his report, Livy suggests that the story as such would not be especially worth mentioning at all, if it were not for its religious implications.
Livy’s final statement, however, reveals another aspect to it: haec inter duorum ingentium bellorum curam gerebantur, ‘these incidents occurred while men were preoccupied with two mighty wars’.
In other words, this was a completely needless (and ultimately futile and costly) conflict, caused for no good reason, that distracted much energy from the much bigger challenges that one should have focused on instead – collectively.
To gain collective support against much bigger challenges, of course, requires leaders who are not just looking after their own benefits and economic gain for only a few at the expense of the many. It requires leaders who, beyond cheap lip service and meaningless rhetoric, value the contributions of those on whose labour the general prosperity of our society rests, leaders who honour contracts and established rights, and leaders who are prepared to defend the dignity of those whom they were appointed to serve.