Ancient cities were very noisy
We often develop our busy lives in an excessively noisy urban environment. The life and urban society, labor activity and some social customs and practices as hobby to large outdoor concerts, often produce excessive noise no according to health and peace of mind.
The noise is even considered as another contamination that litter the natural environment. Since a few years ago it is celebrated on April every year the International Noise Awareness Day. It was first celebrated in New York on April 24, 1996.
Spain has a sad second place, behind Japan, in the ranking of the noisiest countries.
Noise is measured in decibels (dB). WHO (World Health Organization) as a suitable top suggests a maximum of 50 dB outdoor, 70 dB for traffic or 100 dB for a concert.
We might think that this is a unique evil of modern times, but remember the famous verses of our Spanish immortal poet Fray Luis de León (1527-1591) in his Ode The Life Removed:
How tranquil is the life
Of him who, shunning the vain world’s uproar, …
Que descansada vida
La del que huye del mundanal ruido….
The ancient world was much less inhabited than ours, transportation of people and goods was much smaller, his life less hectic and work and industrial activity occurred with magnitudes without possible comparison with the present time. But ancient cities, of course Rome, were also very noisy.
The ancient testimonies on "rugitus" or noise and discomfort are numerous. Perhaps two of the most famous are an epigram of the Hispanic poet Martial (40-104)(born in Bilbilis near Calatayud) and also a letter from Hispanic Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) to his friend Lucilius.
Martial tells us that when he himsel feels sick and tired by the noise of the city (Rome) goes to his small farm in the countryside. Seneca also complains about the many noises that he must suffer because he lives just above the baths, but his inner self control allows him to ignore outside disturbance. I transcribes both documents below in Latin and Spanish, although the Seneca’s one can be a bit long, for not interrupt the story now.
Also another satirist, Juvenal, in his Saturae, III, 236-237 complaining about the noise that the cars produced at the crossroads of the streets of Rome:
For what sleep is possible in a lodging? Who but the wealthy get sleep in Rome? There lies the root of the disorder. The crossing of wagons in the narrow winding streets, the slanging of drovers when brought to a stand, would make sleep impossible for a Drusus or a sea-calf. (Translated by G. G. Ramsay]
Nam quae meritoria somnum admittunt? Magnis opibus formitur in urbe. Inde caput morbi, raedarum transitus arto vicorum in flexu et stantis convicia mandrae eripient somnum Druso vitulisque marinis.
(Note: Drusus, is the emperor famous for his deep sleep, some read in the text "urso" instead of "Drusus", bringing to bear the dream, long reputed to sleep deeply and snatch)
There was even a fledgling law on occasion, that some historian called protolaw with more technical term. Too early and curious it is the case of the city of Sybaris, a Greek colony in Italy, on the Gulf of Taranto, founded around 720 BC. The historical reality and popular fantasy have made Síbaris a steeped in luxury and pleasure city; Sybarite is the adjective that refers to its inhabitants, but the term came to refer to refined people of delicious tastes.
The ancients themselves and then some Renaissance put some reserve to things that were told about inhabitants of Sybaris people; we should put it well.
In any case, it is told about them how they banned around 600 BC perform inside the offices of blacksmiths, boilermakers and other noise producing for not disturb the rest of city residents; not even allowed in the city raising roosters, which have the strange habit of announcing the early arrival of the new day.
It is told, for example, by Atenaeus of Naukratis (II-III century AD. JC), in his book The Deipnosophistae, "Dinner-table philosophers" or "Authorities on banquets". He says it in XII 518 C-D:
And the Sybarites were the first people to forbid those who practice noisy arts from dwelling in their city; such as blacksmiths, and carpenters, and men of similar trades; providing that their slumbers should always be undisturbed. And it used to be unlawful to rear a cock in their city.
And Timaeus relates concerning them, that a citizen of Sybaris once going into the country, seeing the farmers digging, said that he himself felt as if he had broken his bones by the sight; and some one who heard him replied, "I, when I heard you say this, felt as if I had a pain in my side." (Translated by C.D.Yonge (1854)).
It is therefore surprising that in this context, the Sybarites are person who are devoted to luxury and pleasure. This would be the first case we have news of protolaw limiting noise in cities. But the effect that the noise of the hammer would result in the ears of blacksmiths or tinkers artisans, seems not to care to these comfort-loving.
In this sense, it is said that Pliny the Elder (23-79), the scientist who died precisely because of the eruption of Vesuvius that devastated Pompeii, in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia) refers to acoustic problems facing those living in the vicinity of the Falls of the Nile This was the first reference we have to the harmful effects of noise on hearing.
Hundreds, thousands books, articles, blogs, institutions, etc.. currently relate to auditory problems or environmental pollution, say that quote. All cited Pliny, but none gives the exact reference, the book and paragraph of the Natural History of Pliny in which this statement is made.
Yes I found what the naturalist says about Nile Falls in Naturalis Historia, 5,9,54 but this passage does not refer at all to the alleged widespread deafness of inhabitants.
Every now and then its course is interrupted by islands which intervene, and which only serve as so many incentives to add to the impetuosity of its torrent; and though at last it is hemmed in by mountains on either side, in no part is the tide more rapid and precipitate. Its waters then hastening onwards, it is borne along to the spot in the country of the Æthiopians which is known by the name of "Catadupi;" where, at the last Cataract, the complaint is, not that it flows, but that it rushes, with an immense noise between the rocks that lie in its way: after which it becomes more smooth, the violence of its waters is broken and subdued, and, wearied out as it were by the length of the distance it has travelled, it discharges itself, though by many mouths, into the Egyptian sea. During certain days of the year, however, the volume of its waters is greatly increased, and as it traverses the whole of Egypt, it inundates the earth, and, by so doing, greatly promotes its fertility. (John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.)
“subinde insulis impactus, totidem incitatus inritamentis, postremo inclusus montibus, nec aliunde torrentior, vectus aquis properantibus ad locum Aethiopum, qui Catadupi vocantur, novissimo catarracte inter occursantes scopulos non fluere inmenso fragore creditur, sed ruere. postea lenis et confractis aquis domitaque violentia, aliquid et spatio fessus, multis quamvis faucibus in Aegyptium mare se evomat, certis tamen diebus auctu magno per totam spatiatus Aegyptum fecundus innatat terrae”.
I suspect that Pliny did not state that the locals were deaf and that this is one of the so frequent misquotation. Strengthens my suspicion that in 1637 the book of Abbe Don Secondo Lancellotti "Farfalloni de gli antichi historici" (Nonsense of ancient historians) was published in Venice
He indicates as a second error to eradicate precisely the statement that "all people nex to the falls (cataracts) of the Nile were suffering from deafness by noise of the falls."He says:
The II nonsense:peoples inhabiting next to falls (cataracts) of the Nile are all deaf.
Ancient historians have achieved so much reputation among later than not only from Pythagorean, but most from them is almost enough "ipse dixit". This or that author has said this or that thing, therefore it is true and none more you look. And so their absurdities are admired, quoted and transcribed as great wonders.
Farfallone II Che que’ popoli, c’habitano appresso le Catadupe del Nilo sieno tutti sordi Acquistano gli Scrittori Antichi tanta riputatione appresso i posteri, e persevera in modo, che non solamente di Pittagora, ma della maggior parte d’essi, par quasi che basti l’ Ipse dixit. Ha detto questa o quella cosa questo o quell’Autore, dunque vera, non si cerchi più oltre. E cosí i loro FARFALLONI sono ammirati, citati, trascritti per marauiglie grandi.
Lancellotti does not made reference to this quote from Pliny but to the known from Cicero in the famous "Somnium Scipionis (Scipio's Dream) at the end of the work "De Republica". Cicero lived from 106 BCE 43 BCE, and therefore he is prior to Pliny.
Cicero speaking about sound produced by the movement of the spheres of heaven, says we can not hear us, because due to the frequency our ears have become deaf and the ear is the most rude and obtuse of all senses. And he cites to confirm that one of the people living along the Nile cataracts, which have lost their hearing due to the noise of the fall of the river. He says it in De Republica, 6, 19 (Somnium Scipionis):
But the ears of men are deafened by being filled with this melody; nor is there in you mortals a duller sense than that of hearing. As where the Nile at the Falls of Catadupa pours down from the loftiest mountains, the people who live hard by lack the sense of hearing because of the loudness of the cataract, (Translator: Andrew P. Peabody)
Hoc sonitu oppletae aures hominum obsurduerunt; nec est ullus hebetior sensus in vobis, sicut, ubi Nilus ad illa, quae Catadupa nominantur, praecipitat ex altissimis montibus, ea gens, quae illum locum adcolit, propter magnitudinem sonitus sensu audiendi caret.
The odd thing is that this alleged statement of Pliny on the deafness of the dwellers of the Nile Falls is quoted in dozens, hundreds, thousands of articles, blogs, web pages and even some doctoral thesis on noise or hearing problems .
Also the philosopher and naturalist Seneca (4 BC-65 d. C.) describes Nile Falls and emphasizes the deafening noise that forced a garrison to seek another location in Quaestiones Naturales, 4,2,5:
When at length it has struggled through the obstructions, suddenly deprived of support, it falls from a vast height with a roar that resounds through all the surrounding regions. The race planted in that savage place was indeed unable to endure the din ; their ears were deafened by the constant crash, and they were therefore removed from the settlement. (translated by John Clarke)
…tandemque eluctatus obstantia in uastam altitudinem subito destitutus cadit cum ingenti circumiacentium regionum strepitu. Quem perferre gens ibi a Persis collocata non potuit obtusis assiduo fragore auribus et ob hoc sedibus ad quietiora translatis.
Pliny himself in Natualis History, lib. VI, 35, 181 refers to the roar of the Nile falling by cataracts, which deprives hearing the inhabitants, but in no way does it in the terms in which the quote I am commenting is expressed. He says exactly:
This general took the following cities, … Atteva, and Stadasis, where the river Nile, as it thunders down the precipices, has quite deprived the in- habitants of the power of hearing: he also sacked the town of Napata.
is oppida expugnavit … Attenam, Stadissim, ubi Nilus praecipitans se fragore auditum accolis aufert. Diripuit et Napata.
We conclude that, indeed, in the ancient world, at least among the learned of the ancient world, there is a belief or at least quote the inhabitants of the regions of the cataracts of the Nile are deaf. This reference, repeated many times, is proof of the importance that excess annoying noise had for ancient ; exaggeration it self of belief, far from any logic, supports this concern. But this is quite another thing, repeat and to assume a quote which does not correspond to the reality.
Martial, Epigrams. Book 12, LVII
You ask why I so often go to my small domain at arid Momentum and the humble household at my farm? There is no place in town, Sparsus, where a poor man can either think or rest One cannot live for schoolmasters in the morning, corn grinders at night, and braziers' hammers all day and night. Here the money-changer indolently rattles piles of Nero's rough coins on his dirty counter; there a beater of Spanish gold belabours his worn stone with shining mallet. Nor does the fanatic rabble of Bellona cease from its clamour, nor the gabbling sailor with his piece of wreck hung over his shoulder; nor the Jew boy, brought up to begging by his mother, nor the blear-eyed huckster of matches. Who can enumerate the various interruptions to sleep at Rome? As well might you tell how many hands in the city strike the cymbals, when the moon under eclipse is assailed with the sound of the Colchian magic rhomb.2 You, Sparsus, are ignorant of such things, living, as you do, in luxurious ease on your Petilian domain;3 whose mansion, though on a level plane, overlooks the lofty hills which surround it; who enjoy the country in the city4 (rus in urbe), with a Roman 5 vine-dresser, and a vintage not to be surpassed on the Falernian mount. Within your own premises is a retired carriage drive; in your deep recesses sleep and repose are unbroken by the noise of tongues: and no daylight penetrates unless purposely admitted. But I am awakened by the laughter of the passing crowd; and all Rome is at my bed-side. Whenever, overcome with weariness, I long for repose, I repair to my country-house. (anonymous translation published in the Bohn Bohn's Classical Library edition.1897)
Liber XII, Epigrammaton LVII
Cur saepe sicci parva rura Nomenti
Laremque villae sordidum petam, quaeris?
Nec cogitandi, Sparse, nec quiescendi
In urbe locus est pauperi. Negant vitam
Ludi magistri mane, nocte pistores,
Aerariorum marculi die toto;
Hinc otiosus sordidam quatit mensam
Neroniana nummularius massa,
Illinc balucis malleator Hispanae
Tritum nitenti fuste verberat saxum;
Nec turba cessat entheata Bellonae,
Nec fasciato naufragus loquax trunco,
A matre doctus nec rogare Iudaeus,
Nec sulphuratae lippus institor mercis.
Numerare pigri damna quis potest somni?
Dicet quot aera verberent manus urbis,
Cum secta Colcho Luna vapulat rhombo.
Sparse, nescis ista, nec potes scire,
Petilianis delicatus in regnis,
Cui plana summos despicit domus montis,
Et rus in urbe est vinitorque Romanus
Nec in Falerno colle maior autumnus,
Intraque limen latus essedo cursus,
Et in profundo somnus, et quies nullis
Offensa linguis, nec dies nisi admissus.
Nos transeuntis risus excitat turbae,
Et ad cubile est Roma. Taedio fessis
Dormire quotiens libuit, imus ad villam.
Lucius Annaeus Seca. Epistle LVI. On Tranquility
Let me die, if I think silence so absolutely necessary for a studious man as it seems at first to be: variety of noise surrounds me on every side: I lodge even over a bath. Suppose now all kinds of sounds that can be harsh and disagreeable to the ears; as when the strong boxers are exercising themselves, and fling about their hands loaded with lead, or when they are in distress, or imitate those that are, and I hear their groans; or when sending forth their breath, which for some time they held in, I hear their hissing, and violent sobs; or when I meet with an idle varlet, who anoints the ordinary wrestlers for their exercise, and I hear the different flaps he gives them on their shoulder, with either a flat or hollow palm; or if a ball-player comes in, and begins to count the balls, it is almost over with me. Add to these the rank and swaggering bully, the taking a pickpocket, or the bawling of such as delight to hear their voice echo through the bath; add also those, who dash into the pond with a great noise of the water; and besides these, such whose voices at least are tolerable: suppose a hair-plucker every now and then squeaking with a shrill and effeminate tone, to make himself the more remarkable, and is never silent but when he is at work, and making his patient cry for him: add to these the various cries of those that sell cakes and sausages, the gingerbread baker, the huckster, and all such as vend their wares about the streets with a peculiar tone. Sure you have no ears, you say, or must be made of iron, whose mind is not disturbed with such various and dissonant sounds, whe aour Chrysippus is almost killed, with only the common salutations of the morning. I assure you, Lucilius, I regard all this noise no more than the ebbing and flowing of the water: though I hear that a certain people, near de River Nile, gave this as a reason for changing the site of their city, because they could not bear the noise of the waterfalls. But as for me, I own a voice distracts me more than any noise whatever; for that draws off the mind, but this only strikes, and sills the ear: and I will moreover tell you what I reckon among those things that give me no disturbance, the rattling of the carriages in the streets, a smith’s forge in the house, a sawyer’s yard next door; and the horrid noise a fellow makes, who, by the Temple of Peace, is ever trying this new-made hautboys and trumpets, and does not sing but bawl: the sound indeed, which startles me after intermissions, is somewhat more troublesome to me than that which is continued; but I am so inured to these things, that I could even hear a boatswain giving orders to his crew, with the most harsh and hoarse vociferation, without being in the least discomposed.
The truth is; I force my mind to be so intent upon itself, as not to be drawn off by any thing from without. Whatever noise is abroad, I care not, while all is calm and quiet within; no jarring between desire and fear; no dissension between avarice and luxury: in short, no one passion thwarting another; for what availeth all imaginable silence, if the passions are at variance?
Omnia noctis errant placida composta quiete;
All things were lull’d, by night, in pleasing rest,
Faith the poet (Varro); but ‘tis false; there can be no pleasing rest, but what is the effect or reason: the night rather promotes than prevents trouble, and only changes one scene of anxiety for another; for even the dreams of those that steep, are as turbulent as all the accidents of the day. There can be no true tranquility, but what ariseth from a sound mind. Behold the man, who endeavours to sleep, while the whole house is silent; and, that the least noise may not reach his ears, all the servants are order’d not to speak a word: and, if they approach near his bed, to tread as softly as possible; yet is he turning from one side to another, and would fain get a map; still complaining, that he hears noises, while not the least is made. Now, what do you think is the reason of this? Why, his mind is disturb’d; this must be appeased; the sedition within must be calm’d; the noise is there; for you must not think the mind is at peace; tho’ the body were to lie as still as in the arms of death.
Even rest itself is sometimes restless; and therefore it is proper we should be roused to action, and employ’d in some of the liberal sciences, as often as listlessness seiseth us impatient of its own weight. Great generals when they see a soldier disobedient to orders, condemn him to some hard labour; nor will permit him to join his company. They have no time to play and wanton, who are tied down to business; and nothing is more certain, than that the vices of idleness are thrown off by proper employ.
We often seem to retire, when fatigued with public affairs, and chagrin’d at some unhappy and disagreeable station; yet even amidst this retirement, which fear and disgust have induced us to seek, ambition sometime rankles at the heart: for it was not quite cut off, but only tired, and sore vexed at things not succeeding to its wish: I say the same of luxury, which sometimes seems to give way. But soon again revives, soliciting those who have professed frugality; and in the midst of parsimony pursues the pleasures it had not entirely condemn’d, but only left for a time; and pursues them now the more vehemently, as the more secretly it can obtain its desires; for the more public all vices are, they are the less daring. Diseases likewise are more easily curable, when they break out, and shew themselves what they are: and you may be assured that avarice, ambition, and all the evils of the human heart are the most dangerous, when they subside, and are patched up by a pretended cure. We may seem at ease, but are far from being so; were we really so; -if we have sounded a retreat;- if we have despised all specious trifles- nothing, as I have before observ’d, can recall us; or withdraw our attention; not even the harmony of men or birds, coud interrupt our serious thoughts, now become sure and solid. The disposition is light and wavering, which can be moved by any accidental sound: it still retains anxiety, and a dread of something that excites its curiosity and care, as says our Virgil (2, 726)
A me quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
Tela, neque adverso glomerati exagmine Graii,
Nunc omnes terrent aurae,sonus excitat omnis
Suspensum, et pariter comitique onerique timenti.
I who so bold and dauntless just before
The Grecian darts and shocks of lances bore,
At every shadow now am seiz’d with fear,
Not for myself but for the charge I bear (Dryden).
In the former part of these lines Aeneas resembles a wise and brave man,whom not the brandishing of spears, nor the clashing arms of an engaged troop, nor the outcries of a besieged city, can terrify; in the latter, a meer coward, wrapt in fear, and startled at every noise; whom a single voice, taken for the din of a multitude, quite casts down; and the lightest motions drive to despair: his burthen (bis aged father) makes him timorous. –Take whom you will, of those rich men who gather much, and load themselves therewith, you will see him (like Aeneas) fearful for his charge. Know therefore you are then only truly composed, when no alarm can move you; when no voice can shake you from yourself, whether it flatters, or threatens you; or pours forth a variety of idle sounds. What then? Is it not more convenient sometimes to be free from noise and bawling? No doubt of it. Therefore I intend soon to change my quarters; I had a mind, once to try and exercise myself; but what necessity is there for tormenting myself any longer, when Ulysses found so early a remedy, for prewserving his companions from the sweet melody of the Syrens? (By Thomas Morell D.D., 1786))
Peream si est tam necessarium quam videtur silentium in studia seposito. Ecce undique me varius clamor circumsonat: supra ipsum balneum habito. Propone nunc tibi omnia genera vocum quae in odium possunt aures adducere: cum fortiores exercentur et manus plumbo graves iactant, cum aut laborant aut laborantem imitantur, gemitus audio, quotiens retentum spiritum remiserunt, sibilos et acerbissimas respirationes; cum in aliquem inertem et hac plebeia unctione contentum incidi, audio crepitum illisae manus umeris, quae prout plana pervenit aut concava, ita sonum mutat. Si vero pilicrepus supervenit et numerare coepit pilas, actum est. [Adice nunc scordalum et furem deprensum et illum cui vox sua in balineo placet, adice nunc eos qui in piscinam cum ingenti impulsae aquae sono saliunt. Praeter istos quorum, si nihil aliud, rectae voces sunt, alipilum cogita tenuem et stridulam vocem quo sit notabilior subinde exprimentem nec umquam tacentem nisi dum vellit alas et alium pro se clamare cogit; iam biberari varias exclamationes et botularium et crustularium et omnes popinarum institores mercem sua quadam et insignita modulatione vendentis.
'O te' inquis 'ferreum aut surdum, cui mens inter tot clamores tam varios, tam dissonos constat, cum Chrysippum nostrum assidua salutatio perducat ad mortem.' At mehercules ego istum fremitum non magis curo quam fluctum aut deiectum aquae, quamvis audiam cuidam genti hanc unam fuisse causam urbem suam transferendi, quod fragorem Nili cadentis ferre non potuit. Magis mihi videtur vox avocare quam crepitus; illa enim animum adducit, hic tantum aures implet ac verberat. In his quae me sine avocatione circumstrepunt essedas transcurrentes pono et fabrum inquilinum et serrarium vicinum, aut hunc qui ad Metam Sudantem tubulas experitur et tibias, nec cantat sed exclamat: etiam nunc molestior est mihi sonus qui intermittitur subinde quam qui continuatur. Sed iam me sic ad omnia ista duravi ut audire vel pausarium possim voce acerbissima remigibus modos dantem. Animum enim cogo sibi intentum esse nec avocari ad externa; omnia licet foris resonent, dum intus nihil tumultus sit, dum inter se non rixentur cupiditas et timor, dum avaritia luxuriaque non dissideant nec altera alteram vexet. Nam quid prodest totius regionis silentium, si affectus fremunt?
Omnia noctis erant placida composta quiete.
Falsum est: nulla placida est quies nisi quam ratio composuit; nox exhibet molestiam, non tollit, et sollicitudines muta. Nam dormientium quoque insomnia tam turbulenta sunt quam dies: illa tranquillitas vera est in quam bona mens explicatur. Aspice illum cui somnus laxae domus silentio quaeritur, cuius aures ne quis agitet sonus, omnis servorum turba conticuit et suspensum accedentium propius vestigium ponitur: huc nempe versatur atque illuc, somnum inter aegritudines levem captans; quae non audit audisse se queritur. Quid in causa putas esse? Animus illi obstrepit. Hic placandus est, huius compescenda seditio est, quem non est quod existimes placidum, si iacet corpus: interdum quies inquieta est; et ideo ad rerum actus excitandi ac tractatione bonarum artium occupandi sumus, quotiens nos male habet inertia sui impatiens. Magni imperatores, cum male parere militem vident, aliquo labore compescunt et expeditionibus detinent: numquam vacat lascivire districtis, nihilque tam certum est quam otii vitia negotio discuti. Saepe videmur taedio rerum civilium et infelicis atque ingratae stationis paenitentia secessisse; tamen in illa latebra in quam nos timor ac lassitudo coniecit interdum recrudescit ambitio. Non enim excisa desit, sed fatigata aut etiam obirata rebus parum sibi cedentibus. Idem de luxuria dico, quae videtur aliquando cessisse, deinde frugalitatem professos sollicitat atque in media parsimonia voluptates non damnatas sed relictas petit, et quidem eo vehementius quo occultius. Omnia enim vitia in aperto leniora sunt; morbi quoque tunc ad sanitatem inclinant cum ex abdito erumpunt ac vim sui proferunt. Et avaritiam itaque et ambitionem et cetera mala mentis humanae tunc perniciosissima scias esse cum simulata sanitate subsidunt. Otiosi videmur, et non sumus. Nam si bona fide sumus, si receptui cecinimus, si speciosa contempsimus, ut paulo ante dicebam, nulla res nos avocabit, nullus hominum aviumque concentus interrumpet cogitationes bonas, solidasque iam et certas. Leve illud ingenium est nec sese adhuc reduxit introsus quod ad vocem et accidentia erigitur; habet intus aliquid sollicitudinis et habet aliquid concepti pavoris quod illum curiosum facit, ut ait Vergilius noster:
Et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque adverso glomerati e agmine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.
Prior ille sapiens est, quem non tela vibrantia, non arietata inter