Sleep Breath 2002; 06(1): 029-040
DOI: 10.1055/s-2002-23155

Copyright © 2002 by Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc., 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001, USA. Tel.: +1(212) 584-4662

``Snoring in the Ancient World''[*]

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Publication History

Publication Date:
26 March 2002 (online)

When we talk about snoring as an expression of life, we must consider the physical components to be fundamental.

Sleep is the prerequisite for snoring; this already heralds the word itself which is of Greek-Latin origin: stertere (snore) may be related to the Greek word for sleep (GEORGES, Latin-German Pocket Dictionary, Hannover and Leipzig, 1918). So DION CHRYSOSTOMUS (orat. Tarsica prior, 33) may rightly state about the inhabitants of Tarsus in Asia Minor, ``They furnish the most distinct evidence of sleep, they snore.''

However, not all sleepers snore: ``Snoring only befalls some of the sleeping.'' CICERO (LUCULLUS, 93) differentiates in the very same way when he makes KARNEADES say, as he is having a philosophical dispute with CHRYSIPP, ``you may even snore if you desire, not only rest.''

Snoring, however, does not exclusively occur during sleep. This sound is sometimes only shammed as a proof of sleep, as JUVENALIS (sat. 1, 56) teaches us about the spouse who procures his own wife for her lover and pretends not to see or hear the slightest thing: He is ``wise to look up to the panelled ceiling and wise to snore with a vigil nose when he is carousing.''

It is genuinely ancient to also have animals snore in their sleep, as the critical ARISTOTLE does even with dolphins (parva nat. 476 b, 20 and de animal. hist. 537 b, 2).

Snoring can be caused by both exogenous and endogenous factors. The latter are primarily excessive drinking and eating (DION, l. c.): ``Those experience snoring who fill up their stomach.''

A philosopher might also experience snoring despite being entirely withdrawn, ``since the stoic philosopher ETEOKLES was lying there and snoring . . . overloaded with food'' (ALKIPHRON, rhet. epist. 3, 19, 7).

When it comes to the delights of the table, excessive drinking in particular bears the blame for snoring. There are such a great number of examples that it is unnecessary to mention any others. We may think only about characters like the mercenary leader THRASO in TERENTIUS's work (Eunuch., 5, 8, 49), the roué TIGELLIUS SARDUS in HORATIUS'S work (serm. 1, 3, 17), the Roman ne'er-do-well in PERSIUS'S work (sat. 3, 3 and 5, 132), and the sybarites ZOILUS and SERTORIUS in MARTIALIS'S work (epigr., 3, 82 and 7, 10).

Apart from the excessive consumption of food and alcohol, the body position of the sleeper has an important causal relationship to the snoring: ``It also befalls those who are inadequately positioned.'' In particular, lying on one's back triggers snoring. The rutulic augur RHAMNES (VERGILIUS, Aen. 9, 325) experienced this ``while he was lying exposed on a high pile of carpets,'' when, completely inebriated from too much wine, he was killed by the Trojan Nisus; the mule drover who spoiled the sleep-seeking HORATIUS'S night's sleep when the latter was on his journey to Brundisium was also lying in a supine position (serm. 1, 5, 19). And the old ferryman CHARON reproaches the herald of the gods, HERMES, for ``lying stretched on deck, snoring,'' instead of helping him row across the River Acheron (LUKIAN, Char., 490).

The exogenous factors are accompanied by endogenous or constitutional factors. A pyknic or plethoric sleeper is more likely to snore than a leptosomic one. The Emperor CLAUDIUS, who was an excessive snorer, ``had a voluptuous and not small body and a well-fed neck'' (SUETONIUS, DIV. CLAUDIUS, 30). Admittedly, the opposite type is not immune to snoring, as the example of the Emperor OTHO proves, who was said to be ``of moderate build'' (SUETONIUS, OTHO, 12). The Argonaut heroes were surely also not paunchy when they were travelling on their utterly exhausting journey in search of the Golden Fleece. And yet the ballad tells of them as ``loud sleepers'' (APOLLONIUS RHOD., Argonaut. 1, 1083).

In the same way, age may represent an endogenous aspect that causes snoring, even if this phenomenon already reaches its peak at the height of life. ETEOKLES, mentioned earlier, is reported to have lain there, snoring, not only because of excessive food consumption but also because of ``his age.''

Eventually snoring can also be caused by explicitly pathological states. Even the ancients were aware of this, which becomes evident, if only indirectly, when we look at a paragraph taken from oratio Tarsica prior (30), in which DION admonishes the people from Tarsus not to believe that, in the way a disease usually affects the body, ``in such a way an epidemic disease has attacked your noses.''

By turning to the symptoms of snoring, we discuss first the acoustic phenomenon which is the focus of interest. The characteristics of that particular sound arouse curiosity in two areas, its sensorial and its aesthetic aspects.

The sensorial characteristics are hard to define. DION (oratio Tarsica prior, 55) does not really know how to describe the sound, no matter how hard he tries, ``since it is neither a clucking nor a whistling nor a purring.'' Without any doubt there is a blowing component in the sound, as VERGILIUS rightly recognizes, who says about the snoring RHAMNES that he

``was blowing out the sleep with all his might.''

The fact that it is very difficult to classify the snoring sound provides the mischievous PLAUTUS a reason for an amusing word-play. In miles gloriosus (3, 2) LUCRIO the cellarer's assistant to the captain and his colleague PALAESTRIO talk about their fellow slave SCELEDRUS:

LUCRIO: He (SCELEDRUS) is slurping in his sleep.

PALAESTRIO: What (should it mean), he is slurping?

LUCRIO: He is snoring, that was what I intended to say

But since it is almost the same whether you snore or slurp-

PALAESTRIO: Listen, so SCELEDRUS is sleeping inside?

LUCRIO: Not his nose, that is calling all the louder. He stealthily has touched the goblet.

These words emphasize the similarity of the snoring and the slurping sounds.

If snoring is caused by alcohol consumption, it may be accompanied by an accessory belching. QUINTILIANUS points this out (inst. or. 4, 2, 123): CICERO's fellow consul, the roué C. ANTONIUS, was found inebriated, snoring, and he ``was belching with every single breath.'' Dion (oratio Tarsica prior, 36) teaches us about the aesthetic aspect of the snoring sound that it is such a ``rough and unfavorable sound'' which a civilized person can hardly bear to hear. He ridicules snoring as a ``wonderful melody'' and the snorers as a ``species well-educated in the fine arts'' (l.c. 43).

The sources also report about the intensity of the snoring sound. CATO MAIOR said (PLUTARCH, CATO MAI., 9; similar mor. 198E): ``he did not need any soldier who . . . was snoring more loudly than he was raising a war cry.'' CATO MINOR ``sank into such a deep sleep [on the night he committed suicide] that his friends who were outside [in the adjacent room] realized it'' (PLUTARCH, CATO MIN., 70). The Emperor OTHO preserved the same noble attitude of mind in a similar situation when he intended to choose a voluntary death (PLUTARCH, OTHO, 17): ``henceforth he reposed the rest of the night, so that his valets were able to hear him sleeping deeply.'' How strangely peculiar ancient magnanimity and the tribute of human fragility come together in these two episodes. The noise caused by MARCELLUS must have been even louder, since CICERO reported thereupon to his friend T. POMPONIUS ATTICUS (epist. ad ATTICUM 4, 3) that ``MARCELLUS was snoring [so loudly] that I as a neighbor [in the adjacent house] was able to hear it.'' The reported day, however, was the 24th of November, almost winter, and CICERO's windows were presumably closed.

Apart from the acoustic phenomenon the sources also mention somatic phenomena. The dropping of the lower jaw is vividly described by PERSIUS (sat. 3, 58):

``You are still snoring and your head, which is limp from yesterday, is gaping relaxedly with your jaws completely disconnected?''

The efforts of the chest which are combined with forced breathing were mentioned above with RHAMNES. Also, C. ANTONIUS's chest is working hard (QUINTILIANUS, inst. or. 4, 2, 123), ``since they find him, lying prostrate, in a deep sleep which reveals the inebriation, snoring with all his might.'' And PHILOSTRATUS MAIOR describes a satyr (imag. 1, 22) who ``is asleep as a consequence of wine consumption, taking breath heavily, as being inebriated.''

After this review of the physical components, let us briefly consider some psychological, cultural, and historical aspects.

It is understandable that snoring has always been perceived as a symbol of spiritual sleep and torpid obstinacy of the heart. Above all DION is to be remembered, whose first Tarsic speech (33) can be called a speech against snoring. It would go beyond the limits of this article to list all the points DION mentions; the reader may look at the source itself if desired. Only the main thoughts shall be presented here: The citizens of Tarsus sleep with open eyes. Their snoring is a sign of their sleep. Small children are also a slave to this misfortune and even dignified adults cannot escape the disease. It is present during the day and at night, at any time and in any place, in their houses, in the theater, and in the palaestra. Their snoring is an expression of spiritual and moral dullness and bluntness, even indecency, indulgence, and depravity. For the ethical behavior of the people of Tarsus there is no more appropriate term than snoring. ``Heaven help! I do not know how to express it more decently.'' In the same way as DION, an unknown epigrammatist uses snoring as a symbol for being without appreciation of art and being amoral (epigramm. Antholog. Palat. DüBNER, IX, 343):

``Since SILVANUS has had two sons, namely the wine and the sleep, he no longer loves the muses or his friends; the one son infatuates his senses when he is awake and the other son forces him to lie down, snoring.''

In the same way as snoring, another body function which is also connected to the nose, sneezing, occasionally reveals a morally depraved character. Again DION gives an example thereof (l. c. 54) when he tells about the reprobate whose fornication is recognized by his sneezing. The situation is comparable with DIOGENES LAERTIUS (7, 173), where this psychological diagnostics is given to the stoic philosopher KLEANTHES.

As undesirable as the nasty habit of snoring may be in general, occasionally it can be very convenient and even welcome, such as when it helps to prevent something unpleasant from happening or when snoring can be used as an excuse. When the Roman senators, under AUGUSTUS's rule, lowered themselves as much as to offer to sleep by turns in the monarch's antechamber in the function of bodyguards, ANTISTIUS LABEO, distinguished by his ``male pride before a king's throne,'' excused himself with the words ``I snore and cannot keep vigil before him'' (DIO CASSIUS, hist. Rom. 54, 15).

It is a strange idea to see snoring instead of hearing it; however, there is also evidence from the ancient world for this concept. When CICERO investigates the relationship between divinity and dreams, he ponders if it is really likely that the gods interfered in people's dreams by ``walking not only from bed to bed but also from resting place to resting place of all mortal beings and, any time they saw someone snoring, they showed them numerous confused and dark faces'' (de div. 2, 63).

Generally speaking, it is rather uncommon to transpose the phenomenon of snoring from the acoustic sphere to the optical sphere. The underlying psychological notion is not entirely clear, at least not easily comprehensible. One may think of the heavy body movements which are connected with snoring and which might be more evident to the observer than the sound itself. In the case of CICERO, however, the difficulties can be solved far more easily, when we assume that he used ``snoring'' as a synonym for ``sleeping,'' by which we would pick up again the etymology which was given at the beginning of this article.

Finally, we recall another etymology, which was effective when the name ``Stertinius'' was formed. Somehow the bearer of this name or one of his ancestors must have had a connection with the word ``stertere.'' There are many such names deriving from physiological characteristics or oddities. In the case of the stoic philosopher STERTINIUS, his personal snoring at night might appear understandable if the fact is taken into consideration that he had a rough and growling voice during the day, as HORATIUS teaches us (serm. 2, 3, 33). Whether this ``eighth of the wise men'' (serm. 2, 3, 296) is identical with the STERTINIUS described by QUINITLIANUS (l. c. 3, 1, 21) remains to be seen.

1 *English translation by Kerstin Jacob of ``Schnarchen in der Antike,'' by Albert M. Esser, M.D. (Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und Naturwissenschaften, 1941.)

1 *English translation by Kerstin Jacob of ``Schnarchen in der Antike,'' by Albert M. Esser, M.D. (Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und Naturwissenschaften, 1941.)