The Silver Triton

Suetonius Claud. 21.6.13–16

in Nuncius
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This article assesses the imperial Roman technological options and cultural impetus for constructing and displaying an automaton Triton. Suetonius reports that such a figure announced the commencement of a staged sea battle organised by Emperor Claudius to entertain the Roman citizens in 52 CE. This automaton, whose feasibility we assess, fits neatly as an application of the pneumatic techniques summarised by Heron of Alexandria, who was probably alive at the time. By drawing attention to this little discussed passage of Suetonius, our article corroborates the idea that these techniques were useful – here contributing to the “media-image” and audio-visual culture of Claudius’ imperial agenda – and that their wondrous effects provided an intellectual bridge between their practical utility and their ability to contribute to the philosophy of science and technology.

The Silver Triton

Suetonius Claud. 21.6.13–16

in Nuncius



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    Figure 1

    Musicians playing the hydraulis (water organ) and the salpinx. 1st century BCE, Alexandria. H. 13 cm. Gréau collection, 1891. Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities, Louvre, CA 426. The hydraulis was invented in the 3rd c. BCE by Ctesibius, a predecessor of Heron at Alexandria; see Vitr., Arch. 10.7.

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    Figure 2

    A Triton in the mosaic of Neptune (detail, with keystone correction), rm. 4, Regio II, Insula IV, Terme di Nettuno (II, IV, 2) Ostia, Italy

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    Figure 3

    Whistling thyrsus from Hero of Alexandria, The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria, edited and translated by Bennet Woodcroft (London: Taylor Walton and Maberly, 1851), sect. 48, p. 70

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    Figure 4

    The proposed internal workings of the Triton automaton, as reconstructed by the authors and Monash University Instrumentation and Technology Development Facility staff members Brett A. Williams and Rod Cutts. The device consists of a 60 litre cylindrical drum with a small orifice in the base and another in the top through which a reed-fitted trumpet is placed and sealed. Ballast fixed inside the vessel ensures that the assembly floats upright when released into the water. The trumpet produces a steady 405Hz tone of ~110 dB for 02:05 minutes.

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