Gods and laurel leaves

The Roman Triumph

January 4, 2008

Jonathan Powell discovers the truth about Rome's military parades.

So you thought you knew about the Roman triumph? Conventional wisdom states that triumphant generals in Rome painted their faces red. They rode in a chariot with a slave, who whispered to them: "Remember that you are a man." For that one day, they impersonated the king of the gods, Jupiter Best and Greatest, wearing his costume, consisting of a purple toga and a tunic decorated with a palm-leaf pattern, a laurel wreath and other accessories. The procession followed a fixed route, from the Field of Mars down to the river, doubling back on itself to avoid an ancient bog, then through the Circus, along the Sacred Way, and up to the Capitol. The captives were taken off for execution, while the general continued his progress (still in the chariot) up to the temple of Capitoline Jupiter, dedicated his spoils there, and ran three times round the temple. To get a triumph, you had to have killed 6,000 of the enemy. You had to be commanding the army under your own auspices. Triumphal arches were built for triumphal processions to go through and remained to commemorate the occasion.

If you thought you knew some or all of these facts, Mary Beard's excellent book will prove you wrong. Every statement in this summary is a modern extrapolation from some item of ancient evidence, which turns out to prove a lot less than we thought. Our image of the triumph is a composite. Much of the evidence refers only to one or two occasions and cannot be generalised from: we have little evidence for earlier times except the imaginative historians Livy, Plutarch and others, who were clearly much influenced by their own time - comparable to reconstructing the coronation route of Henry V from the events of 1953.

Much of what we "know" about the ceremonial (including details such as the face-painting or the model phallus slung below the chariot) comes from ancient antiquarians, for whom every tradition was of immemorial antiquity or immemorial weirdness; such aspects were seized on with delight by scholars, who made the Roman generals "descendants of the god-kings of Frazer-land". As for the "rules of the game", which 19th-century systematisers of legal history reduced to a code, all we really have is evidence for the kind of rhetorical claims and counter-claims that were made by politicians wishing to achieve triumphs themselves or to thwart others - a form of competitive negotiation that came to an end once control of the right to triumph passed to the emperors. Questions about the triumph's origins, or about the significance of any of its features, may be misconceived.

Scholarship, especially where the evidential base is limited, comes in two kinds: the constructive kind, which extrapolates the whole statue of Hercules from his foot, and the demolitionist kind, which asserts that all we really have is the foot and our own imagination. This book belongs largely in the latter category, and from this point of view it makes healthily astringent (as well as fascinating) reading. Yet Beard does not keep up this level of scepticism throughout. Although she disposes of quite a few of the fables convenues surrounding the triumph, a core remains: the military parade, the cries of celebration or ribaldry, the display of spoils and images of conquered territories, the competition among generals for the various grades of honour, the wait outside the walls with the laurel wreaths drying all the while.

There is a recurrent sentence pattern "Of course ... but ...". The first halves of these sentences sometimes contain those elements of what Beard calls "triumphal culture" that she either cannot demolish, since the evidence shows them to be more plausible than their denial, or does not wish to, because they fit in with deeper preconceptions. An example of the latter is the supposedly transgressive nature of the triumph: the soldiers (though their commander wore a version of civilian costume) crossed the city boundary under arms, breaking a "key cultural assumption" that the inner city was a demilitarised zone. Yet this notion is as much a scholarly construction as some others that Beard attacks: if it existed, it was broken many times also on non-triumphal occasions (see Cicero's defence of Milo, Tacitus on the accession of Tiberius, or Juvenal's satires 3 and 16, to name only a few).

In sum, few could read this book without coming away with a pretty clear idea of what, in general terms, a triumph was. A major strength is that, by judiciously collecting and expounding the descriptions and images of triumphs ancient and modern, Beard challenges the reader to construct his or her own imaginative picture of the Roman victory parade. Some readers may develop a feeling that the triumph was not quite as complicated and problematic as the book overtly claims: it does not seem plausible to suppose that most Romans reflected either hard or long on the moral ambiguities of the triumph, although philosophers (or sore-headed politicians like Cicero) did draw attention to the transience of its glories or the vulgarity of its ostentation. Moreover, the book concentrates commendably on its topic: both comparison and reception are there in the background, but are only allowed to occupy the foreground in disciplined doses. Thus there is room for more discussion of the similarities and differences between the triumph and different forms of ceremonial from other and later cultures. The one extended comparison Beard does allow herself (with the victory parade of Ras Tafari in Ethiopia in 1916) is punctured by the observation that those who narrate it were classically educated and probably looking out for points of contact with the world of Pompey and Caesar.

As to audience, sometimes the book has an air of uneasy compromise: the level of intellectual debate and evaluation of sources is professional and academic, but readers are also envisaged who "wish to discover" the ancient world. For their benefit, discussions of more technical linguistic points, which would in reality have made the argument easier to follow, are partially censored, so that we are typically told for example that "the Latin (or Greek) word has two possible meanings" without being told what the word is. Of course, scholars can look up the references in the endnotes, but isn't this just a little patronising to the non-professional reader, who may not have access to an extensive scholarly library but might actually at the same time be interested to know precisely what the issues are? However, this is a cavil: the book can be heartily recommended to professionals and interested non-professionals alike.

The Roman Triumph

Author - Mary Beard
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 448
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9780674026131

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