The Roman Triumph, by Mary Beard

The book, “The Roman Triumph” by Mary Beard reveals to me that I’m much more interested in the story of classical Rome than I would have guessed.

The Roman Triumph was a kind of parade and city-wide holiday and party that would take place in honor of victorious generals or Caesars or similarly high-placed leaders who had made a contribution to the Republic or, later, the Empire. Typically the general would receive a budget for their triumph, which would include feeding the city for the day, but the event was important in the cultural life of the Republic, not just important to the general, so when, for example, Trajan died before his parade, his place in the parade was taken by a wax dummy.

Early Roman triumphs are more or less lost to history, and may have been much more moderate affairs. Later Roman Triumphs, however, were huge and hugely expensive spectacles. In addition to feeding the city for the day, the triumph would be marked with perhaps a full year’s pay or more to the general’s soldiers, and huge purses to important military officers, plus an extravagant parade of the soldiers, the captured booty, and captured enemy soldiers and leaders, weaving their way through the city receiving adulation (and perhaps in greater measure, mere interest in spectacle) from crowds.

What I found fascinating about the Roman triumph is how it sheds light on how different members of society need different things from a triumph. For the story of how the triumph was important–in different ways and for different reasons–to different segments of Roman society, is a vantage point on the different stories Romans from different walks of life were telling themselves. Altogether there starts to come together a way of understanding what the different classes in society may have been like, and how they may not have been so very different from today’s.

First, there’s the fact that in order to triumph, and built into how Romans used the word (which they invented), was the preposition “over”–you had to triumph over someone. Frequently a victorious general would go to elaborate expense to bring back captured enemy soldiers and leaders, to ritually execute or forgive during an anticipated triumphal parade. At least once on an African campaign, this extended to include hunting parties to bring captured exotic wildlife back to Rome from Africa. The book points out that Roman historians widely cite the “fact” that Cleopatra killed herself after being captured, to escape being triumphed over, and notes that it is at least as likely that Cleopatra was executed or simply evaded capture, but that the story of her committing suicide rather than be triumphed over was too perfect for the purposes of the triumph as spectacle.

Second, there’s the fact that triumphs generally used symbolic language to deliver a message bordering on sacrilege or openly sacrilegious. A triumph made a Roman general king for a day, but it was more than that. Effectively, a triumph’s purpose was to write a victorious general into Rome’s collective historical and religious mythos. The procession–and particularly the victorious general himself–would appropriate symbols of military success, of long-gone Roman kings, and of Roman gods, particularly Jupiter, and parade through the city to envious gazes and applause. To do so involved flagrant violation of basic civil mores, such as don’t wear the colors of long-gone Roman kings, and don’t ride in a chariot with four white horses, which is an honor reserved for the god Jupiter. Normally violating these mores would earn rebuke or even serious punishment. For a triumphing general, the result of these violations wasn’t rebuke–it was fame, envy, and thunderous applause. “Petty sacrilege is punished; sacrilege on a grand scale is the stuff of triumphs.”

Spectacle always draws critics, and Rome was not without a moralizing historian segment. The book multiple times quotes the “the encyclopedic curiosity (and moralizing fervor) of the elder Pliny” at the latest excess of this or that triumph. I’ve lost the exact quote, but if I’m paraphrasing more-or-less correctly, Pliny the Elder characterized one particular triumph as “only a triumph of excess and profligacy over good taste and prudence” and that sentiment tends to animate his narratives of each triumph he reviewed. The book’s author knowingly replays this moralizing–and perhaps her own schoolmarmish interest–against the fact that the aristocracy knew that a grand triumph would attract the attention of moralizing scolds, in the present as well as in ages to come, down through history, and that was part of the point: “Sneers and strident satire have always been an occupational hazard of the successful, and are a fairly reliable marker of celebrity renown.”

Here I’m quoting Wikipedia: “To have a triumphal ancestor — even one long-dead — counted for a lot in Roman society and politics, and Cicero remarked that, in the race for power and influence, some individuals were not above vesting an inconveniently ordinary ancestor with triumphal grandeur and dignity, distorting an already fragmentary and unreliable historical tradition.”

And that was the point of a Roman Triumph. It was a big enough, profligate enough waste that we’re still talking about it. In the author’s formulation, “The Triumph was about display and success–the success of display no less than the display of success.”

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