The Roman Triumph


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Copyright © 2007 by the President and Fellows

of Harvard College

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

First Harvard University Press paperback edition, 2009.

Set in Adobe Garamond

Designed by Gwen Nefsky Frankfeldt

Frontispiece: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,

The Triumph of Marius, 1729.

A re-creation of the triumphal procession of January 1, 104 bce.

Jugurtha, the defeated king of Numidia, stands a proud prisoner in

front of the chariot—threatening to upstage the victorious general

Marius in the background. To left and right are the spoils of victory—

precious vessels and sculpture, including a bust of the goddess

Cybele with distinctive turreted headdress, just as Mantegna

had envisaged in his Triumphs of Caesar (Fig. 28).

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Beard, Mary, 1955–

The Roman triumph / Mary Beard.



Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-674-02613-1 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-0-674-03218-7 (pbk.)

1. Triumph.

2. Rites and ceremonies—Rome.

3. Processions—Rome.

4. Rome—Military antiquities.

5. Triumph in art.

6. Triumph in literature.

7. Rites and ceremonies—Rome—Historiography.

I. Title.

DG89.B43 2007




Prologue: The Question of Triumph



Pompey’s Finest Hour?



The Impact of the Triumph



Constructions and Reconstructions



Captives on Parade



The Art of Representation



Playing by the Rules



Playing God



The Boundaries of the Ritual



The Triumph of History


Epilogue: Rome, May 2006












Illustration Credits





p r o l o g u e

The Question of Triumph

“Petty sacrilege is punished; sacrilege on a grand scale is the stuff of tri-

umphs.” Those are the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, first-century ce

philosopher and tutor of the emperor Nero. He was reflecting in one of

his philosophical letters on the unfair disparity in the meting out of

punishment and reward, and on the apparent profit that might come

from wrong-doing.1 As we might gloss it, following the wry popular

wisdom of our own day, “Petty criminals end up in jail; big ones end

up rich.”

In referring to the “stuff of triumphs,” Seneca meant those famous

parades through the city of Rome that celebrated Rome’s greatest victo-

ries against its enemies (or its biggest massacres, depending on whose

side you were on). To be awarded a triumph was the most outstanding

honor a Roman general could hope for. He would be drawn in a char-

iot—accompanied by the booty he had won, the prisoners he had taken

captive, and his no doubt rowdy and raucous troops in their battle

gear—through the streets of the city to the Temple of Jupiter on the

Capitoline hill, where he would offer a sacrifice to the god. The cere-

mony became a by-word for extravagant display.

Seneca’s quip is uncomfortably subversive. For, by implication, it

questions the morality of some of those glorious victories that were cele-

P r o l o g u e


brated in this most lavish of all Roman rituals; and it hints that the

spoils on show might sometimes have been the fruits of sacrilege rather

than the just rewards of imperial conquest. It puts a question mark over

the triumph and triumphal values.

Roman triumphs have provided a model for the celebration of mili-

tary success for centuries. Through the last two millennia, there has

been hardly a monarch, dynast, or autocrat in the West who has not

looked back to Rome for a lesson in how to mark victory in war and to

assert his own personal power. Renaissance princelings launched hun-

dreds of triumphal celebrations. Napoleon carted through the streets

of Paris the sculpture and painting he had seized in Italy, in a pointed

imitation of a Roman triumph. It is a kind of ironic justice that the

Romans’ own masterpieces should find themselves put on parade in a

foreign city—just as the masterpieces looted from the Greek world had

been paraded through Rome two thousand years earlier. As late as 1899

the victories of Admiral George Dewey in the Spanish-American War

were celebrated with a triumphal parade in New York. True, no live cap-

tive or spoils were on show; but a special triumphal arch was built, in

plaster and wood, at Madison Square.2

Scratch the surface of these apparently self-confident ceremonies and

time and again “Senecan” doubts begin to emerge—in sometimes sur-

prising places. Donatello’s wonderfully sensuous bronze statue of David

(now in the Bargello in Florence) was probably commissioned by Cosimo

de’ Medici in 1428 after victory over some rival Italian potentates.3 David

is shown with his foot on the head of Goliath; on the giant’s helmet is a

scene of triumph, and in the triumphal chariot—in an imaginative vari-

ant we shall meet again—stands not a human general but a victorious

Cupid, the god of love. Donatello is directing us to the erotic charge of

his young David. But he is also pointing to the transitory nature of tri-

umphal glory: Goliath who blazoned the emblem of the triumph on his

armor is now himself the victim of his triumphant successor.4

In a completely different medium, a New Yorker cartoon gives similar

anxieties a humorous touch (Fig. 1). We shall shortly see that in ancient

Rome itself “triumphal arches” were not quite so closely linked to trium-

The Question of Triumph


[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

Figure 1:

Boris Drucker, New Yorker cartoon, 1988. The anxious Romans are putting the finishing touches on an imaginary arch—a composite loosely based on the Arch of

Constantine in Rome and the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum (Fig. 10).

phal processions as they have been in the modern world, and in the

modern imagination. But, anyway, here the cartoonist pictures a group

of Roman workmen finishing off just such a structure—when the dark

thought strikes them that Rome might not actually be victorious in

whatever war this arch is intended to celebrate. The joke is partly on

the dangers of anticipation, on “counting your chickens before they

are hatched.” But it is also on the fact that a triumph involves both

winners and losers—that those who triumph today may one day be tri-

umphed over.

This book will write those doubts and quizzical reflections back into

the history of the Roman triumph. Most modern accounts of the cere-

P r o l o g u e


mony stress the militaristic jingoism of the occasion, its sometimes brut-

ish celebration of conquest and imperialism. It is cast as a ritual which,

throughout the history of Rome, asserted and reasserted the power of

the Roman war machine and the humiliation of the conquered. Cleopa-

tra of Egypt is famously supposed to have killed herself rather than be

triumphed over. That is certainly one side of it. But I shall argue that

the very ceremony which glorified military victory and the values under-

pinning that victory also provided a context within which those values

could be discussed and challenged. It has too often been convenient to

dismiss Roman culture as unreflectively committed to warfare and im-

perial domination, and to regard members of the Roman political elite

individually as obsessed with achieving military glory. Of course, Rome

was “a warrior state.”5 The Romans were not a crowd of proto-pacifists.

But, as a general rule, it is warrior states that produce the most sophisti-

cated critique of the militaristic values they uphold. I hope to show that

this was the case with Rome; and that within Roman culture the tri-

umph was the context and the prompt for some of the most ...

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