Reviewed by Joseph Frechette (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Published on H-War (May, 2008)
Triumphs in Ink, Memory, and History
Readers of H-War, even if not particularly interested in the history of the ancient Mediterranean, are undoubtedly familiar with the Romans' triumphal processions in honor of victorious generals. The echo of these processions may be found in various modern victory celebrations, such as when the Red Army threw the captured Nazi standards at the foot of Vladimir Lenin's tomb. Certainly, even if unfamiliar with the various Renaissance and neoclassical artistic representations, the modern notion of a triumph is undoubtedly colored by George C. Scott's brief narrative at the end of the film Patton (1970). We all are likely to have fairly specific notions about what a triumph was and how it was performed.
That said, the readers of Mary Beard's The Roman Triumph will likely be left shaking their heads at how we came to such confidence. Beard presents her readers not with a portrait of the Roman triumph but with a forensic inquiry into how various portraits have been drawn of various triumphs at various times. In the end, the notion that anything approaching what modern historians and laypersons alike tend to envision as a "typical" triumph turns out, like much of the common knowledge regarding the ancient world, to be based on a web of assumptions, clever hypotheses, and selective inclusion and omission of disparate pieces of evidence. This book is a self-conscious attempt to fill part of the gap left by the lack of a reliable modern guide to the ceremony in the three centuries on either side of the fall of the Republic. Beard argues that the "ritual in ink" is no less important than the ritual in practice (p. 71 and passim).
The Roman Triumph is perhaps a bit specific for undergraduate survey courses. Beard has consciously written a book that "shows its workings" (p. 5). That is, far from oversimplifying the issues, she leads readers through the various assemblages of ancient evidence, and shows how they may be usefully evaluated, and what they can and cannot tell us about the topic under consideration. This may sound like a pack of dreadfully dull analytical prose, but her style is engaging and informative. As one of the few public Roman ceremonies with an identifiable series of individual performances, the triumph is comparatively well documented and was the occasion for Roman intellectuals and antiquarians to try to understand their own history and culture. It "presents Roman intellectuals in action," as Beard notes (p. 61). The evidence may often tell us as much or more about those who compiled or composed it than the events that they were attempting to chronicle or describe.
Pompey's third triumph provides a useful opening case study on the difficulties of trying to reconstruct "the events as they happened on the day" (p. 40-41 and passim). While the event was commemorated in numismatics and in the architecture of Pompey's theater complex, and it is among the best documented in ancient literature, there are problems. The literary evidence, aside from Cicero's sarcastic correspondence, is not contemporary, stretching over three centuries, and is fraught with various competing agendas. Pliny sought to use the event as an exemplar of excess, while Plutarch and Appian may have preserved lost contemporary accounts, but it is difficult to judge their veracity at secondhand and they had agendas of their own. In addition, the various ancient sources are not terribly plausible or consistent regarding such details as figures for soldiers, slaves, and booty. Even when the sources appear to agree, Beard provides the useful reminder that the standard modern editions have also been subject to editorial "correction," which may or may not be justified.
Andrea Mantegna's series of nine seventeenth-century paintings of the Triumphs of Caesar as events of lavish excess provide an ironic illustration for Beard that there is another side to the coin. That is, the triumph's true import, like that of other ceremonials, lies just as much in recollection and representation as in the proceedings themselves. "Its story is always in the telling," by those seeking to use it for their own purposes (p. 41). While influential and evocative, Mantegna's works were necessarily composite images based on multiple accounts and events, and the various restorations and reworkings over the last four centuries have ensured that his originals may only be glimpsed imperfectly. As such, rather than a vivid evocation of the ancient parade, they are better seen, Beard argues, as a symbol of the process of loss, representation, and reconstruction. Beard's discussion of certain particular aspects of triumphal culture--such as the parade of captives, the spoils, and the rules for granting a triumph--highlights these problems but also suggests what they may, in fact, tell us about Roman culture.
Attempts to find a systematic set of criteria or so-called "triumphal law" that would govern when a general might qualify for a triumph date back at least to Valerius Maximus in the first century AD but obscure the political nature of the beast (ch. 6 passim). Beard makes a convincing case that such decisions were at best ad hoc, if not arbitrary. Certainly Cicero's lobbying for a triumph for his minor operations as governor of Cilicia in 51 BC are indicative of the amount of horse trading involved. Precedents and rules might be used or ignored as it suited the Senate on any particular occasion.
For Beard, "extraordinary marks of honor always entail high risk" (p. 253). While the physical display of victims in a triumphal procession provided the physical realization of empire and Beard notes that the "economy of violence and power" operated as much by fantasy and threat as by the sword itself, it also had and has certain ambiguities that need not reflect well on the victor (p. 131). Glamorous prisoners might have lent luster to an occasion, but they might also have stolen the show or emphasized its hollow nature. Germanicus may have done much to avenge the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest but Thusnelda's presence in his triumph of AD 17 likely emphasized the fact that Arminius remained at large. Later writers might have used such personages to highlight particular facets of the event as Tacitus did when he commented on the premature declaration of a "mission accomplished." What is more, chariots might have broken down, elephants might have gotten stuck, the display might have been seen as inadequate or excessive, and the victory might have seemed too brutal for the tastes of the observers or those recounting them to later generations, or aroused the envy and ire of other notables.
Indeed, in turning to the early empire and the monopolization of the ceremony by the emperors and their families, Beard notes that even the emperors triumphed only rarely. The ritual in "marble, bronze, and ink," rather than on the streets, had become the much more common method of monumentalizing victory (p. 301). Here, Beard wonders if Augustus and his successors were canny enough to realize the inherent dangers of the public ceremony.
Overall, readers will be left with much to ponder. If Beard is correct, we may never entirely know how it actually happened, but at least we can know how it was recorded, remembered, debated, and discussed.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Joseph Frechette. Review of Beard, Mary, The Roman Triumph.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2008 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.