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Dark Victories

The Roman Triumph

by Mary Beard
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 434 pp., $29.95

A triumphus was a victory procession through ancient Rome granted to generals after a successful military campaign. There is more evidence for the performance of this ceremony than for any other Roman ritual. It was a thing constantly talked about in Roman antiquity. You might expect, then, that a vast body of learning would have been formed around the custom. Unfortunately you would be right. Conjectures and conclusions grow from and around the triumphus like kudzu. It takes the mighty vorpal sword of Mary Beard to clear a path through this jabberwocky jungle, snicker-snack. She stands in the great tradition of myth-puncturing Latin classicists—scholars like Richard Bentley, Basil Gildersleeve, A.E. Housman, or Ronald Syme—when she points out that almost all the established views on the triumph are dubious or plain wrong.

1.

Octavian’s Triumph (29 BCE)

According to Rome’s civic myth, the first triumph was celebrated by the city’s founder, Romulus. But Virgil has a prophecy of the ceremony given even before the time of Romulus, to the pre-founder, Aeneas. When Vulcan forges a shield for Aeneas, he includes on it the scene of Octavian’s triumph in Virgil’s own time. It shows a standard feature of triumphal description, a display of captured foes—in Octavian’s case, exotic peoples from Gaul and Africa and Asia Minor, wearing barbaric garb and gabbling weird languages. Beard says that reports of triumphs stressed the foreignness of the foe to show that Rome’s was a civilizing mission. But in the case of Octavian, the exotic note had to be struck most emphatically, to distract people from the fact that the principal foe Octavian had defeated at Actium in 31 BCE was a Roman leader, Marc Antony. The poet Lucan said there are no genuine triumphs in a civil war, since the victors and the vanquished are both Roman. That is why, as Ronald Syme put it, for the Actium war “it was necessary to invent a foreign danger that menaced everything that was Roman.”1

When Marc Antony’s consort, Cleopatra, is represented by Virgil on Aeneas’ shield, her Egyptianness is highlighted, not the fact that she was of Macedonian descent and had reigned as part of the Roman system under Caesar and Antony and had children by both men. Instead, we are told that she fights against Roman deities with “a rabble of unnatural gods, including the barking Dog-God” (Aeneid 8:698). Cleopatra is not herded along in Octavian’s triumph with other defeated foreigners, since she committed suicide in Alexandria precisely to avoid this fate—or so Horace claimed in a famous ode.

This is often taken to mean that she thwarted Octavian’s demands, achieving her own paradoxical triumph. But Beard and others doubt that Octavian was disappointed. He did not really want to have Cleopatra on his hands in Rome. What would he do with her? Kill her? Beard shows that, contrary to the historians’ myth, few of those paraded in triumphs were executed, and no woman is in their number. Syme said that “a Roman imperator could not order the execution of a woman.”2 Scholars of Horace’s “Cleopatra ode” agree: “The strangling of Caesar’s mistress…might seem superfluous even to Roman consciences.”3

If Octavian could not openly kill Cleopatra, keeping the devious and resourceful woman alive would be dangerous. Her death, says Syme, was a great convenience to Octavian. He probably either allowed or arranged it. There are many things fishy about the story of her voluntary death.4 Octavian himself promoted the story of her suicide. His triumph carried an effigy of Cleopatra grasping the Egyptian cobra (Greek aspis) that is supposed to have killed her. (The cobra was sacred to Isis, and Cleopatra wore the image of a rearing cobra as a crest on her headdress during her life—this was another way to stress her alien status.) According to C.B.R. Pelling, Octavian “clearly encouraged the tale of the asps by the display at the triumph, and probably earlier.”5

When it suited Octavian’s purpose to deny the foreignness of Antony and Cleopatra, his propagandists were ready to do that, too. Earlier, in 34 BCE, Antony had staged a grand procession for himself in Alexandria, the Egyptian capital, which, Beard argues, was meant to portray him to his Eastern realms as the new Bacchus on his orgiastic chariot. But Octavian portrayed this as a Roman triumph carried on away from Rome, the mark of a traitor and a Roman usurper. Triumphs could be manipulated for all kinds of purposes.

2.

The General in His Chariot

Beard dwells on the ambiguities and ambivalences of the Octavian triumph to show how difficult, indeed deceptive, the accounts of Roman triumphs can be. She traces similar problems in the story of triumph after triumph. This is part of the paradox that runs through her book, that the more we seem to know about triumphs, the less we can prove. Almost no detail of the triumph as a stable institution can be confirmed—not the route of a triumph, not its components, not the order of its participants, not its choreography, not its costumes, not its musical accompaniment (if any), not the number of triumphs that actually occurred or the number of captives and prizes displayed in particular triumphs, not the connection (if any) of the procession with triumphal banquets and games.

In one sense, this is not surprising. Triumphs supposedly occurred over the course of a thousand years, during which time Rome and its institutions were constantly changing—the greatest change, of course, being that from the republic to the empire. Triumphs moved through a city that was also changing constantly, partly as a result of the triumphs themselves, some of which were commemorated afterward by monuments and temples. Those who won triumphs and those who criticized them had reasons to exaggerate, minimize, or otherwise distort elements in the event. Despite these considerations, modern scholarship on the triumph is full of unearned certitudes. The schedule, rules, and execution of “the standard triumph” are spelled out in detail. Beard shows that historians of Rome have a stake in proving that the triumph was ancient, primitive, and religious, so as to confirm their view that Rome was always conservative in its ritual culture. Anthropologists want to show the roots of the event. Historians of empire use triumphs to gauge Rome’s expansion through conquest of other peoples. Economic historians use reported prizes at a triumph as an indicator of the state’s finances. Cultural historians draw conclusions about the militaristic nature of Rome. Many people leap to conclusions that fit their separate purposes.

Thus Beard finds a strong will to believe in the reception of ancient reports on the nature of the triumph. Then she dismantles the accepted view, point by point, with an obliterative skepticism. We are told by many sources, for instance, that the triumphant general carried, as he rode in his chariot, an ivory scepter in one hand and a laurel branch in the other. If that were true, how could he stand in an open two-wheel chariot for a long day, being bumped over rocky streets and climbing the steep Capitoline hill, without holding onto something other than ivory and laurel? She quotes the findings of a scholar who studied ancient chariots, and who was an inspector of modern ceremonial chariots, to show that standing directly over the axle of such a vehicle is a difficult balancing act. Even trained Hollywood stuntmen find it hard to stand in swaying and jolted replicas of ancient chariots.6 Julius Caesar was thrown from the chariot in one of his five triumphs when its axle broke. Triumphs were no child’s play.

Standing behind the general in his chariot, according to the standard view of the triumph, was a slave charged with the task of whispering in the general’s ear, “Look behind you. Remember you are a man.” But Beard points out that relief sculptures more often show a personified Victory standing behind the general and holding a crown over his head—the opposite of the admonition to humility. When there is a slave, he too is holding a crown. We cannot, of course, know what if anything the slave is saying from the relief, but one of the clearest examples of such a figure is in a representation of Trajan’s triumph. Since this seems to represent Trajan’s posthumous triumph, when an effigy of the emperor was propped up in the chariot, it would not make sense for the slave to be reminding Trajan that he is mortal—a memento mori whispered to a mortuus. Besides, the only full quotation of the slave’s purported words is by the early Christian writer Tertullian, who had a theological animus against emperor worship. This is flimsy evidence, Beard points out, for making the whispered warning a standard feature of triumphs.

Others think that the triumph conveyed the opposite of what the slave allegedly said, flourishing the fact that the triumphant general was a god. The oddest evidence for this is Pliny the Elder’s report that the general’s face was painted red. Why would that indicate divinity? Because, we are told, the statue of Jupiter on the Capitoline was a terracotta image dyed red. But that image was destroyed when the temple of Jupiter burned down in 83 BCE, and the divinizing of emperors began much later.

Still others try to derive the red face from some other “primitive” rite. Was the general painted in his foe’s blood, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus? Or was the blood “apotropaic,” to ward off the evil eye? Or a form of homeopathic purification from the shedding of blood? Beard says the anthropologists love to play with such possibilities, but before asking what the rite means, they should wonder more skeptically whether it ever occurred. Pliny reports all kinds of improbable lore, and even those who accept the red face quietly tiptoe away from Pliny’s report that the whole body was painted red. They are willing to be in for a penny but not for a pound.

Beard says that anthropologically inclined historians love to ponder such “primitive” options, even though the Romans themselves seem to have forgotten the reason for many of their rituals. Scholars succumb to a “seductive but often misleading gravitational pull toward the archaic.” Thus when the soldiers of the triumphant general shouted ribald insults at him, we are told that this, too, was an apotropaic rite. Maybe so. But making gestures against a successful person who might get too big for his britches is a common instinct. Graduates of the university in Padova, upon receiving their degrees, are seen on the street compelled to do comic things in comic dress (or undress), to take them down a peg or two in their moment of triumph. Is dousing a winning coach with barrels of liquid apotropaic? The poet Martial, in an epigram (1.4) not quoted by Beard, used the soldiers’ ribaldry at the triumph as an excuse for his own obscene poems. Perhaps it was never more than that.

If, Caesar, you should stumble on my book,

Briefly put off your world-compelling look.

Remember, victors suffer insults free

At triumphs, rife with upstart ribaldry.

You can applaud coarse mimes upon the stage—

So let a lowly author stain his page.

A censor can relax, wink just one eye.

My poetry is filthy—but not I.

[emphasis added]

Celebrations often take on what Beard calls a ritual solipsism, “whereby the ritual turns itself into the object of ritual, the triumph celebrates the triumph.” Fireworks on the Fourth of July exist for the sake of—fireworks.

The quest for “the primitive” recurs when historians argue that the victorious general was supposedly treated as a god. As Beard says, this yearns back toward “the god-kings of Frazerland.” She is familiar with the milieu in which James Frazer wrote The Golden Bough since she wrote a properly questioning book on the early career of Jane Harrison, another Cambridge student of religious origins.7 Here she points out that the best evidence of the effort to divinize the emperors was not primitive, at the origin of the triumph, but is to be found in sophisticated later manipulations of Eastern symbols meant to hold the empire together.

3.

Numbers

Ancient historians are famous inflators of numbers, to magnify the scale of victories or losses. And that is not the only problem in dealing with ancient numbers. The Roman numeral system is vulnerable to textual corruptions. So Beard takes a hard look at reports that hundreds, at times even thousands, of captured enemies were paraded in a general’s procession. How likely, she asks, is it that such hordes would be transported, fed, and housed outside the city while a general waited for permission to celebrate a triumph? That wait could drag on for months, sometimes even for years. Cicero gives a very complete picture of the process in his time. The report of victory had to be based, first, on the soldiers’ acclamation of their general as imperator at the site of his victory. Then the general had to ask the Senate for a supplicatio, a prayer of thanksgiving to the gods for the victory. After that he had to be granted authority (imperium) to enter the city—and at this point a tribune of the people could veto the permission. One could not bring an army into Rome except in a peaceful triumphal parade. Rome, as Beard chirpily puts it, was a demilitarized zone.

Keeping a general outside the city limits could have many uses. When Caesar was asking for a triumph in 60 BCE, the Senate stalled so long that he could not enter the city to run for consul if he kept up his request—so he withdrew the petition for a triumph this time. Appius Claudius Pulcher had to give up his request for a triumph in 50 BCE when he was forced to enter the city and defend himself in a lawsuit. In Cicero’s case, when he wrote the senate after his army prevailed while he was governor of Cilicia in 51 BCE, he sent personal appeals to all but two of the six hundred senators. He won the supplicatio, over Cato’s objections, but there was danger that permission to enter would be vetoed by the tribune Curio. Meanwhile, the beginnings of the war between Caesar and Pompey made Cicero give up his quest for a triumph.

During such a wait, no matter how long, the hundreds of captives would have to be stored somewhere and victualed—an expense for which the state would not put up the money. Costs would be charged to the general. If permission for the triumph was denied, this would have been an entirely wasted expenditure. And if a triumph were granted, what would be done with the captives afterward? Beard explodes the myth of mass executions. She can find only five named captives (none of them women) killed at the end of a triumph, along with some unnamed pirates. If the captives were sold as slaves, who would get the purchase money, the state or the general? If there had been such wholesale transactions, Beard believes, we would know more about their result. She finds it far more likely that captives were sold into slavery where they were taken, before any further expense could be incurred for their upkeep.

A few leading captives were no doubt brought to Rome, as celebrity prizes, but the vast numbers were probably just recorded in one of the giant plaques that were carried in the parade. The same applies to the fabulous riches that were supposed to be paraded: exotic jewels, artworks, gold and silver. There would be better accounting for such treasure if it reached the scale described. As it is, there are reports of some money going into the treasury and of generals keeping such symbolic items as a captive ship’s prow to clutter up their houses.

4.

Invented Traditions

After showing, in case after case, how insubstantial is the basis for descriptions of “the standard triumph,” Beard probes for the source of so much misunderstanding. She points out that we have only one description (Cicero’s) of a triumph from the roughly 730 years of the monarchical and republican period, and that report comes at the very end of the republican time. The many other descriptions come from the imperial time, when the triumph’s nature had been drastically altered. After 19 BCE all but one of the triumphs were limited to emperors or their close relatives (men being groomed to succeed the emperor). This means that an emperor decided whether and when he should have a triumph. The Senate was reduced to putting a rubber stamp on the decision.

Reports of triumphs under the republic were remembered or concocted at a time when emperors wanted to emphasize the continuity of their glorification with practices of the past—or when critics of the emperors wanted to play up current differences from a purer time. Nostalgia, irony, satire, and antiquarianism threw up veils and clouds through which distant acts were mistily glimpsed. Beard refers to a well-known book of essays that demonstrates how even more recent rites—from tribal kilts in Scotland to coronation ceremonies in London—have been invented in modern times.8 Those giving accounts of Roman triumphs were going much farther back into history, to mythical and semilegendary times (counting down from Romulus). They gave contradictory and obviously speculative accounts, some tracing the triumph from Etruscan practices, some from Egyptian, some from African. Historians who try to treat these accounts as reports on what actually happened are yielding to a desire for knowledge that is no longer available (and was not available even to most of those purporting to give factual descriptions in antiquity). Ceremonial, as Beard puts it, is often a “retrojection” of ideas, desire, or fantasies into the past.

Then why bother with Roman triumphs at all? Beard says that they must be treated as “rituals in ink,” writers’ use of a powerful symbol that could be put to many uses. The very malleability of the rite led to extensive manipulations of it—we hear of the “triumph of love,” of leaders being captive to fame, the reversal of conquest, the temptation to arrogance. What is being revealed is less the nature of the ritual than the minds of the many writers who were fascinated by it.

What Beard does not say, but what the reader can, is that her book is a great lesson in the use of historical evidence. She shows what skepticism can reveal as well as what it can clear away. And she does this with clarity, wit, and economy. Her translations from the Latin and Greek are clear, and even (where appropriate) racy. When Cicero, for instance, sneers at Pompey’s retention of his triumphal garb, the orator uses a dismissive diminutive, togula—and Beard captures the tone nicely when she translates togula as “dinky little toga.” The imperial villa Ad Gallinas she renders as “The Hennery.” Her prose, for all its learning, is jaunty.9 Her book is, in short, a triumph.

  1. 1

    Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 275.

  2. 2

    Syme, The Roman Revolution, pp. 298–299.

  3. 3

    R.G.M. Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace Odes, Book I (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 408.

  4. 4

    The most famous account of the asp is Plutarch’s, yet he adds another version of her death and says, “We do not know what really happened.” According to his first version, the cobra was smuggled into Cleopatra’s quarters in a basket of figs. The mature and lethal Egyptian cobra is six to seven feet long—hard to conceal in a fig basket. Furthermore, Cleopatra’s two handmaids were also killed, presumably by the cobra. But it takes three to four hours for a cobra to restore its venom after a strike: see Plutarch, Life of Antony, edited by C.B.R. Pelling (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 319.

    Other ancient sources, including Virgil, say there were two cobras brought to her—a snug fit for a fig basket. Even with two snakes to do the killing, the second handmaid would have had to wait around for the snake to get recharged. No wonder some scholars think that the whole cobra story was trumped up by Octavian, to cover the fact that he had a henchman secretly kill Cleopatra. This would give a more plausible reason for the deaths of her two servants—they were witnesses who had to be eliminated. As Beard has pointed out elsewhere, Octavian, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, secretly murdered Caesarion, the putative natural son of Caesar (by Cleopatra). See Mary Beard, “How Do You See Susan?,” London Review of Books, March 18, 2003. If Octavian killed the son, why would he hesitate to kill the mother?

  5. 5

    Plutarch, Life of Antony, edited by C.B.R. Pelling, p. 319.

  6. 6

    The famous stunt-scene director Yakima Canutt (known as “Yak”), a man treasured by insurance companies for his care to keep stunts safe, managed the chariot race of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston. Canutt’s son Joe, a stuntman of experience, doubled for Heston in the chariot race. When his chariot had to “jump” some wreckage on the course—actually to go up and down a hidden ramp in the apparent obstacle—Yak told Joe to tie his reins ahead of time and hold on to the rim of the chariot, fore and aft, with both hands. When Joe did not put one hand on the rear rim, he was thrown forward out of the chariot, landed on the tied reins, and luckily rolled to safety. The flip from the chariot was on film, unscripted but too good to lose. So a process shot showed Heston climbing back into the chariot from the reins. Canutt tells this story to show how difficult is the handling of Roman-style chariots. See Yakima Canutt, Stuntman (University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), pp. 17–18.

  7. 7

    Her attitude toward earlier accounts of Harrison is conveyed in the polysemous title of her book, The Invention of Jane Harrison (Harvard University Press, 2000). See also her “Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The Popularity (and Unpopularity) of The Golden Bough,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (April 1992), pp. 203–224, which describes the talismanic power of unread books.

  8. 8

    The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

  9. 9

    Beard’s sprightly style may come in part from the fact that she is not only a learned don (professor of classics at Cambridge University and fellow of Newnham College) but a journalist. She is the classics editor at The Times Literary Supplement, and in the latter capacity she writes a gossipy blog.

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