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.

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.”

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 …

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