In 79 BCE, Pompey the Great—Republican Rome’s home-grown answer to the Greek Alexander—was upstaged by some elephants. He was celebrating his military victories in Africa with a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. This was the nearest thing to heaven for a Roman general. Almost literally; for the triumph involved not only a shameless parade of spoils, captured weapons, looted artworks, and exotic prisoners, it also allowed the general to dress up for the day in the costume of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Best and Greatest”), patron god of the city.
This particular triumph was irregular in a number of ways. First of all, Pompey was far too young for any such honor, being at most twenty-six years old. “He got a triumph before he grew a beard,” as one ancient commentator later summed up the precocious celebration—vividly, if not wholly accurately. “Murderous teenager” was how an elderly adversary described Pompey nearer the time, though admittedly this had been provoked by an insult about age from the young man himself. Pompey had inquired whether his gray-beard opponent was just visiting town on a short break from the underworld.
Second, it was said to be only by barefaced chutzpah that he had squeezed permission to hold the ceremony out of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, warlord, conservative ideologue, and (at that time) dictator of Rome. When Sulla, who was then in his late fifties, seemed set to refuse, Pompey again displayed that combination of youthful arrogance and canny prescience: “You should bear in mind that more people worship the rising sun than the setting sun.” Sulla gave in.
Third, instead of the usual team of four horses, Pompey chose to ride in a triumphal chariot drawn by elephants. These animals had been rounded up during the African campaigns and the big-game hunting trip which Pompey apparently enjoyed on his vacation before sailing home. But they did more than remind spectators of the far-flung foreign territories over which the boy-general had been victorious. They cast an even stronger divine light over the whole show. For it was in a chariot drawn by elephants that the god Bacchus (or Dionysos) was believed to have returned to the West after his conquest of India. Pompey was, in other words, going beyond the traditional identification of the general as “Jupiter for the day”; he was presenting himself as the new Bacchus.
But as so often happens when mortals choose to imitate the gods, the elephants did not turn out to be so easy to handle for Pompey as they had for Bacchus. When the triumphal procession came to pass through a gateway on its route up to the Capitoline hill, the lumbering animals proved too big to fit and promptly became stuck. Pompey went into reverse, drew them back, and attempted the maneuver a second time—but still without success. He had no choice but to give up, unhitch them, and hang around while the standard four horses were put in their place …