The Roman Triumph

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Fashion sways everything, the writing of history very much included. For a generation, the fashion in Roman history has been to emphasize the uncanniness and archaism of Roman customs, the wild incommensurability between Roman mentalities and those of the present day.

By contrast, in her boldly revisionist book The Roman Triumph, Cambridge University classicist Mary Beard presents us with Romans who bear more than a passing resemblance to modern English-speakers: celebrity-crazed, PR-savvy, always ready to adapt their traditions to the needs of the moment.

If you watched the HBO series “Rome,” you saw a re-enactment of Julius Caesar’s triumph of 46 BC: Caesar riding in a golden chariot, his face painted red, dressed in purple and white robes, a slave holding a wreath over his head. If you had looked up an explanation for this uncanny garb, you would probably have been told: the red paint was there to imitate the red-painted face of the statues of the god Mars; the robes were those of Capitoline Jove; and the slave was to whisper in his ear, “Remember thou art mortal.”

Beard argues that we know less about all these customs than we think we do. The sole source for the face-painting, for example, is a remark of the younger Pliny’s, writing more than 150 years after the end of the Republic, at a time when triumphs had long been restricted to members of the imperial family. The detailing of the robes is even more uncertain, resting on a Latin passage that can be read in three different ways, to mean either literally the robes worn by the Capitoline idol – or robes modeled on those of the idol – or robes that were donated to the Capitoline temple after the end of the ceremony.

And was the slave really there? If so, it must have been awfully cramped in that tiny chariot – what with the victor and his young children riding there already. Awfully dangerous too, to cram in so many people, since chariots jolt horribly. (Caesar in fact was thrown from his en route.) Early art shows a god in the chariot holding that (symbolic?) wreath over the triumphing general’s head – is it possible that later generations of Roman misread the meaning of earlier carvings?

Triumphs stretch back to the earliest antiquity of Rome. By legend, Romulus had the first. Some historians believe that they were a custom dating back to the Etruscans. On the other hand, anybody who has ever watched a winning small-town sports team parade through its home town must wonder whether the impulse is not embedded deep in human nature.

About early Roman triumphs we do not know much. Were they deeply ritualistic? Did they follow prescribed routes, stop at certain sacred localities, obey primordial commands or taboos? Or were they casually informal, with the details of the parade, the sacrifice, and the ensuing feast varying according to circumstances and possibilities? One thing we can say is that they cannot have been very spectacular: The proceeds from conquering some impoverished Italian hill town cannot have been very handsome.

The lurid age of the triumph comes later, in the final century of the Republic, when the Romans conquered the wealthy Hellenistic east. Pompey’s triumph in 62 BC seems to have been the most lavish of them all. Beard’s subversive question is: Did triumphs like Pompey’s really conform to the allegedly immutable folkways of the past? Or were they in fact more like British royal weddings – full of pomp and ceremony meant to feel antique, but in fact invented by modern people for modern purposes?

(Notice that at British royal coronations and weddings, the celebrants ride in a gilded carriage that looks straight out of the pages of Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Yet in fact, the first of the big royal pageants, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, was staged in 1897; the first royal wedding to be made a public spectacle was that of the future George VI in 1923. They all could easily have gone by car.)

Likewise, Beard expresses great skepticism about the rules and conditions that supposedly bound the awarding of a triumph: that there had to be at least 5,000 dead, or that there existed some special triumph for generals who killed the opposing general in hand-to-hand combat. She suspects that most of these rules were invented after the fact, for polemical purposes, to legitimate or (more often) delegitimate a political rival’s claims to a triumph. In her telling, the awarding of a triumph was a deeply political rather than legal or religious event, in which competing Republican leaders used every trick – including the invention of bogus history – to claim glory for themselves and to deny it to their rivals.

Maybe Julius Caesar really did paint his face red in 46 BC. And maybe he did so because triumphing Roman generals always had. And maybe there was some ancient religious ritual at the base of this custom. Equally possible, however, was that nobody in 46 AD had any idea of how triumphs had been celebrated 300 years before – and that if Caesar painted his face red, he did so to create a “ye olde” impression that owed little or nothing to old customs.

During the principate of Augustus, triumphs begin to fade out of existence, and in two directions. First, the emperors stopped awarding them outside the imperial family. Second, the emperors began redeploying the characteristic imagery of late-republican triumphs as symbols of imperial office. The imperial costume copied the look of triumphal robes. Imperial entrances and exits from cities borrowed elements from the triumphal show.

In the end, the symbolism of the triumph became the symbolism of the empire – of Rome itself. And maybe that was the way it always had been.

A deeply interesting book, for those already reasonably familiar with Roman history. Nicely produced and illustrated too. Kudos above all for Beard’s determined abstention from (most) academic jargon.

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