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Benjamin M. Sullivan

Review of Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007. Pp. 434. ISBN 978-0-674-02613-1.

The triumph (Latin triumphus) was the Roman victory ritual par excellence, its celebration the greatest height to which a political Roman of the Republic could aspire. With captives and plunder on display and accompanied by a formidable retinue, a general who had led his army to victory in a major battle entered the city of Rome by the "Triumphal Gate" (used exclusively for the purpose) and processed through its streets to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. Strange rites, the origins of which were already obscure by the late republican period, awed spectators and participants alike: clothed in elaborate, archaic costume, the general held a laurel branch in one hand and an ivory scepter in the other while his soldiers chanted insulting or obscene songs to ward off evil. Standing behind him in his chariot, a slave held a golden crown over his head and whispered, "look behind you; remember that you are mortal." In The Roman Triumph, Mary Beard attempts to revise every element of the standard scholarly reconstruction of the triumph, often radically.[1] Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and a renowned student of Roman religion, she is as qualified as anyone now writing in English to undertake the task. That said, readers of MWSR should be aware at the outset that her book is not primarily a military historical study but an account of an important Roman ritual in its political, social, and cultural milieux. Just as much, it is an extended critique of how modern scholars have interpreted that ritual.

Beard's avowed purpose in writing the book is to prove her conviction that, more often than not, scholars have gone about studying the triumph the wrong way. Much of the book is thus devoted to questions of methodology, yet she hopes it will appeal to non-specialists. She arranges it loosely in four parts: the first chapter is a case study; the second and third examine the place of the triumph in Roman culture generally and the reliability of the evidence for it; chapters four through eight are studies of particular aspects of the ceremony and what they reveal about "triumphal culture"; the final chapter surveys the triumph over roughly a millennium of practice. Because of the lack of reliable sources for archaic Rome, Beard concentrates for the most part on the late Republic and early Empire. This is in marked contrast to many earlier studies: the fullest previous English treatment of the triumph, by H.S. Versnel, deals mostly with the ceremony's archaic origins.[2]

The first part uses one triumph as a touchstone. In 67 BCE, Cn. Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey") was granted an extraordinary command to clear the Mediterranean of increasingly brazen pirates. Dividing the coasts into thirteen regions each under a commander subordinate to himself, Pompey worked with stunning efficiency. Within three months, he had crushed the pirates and swept their fleets from the sea. The next year, Pompey received another extraordinary command, this time to carry on the war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who had posed a very real threat to Rome's security since the mid-90s. Pompey checked and isolated Mithridates, and by 63 the king was dead by his own hand. Meanwhile, Pompey had driven south to annex Syria and capture Jerusalem, extending Roman control over enormous swathes of land from the Black Sea to the Levant. The richness of the plunder from these campaigns was staggering: the inventory of Mithridates' furniture alone took the Romans thirty days to complete.

In 61, Pompey celebrated at Rome with a triumph commensurate with his successes. He displayed so much loot that the procession lasted two days instead of the usual one. But Beard stresses that the actual events of the triumph were only one part of the story. Pompey struck coins to commemorate it and monumentalized it in the theater complex (the first permanent stone theater at Rome) he dedicated in 55. These tangible memorials were effective: more than a century later, Pliny the Elder would complain that this triumph marked the end of the old Roman austerity, and in the early sixteenth century CE, an adviser to the Medici suggested a detailed recreation of Pompey's triumph to fill out a program for the feast of John the Baptist. Yet Beard maintains that the most important memorials were the written accounts of the triumph, and the examination of these forms the core of her study. These accounts, however, are not always what they seem:

The triumph of Pompey is not simply, or even primarily, about what happened on September 28 and 29, 61 BCE. It is also about the ways in which it was subsequently remembered, embellished, argued over, decried, and incorporated into the wider mythology of the Roman triumph as a historical institution and cultural category. Like all ceremonies … its meaning must lie as much in the recollection and re-presentation of the proceedings as in the transient proceedings themselves. Its story is always in the telling. The exaggerations, the distortions, the selective amnesia are all part of the plot--as this book will show (41).

In the next section, Beard argues that the descriptions of triumphs by Roman historians and scholars often say more about their authors' own preoccupations than the actual practice of the ritual. The influence of the "invention of tradition" school[3] is apparent in the argumentation here and throughout. To summarize briefly, its practitioners contend that traditions are often manufactured during periods of rapid social change; Beard applies their methods to the ancient testimonia on triumphs, which, problematically, were written mostly in the imperial period, while the triumphs they describe date to the republican period, sometimes centuries earlier. The signal development in this process of invented tradition happened under Augustus: after the triumph of L. Cornelius Balbus in 19 BCE, no one triumphed in Rome apart from the emperor or his close relatives. The ceremony itself now became relatively rare and imperial narratives of republican triumphs were themselves attempts to piece together what amounted to an antiquity. After all, even of the surviving notices of Pompey's triumph, only Cicero's was contemporary with it and Cassius Dio wrote his important account nearly three centuries later. There is good cause to be skeptical, since Cicero himself (Brutus 62) complained about "invented triumphs and too many consulships" in the histories of Roman aristocratic families. Good documentary evidence does survive (in particular the so-called Fasti Capitolini, an inscribed list of triumphing generals covering the period from Romulus to Balbus, erected in the Augustan period), but Beard argues (too skeptically) that even this epigraphic record is the work of compilers with agendas of their own and may not have been consulted by later writers.

The book's third section examines the significance of specific aspects of and rules governing the ceremony, breaking away the attractive but thin shells of the standard scholarly reconstructions. Considering the role of captives in the triumph, for example, she shows that their display could arouse ambivalence in spectators, since by attracting their sympathies the prisoners sometimes outshone the general himself and blurred the line between victor and victim. Moreover, the ceremony could even serve as a rite of passage to "Romanization": P. Ventidius Bassus triumphed in 38 BCE for his victory over the Parthians, but had himself been led as a captive in the triumph that Cn. Pompeius Strabo (Pompey's father) celebrated for his successes in the Social War (91-87).

Beard next convincingly dispenses with some extravagant art historical theories about the works of art displayed in triumphs. Less convincing is her dismissal of the evidence for the accounts that triumphing generals deposited in the state treasury, which detailed the quantity and quality of booty retrieved. In a chapter different in execution from the others in this section, Beard scrutinizes Cicero's campaign to secure senatorial approval of a triumph for his efforts as governor of Cilicia and Cyprus in 51-50 BCE. By working out a chronology and establishing the events "as they actually happened," she shows that the process of determining the right to triumph was a messy one and did not conform to the rules that the legally minded scholars of the nineteen century sought to impose upon the evidence. (Beard handles this material so deftly that one wishes she had included more essays into history of this more traditional kind.) She then compares Cicero's unsuccessful efforts with Livy's descriptions of senatorial debates about procedure regarding the right to triumph in the third and second centuries, concluding that these were more "Ciceronian" than previously imagined: rather than hewing to an inflexible set of legal rules, the senate's decision-making was often ad hoc. Beard argues that, trying to make sense of the earlier evidence, Livy adjusted his materials to conform to the more "Ciceronian" practice of his own time. I prefer to see Livy's accounts as reflective of mid-Republican reality, but no matter: her critique of the rigid legal formalism of earlier scholarship marks significant progress.

Another chapter considers the importance of the victorious general in the triumph. Earlier scholarship was concerned primarily with origins: thus the triumphing general was thought to imitate Jupiter himself, Rome's early Etruscan kings, or (Versnel's solution) both god and kings. However, Beard maintains here and in the next chapter (on the often indistinct boundaries between the triumphs and "triumph-like" ceremonies) that theories about the origins of the triumph are often flimsy, since the evidence for archaic Rome is so thin and its interpretation so tendentious.

In the final section, after first considering the significant changes under Augustus (again, mostly improvised rather than legally formal), Beard continues her critique of the study of archaic origins and again casts doubt on reconstructions of the earliest triumphs. Finally, she asks when the triumph ceased to be a living ritual. Unlike rituals such as animal sacrifice, no law ever banned the practice of triumphing, and it continued into the Christian Empire, albeit in sometimes outlandish new forms. Beard considers candidates for the "last triumph" ranging from the celebration of Maximian and Constantine in 312 CE to that of Belisarius in 534. However, there is no clear rupture and she even suggests the triumph of Titus and Vespasian in 71 may have been "more of a 'revival' than living tradition, more afterlife than life" (328).

If there is a major flaw in the book, it is that, for all her incisive analysis, Beard offers relatively little synthesis. J.G. Frazer comes in for much criticism, even derision, for his theory that the triumphing general copied the insignia and dress of the archaic Italic kings, who had assimilated themselves to Jupiter himself.[4] But one misses Frazer's piercing anthropological insights or the attempts at synthesis of scholars such as Versnel, who like Frazer argued (if more soberly) from archaic evidence to ritual meaning. Nevertheless, at the level of the specialist, the book must be counted a resounding success. Beard's revisionist arguments will not convince all scholars, but even dissenters will have to take them very seriously. Non-specialists, however, will likely find the extended methodological discussions frustrating. Even so, all the relevant material is included. Moreover, the lavish illustrations and fascinating accounts of the triumph's post-classical Nachleben alone make this book worth owning for all.

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and The University of California, Irvine


[1] The topic has received much scholarly attention recently. Since Beard's study, four books on the triumph have appeared: J.-L. Bastien, Triomphe romain et son utilisation politique à Rome aux trois siècles de la république (Rome: École française de Rome, 2007), H. Krasser, D. Pausch, & I. Petrovic, edd., Triplici invectus triumpho: Der römische Triumph in augusteischer Zeit (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2008), M.R. Pelikan Pittenger, Contested Triumphs: Politics, Pageantry, and Performance in Livy's Republican Rome (Berkeley: U Calif Pr, 2008), and I. Oestenberg, Staging the World: Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

[2] Triumphus: An Inquiry into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph (Leiden: Brill, 1970).

[3] The seminal work is E. Hobsbawm & T. Ranger, edd., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: CUP, 1983). One essay in that collection, David Cannadine's "The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: the British Monarchy and the 'Invention of Tradition,' c. 1820-1977" (101-164), exercises a particular hold on Beard, as her discussions of ad hoc procedure in determining the right to triumph show (see esp. 207, 277).

[4] The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, vol. 2.1: The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1911) 174-78.