Beard cover

De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Mary Beard

The Roman Triumph

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 434 pp. $18.95. ISBN: 9780674032187.

It is a true pleasure to see this paperback version of Professor Beard’s monumental 2007 text. Plenty has been written about the great contribution that the 2007 edition made to the fields of classics and military history. However, it should be said that this 2009 paperback edition makes Professor Beard’s arguments and theories accessible to a new set of readers who will appreciate the more affordable format. The paperback does not differ from the original. In addition to the plan, abbreviations, notes, bibliography, acknowledgements, illustration credits, and index, the 2009 edition keeps the chapters almost as first written:

  • prologue, “The Question of Triumph,”
  • 1 “Pompey’s Finest Hour?,”

  • 2 “The Impact of the Triumph,”

  • 3 “Constructions and Reconstructions,”

  • 4 “Captives on Parade,”

  • 5 “The Art of Representation,”

  • 6 “Playing by the Rules,”

  • 7 “Playing God,”
  • 8 “The Boundaries of the Ritual,”
  • 9 “The Triumph of History,”

  • epilogue, “Rome, May 2006.”

In the first chapter Beard grapples with Pompey’s triumph of 61 BC: do we get the truth about what happened on September 28th and 29th of that year? The data is confusing, obscure, and misleading (intentionally or unintentionally). On the other hand, the “accuracy” of the event and the details related to it are put into context: it is the story about the triumph and its telling that matter. “The exaggerations, the distortions, the selective amnesia are all part of the plot” (41) of this ritual’s story as this book shows. It is not only the event that matters to Professor Beard since just as important is the way in which Pompey’s triumph is recalled, exaggerated, debated, deprecated, and “incorporated into the wider mythology of the Roman triumph as a historical and institution and cultural category” (41). In the second chapter one can read about the vast effect that the triumph had on Roman life: the memorials that celebrated triumphs that dominated the Roman cityscapes with the quadrigae and arches to the linguistic, rhetorical, and philosophical usage of things “triumphal.” In “Constructions and Reconstructions,” Professor Beard brings to the forefront one of the most interesting questions connected to the triumph: where does the list of triumph move from the mythical to the historical (or vice versa)?  These questions are posed:  “How far back in time can we imagine that the compilers of the inscribed Fasti, or other historians working in the late Republic and early Empire, had access to accurate information on exactly who triumphed, when and over whom?  And if they had access to it, did they use it? To what extent were they engaged in fictionalizing reconstruction, if not outright invention?” And, “Why believe what writers of the first century BCE or later tell us?” (74) The answers to these questions are difficult to formulate and may, of course, not be correct the at all.  For example, it may be the case, Professor Beard suggests as a possible answer, that the historians included or excluded certain triumphs form their narratives because triumphs were in their lists or priorities, or not.  One thing is definitely firm:  uncertainty is present when creating any answers to this imprecise topic or analyzing the data at hand.  All the same, it can be stated that when it came to this ritual “it is likely to have been more conservative in theory than it was in practice” (105). 

Chapter four, “Captives on Parade,” focuses on the defeated that were marshaled ahead of the triumphant general as he entered the city (it should be noted that the processional order varied and that the conquered did not always go before the victor).  Yes, it is true that the captives were symbols of his victory, but they also served as potential moral lessons to the conquering general.  “The Art of Representation” in some measure continues the theme of the procession in how it was produced in the triumphal display often publicized in art (some lavishly; some defying reality and historical data).  By and large triumphal illustrations share the message that wealth was flowing in to the capitol of the new empire from all parts of the conquered world.  Chapter six discusses the varied, fragile and changing rules that applied to the structure of the ritual (with special emphasis on Cicero’s account on the triumph); one rule held firm: the general was to remain outside of the city walls before the commencement of the triumphal procession.  Professor Beard also notes in the following chapter that the main character in the triumph, the successful general, was not always viewed as “divine”; in fact, the divine general “is essentially a late republican creation” (238).  The other accoutrements (dress, banquet, location, paraphernalia, etc.) associated with the triumph are further discussed in the following, penultimate chapter.  In the last chapter, the reader is made once again aware of the purpose of the book:  to review the historical intricacies of this well-known part of Roman history.  However, “no single history of this ritual ever existed…ancient writers told the story of the triumph and explained its development and changes in more—and more varied—ways than modern orthodoxy would allow” (305).  Even the origins of the ritual are murky; one cannot even state when the “first” triumph was held with 100% accuracy.

A word of caution is perhaps in order: the author makes it very clear that what she intends to do in her text is to present a “manifesto of sorts” (5). This is not to say that Professor Beard’s personal agenda gets in the way of or detracts from serious and deliberative historical research. In fact, the opposite occurs:  The Roman Triumph is one of the most well-planned, easily approached, and, yet, challenging reads that I have encountered in my professional career. This book presents the facts, yet tests them; gives us the proper design and intent of the triumph, but makes the reader stop and ponder if what has been offered over the millennia regarding this ritual is what actually took place in ancient Rome; and works its way through the complex and multilayered strata of literary, artistic, and religious evidence in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner.

Edmund P. Cueva

University of Houston-Downtown <cuevae@uhd.edu

Page Added: April 2010