Mr Big & Co

Denis Feeney

  • The Roman Triumph by Mary Beard
    Harvard, 434 pp, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02613 1

The triumph is a key element of the modern image of the Romans, embodying the characteristics we love to imagine as quintessentially Roman: militarism, arrogance, cruelty, spectacle. Because the triumph is central to the way we think of Roman culture, the BBC/HBO television series Rome showed not one but two: that of Julius Caesar over Vercingetorix the Gaul in Season 1, and that of his adopted son over Antony and Cleopatra at the climax of Season 2. The main fun of watching the series was spotting how many things they could get wrong about the Romans in any given five minutes, and the triumphs were predictably rewarding. In Caesar’s triumph we saw Vercingetorix, who looked like an extra from Braveheart, being garrotted in the street; and in his son’s triumph the victor leaving his house with his wife, sister and long dead mother to sit down and watch the show.

Reading Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph, however, makes you realise that the inherited professional wisdom isn’t much more accurate than the TV version, because our supposedly informed view of what a triumph was really like turns out to be a bricolage of scraps of information, recycled so often it has taken on its own authority. This book gives a bracing lesson in the use and abuse of evidence, as Beard teases apart the various bits and pieces that have gone to make up the conglomerate picture of the timeless essence of the triumph. In the process, she unpicks many of our basic assumptions about those quintessentially Roman characteristics we normally see embodied in it. The triumph and its reception here become fractals of Roman culture – and of the way Roman culture is studied.

A crucial part of her strategy is to put each piece of ancient evidence back into its chronological and documentary context. Instead of collecting bits of information from here and there as if they all somehow represented the same phenomenon, she pays attention to the goals of the individual writers or artists as they pursue their very different projects of biography, history, panegyric, commemoration, satire or parody. All the protocols and paraphernalia of the typical triumph that a classicist can rattle off – the Senate’s vote whether or not to allow a triumph, based on a head-count of the enemy dead, the phallus slung under the general’s chariot, the slave standing behind him in the chariot to remind him of his mortality, the red face-paint and god-like costume of the triumphator, the fixed route of the procession, the enemy prisoners hauled off for garrotting in the prison at the foot of the Capitoline hill – turn out to be either composites grounded on often unique pieces of testimony or occasional usages elevated to the status of rigid norms by scholars who can’t help thinking of the Romans as ‘legalistic obsessives’. The bulk of the evidence for any particular triumph almost invariably comes from much later sources, and most surviving ancient writing on the triumph is from authors who lived in the imperial period, when triumphs were rare events and co-opted into the ceremonial of the monarchy. In a moment characteristic of the illuminating perspectives offered throughout the book, Beard informs us that ‘the only republican summary of the ceremony that we have’ takes the form of a snide series of ironic rhetorical questions hurled by Cicero against his enemy Calpurnius Piso in 55 BCE, right at the end of the Republic.

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