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.

Beard calls into question our assumptions not just about what actually happened when a triumph took place but also about its symbolic or ideological power. An important test case sets the scene: the book gets off to a cracking start with the triumph celebrated by Pompey the Great on his birthday in 61 BCE, together with its commemoration and reception in the following years. In her discussion, the only trick Beard misses is the play on Pompey’s name that some later writers enjoyed: it was almost identical to pompe, one of the normal Greek words for the Roman triumph, so that Pompey the Great, Pompeius Magnus, is as it were called ‘Mr Big Triumph’. The problems of evidence which will be so important in the rest of the book are on display from the start: Beard shows that the late and contradictory sources make it finally impossible to know, for example, what Pompey was wearing on the day or what was carried in his procession by way of booty.

It might look here as if Beard is stacking the deck a bit, because she could have started instead with the Jewish triumph celebrated in 71 CE by Vespasian and Titus, given that this was documented fully by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, a participant in the campaign and a possible eyewitness. Beard does discuss Josephus’ account in detail later in the book, and it might have seemed sensible to start with what we can know more securely and then widen out into uncertainty, but her decision to start with Pompey fully justifies itself, illustrating the difficulties of evidence that are the norm here, and using Pompey as an ideal introduction to the book’s main themes concerning Roman ideology.

Beard is fascinated by the reversals of fortune that, exactly 13 years after his triumph, brought Pompey to be murdered in a dinghy off the shore of Egypt on his birthday, and she argues that the triumph itself was a vehicle for thinking about the vicissitudes of victory and defeat. Many readers will find this suggestion unacceptable, on the grounds that militarist societies avoid seeing their own faces in the mirror of the vanquished, but Beard is right to present the Romans as perfectly capable of seeing their militarism from the outside. Sallust in his Histories and Tacitus in his Agricola relish putting denunciations of Roman militarism into the mouths of a foreign king or a Highland chief. The succession of empire theme that Beard conjures with when imagining Pompey the Great wearing the cloak of Alexander the Great is a fundamental part of the mental equipment of the Hellenistic world to which Rome was heir. If Alexander could take over from the Persians and if Rome could take over from Macedon, it wouldn’t have been impossible to imagine that Rome too would be succeeded. One of the most haunting episodes in ancient history is the conversation between the Greek historian Polybius and the Roman general Scipio Africanus Minor, at the moment of final victory over the old enemy, Carthage, in 146 BCE. As flames envelop the city that had been Rome’s great rival for imperial hegemony in the Western Mediterranean for more than a hundred years, Scipio begins to weep, and then quotes the lines of Homer in which first Agamemnon and then Hector predict the fall of Troy, the mother-city of the Roman people. At Polybius’ prompting, Scipio confides that he is indeed thinking of the fate of Rome.

Overachievement and overtoppling were inextricably built into the vaunting moment of celebrating victory. It is fundamental to Greek meditation on military triumph from Homer onwards that the moment of victory is all too often the moment when the conqueror takes a step too far; it’s a theme that pervades Greek tragedy and historiography. Classicists tend to be so locked into the dichotomy of the deeply reflective Greeks and the doggedly driven Romans that many will resist Beard’s invitation to see these same notions being played out in Roman culture, but her book provides all the documentation we need. The extremes are illustrated by Livy’s description, in Book V of his Histories, of the two triumphs celebrated by the great hero Camillus. The first of them marks victory over the fabulously wealthy city of Veii, whose sack is the earliest of the numerous slippery slopes down which Rome slides in Livy’s narrative of decline. With four white horses drawing his chariot, Camillus’ triumph is made to anticipate those of Julius Caesar in its hubristic flamboyance, and the hero duly pays the price by incurring resentment and being forced into exile. At the end of the book Camillus returns from ignominy and annihilates the Gauls who have sacked Rome, and this act of salvation occasions a triumph of impromptu simplicity that avoids the excess of the triumph over Veii. Camillus has learned his lesson, according to Livy, but not every general who follows him will remember it.

Beard’s book is also a test case for the study of Roman ritual more generally. It is, she declares, ‘a manifesto of sorts’, and it is satisfying to see a scholar who has done so much over the last twenty years to transform the study of Roman ritual giving us a book-length discussion of how to do it and how not to do it. Beard has had to shrug off a smothering blanket of condescension, since everyone knows that Greeks perform living rituals of communal significance while Romans go through hidebound pettifogging exercises (it is hard not to sound as if you have a chip on your Roman shoulder). The tools for the interpretation of ancient ritual are essentially Greek, and leave little room for the very similar but very different society of Rome. One common response has been to impose Greek models on Roman material, but Beard has long been an enemy of this misplaced activity. Instead, she gives us a series of rich insights into a sophisticated culture that works with a semiotic machine of great complexity and generates all kinds of ‘messy improvisations’ in the process. As I read her descriptions of the fluidity of the ritual in practice, I was reminded of the scene in War and Peace where Pierre Bezukhov is being initiated into the Freemasons: as he is told to lie down at a certain point, he hears one of the brothers whisper, ‘He should get the trowel first,’ only to be hushed by someone else.

If the dynamics of the triumph are fluid, so must be the spectators’ interpretations, and here too Beard’s reaction against the communitarian bias of most work on ancient ritual is a breath of fresh air. With mass spectacle, as she says, the basic problem is ‘how do you control the gaze of the viewer?’ and she collects telling anecdotes about paraded captives or bragging artwork backfiring on the victor as the spectators react the ‘wrong’ way. In a further refusal to follow the normal path of ritual interpretation, she renounces the mystique of origins. The hunt for an origin consistently tugs the gaze of the ritualist away from what can be documented, back into the fog surrounding the moment thought to have put its determining stamp on the historical phenomenon. Repeatedly, students of the triumph have wanted to go back to primitive Rome, often to its supposedly mysterious Etruscan aspects, in order to explain phenomena such as the ribald songs of soldiers or the divine trappings of the general. Beard is right to insist not only that we cannot recover these early details, but also that, even if we could, we could not use them to explain the meaning of the ritual centuries later in a totally transformed environment. Just as in evolution, so too in ritual you cannot infer current function or meaning from ancestral function or meaning. In reacting against those who wish to trace the features of the triumph back in time, Beard sometimes takes her scepticism about evidence so far that even a sympathiser feels obliged to dig in one’s heels. In discussing the divine trappings of the triumphing general she cautions that ‘the earliest evidence to suggest an identification between general and god is an early second-century BCE play of Plautus.’ Certainly, Plautus does not take us back to regal Rome, but Beard’s phrasing obscures the fact that any scholar working on more or less anything Roman would be thrilled to find evidence in Plautus. No Latin literary texts survive intact before Plautus, so his comedies are as far back in time as we can go in excavating Roman customs and attitudes.

In stressing the variety of ways of staging or representing a triumph, Beard remarks that ‘the triumph is likely to have been much more conservative in theory than it was in practice.’ This is true of the Romans generally, who resemble the Japanese in cloaking their inventive modernism with a highly developed conservative rhetoric. Our first glimpses of the triumph show it as a crucial part of public life and of aristocratic competition, and then before our eyes it morphs into being part of the ceremonial of the royal family. Under the emperors, not just the person celebrating the triumph but the people watching it are playing completely different roles from those played under the Republic. Beard mentions the remarkable fact that the triumph ‘was the only time that regular soldiers under arms legitimately entered Rome’; this was ‘an extraordinary, almost aggressive reversal of the usual norm that the city itself was a demilitarised zone’. In the Republic, when triumphs were quite common and the army was a citizen militia, many of the onlookers inside the city would have themselves served in the army and even taken part in a triumph, and many others would watch in the knowledge that they too would one day serve in the army and perhaps march in a triumph. In the Empire, when conscription in Italy had been abolished and the onlookers were real civilians, the soldiers who entered the city from outside were precisely outsiders. The troops no longer represented the citizen body by synecdoche, and their procession was a ceremonial act, not a reminder to past participants or a model for future ones. It is this later, imperial, triumph that has had the more potent afterlife since the end of Rome, and it is the one with which modern societies have more in common.

This learned and spirited book could have been no more than an exercise in debunking and dismantling. Beard enjoys debunking and dismantling, and does it with panache, but her unpicking of the evidence and her demolition of the consensus is not meant to create an epistemological no-man’s-land; she wants to highlight the rewarding difficulty of the project of history, not its impossibility. There are things to be known about the past, and there are things to be known about how we come to know them. Beard stages her own show, demonstrating by practice, and in the process has given us a piece of scholarship that has lessons to teach anyone engaged in the study of the past.