Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Roman Triumph by Mary Beard


"... for almost every detail of this picture - familiar as it is from sword-and-sandal epics and Asterix books - is, according to Mary Beard, up for grabs. Yes, the triumph was a vivid and central part of Roman culture. In fact, she argues, it was in some ways more central than we have ever realised. Triumphal imagery and triumphal language bled into the Roman games and seeped into the ceremonies that marked the election of a consul or the arrival (or through deification, the departure) of a new emperor. Triumph was inscribed into the architecture of arches, theatres and temples, and also sarcophaguses and tombs. It penetrated epic and erotic poetry and comic drama too. But almost every detail of this great ceremony is maddeningly difficult to seize upon. Everything on which we were agreed turns out to be just that little bit more difficult to demonstrate than anyone ever imagined.

Beard has in her sights three processions. The first is that long historical sequence of actual celebrations. The second is a series of rich and extravagant accounts of triumphs, what she calls "rituals in ink" although they include a mass of images too, such as the Arch of Titus. Third, there is a long procession of classical scholars, who follow Beard's chariot with placards hung around their necks detailing their wild conjectures, hypotheses and claims about what the triumph "really meant".

It would be convenient if each could be examined separately, but the processions keep colliding in the winding, narrow streets of Roman cultural history. The actual triumphs are known to us only through the representations, and these are difficult to disentangle from the dense foliage of scholarly exegesis. Beard prunes ferociously. The evidence for the triumphal route is alarmingly inconsistent. The slave in the chariot whispering to the general is a modern composite, compiled of late testimony, no one piece of which tells exactly this story. The clothes borrowed from the god, the chariot itself are insecure. So is much more.

Once the factoids are swept away we are left with modern attempts to create some sort of general rule-book for triumphs. How many enemies did you need to kill? What sort of general could celebrate? Who decided? Ancient writers made many claims, but their generalisations stand up no better than those of the moderns. It does not help that when a Polybius or a Livy or a Josephus sets out to describe a particular triumph, he focused on what was remarkable, extraordinary, controversial and bizarre. And who was to say what was "normal" and what excessive?"

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