June 5, 2008


Missions Accomplished: a review of The Roman Triumph by Mary Beard (Emily Wilson, New Republic)

In ancient Rome, triumphs were the only occasions on which soldiers in full battle gear were allowed to march through the city. The full-scale triumph was relatively rare in most periods. But the triumph was, as Beard convincingly shows, a central element in the Roman political and cultural imagination. Triumphs were the single most important occasion for the Romans to dramatize the connections between foreign policy and domestic power: they showed the defeated barbarians to the civilians back home, and the victorious general, bloody from battle, rode straight from his celebratory parade to his inauguration in domestic government. In the days of the Republic, great generals became consuls. Through triumph, Roman society could declare that war was the foundation on which the city was built. This central Roman idea is expressed in the final lines of Virgil's Aeneid, when the hero "founds" his city (condit) by "burying" his sword (condit) in the body of his enemy.

Over the last hundred years or so, ancient historians have built up a very clear image of what happened at a typical Roman triumph: the route through the city, what the general wore, who marched where, and so on. But Beard brilliantly shows that most of this story about the typical Roman triumph is a scholarly or literary fabrication, supported by very slender evidence, or by none at all; or it is a reconstruction based on evidence from authors in widely different time periods, each of whom has his own axe to grind. The standard claim, for example, that a slave stood behind the general saying, "Look behind you. Remember you are a man," is actually a result of "stitching together" of totally different pieces of evidence, which Beard meticulously picks apart. The demolition work is the most obvious accomplishment of her book.

But Beard's bulldozer also points to a new building project. She suggests that the way to do history in general -- and the case of the Roman triumph in particular -- is not to tell "a simple story of development and change," but to question and to analyze the "dynamic relationship between ritual practice and 'rituals in ink.'" Tradition, she reminds us, involves a constant process of cultural invention or reinvention. Beard's book provides good evidence for the case that cultural history is not only more interesting, but also more scholarly, than the old models of positivist reconstruction of a unified narrative of the past.

We all think we know that Cleopatra killed herself because she refused to be paraded in a Roman triumph by the victorious Octavian (who was to become Augustus). But Beard reminds us that similar stories of famous prisoners who committed suicide rather than appear defeated before the Roman city recur suspiciously often in the literature of triumph, even before the defeat of Cleopatra, so the trope is unlikely to have originated with her. We should not, then, read these stories as evidence for the (frustratingly unknowable) experience of those defeated by the Roman army. What the stories do illuminate is the complexity of Roman responses to Roman victory. They point to the limits on Roman power -- since Cleopatra's asp can help her outwit her enemies, and "call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied." On the other hand, as Beard emphasizes, the stories clearly celebrate "the inexorable power of Roman conquest and triumph": for a Roman prisoner, death is the only alternative to total humiliation.

Beard claims that "it is warrior states that produce the most sophisticated critique of the militaristic values they uphold." But she herself acknowledges that the Romans were not "proto-pacifists," and argues explicitly against the claim -- often made by classical scholars and Italian tour guides -- that these parades were a way to expiate a sense of war guilt. Beard's evidence suggests that the Romans were not particularly worried about whether war was worth the cost of thousands of Roman lives, or about whether Rome had a right to colonize, or enslave, or impose Roman values on the rest of the world. For the Romans, the big questions raised by the triumph were not "Is war wrong?" or even "Is this particular war worth celebrating?" The questions that vexed the Romans were rather "What are the limits of a single man's power?" and "How rich is too rich?" The triumph, in which a single general or emperor rode high above the city surrounded by wealth gathered from far-flung regions of the world, provided a memorable image of those perennial Roman concerns: the glories and the dangers of wealth, luxury, and tyranny. Beard argues that the general in his chariot always risked being upstaged by the common soldiers, the prisoners, the glorious booty, or the crowd. The elaborate and expensive ritual could go wrong in any number of ways -- as when Pompey the Great, returning victorious from Africa, tried to lead a group of elephants through the gates to the Capitol but got stuck. Triumphs were, among other things, exercises in public relations.

Ambivalence about war is a fine thing, once they're won.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2008 7:27 AM

I don't get the Cleopatra bit. Because other prisoners before also committed suicide we're supposed to doubt whether any of those stories is true and to conclude that the stories are mere cultural tropes telling us about the Romans themselves?

This is where the "new" cultural history, for all its bravura, often goes badly wrong, not least because despite the claims for originality, a cultural historian drawing such a conclusion is very predictable.

Is it inconceivable that in societies valuing honor, and lacking Christian strictures against suicide, that a captured king or queen or other leader might not want to get paraded through Rome in disgrace and then killed, which is what, unless Beard has debunked that as well, awaited him or her?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at June 5, 2008 8:29 AM