Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Triumph of General Lucius Aemilius Paulus: Part Two

In fact, though, the triumph did not begin with the first day’s procession; it really began approximately a year and a half earlier with a request to Aemilius Paulus by the Senate of Rome. At 60, he had long since retired from military campaigning and was not actively seeking a consulship (one of two leaders of the Republic); however, at the entreaties of his friends, he agreed to let his name stand as a contender and was eagerly voted consul, primarily for his military experience and the hope that he would put a stop to rebellion in Macedonia. His last campaign as both consul and army general thus began reluctantly and with the supercilious condition that he would only take up arms against King Perseus of Macedonia if his more politically inclined colleagues would cease their meddling in the war’s conduct.
Given such imperium, he wasted no time and in five days had transported his army of between 38,000 and 42,000 men, horses, and elephants from Brundisium (present-day Brindisi) to Delphi, Greece. From there, he swiftly made his way up the east coast to the gently sloping plain of farmland, shallow streams, and low bushes that stretched from Pydna on the Aegean coast of Macedonia to the foothills of Mt. Olympus (9570 ft high) to the west. After a skilful feinting maneuver toward the sea followed by an exhausting trudge around the western side of Mt. Olympus, he finally established his camp uphill from King Perseus’s army of some 44,000, much to Perseus’s surprise. It was the evening of the summer solstice, 168 BCE.
The night held dire forebodings. The soldiers of both armies became terrified by an eclipse of the full moon. Fortunately, Paulus’s knowledge of this type of phenomenon allowed him to convince his own troops it was a good omen by sacrificing 11 heifers as the moon re-appeared and another 21 oxen at daybreak. He vowed another hecatomb and solemn games and put his army in battle array. Then he waited until the sun was in the western sky, out of the eyes of his troops.
The battle was fierce but swiftly decided. After an initial fear of the impressive Thracian allies of Perseus and the rows of the Macedonian phalanx with their long sarissa spears—the very same battle formation that had won the world for Alexander the Great—Paulus remained calm. As the phalanx advanced uphill on uneven ground it broke apart allowing the Romans to fight in close quarters. Within an hour of the battle’s start at three o’clock in the afternoon, the plains were strewn with over 25,000 Macedonian corpses and about 100 Roman dead. Perseus and the remainder of his army had taken flight. The Romans pursued them for the rest of the day, but Perseus eluded them and was finally apprehended on the island of Samothrace some considerable time later (most likely weeks). It was a complete rout.
Official news of the victory reached Rome in short order. Paulus’s laurel-encircled letter was received by his co-consul, Gaius Licinius Crassus, just after officially starting a chariot race in the annual Ludi Romani at the Circus Maximus. Crassus was so excited by the news he rode out on the track in the middle of the race to read it aloud to the crowd. Bedlam ensued and the races were cancelled in favor of letting the citizens go home to spread the news.
Meanwhile, back in Greece, while permitting his army time to rest over the fall and winter in Amphipolis on the northern Aegean coast, Paulus set about on a tour of the country, visiting all the major centers much like tourists of today. As a philhellene he took great pains to treat everyone “honorably and humanely.” Included in his itinerary were obligatory sacrifices to Zeus in Olympia and to Apollo in Delphi where he also erected a statue to himself out of one already started by Perseus. It was during this tour that the real “victory celebrations” began. They would last in their entirety until after his official triumph in Rome over a year later.
He kept his pre-battle promise to deliver solemn games, with an eye for detail and perfection in organizing that not many Romans possessed. He brought to Amphipolis, the site of the games, leading emissaries from all the main Greek cities, using his tour to invite them, as well as others from Europe and Asia. He took great care to make the festivities obviously Greek by bringing top artists and athletes to them and only having the types of contests as would be found in similar Greek games, such as chariot races, equestrian events, and dramatic contests. No Roman gladiator contests or wild beast hunts were included, and for the numerous official banquets, he was especially conscious of treating his vanquished Greek subjects with the greatest honor according to their own customs. The accolades he received from his guests prompted a now-famous quote from him—perhaps as one of the first admitted “event planners” in history—that “the same spirit was required both in marshalling a line of battle and in presiding at a banquet well, the object being, in the one case, to cause most terror in the enemy, in the other, to give most pleasure to the company.”
Immediately following the games, he loaded all the valuable spoils of war onto his ships and publicly torched the remainder, all gathered in enormous heaps. Visitors to the games would have witnessed this and indeed, Livy states as much. The politically astute Paulus had thus essentially used the festivities to proclaim that it was now a kinder Rome that ruled the Macedonians, but by linking the games with his victory (i.e. funding them from the spoils, burning the spoils, removing the spoils), there was no mistaking that further transgressions would be dealt with harshly. In the same way, he had made an unwritten statement to his Roman countrymen that Greek culture was the better choice for spectacle than the extravagant and increasingly abhorrent games that were growing in popularity in Rome (e.g. wild beast hunts, paramilitary displays).
By now, it was obvious to all around him—and to Rome—that he was intent on gaining a triumph upon his return. After all, he had secured King Perseus and the royal family as high profile prisoners, plus a large number of wealthy nobles and military leaders, and about 11,000 military prisoners-of-war. But he needed more. On orders from the Senate, he left Macedonia and marched against Epirus in western Greece, the towns of which had allied with Perseus. In the space of one hour, in a highly coordinated attack, the army ravaged 70 cities, taking 150,000 prisoners and reducing the towns to rubble. The resulting booty was added to the already massive amount from Macedonia. It was time to return.

On a hot summer afternoon in 167 BCE, a remarkable sight greeted thousands of onlookers gathered along the banks of the Tiber River that snaked through the countryside southwest of Rome. Slowly coming into view, its three tiers of long oars splashing in stately unison, was the largest ship they had ever seen, the royal galley of King Perseus.[i] It had been richly decorated for the occasion—a sort of “teaser triumph”—at Paulus’s command. Strung from the main mast, fore mast, gunnels, and rigging were reams of scarlet and purple cloth interspersed with the most finely worked of the captured Macedonian armor. Paulus stood on the bow in full uniform, his scarlet cape billowing behind him. Spontaneous cheers followed the massive ship upstream, and continued as the remainder of the Roman navy’s triremes under the command of Gnaeus Octavius formed a long, water procession of victory.[ii] It was a fitting beginning to what was to be a glorious homecoming.
But the impressive land triumph was not immediate. Although the Senate voted quickly and approved a formal triumph, there were still major organizational tasks to be accomplished: unloading and recording the spoils of war; preparing them for display; constructing large visual canvases and models depicting the various battles and cities won; decorating temples and basilicas; erecting wooden scaffolds from which the public could view the procession along the Via Sacra and in the Forum; ordering and preparing food and wine for a public feast; rehearsing entertainment; and much more.[iii] At that time, Rome had a population of close to 300,000 and the popularity of the triumph would no doubt attract most of them to view it, hence the elaborate arrangements.[iv]
While all this was going on, the army was encamped in leather wedge tents lined up with customary military precision on the large tract of pastureland to the northwest of the city known as the Campus Martius, the traditional “waiting area” for triumphing armies. Although some of the men may have returned home, Paulus was obliged by tradition to remain and control preparations.[v]
There was a lot to do, and weeks passed. Those weeks were not particularly kind to the old general. He was a religious pragmatist and in a prescient address to his officers following the capture of Perseus, mused that good fortune is often followed by the reverse.
For what occasion have men to be confident, when their conquest of others gives them most cogent reason to be in fear of Fortune, and when one who exults in success is thrown, as I am, into great dejection by reflecting upon the allotments of Fate, which take a circling course, and fall now upon some and now upon others?”
Indeed, during the waiting period and just before the triumph, one of his sons died unexpectedly. It would certainly be in character for Paulus to retreat into prayer, possibly in the nearby Temple of Hercules. But yet another blow was to strike. His army, which had served him so loyally, was rebelling against the amount of plundered treasure they had been given, feeling they deserved more. All the misfortunes were lining up against him just as he had known would happen to equalize good fortune with bad. It was his tremendous popularity with the people of Rome that finally won back the soldiers’ loyalty after a rousing speech of support given in the Forum by Marcus Servilius, a fellow magistrate.

I'll take a look at the actual triumphal procession in the next post.

Notes and Further Reading

[i] There has been a longstanding debate about the configuration of the oars in these ancient ships. Most scholars now seem to agree that all were propelled by either a single, double, or triple bank of oars, with the number of banks mentioned in primary sources as referring to the number of actual oarsmen. Thus, as both Plutarch and Livy mention, Perseus’s galley had sixteen banks, but this probably meant it had either two or three banks of oars with possibly as many as eight men to a single oar. See Casson (1994). The exact length and breadth of the ship is unknown.
[ii] Since there were massive amounts of captured booty, probably well over 100,000 prisoners, and up to 40,000 troops to transport, this water procession would have been very long. Most triremes, unlike the royal galley of Perseus, were only capable of carrying possibly 600 passengers on deck at best, not including the crew and oarsmen. If this were the case, there would have been literally hundreds of ships coming home, probably somewhere between 200 and 700. Most likely, Paulus would have used all of the Macedonian navy’s vessels as well as all the Roman ones sent to Macedonia as part of his campaign. It is possible that some troops preceded this homecoming and possibly landed on the east coast, but the ancient sources do not mention it. The homecoming of the ships still likely took more than one day.
[iii] Although no public feast is mentioned for Paulus’s triumph in any of the primary sources, it was traditional to have one at that time in the Republic, as mentioned by Ramsay (1875) and Beard (2007; p. 83). A formal feast for the senators, however, is mentioned in the famous speech by Marcus Servilius found in Plutarch.
[iv] Recent studies of coin hoards have determined that the population of Republican Rome would be in the order of 300,000 around this time. See Turchin and Scheidel (2009).
[v] Apparently, the victorious general was required to remain outside the city boundaries (pomerium) while he awaited Senate approval for the triumph and until it was executed. See Versnel (1970).


  • Casson, Lionel. (1994). The Age of the Supergalleys, In Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. University of Texas Press. pp. 61-95.
  • Ramsay, W. (1875). Triumphus. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray. pp. 1163-1167.
  • Beard, M. (2007). The Roman Triumph. Harvard University Press.
  • Turchin, P. and Scheidel, W. (October 5, 2009). Coin hoards speak of population declines in Ancient Rome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106 no. 41 17276-17279. Retrieved April 28, 2010, from
  • Versnel, H.S. (1970). Triumphus: An Inquiry into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph. Leiden: E.J. Brill.


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