I've decided to return to the fascinating subject of ancient celebration and begin posts again. There are just too many historical spectacles that need to be revealed to the world.
I start with the Roman Triumph.
At about the same time as the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt began its slow decline into oblivion thanks to an abundance of incest, greed, and treachery, the world’s most bellicose civilization was on the ascent.
The Roman Republic, and later the Empire, flourished because it was funded in part by the spoils of war, and the spoils of war were immense because war was encouraged—specifically successful war—by a singularly significant ceremony that was both public spectacle and personal award, the triumph. It was one of the most enduring spectacles in history, beginning with the founding of Rome in approximately 753 BCE and ending around 403 CE.
Of the literally hundreds of triumphs, only a handful were truly memorable. One in particular, that of General Lucius Aemilius Paulus against the Macedonian army and King Perseus, stands out as a story that encapsulates the man, the event, the ritual, and the politics of the Republican era in their totality.
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Let's set the scene.
It probably began with a public announcement by a high-ranking official—perhaps an aedile—similar to the following, on the first day of the triumph.
“My friends, citizens of Rome, these days belong to the house of Aemilii. Their son and our esteemed consul, Lucius Paulus, has these past months distinguished himself with a great victory over the Macedonians and their king, Perseus. He brings glory, riches beyond belief, and honour to the Republic. The Senate invites you, the citizens of Rome, to celebrate with him in prayer, feasting, and triumphal processions for these three days hence. Hail to the Imperator. Hail to Aemilius Paulus. Io triumpe!”
With these words the aedile and his two lictors strode down the steps of the rostra and into the gathering crowd of the Forum. The city was full of rumours about the imminent triumph and the populace, as was their habit on weekdays, poured out of their crammed apartments in side streets well before sunrise to talk with neighbours and friends. Today, of any time in recent memory, was particularly celebratory.
Groups of white toga-clad men traded stories. Matrons arrived in litters borne by black Africans with gold bracelets. Senators with red-rimmed toga pretaextas strode confidently to their meetings. Augurs offered predictions for the day. Around and about were dozens of other races of every color and language: slaves with pierced ears from Hispania in earthen-colored tunics, hawkers from the southern provinces selling potions and perfume, even children running exuberantly in their games of hide and seek and ball-throwing. The crowd was in a good mood.
On this autumn morning in 167 BCE, the city was impressive. It had transformed in a mere 30 years from mostly boggy pasture to a vibrant social and political hub. The Temple of Vesta, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Basilica Sempronia, the magnificent Temple of Saturn that housed the treasury, the Temple of Concord, the Basilica Porcia, the Curia Hostilia, home of the Senate fronted by the large round atrium of the Comitium where the speaker’s rostra was, the offices of the Basilica Aemilia, and the Regia all surrounded the Forum. High above the bustle, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the triumphal procession’s final destination, looked down on the preparations.
As dawn broke, shafts of sunlight pierced through a smoky haze, alighting on temple columns and statues that dwarfed the crowds in the Forum, turning marble conquerors into golden gods. Red roses from Syria, orange lilies from Palestine, purple asters from Epirus, yellow snapdragons from Hispania, red bougainvillea from Sicily combined in multicoloured explosions at temple and basilica entrances, while garlands of ivy and laurel wound in spirals up building columns and statuary: the Republic in flowers. Sweet incense and floral fragrance mingled with the smoke in a magical potion of olfactory anticipation.
From every building purple and gold cloth banners were hung: over doorways, around windows, suspended from arches, and covering the tiered wooden scaffolds for spectators that lined each side of the narrow, black-stoned Via Sacra. They continued southeast as far as the eye could see until the Palatine Hill hid them. Everywhere was colour. Everywhere was exhilaration. Everywhere was pride. It was a good time to be Roman.
More of the story next time.