Friday, November 9, 2012

What Was the Legacy of the Roman Triumph?

Possibly nowhere in antiquity is there a more relevant manifestation of the epic, mythical hero’s journey than in the Roman triumph.[i] If the Romans did not make the obvious connection between the exploits of the demigod heroes Achilles from Homer’s Iliad, Gilgamesh from Sumer, or Dionysus from Greek culture, and those of the triumphing general, it would be surprising. After all, these heroes were well known to them by the time of Paulus. Indeed, the attire of the general—including a red-painted face—has been described by writers and debated by scholars as being associated with the god Jupiter. Whether this association was a complete one, in that the Romans actually believed him to be a god, or just a temporary association because of his personal qualities and heroic actions, may never be proven.[ii] The cry, “Io triumpe,” by the soldiers and onlookers was another indication that they either believed he was a god or considered him to be like one because of his heroic feats. The slave at his ear, of course, constantly reminded him that in spite of the accolades he was but a man. Either way, he was very clearly a state hero.

Herein lay a problem. The social status and political influence that attached to the conquering hero eventually led to the triumph changing from a ritual with “primitive religious significance to a political power play and self-advertising spectacle.”[iii] For army generals, gaining a triumph became highly competitive and the route to political power. According to Robert Payne in his book detailing the history of the event,

“The highest honor open to a Roman was the honor of a triumph: for this men fought, intrigued, suffered and died. For the honor of a triumph immense sums of money were expended, innumerable people were needlessly killed, vast treasures were dissipated, and whole countries were laid waste. The economy of Europe, Africa and Asia was mercilessly disrupted, and a hundred cities and a hundred thousand towns were pillaged, so that the conquerors could return laden with plunder to Rome and show what they had accomplished.”[iv] 

Strangely, though, throughout the long history of the triumph, the curious social mores of the Romans demanded a certain reticence from the triumphator to take on a role that held such power. Because of this, the triumphator was forced into a peculiar tug-of-war between the intoxication of fame and the feigned false modesty of not being worthy of such an award. In the end, those who played the game did well. Paulus was one of them. According to all the source writers, he, of all too few, maintained his integrity and his unflinching dedication to the Roman Republic, choosing to remain poor rather than take a larger share of the spoils for his personal gain and the loss of the state. To the populace, he was revered right up to his death, according to Plutarch and others, in spite of continuing as a member of the aristocracy. He was a true hero, achieving greatness in spirit and in action.

Not all to follow modeled themselves after him, and by the time of the Empire the “popular hero” in the form of the army general was far too greedy and self-absorbed. (Could this have been an early start to celebrity culture?) Finally, Augustus, the first Emperor, put a stop to the competitive nature of the triumph by permitting only Emperors to parade victoriously before the people. By then, though, the triumph had become firmly entrenched as a defining feature of Roman culture.

The first legacy of the triumph, then, is the implantation into an entire civilization’s culture of the concept that a human being could complete a hero’s journey and achieve success. He—and the fact that the hero is male is noteworthy—could leave home for a distant land, battle enemies, strange foreigners, or evil forces, and return home to be rewarded. From thence forward it was to be a dominant theme in all western culture.

As author Margery Hourihan states, “It is a story about superiority, dominance and success. It tells how white European men are the natural masters of the world because they are strong, brave, skilful, rational and dedicated. It tells how they overcome the dangers of nature, how other ‘inferior’ races have been subdued by them, and how they spread civilization and order wherever they go…It tells how their persistence means that they always eventually win the glittering prizes, the golden treasures, and how the gods—or the government—approve of their enterprises. It is our favorite story and it has been told so many times that we have come to believe that what it says about the world is true.”[v] Some examples of relatively modern times, both fictional and real, include the likes of Terry Fox, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Christopher Columbus, Yuri Gagarin, and a host of other individuals. One could also argue that it influenced the concept of the American Dream, typical heroes of which include Elvis Presley, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. Potentially, professional athletes could fall under the term “hero” and major professional sports such as ice hockey, golf, tennis, auto racing, baseball, soccer, and American football as “miniature” manifestations of the journey itself. In fact, it has so influenced our own culture that, with a handful of notable exceptions (e.g. Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others), it has not been until recently (i.e. from the mid-20th century) that the white, male characteristics of the hero, along with the dominant theme of condoning physical violence to achieve a worthy goal, have been questioned. Whether the basic story will ever change much, or a changed version wholly accepted by western culture as a result, remains to be seen.

Although modern parades might have had their genesis in much earlier processions as mentioned in the last chapter, it was the Roman triumph that solidified this form of celebration in the world’s consciousness. This is its second legacy.

The first example of this is in the triumph’s relation to religion, specifically Christianity. The apostle Paul wrote his letters to the people of Corinth around 56-57 CE, just near the beginning of the Empire in Rome. He was well aware of the triumph. In 2 Corinthians 2:14 he famously refers to “God, who made us his captives and leads us along in Christ’s triumphal procession.” He further compares the Christian way of life to the smell of temple incense at a triumphal procession wherein “to those who are perishing (i.e. sinners) it is a fearful smell of death and doom, but to those who are being saved (i.e. following the Christian way) it is a life-giving perfume.” Of course, the inevitable comparison of Christ as a triumphator has been made ever since that period, with Christ entering Jerusalem in triumph for the final time. As he entered perhaps he was even mocking the Roman version, representing a humbler triumphator but simultaneously representing God, the king (i.e. the Roman emperor), and the prisoners about to be executed.

These comparisons were not lost on the early popes in Rome. Possibly some, like Gregory the Great who grew up basically on the route of the triumphs in Rome at the time the Empire was disintegrating in the 6th century CE, might have made the obvious connections by pure observation alone. Whatever happened in the years between Constantine, the first Christian emperor in the 4th century CE, and the fall of the Empire, it appears that the papacy adapted many of the rituals and symbols of the triumph. For example, the title Pontifex Maximus originally referred to the chief priest of Roman religion and was conferred on a person other than a ruler. From Augustus onwards the title was part of those given only to the emperor. At some indeterminate date after 376 CE, the title went to the Christian pope, thus relating him with the same person who would be considered a conqueror. Further, the tunica palmata became the alb (the long white vestment worn by priests of today) and the toga picta became the dalmatic (the main colored vestment worn on top of the alb by priests and higher ranking church officials). Part of Papal coronations mirrored triumphal processions.[vi] Even today, the eminently practical and secure “popemobile” can be compared to an absurd offshoot of the triumphal chariot, and a priest’s entry procession into a church to a mini-triumph.

On secular western society, the impact was even more profound. In the historically muddled Middle Ages, from about the 8th through the 12th centuries, triumphal celebrations were sporadic and subdued, primarily taking place in what was then the center of the world, Constantinople. They did, though, begin to diverge from the traditional. As Michael McCormick states in his well-researched book on the triumph in this period, “In addition to the light they shed on the organizational aspects of early medieval triumphs, the records of these celebrations evidence a couple of significant trends. Special ceremonies are staged involving audiences, in that the traditional triumphal parade through the city and the victory races are flanked by a series of more private festivities for the senatorial order and the bureaucracy at large. Secondly, there may have been some movement away from the fusion of civil and military elements which was typical of the late antique triumphal parade.”[vii] Some of these “separate” ceremonies included very large banquets for select guests and, in 879 CE, the emperor Basil was actually crowned in the Hagia Sophia church, perhaps the first time a coronation was attached to triumphal ritual.[viii] 

The real impact of the triumph on secular western culture, however, would not be felt until the Renaissance, roughly between the 14th and 17th centuries. During this period, when the creative genius of artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers like Tintoretto, Rubens, Petrarch, Dryden, Monteverdi, and Leonardo da Vinci was applied to the triumph, the celebrations that emerged were truly spectacular. They set the stage for the elaborate events of the present day.

Notes and Further Reading

[i] According to Joseph Campbell who coined the phrase “monomyth” for this journey, it comes in two versions: a physical trial or a spiritual quest. Although the distinction between the two is not always clear, they both involve three main phases: departure, initiation, and return. Departure deals with the hero's adventure prior to the quest, initiation deals with the hero's many adventures along the way, and return deals with the hero's return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey. See Campbell (2008). Some of the best-known examples of this mythic journey from the time of the Roman Republic or earlier include the Epic of Gilgamesh from about 2700 BCE in Sumer, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad probably written in the 8th century BCE, the god Dionysus’s journeys introduced to Rome around 200 BCE, and Aeneas’s mythical founding of Rome itself, the Aeneid, written by Virgil at the end of the Republican era/beginning of the Empire.
[ii] Beard (2007; pp. 219-256) discusses this at great length.
[iii] See Beard (2007; p. 289).
[iv] See Payne (1962; p. 17).
[v] See Hourihan (1997; p.1).
[vi] See Payne (1962; pp. 211-224).
[vii] See McCormick (1986; p. 150) who covers the subject of the triumph in the Middle Ages very well.
[viii] McCormick (1986; pp. 155-157).


  • Beard, M. (2007). The Roman Triumph. Harvard University Press.
  • Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.
  • Hourihan, M. (1997). Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. London: Roiutledge.
  • McCormick, M. (1986). Eternal Victory: Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Payne, R. (1962). Rome Triumphant: How the Empire Celebrated its Victories. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

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