The Roman Triumph
by Mary Beard
Reviewed by Emily Wilson
The New Republic Online
Everybody over the age of four knows how important it is not to be a "sore loser" -- and how difficult. When you lose your whole fortune to your sister at Monopoly, you are not supposed to burst into tears, accuse her of cheating, call her a greedy old moneybags, hit her, tear up the paper dollars, hurl the pieces across the floor, or run screaming from the room. You are supposed to be gracious in defeat: congratulate the winner, allow her to enjoy her victory, stifle your sorrow, and pretend not to mind too much. After all, it was only a game.
It is perhaps unfair that the moral and emotional burden of the situation should fall on the one who has suffered defeat, but the same rules apply beyond the playroom as well, and into the political arena. Howard Dean, we are told, lost the nomination for the Democratic Party in 2004 because he failed to lose well in Iowa: the scream was fatal. Even in war, when winning and losing is a matter of life or death, we still hang on to the unrealistic hope that the losing nation will do the decent thing -- that it will accept defeat with good grace, rather than fighting back with terrorism or breaking up into civil war. It is the loser's job to make sure things do not get out of hand.
We regularly assume that it is relatively easy to behave well when you win. After all, winners do not have to grapple with anger, resentment, bitterness, or loss. Americans more often complain about a "victim culture" than about a culture of smugness. But the complicating truth is that winning brings its own social and ethical hazards. Fears about the downward turn of Fortune's wheel, and about the moral costs of social and financial success, haunt many classic American fables about "making it" -- The House of Mirth, Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby. There are many contemporary American television shows about winning, from reality TV to the endlessly televised awards ceremonies (the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the Miss America pageant), and they owe some of their fascination to what they reveal about winners: they allow us to watch the difficulties of dealing well with success.
The winners have to demonstrate to the world that they are not ungrateful or arrogant, and they have to avoid rubbing the losers' faces in the dirt. The losers may have been humbled, but humility is expected of the winners. And in more serious contests -- such as political elections -- it can be just as difficult to win with grace. Voters do not like losers. But they also do not like candidates who make too much of their own advantages, or who stoop to smear campaigns against their rivals. The conspicuous consumption of victory is unappealing. The Clinton campaign learned in New Hampshire that a display of vulnerability is sometimes essential for success.
Military victory raises even more difficult moral and political dilemmas. For one thing, although a single emperor or president may be morally and legally responsible for starting a war, the actual fighting -- the winning and the losing -- is always done by hundreds or thousands of nameless soldiers. War and Peace teaches, among many other things, that battles are fought by the Pierres and not by the Napoleons. Moreover, the losers in war are not merely disappointed; they are wounded, impoverished, enslaved, raped, orphaned, widowed, or just plain dead. And some of the losers may be on the same side as the winners.
Modern commemorations of war -- such as Veterans Day in the United States -- tend to focus on the sacrifice made by the unknown soldier rather than on the glory of the triumphant general, president, or emperor. It would seem mean and outrageous for an American president to commemorate a war -- however gloriously victorious it might have been -- with a lavish procession through Washington in a four-horse chariot, clad in purple, with a golden laurel crown, his cheeks and chest smeared with blood, riding high above the defeated barbarian chieftains, who walk before him wearing exotic costumes and weighted down with chains, along with a troop of half-drunk soldiers, carrying the loot they have seized in battle for the benefit of the city. Our wars usually kill millions more people than any Roman general's campaign, but at least we celebrate them with less gusto.
It is tempting to conclude that we are a less bloodthirsty people than the primitive old Romans, who celebrated their victories in precisely this way. But Mary Beard's fine book about the Roman way of winning suggests that even the triumphal parade -- that most obvious case of Roman militarism and patriotic pride -- was a far more complex cultural phenomenon than most historians have recognized. The triumph, she shows, was a "site for anxiety," a cultural "question," not a straightforward vehicle for celebration. Like modern Americans, the Romans were obsessed with winning, and aware of its pitfalls. Beard declares that her book is "a manifesto of sorts." One of the tenets of her manifesto is that the Romans were no less complicated and conflicted than we are. Her book succeeds as a case study in ancient history, but also as an implicit invitation to reconsider representations of victory and loss in our own culture.
Beard ranges among literary, historiographical, artistic, architectural, numismatic, epigraphical, and archaeological sources with impressive ease and fluency, showing that the preoccupation with triumph haunts all these different fields of Roman cultural life -- from Ovid's cheeky claim that triumphal processions can be good for picking up girls, and his presentation of himself as the victim of Cupid's triumphal chariot, to the many triumphal arches that the triumphalist Romans erected, which Beard reads as attempts to construct a permanent memorial from an essentially fleeting parade.
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.
Beard's book is particularly good on the ways in which public figures -- then as now -- try to massage dubious military action into an acceptable public shape; and how easily the meanings of victory and defeat can slip from the control of its organizers. Augustus's extravagant "triple triumph" in 29 B.C.E. -- celebrating victory over Dalmatia and Illyricum, Actium, and Egypt -- was clearly an attempt to begin his career as princeps of Rome on a high note. But the triumph was also, of course, pretty dubious: triumphs were usually used to celebrate victories over foreign enemies, not victory over fellow Romans in a civil war (as in Octavian's victory over Antony at Actium). It is striking that one of the ancient registers of triumphs, the Fasti Barberiniani, lists only two victories for 29 B.C.E. Beard suggests that the maker or makers of the list tried to "clean up triumphal history" by eliminating Actium from the catalog.
Beard writes that the "ambivalence of the triumph" may help to explain why Augustus himself never triumphed again after 29 B.C.E. He was smart enough to realize that "it was safer to keep triumphal performance on the streets to a minimum, while monumentalizing the ritual in marble, bronze and ink." Some Romans were perfectly well aware of how triumphs could be used for political "spin" -- and this in itself, of course, reduced their political usefulness. Another classic example of a disingenuous use of this ritual is the triumph of Germanicus in 17 A.D., under the rule of Tiberius. Germanicus had won various victories in battle over German tribes, but he had by no means conquered the whole of Germany. Tacitus comments dryly on the hypocrisy of this move: "A triumph was decreed to Germanicus, while the war was still going on" (the italics and the translation are Beard's).
In January this year, George W. Bush went to Israel for the first time in his entire presidency. The trip seemed designed to perform some of the same political work as a Roman triumph: it enabled the president to return as if victorious from a foreign war, and to suggest that the war is over, while the war was still going on. Bush announced that he intends to create peace in the Middle East before the end of his term in office. The declaration was, like the Roman triumph, an attempt to inscribe himself as one of the definite winners of history. But Tacitus spells out the dangers of such a strategy in terms that seem somewhat applicable to our current leaders. The spectators, he tells us, were very impressed by the sight of Germanicus on his chariot. But the spectacle also reminded them of some unwelcome memories: "that popularity had not turned out well for [Germanicus's] father, Drusus and that the enthusiasms of the Roman people were short-lived and ill-omened."
Emily Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author, most recently, of The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Harvard University Press).