The Roman Triumph by Mary Beard

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The very words "Roman triumph" immediately stir in our minds Hollywood-ised scenes of vast crowds, enslaved captives, brazen trumpets and, high on a dais somewhere, one of the Julio-Claudian emperors played by Peter Ustinov, lolling around goggle-eyed on a velvet couch popping grapes in his mouth. It's Mary Beard's aim in this thorough, minutely detailed and closely argued study, to explain both what the Roman triumph really looked like, and what it symbolised. Although she frequently admits that there is a lack of sources, or a number of conflicting interpretations possible, her account certainly brings us closer to the complex and fascinating reality than any Rome according to MGM or Paramount.

Of all the elements in the Roman triumph, perhaps the most enduring in subsequent historical imagination is the figure of the slave who was supposed to ride behind the triumphant general, holding a gold crown some inches above his head and whispering in his ear, "Remember you are mortal." This appeals to us in any number of ways, assuring us that beneath all that pomp and circumstance, the Romans had a firm grasp of human fallibility and mortality. It's a very nice touch. The trouble is, the evidence for it is wildly conflicting. Was the slave really a slave, or a comrade? Was it a gold crown, or a laurel wreath? Pliny, Dio, Tertullian, all give slightly different versions. Others don't mention it at all. Surviving bas-reliefs only add to the uncertainty. As with so many things that happened 2,000 years ago, such as the birth of the Baby Jesus, the documentary evidence has suffered greatly in the great Shredder of Time. You can believe what you want to believe.

For my part, I believe it, because there is good evidence elsewhere that the ancient world really did have a firm grasp of human fallibility and mortality. Doesn't Herodotus tell us that, once a year, the mighty god-king of Babylon would allow himself to be led before the great golden statue of the god Marduk, and there have his cheeks slapped and his ears yanked by the priests in admonitory ritual? Nowadays we have to content ourselves with sniggering at our leaders on Have I Got News For You?. But then the ancient god-kings of Babylon were far more willing to be mocked than our democratic politicians today.

The other powerful element in the Roman triumph was the presence of captives, and for this there is far more evidence, which Beard brings colourfully to life. The Romans would parade men, women and children without distinction, but also without whips and chains, pace the more sensational Hollywood version. In fact the whole business of parading captives seems rather mild, and generally ended with them settling down afterwards as good Roman citizens. Only a few were actually forced to kneel and have their heads lopped off, to general rejoicing. One account of the fate of the troublesome Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, rebel against Rome, has her starving herself to death before she could be brought to Rome and ritually humiliated; but another suggests that she took part in the triumph, endured a few boos and catcalls, and then settled down to live a quiet life in a pleasant villa beside the Tiber.

The last true triumph in modern times, Beard reckons, was that of Admiral George Dewey through New York, after the Spanish-American War of 1899. One can be fairly sure, I think, that no such parade will conclude Mr Bush's Adventures in Mesopotamia. Then again, you never know. The Americans have proved almost as deft as we Brits at turning actual disasters into mythical victories. Amusingly, one is also reminded of Bush's premature victory celebrations over Iraq, in a complaint of stern Tacitus about a triumph "decreed by Germanicus, while the war was still going on." Plus ça change...

Other parades raise questions about definition. Those interminable processions of tanks and missile-carriers in China and North Korea are surely military triumphs of a kind, even if celebrating no particular victory. And Beard's assertion that we no longer parade our captives is a little odd. "We" can only mean the civilised West here, rather than humanity in general. Captives in the Middle East are often "paraded" in triumph on the internet, before being executed.

Mary Beard sometimes protests a little too much that, beneath all their militaristic vainglory, the Romans shared the same concerns and anxieties about war as we do. I don't think so. What is striking about Latin literature is the rarity of any expressed reservations about the bloody games, or the brutal criminal justice system, or the idea of conquering and enslaving entire peoples. Even in the pages of such humane writers as Seneca and Cicero, modern, liberal anxieties are hard to find. Beard wants to show that revulsion against violence is a human universal, but alas, she doesn't quite succeed. For the Romans, violence, bloodshed, manliness, virtus, strength, patriotism, and filial piety were pretty much all of a piece, and thoroughly Good Things.

A self-confessed enthusiast for Roman culture, as you would expect from a proper Cambridge classics professor, she adds rather peculiarly that her enthusiasm endures, "notwithstanding my distaste for much of what those sophisticated men – and I mean men – got up to". Has she not heard of Messalina and Agrippina? Or Mark Antony's appalling wife Fulvia, who stabbed Cicero through the tongue with a hairpin – after his head had been cut off? Girls can be meanies too. *

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