Stroll past the nine life-size panels that comprise Andrea Mantegna's depiction of The Triumphs of Caesar (c. 1485-92). Prized possession of Hampton Court, the series has given spectacular shape to our modern conception of the Roman triumph. A panoply of trumpeters and soldiers, standards and spoils, replicas of cities laid waste, royalty in chains, elephants and sacrificial animals, and, in splendid isolation on his high-wheeled chariot, the garlanded general soaking up the applause. Now we can understand The Triumphs better: not as an accurate reproduction of the ancient ritual as practised, but a surprisingly close approximation in art of the written accounts of this disturbing, yet fundamental, Roman institution.
The painting exposes the risks which ancient writers knew inhered in the celebration of a triumph. A pile of looted armour is close to collapse. The spectators are packed uncomfortably tight. The prisoners are too dignified. A placard boasts that Julius Caesar celebrated victory over Gaul "after envy had been conquered", but painter and viewer know that this conqueror will become envy's victim.
As we might expect from Mary Beard's public persona as a "dangerous don", her much-awaited study emphasises the subversive potential of the Roman triumph: as a public performance which could not be entirely controlled, as the object of ancient criticism, and as the subject of heated and, in her view, often erroneous scholarship. Scratch the surface detail, and out emerge the painting's fanciful amalgams. As its title suggests, Mantegna's series compresses the five triumphs Caesar held in 46 and 45 BC into a single event. It also incorporates spoils and captives associated with Aemilius Paullus (who triumphed more than 100 years earlier) and architectural features linked to the emperors Trajan, Titus and Constantine.
Roman artefacts appear in decay alongside a Renaissance cart and weaponry. According to Beard, ancient historiography and biography, epic poems and encyclopedias, have merged, embellished, diminished or even fabricated Roman triumphs. We must resist taking such "rituals in ink" literally. Instead, we should read them in terms of their intellectual and ideological agendas, and match (or mismatch) them against each other and the rarer reconstructions of Roman triumphs that have survived in stone, coin, or marble.
Copies of The Triumphs achieved wide distribution. They were soon treated as authority and script for the classicising postures of rulers who wished to process grandly into their subject cities. Renaissance kings and autocrats were not imitating the Roman triumph as it was performed, but its imaginative reconstruction. Modern scholars, equally, are too quick to seize on ancient narratives as accurate reporting, in order to extract from them the rules, reasons, and origins of the ritual.
In The Roman Triumph, many cherished assumptions are robustly interrogated or put to the sword: the ceremony's genesis in a primitive ritual of purification from blood guilt, Etruscan influence, the general's red-painted face and his temporary acquisition of kingship and/or divinity, the slave's reminders of his mortality, the final eating and drinking en masse. With a sharp and amusing eye for the practicalities, Beard asks, if "laurelled letters" were supposed to be the obligatory medium through which a returning general made his request to the senate for a triumph, did shrewd ones pack some sprigs as they set off on campaign just in case?
Despite the wealth of ancient data on individual triumphs, it is impossible now to piece together a history proper a conventional tale of the origins, development, change and decline of a public ritual central to Roman culture. Most written reference to republican triumphs occurs when such rituals are rare, a privilege permitted only to emperors and their immediate family. So Beard takes us on a dizzying trip back and forth across triumphs and centuries (Pompey, Romulus, Nero, Augustus). Only after she has unpicked accounts of Pompey's triumph, and reflected on captives, spoils, rules and ritual, does she pause briefly to end at origins.
Simultaneously a re-evaluation of the triumph, of Roman culture more broadly, and of the problems of scholarship on ancient societies, this is an ambitious project. The triumph in performance is seemingly much reduced by Beard's rigorous analysis (more elusive, smaller in scale, more improvised; prone to accident, farce or fakery). But the triumph in ink is much enhanced as a rhetoric of power. Obviously a mechanism to eulogise militarism and imperialism, and to parade Rome's difference from other cultures, it is also a mode of moral or political derision.
The republican general Pompey "the Great" was obsessed with the superficial trappings of glory (according to one account). When he paraded his own portrait in pearls in his triumph of 61BCE, he signalled only that soon the real head would also be separated from its body. It was severed on the shores of Egypt in 48 BCE as a bloody gift for his rival, Caesar.
Through the triumph, political discourses accentuate disruption or continuity in Rome's institutions: territorial expansion, the impact of Greek culture, the destruction of other empires, the growth of luxury, the dissolution of the republic, the rise of imperial tyrants. Once its supreme public ritual is recast in this way, Roman society is correspondingly transformed. The "warrior state" becomes less bloodthirsty than we had assumed, less conservative and legalistic, and more self-critical - aware always that there is just a slip between victor and victim.
Maria Wyke is professor of Latin at UCL; her book 'Caesar: a life in Western culture' is published by Granta
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