Witness to Victory Parades in Ancient Rome

A Triumph in Ancient Rome

The Roman triumph (triumphus) was a civil ceremony and religious rite of ancient Rome, held to publicly celebrate and sanctify the military achievement of an army commander who had won great military successes, or originally and traditionally, one who had successfully completed a foreign war. In Republican tradition, only theSenate could grant a triumph. The origins and development of this honour were obscure: Roman historians placed the first triumph in the mythical past.

In the absence of complete or clear records of any triumphal ceremony, attempted reconstruction presumes a traditional, conservative framework in which details omitted from one account can be furnished from another. A reconstruction follows, based on Ramsey, 1875.

The ceremony began outside the Servian Walls in the Campus Martius, on the western bank of the Tiber. The vir triumphalis entered the city in his chariot through the Porta Triumphalis, which was only opened for these occasions. As he entered the city, as defined by the pomerium, he was met by the senate and magistratesand legally surrendered his command. The parade then proceeded along the Via Triumphalis (the modern Via dei Fori Imperiali) to the Circus Flaminius then the Circus Maximus. A captured enemy ruler or general might be paraded then taken to the Tullianum for execution: Jugurtha was starved to death there, and Vercingetorix was strangled. Some defeated leaders, such as Zenobia of Palmyra, were spared. The procession continued along the Via Sacra to the Forum and ascended the Capitoline Hill to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the final destination. The route would be lined with cheering crowds who would shower the triumphator with flowers.

It must have been an awesome sight to behold

At the Capitoline Hill the vir triumphalis sacrificed white bulls to Jupiter. He then entered the temple to offer his wreath to the god as a sign that he had no intentions of becoming the king of Rome. Once this part of the ceremony was over, temples were kept open and incense burned at the altars. The soldiers would disperse to the city to celebrate. Often a banquet was served for the citizens in the evening.

To better celebrate the triumph, a monument was sometimes erected. This is the origin of the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Constantine, not far from the Colosseum, or perhaps near a battle site as is the case for the Tropaeum Traiani. The monumental Meta Sudans was erected by the Flavians to mark the point where the triumph route turned from the Via Triumphalis into the Via Sacra and the Forum.

It is difficult to determine what is a “real” Roman triumph in the late period. Therefore it is also impossible to say who was the last triumphator. The candidates include Emperor Honorius (403) and Flavius Belisarius (ostensibly “sitting in” for Emperor Justinian I), in recognition for his victory over the Vandals. It was held in Constantinople in 534.

During the approximately 1900 years of the history from the beginnings of the Roman Republic to the final disappearance of the Eastern Roman Empire about 500 triumphs were celebrated.

Order of Procession:

  1. The Senate, headed by the magistrates without their lictors.
  2. Trumpeters
  3. Carts with the spoils of war
  4. White bulls for sacrifice
  5. The arms and insignia of the conquered enemy
  6. The enemy leaders themselves, with their relatives and other captives in chains or cages
  7. The lictors of the imperator, their fasces wreathed with laurel
  8. The imperator himself, in a chariot drawn by two (later four) horses
  9. The adult sons and officers of the imperator
  10. The army without weapons or armor (since the procession would take them inside the pomerium), but clad in togas and wearing wreaths. During the later periods, only a selected company of soldiers would follow the commander in the triumph, as a singular honour.

The three triumphs of Pompeius Magnus

The three triumphs awarded Pompeius Magnus (“Pompey the Great“) were thoroughly documented, not least because they were controversial to their contemporaries and to later writers. His first, in 80 or 81 BCE, was technically illegal, reluctantly granted by a cowed and divided Senate when Pompey was aged only 24, a mere equestrian. Roman conservatives disapproved. For others, his youthful success was the mark of a prodigious military talent, divine favour and personal brio that merited popular support. However, the triumphal day did not go quite to plan. To represent his African conquest, and perhaps to outdo even Bacchus, Pompey had a team of elephants yoked to his triumphal chariot, but they proved too tight a fit for one of the gates en route to the Capitol. Pompey had to dismount and wait while a horse team was yoked in their place. This embarrassment would have delighted his critics, and probably some of his soldiers — whose demands for cash had been near-mutinous. Even so, his firm stand on the matter of cash raised his standing among the conservatives, and Pompey seems to have learned a lesson in populist politics.

For his second triumph, his donatives were said to break all records, though the amounts in Plutarch’s account are implausibly high: Pompey’s lowest ranking soldiers each received 6000 sesterces (about six times their annual pay) and his officers around 5 million sesterces each.

His third triumph, held in 61 BCE to celebrate his victory over Mithradates, was an opportunity to outdo even himself – and certainly his rivals. Triumphs traditionally lasted for one day. Pompey’s went on for two days of unprecedented novelty, wealth and luxury. Plutarch claimed that this triumph represented Pompey’s – and therefore Rome’s – domination over the entire world, an achievement to outshine even Alexander’s. Pliny’s narrative dwells upon a gigantic portrait-bust of Pompey, a thing of “eastern splendor” entirely covered with pearls, and with the benefit of hindsight, has this disembodied head anticipate Pompey’s later defeat at Pharsalus and subsequent decapitation in Egypt. In 55 BCE, Pompey‘s “gift to the Roman People” of a gigantic, architecturally daring theatre was dedicated to Venus Victrix, and thereby connected the once equestrian vir triumphalis to Aeneas, son of Venus and ancestor of Rome itself. For its inauguration, the portico was filled with the spoils of his wars, including statuary, paintings and the personal wealth of foreign kings. Beard interprets this as a commemoration and extension of triumphal fame.



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