Book Review: The Roman Triumph


by Mary Beard

Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap/Harvard, 2007. Pp. iv, 434. Illus., map, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN:978-0-674-02613-1

Mary Beard, perhaps the most noted British classicist today, opens The Roman Triumph by pointing out that we actually don’t know very much about the famous Roman ritual parade through the streets of the Eternal City to honor a conquering commander. She then goes on to prove it. For example, historians have held that a triumph always involved the ritual execution of the defeated enemy commander. Yet, Beard notes we have actual evidence of only a handful of such executions, while there are almost as many instances in which we are told the enemy commander was just rusticated. There is no information at all about what happened in most triumphs.

Beard goes on in this fashion from the earliest recorded triumph, of Romulus at the time of the founding of the city, to the last, of Belisarius, a dozen centuries later, ranging back and forth across the ages to examine what is known or can be surmised about the 300-some triumphs (all but about two dozen before the Christian era). In the process, she makes the case that the ritual was not predictable as is often assumed, and that it varied from time to time, due to circumstances or to the tastes of the commander being honored.

There’s a lot more, including the religious aspects, questions about the route through the city, art as a part of the observances, and, of course, the purpose of it all. An excellent work for both the serious student of Roman history and anyone with an interest in the subject.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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