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Alas For Romance: Military History that Isnít True - Defeated Enemy Leaders were Executed after Roman Triumphs

Under the Republic, successful Roman generals were often awarded a triumph, a custom which under the Empire quickly became limited to the Emperor himself.  A triumph was an elaborate ceremonial parade through the streets of Rome.  Spectacularly outfitted, the triumphator rode in an elaborate chariot with his children as the enemy chieftains and their families walked in chains behind, followed by floats displaying paintings of battles, wagons loaded with loot, and flocks of prisoners, and then the general’s troops, unarmed (contrary to Hollywood), bringing up the rear singing bawdy songs about him.

Consider this description of  Pompey’s the Great’s famous third triumph, held September 29-October 1, 61 BC, written by the historian Plutarch (fl., c. AD 46-c. 120) 

Inscriptions borne in advance of the procession indicated the nations over which he triumphed.  These were: Pontus, Armenia, Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Media, Colchis, Iberia, Albania, Syria, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia and Palestine, Judaea, Arabia, and all the power of the pirates by sea and land which had been overthrown.  Among these peoples no less than a thousand strongholds had been captured, according to the inscriptions, and cities not much under nine hundred in number, besides eight hundred piratical ships, while thirty-nine cities had been founded.  In addition to all this the inscriptions set forth that whereas the public revenues from taxes had been fifty million drachmas, they were receiving from the additions which Pompey had made to the city's power eighty-five million, and that he was bringing into the public treasury in coined money and vessels of gold and silver twenty thousand talents, apart from the money which had been given to his soldiers, of whom the one whose share was the smallest had received fifteen hundred drachmas. 

The captives led in triumph, besides the chief pirates, were [Tigranes] the son of Tigranes the Armenian, with his wife and daughter, Zosime, a wife of King Tigranes himself, Aristobulus, king of the Jews, a sister and five children of Mithridates [the Great of Pontus], Scythian women, and hostages given by the Iberians, by the Albanians, and by the king of Commagene; there were also very many trophies, equal in number to all the battles in which Pompey had been victorious either in person or in the persons of his lieutenants.  But that which most enhanced his glory and had never been the lot of any Roman before, was that he celebrated his third triumph over the third continent. For others before him had celebrated three triumphs; but he celebrated his first over Libya, his second over Europe, and this his last over Asia, so that he seemed in a way to have included the whole world in his three triumphs.

There is a very old belief, which originate in Roman imperial times, that after marching in a general's triumphal procession, the defeated enemy commander was executed in some fashion, usually by strangulation.  It is supposedly because of this custom that a number of Rome’s greatest enemies -- Cleopatra most famously -- committed suicide.  This tradition rests on shaky grounds.  There were at least 320 triumphs in Roman history, and although we do not know the fate of all defeated enemy leaders who marched behind the triumphator, in only a handful of cases is there evidence that the defeated leader was executed at the procession’s conclusion.  To take as an example, of the captives paraded behind Pompey’s chariot, only the pirate chiefs were executed. 

So it turns out – as so often – that what “everyone knows” is not quite correct. 

In fact very little is known about the details of the triumph; not even the route through the city can be ascertained with much reliability.  For all the hundreds of triumphs, details on the fate of those who marched in chains behind the victorious commander are surprisingly sparse.  The list here seems to include all occasions on which we know what happened to the defeated enemy leaders.

BC 291 Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus: Gaius Pontius, the leader of the Samnites was executed.
205 Publius Cornelius Scipio: King Syphax of the Numidian Masaesyli was settled at Alba Fucens, in the mountainous southwest of Rome.
167 Ancius Gallus: King Gentius of the Ardiaeans in Illyria was settled with his family at Iguvium, northwest of Rome.
167 Lucius Aemillius Paulus: King Perseus of Macedonia, his wife, and their children were kept in comfortable arrest on an estate near Alba Fucens. The king died some years later, but his son Alexander, a skilled worker in silver and gold, apparently attained Roman citizenship, because he became a law clerk or notary.
126 Manius Aquillius: Eumenes III Aristonicus, pretender to the throne of Pergamon, was executed by strangulation.
120 Quintus Fabius Maximus: King Bituitus of the Gallic Arverni, and apparently his son Congentiatus, lived out their lives at Alba Fucens.
104 Gaius Marius: King Jugurtha of the Numidians was imprisoned in the Tullianum, the most miserable jail in Rome, where he soon went mad and later died of starvation, which may been deliberate.
74 Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus: Several Cilician pirate chieftains who walked in his triumph were executed.
61 Pompey the Great: Of those who walked in his triumph,
  • Several Cilician pirate chiefs were executed.
  • Prince Tigranes of Armenia was sent with his family to rule the Kingdom of Sophrene, near his father’s domains.
  • King and High Priest Aristoboulos II of Judea was by one tradition killed after the triumph, but in fact he was rusticated to an estate near Rome, until 49 BC, when he was released, only to die on the way back to Judea.
46 Caesar: Of those who walked in his four-day triumph (July 26-29),
  • Vercingetorix, the great Gallic war leader, was executed.
  • Princess Arsinoe IV of Egypt, the half-sister of Cleopatra, was loosely confined to the grounds of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (“Diana of the Ephesians”) until 41 BC, when Marc Antony had her murdered as a gift to his girl friend.
  • Prince Juba (son of Caesar’s great enemy King Juba of Numidia), was settled at Rome, eventually becoming a noted historian and a Roman citizen. He fought for Octavian at Actium (31 BC), and was rewarded with the crown of Mauretania (r. c. 28 BC-AD 23) and the hand of the immensely wealthy Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
29 Octavian: Of those who marched in his triumph,
  • King Adiatorix of Galatia and King Alexander of Emesa were both executed.
  • The children of Marc Antony and Cleopatra (Ptolemy Philadelphus and the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene) were treated as Octavian’s wards, and raised by his sister Octavia (Antony’s ex-wife no less!). The boys seem to have died young, but there is no record of them being executed. The princess later married Juba II, who had marched in Caesar’s triumph.
AD 13 Tiberius: King Bato of the Daesitiates, leader of the Great Illyrian Revolt (AD 6-9) was settled with his family on a country estate near Ravenna.
44 Claudius: Several British kings and chieftains who marched were settled as Imperial pensioners in or near Rome. King Caratacus of the Catuvellauni, not captured until AD 51, made an eloquent speech in the Senate, and he too was retired to a country estate.
71 Vespasian & Titus: Simon ben Gioras, the leader of the Jewish Revolt, was executed.
273 Aurelian: Two notable prisoners who marched in his triumph were both spared.
  • Queen Zenobia of Palmyra was settled in a villa near Tivoli. Tradition has it that she later married a Roman Senator with whom she had several children.
  • Caius Pius Esuvius Tetricus, heir to the Emperor Tetricus of the secessionist Gallic Empire was also spared, and apparently even permitted to retain his senatorial rank.

So we have sixteen instances in which we know the names and fate of the defeated enemy leaders who were led in a triumphal procession.  In only nine cases are we certain that the defeated enemy leader was executed or died: Pontius, Eumenes III Aristonicus, Jugurtha, two batches of pirate chiefs, Vercingetorix, Adiatorix of Galatia and King Alexander of Emesa, and Simon ben Gioras.  And in eleven cases (since there was some overlap in which there were multiple captive leaders), the enemy leaders were kept in comfortable retirement or actually honored by being returned to power.

Oddly, we also know of one instance in which a very unusual “punishment” was inflicted on captive enemy leaders.  In 225 BC Lucius Aemilius Papus was awarded a triumph for defeating an Insubrian invasion from Gallia Cisalpina (northern Italy) in the Battle of Telamon.  According to Cassius Dio (fl. c. AD 150- 235), Aemilius had the Insubrian chiefs march in their armor during the triumph, and then “conveyed the foremost captives clad in armor up to the Capitol, making jests at their expense for having sworn not to remove their breastplates until they had ascended to the Capitol.”  Alas, what happened to the boastful Insubrians afterwards is absent from the historical record.  As, unfortunately, is the fate of almost all those who marched behind conquering hero’s chariot in a Roman triumph. 

BookNote: The best work on the subject is the aptly titled The Roman Triumph by the noted British classicist Mary Beard, who also has an often wickedly clever column in The Times of London, “A Don's Life”.

 


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