The Roman Triumph

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Podcast Transcript

The elite citizens of the Roman Republic were part of a system built to encourage ambition and competition. 

As the men of the republic competed for honors and political positions, the greatest honor Rome could bestow upon someone was a triumph. 

A triumph was much more than a parade. It was a mixture of political, civic, and religious ritual.

Learn more about the Roman Triumph, its significance, and the rules surrounding it, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Before I get into what exactly a triumph was, I need to talk about two very similar ideas that were the driving force in elite Roman society. 

These are twin concepts of auctoritas and dignitas

These are the roots of the English words authority and dignity, but they meant something very different in Rome.

Dignitas has to do with a person’s good name. A person’s dignitas was something that they built up over the course of their life, and it was arguably their most important asset. 

Much of it would fall under what we would call honor, but it was more than that. It included all you’ve achieved, your reputation, and your societal standing. 

Auctoritas is a very similar concept. It wasn’t a legal authority. That was dealt with under the concepts of potestas or imperium. Auctoritas has been described as “more than advice and less than command, an advice which one may not ignore.”

Auctoritas also dealt with prestige, which is why it is often confused with dignitas.

Dignitas was often reserved for men, but women could have auctoritas. Liva, the wife of Augustus, who herself was known as Augusta, had a lot of auctoritas. 

I bring up these two concepts because they are critical to understanding a Roman triumph. 

One thing that elite Roman men coveted more than anything else was military success. If you were successful on the battlefield, you could achieve high political office, you would probably become rich, and you would have the adulation of the masses. 

If you remember back to my episode on the First Triumvirate, two of the members of the triumvirate were Pompey and Crassus. 

Pompey was a great general. He won great victories on the battlefield, and as such, he had a great deal of dignitas. 

His partner Crassus was extremely wealthy. He was certainly respected, but he had no military accomplishments. Despite all his wealth, he didn’t have the dignitas that Pompey did. 

He tried to get this during the Third Servile War, aka the slave revolt led by Sparticus, but even then, Pompey stole much of the spotlight, and because it was just putting down a slave revolt, it didn’t earn as much respect as beating a legitimate foreign army.

Because military glory was held in such high esteem, when a general accomplished something great, the Senate would bestow upon him their highest honor, a triumph. 

The tradition of the triumph goes back to the very founding of the city of Rome.

The first person who, by tradition, was awarded a triumph was the founder of the city, Romulus. 

The first triumph was probably just a victory parade through Rome, where the victorious army marched through town with the citizens lined up to cheer them on. The procession probably ended up at a temple where a sacrifice was made to the gods.

According to the 5th-century historian Orosius, in the approximately 700-year history from the founding of Rome to the end of the Republic, there were 320 triumphs. 

Triumphs were never planned and were only held when there was an occasion to do so. There might be a decade between triumphs, and then in other years, there might have been two of them. 

So what exactly went into a triumph? There were actually a bunch of rules which had to be followed. 

While a triumph wasn’t planned ahead of time on a calendar, it wasn’t spontaneous either.

It would start with some military victory. After the battle, the soldiers would, by acclamation, grant the general the honorary title of imperator. This was called a salutatio imperatoria. 

Imperator is actually the root word for Emperor. 

After that, the general could make an appeal to the senate for a triumph. He could not make the case himself, rather, his representatives would be sent ahead to Rome to make his case. 

The representatives of the general would usually present the senate with a tablet outlining the victory and a laurel wreath which was symbolic of the victory.

The Senate would then debate the merits of holding a triumph, and if they confirmed the salutatio imperatoria, the general would have the right to display a laurel wreath on his fasces and use the title imperator.  

Confirming the salutatio imperatoria did not necessarily imply that a triumph was approved. 

As I mentioned in a few previous episodes, fasces were a bundle of sticks with an axe head attached, symbolizing a magistrate’s authority. The fasces has remained a symbol of authority long past the Roman Republic. If you look at the speaker’s podium in the US House of Representatives, you will see golden fasces on the wall. 

The title of imperator was something that the general could use until either a triumph was held or until he crossed the pomerium.  If you remember back to my episode on the subject, the pomerium was the traditional boundary of the city of Rome which had special rules in place about crossing it. 

Assuming that a general was awarded a triumph, he would then march to the outskirts of Rome with his army to wait. 

One of the key rules about a triumph is that a general could not cross the pomerium before the triumph. Soldiers were never allowed inside of Rome. The only exception to his rule was on the day of a triumph. 

This is also why the title of imperator was lost when a general crossed the pomerium. It was because, at that moment, he ceased being a general and became a citizen. 

This rule about not entering Rome became a major political issue with Julius Caesar in the year 60 BC. He was awarded a triumph for his campaign in Hispania. 

However, he also wanted to run for consul that year, and to run for consul, the rule is you had to stand for election in person inside Rome. 

Caesar could either get his triumph or run for consul, but he couldn’t do both. 

He applied to the Senate to run for consul in absentia, but his request was denied. 

Having to choose, he decided to forgo his triumph and run for consul. It was a decision that shocked everyone. A triumph was such a huge honor, one which he might never get again, that the idea of passing it up was considered insane.  

The day of the triumph would be chosen by priests who took auspices, which was looking for signs from the gods in birds.

The day of the triumph was a whole day affair. It would usually begin with speeches given outside the pomerium by the general and his officers. The general would recount his victory, praise his men, and hand out awards and honors. 

The general would then be outfitted in a purple toga known as the toga picta. Purple, again past episode, was a royal color, and it signified that the general was king for a day. The toga picta was also the same one that adorned the statue of Jupiter Capitolinus, which was the main god in the Roman pantheon. 

The general would also usually wear a laurel on his head, red boots, and have his face painted red. 

Every triumph was a bit different, but there was a standard procedure for most of them. 

The procession would cross the pomerium through the Porta Triumphalis. 

The front of the procession would be captured enemies and, if possible, the captured leaders of the enemy. They would often be ostentatiously chained for the benefit of the crowds. 

Many of these enemy leaders would be ritually executed, usually strangled. Those that weren’t were usually sold into slavery.

Behind the captured enemies would be loot and booty that was captured. This could include all the weapons and armor which was taken and could include works of art, exotic animals, and whatever else might be entertaining to average Romans. 

You can see a depiction of this in Rome today on the arch of Titus. It has a carving showing a candelabra taken from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in a triumphal procession.

There would then be the equivalent of what we call floats. These would have been painted depictions of the battle or diorama-type models of what happened. 

There would also be other entertainment interspersed in the procession. This would include musicians, jugglers, torchbearers, flag wavers, and other things to please the crowd.

After the booty, lictors carrying fasces would walk in front of a chariot that carried the general. 

Magistrates and the current consuls would also walk in front of the triumphant general.  He would be carried in a chariot while an ivory scepter with a Roman eagle on top to signify his imperator status. 

On the chariot with him was a slave who held a golden crown over his head and whispered into his ear that he should remember that he is mortal and not a god. 

Behind him would be his sons and officers, usually mounted on horseback.

Finally, the troops themselves started to arrive. This would not be an orderly march of finally disciplined troops. They would often sing lewd songs.  They would be wearing togas and would not be armed. 

During one of Julius Caesar’s triumphs, his soldiers were recorded by the historian Sutenious as singing the following:

Caesar screwed the lands of Gaul, Nicomedes screwed our Caesar,

Look Caesar now is triumphing, the one who screwed the Gauls

No Nicomedes triumphs though, the one who screwed our Caesar

This, again, was all done to please the crowds and for the soldiers to celebrate. It was also done to supposedly ward off the jealousy of the gods by keeping the general humble.

The procession was very slow-moving on purpose. There were records of some triumphs moving so slowly that they would take more than a day. 

The endpoint of the triumph was usually the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, where sacrifices would be made, usually of perfect white bulls. 

After the triumph, the general would often host banquets and games at his own expense, usually funded through his share of the spoils of war.

The best depiction of a triumph that I’ve ever seen was in the HBO series Rome. Caesar’s triumph was as close to an accurate depiction as you’ll see. It isn’t perfect, but it was very well done.

By the end of the republic, triumphs were becoming competitive, with each general trying to outdo the other. 

Pompey had three triumphs, so when Caesar finally had his triumph, he had four of them back to back to back to back.

One of his triumphs was celebrating his victory over Pompey during the civil war, which was considered in very bad taste. Celebrating victory over other Romans wasn’t something that should be celebrated.

Sometimes if a general wasn’t awarded a triumph, he might have been awarded a lesser version called an ovation. In an ovation, the general would enter Rome on foot, wearing a senatorial toga without any of his troops. 

Much of what we know about triumphs came from a collection of stone tablets called the Fasti Triumphales found during the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. It records many, but not all, of the triumphs which took place since the founding of the city.

After the fall of the republic, triumphs became very rare as generals couldn’t be declared imperator because that was now reserved for the emperor. 

There were imperial triumphs, but they were mostly for show as they weren’t earned in the field.

There were actually a few triumphs that were held in Constantinople in the eastern empire. In 534, Justinian I gave a triumph to his general Belisarius, which was unique in that it was now infused with Christian, instead of pagan, elements.

There were medieval kings who held their own version of a triumph, but it was never the same level of extravagance. 

The closest thing we have to a triumph would be ticker-tape parades which were really only held in New York and really aren’t held anymore due to a lack of ticker tape and phone books, which were ripped up as well. 

The Roman triumph was a unique cultural institution. In a world filled with competitive, ambitious people, for one day, it allowed all the attention in the world’s biggest city would be focused on a single man.