What was the Roman Triumph?

Ever wonder what kind of honor was given to a Roman general who distinguished himself gallantly in the field of battle and contributed to the greatness of Rome? Well, wonder no more because in the article below World History Edu explains everything that you need to know about the Roman triumph.

How did one get a Roman triumph?

The Romans were notoriously known for having the deepest admiration for concepts like honor, dignity and authority. Generals and politicians fervently guarded against engaging in activities that made them lose their standing before the people. To the elites in the society, getting honored with a triumph was a way a saying one had reached the apex of his career, politically and militarily.

The Roman triumph was bestowed by the Senate upon a military commander who excelled tremendously well in battle, particularly generals that were able to vanquish an enemy forces and capture foreign territories and prisoners.  Such military commanders were praised for having enhanced Rome’s glory and reputation among its neighbors. The triumph parade was thus very crucial in the general’s political career.

When did the triumphal procession begin?

The origins of Roman triumph is said to go all the way back to the era of Romulus in 753 BC. According to Roman historian Plutarch, Rome’s founder Romulus is said to have chopped down an oak tree and put on a laurel wreath. Romulus then walked through Rome in a small procession. This act of his marked the beginning of triumphal procession in Rome. This explains why the Fasti Triumphales list Romulus as the first person to receive a triumph.

However, there have been some suggestions that the Romans borrowed this practice from the Etruscans, a civilization primarily located in central Italy that thrived from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century BC.

The evolution of the Roman triumph

In the early years of the Roman Republic, triumphs were primarily given to a distinguished general who led his troops to great military feats. However, towards the later years of the Republic through to the imperial era of Rome, triumphs became an honor reserved solely for the emperor and the imperial family. This move is said to have happened during the reign of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.

Also, Roman emperors of the era were quick to take every opportunity to make themselves appear more appealing to the public. One such avenue to do this was the use of triumph. It became a political tool, as emperors could receive a triumph even when no military victory had been secured.

Triumphal processions in the Roman Kingdom (753 BC–509 BC)

Some historical accounts have stated that Roman kings before the Republic received triumphs. However, there is no evidence to support such notion. Granted those kings received triumphs, then it is likely that the event was underpinned by heavy religious themes, where prayers and offerings were made to Roman fertility deities.

The Republic era

In the third century BC, particularly during the Punic Wars (264 – 146 BC), the honors Roman generals received did not come with the same level of pomp and pageantry as the triumphs that took place in the imperial era.

Late Republic

Beginning around the first century BC, the Roman triumphs started having more and more pomp, with feasts and parties going on for many days after the procession. Notable examples such grandiose triumphs were given to Julius Caesar and his adopted son and heir Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) in 46 bc and 29 bc respectively.

The military commander began the procession by making his way via the Triumphal gate at the southern tip of the Capitoline Hill. Image: Scene from the Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna (1482–94, now Royal Collection)

Late Imperial era

The number of triumphs began to dwindling around the late 1st century AD. It’s said that just around 22 triumphs occurred between the 2nd century AD and the 3rd century AD. To put that figure into perspective – Paulus Orosius, a 5th century AD Christian historian and theologian, opined that up to the first century AD Rome had seen about 320 triumphs.

By the fourth century AD, triumphs had become very rare. Emperors Diocletian (c. 242-311) and Maximian (c. 250-c. 310) were some of the last Roman emperors to be honored with a triumph. Roman emperors had taken to the construction of arches and other structures as a more permanent way to commemorate their achievements.

It is generally stated that Flavius Belisarius (5050-565), the Byzantine military general who served under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, was the last Roman to receive a triumph. In addition to conquering the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa, Belisarius is famed for reconquering much of the territories that the Western Roman Empire lost in its declining years. Belisarius was given a triumph in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) after his victory against the Persians (i.e. the Sasanians) at the Battle of Dara in 530.

Roman triumph served as a huge propaganda tool that often times exaggerated the military general’s accomplishments. Unpopular rulers used triumph to make themselves more appealing to the public. Image: Detail from the Arch of Titus showing his triumph held in 71 for his successful Sack of Jerusalem.

The Roman Triumph Process

Once the Roman general had led his troops to a significant victory, say the conquest of a territory for Rome, his officers and soldiers would give him what is was said to be a shouting ovation. The general would in effect be acclaimed by his legions as an imperator (salutatio imperatorial), which is an honorific title that means “one who commands”.

The victorious general would then ask for a meeting with the Roman Senate outside the pomerium, a religious boundary around the city of Rome. Were the Roman general to enter pomerium without any special clearance of the Senate, that general would lose his command and be regarded as an ordinary citizen. This is why the Senate and the general must meet outside the pomerium on a tiny race track called the Circus Flaminius. In the meeting, the military general will present a litterae laureatae – laurel wreath and a tablet – to the Senate. The laurel wreath was most commonly associated with victory in Rome. The general would also give a background to his military conquest, which would then be appraised by the Senate. The general would also ask the Senate for a special permission to cross the pomerium.

Confirmation of the general’s victory and its significance had to be done not just in the Senate but also the Plebian Assembly. Once that was done, the general would be allowed to place laurels on his fasces – a bundle of rods and axe – and lead his army across the pomerium and into the city of Rome. Due to the special permission granted to him by the Senate, the general would still retain his command of the army.

On the day of the triumph ceremony

Owing to how grand the triumph procession is, the city of Rome often came to a standstill on the day of the ceremony. The public will line up the route of triumph procession and wait to catch a glimpse of the general and his army. The day began with the general giving a speech before the Senate, magistrates, his legion, and finally the public. In the speech the general would send special thanks to all the people, including his army officers and politicians, who helped him actualize his military conquest. Sometimes, the general would hand money and other gifts to loyal and gallant soldiers that fought by his side.

The procession began with a long line of wagons that carried three dimensional models of how the general conquered the territories. The essence of this is to let the public become aware of the general’s feats and the key battles that he fought in. The models and enactments are accompanied by seized ships, equipment and exotic animals and plants from those conquered territories. The commonest animals were giraffes and elephants. The Roman general scored more points in the eyes of the public by having weirder animals. Entertainers, including dancers, gymnasts, and singers, were used during the procession to make it even more interesting for the onlookers.

Captives and the spoils of war

The next group of wagons in the procession carried the spoils of the war, including precious metals, exotic clothing, coins, and religious artifacts, among others. In most cases, the best-looking captives from the conquered lands were made to accompany the wagon. Having a defeated foreign monarch or general accompany the procession added more gloss to the triumph. Some notable captured foreign monarchs that were led in parade include Thusnelda, the Germanic noblewoman who was captured by Roman general Germanicus in 15 AD; and Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, who was captured by Emperor Aurelian in 272 AD. Julius Caesar captured and later paraded Arsinoë IV, Cleopatra’s sister, in his triumphal procession in 46 BC.

Once those wagons had made their way, the triumphator – i.e. the general who was honored with a triumph – made his appearance in the procession. He would ride in special triumph chariot that was generally pulled by four white horses. The chariot and horses would be decorated in precious metals and charms, with the later intended to ward off spirit. The triumphator’s toga was often dyed purple since purple was the color of royalty in Rome. His face is painted red – which is a reference to the red statue of the god Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Jupiter was the king of the gods in ancient Rome.

The general also wore a crown made of leaves from the laurel tree. As stated earlier, the laurel symbolized victory in Rome. This explains why laurel wreath, a symbol associated with the god Apollo, was given to winners of athletic competition in Rome and Greece.

Often times, the triumphator carried in his hands a branch from a laurel tree and an ivory scepter with an eagle on the tip. The attire the general wore was aimed at depicting him as one close to being a king or a god.

Following behind the triumphator’s chariot were his family and children. For the male members, this was their chance to be seen by the public. This prestigious honor and their association with the general also served as a way to kick start their political career. Next were the commander’s senior officers who rode on horseback.

Read More: Notable Accomplishments of Cleopatra VII of Egypt

The triumphant’s soldiers and offensive songs

The next group of people who followed in the procession was the general’s legion. The soldiers, like the general, received the same special permission to cross the pomerium. Smartly dressed in their full battle gear, the jubilant soldiers reveled in being part of the triumph. Quite frankly many of the soldiers were simply happy to be back in Rome. As the soldiers marched, they would sing lewd songs, uttering words that were in disrespectful to the triumphator and the people of Rome. However, no one bothered because the songs they sang were simply funny. It was also believed that the song sang by the troops were aimed to prevent the gods from getting jealous.

Religious component of the Roman triumph

Before making it to the streets, the triumphator and his entourage entered the Circus Maximus, arguably Rome’s most famous race track. There, the commander would be met by a thunderous applause and cheering from an overflowing crowd, in some cases, more than 150,000 spectators. The roar of the crowd could be deafening. The general would then make his way to the Pallentine Hill and then to the Via Sacra, which is one of Rome’s most important roads. The street is home to Rome’s major religious buildings.

Strangulation and human sacrifices

From the Via Sacra, the general would head towards the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, where some captives from general’s conquest would be pulled aside and ceremoniously strangled in front of a cheering crowd. This practice was particularly common in the imperial era of Rome. In some cases, however, the general would grant freedom to some of the captives.

Next, the general would enter the temple and climax the ceremony with the sacrifice of two white bulls to Jupiter. Gifts and other forms offerings were also offered by the general to Jupiter. It must be noted that before the general set off on a military campaign, they visited the temple of Jupiter. Therefore, the general’s return to the temple in a way completed the cycle.

Final stage of the Roman triumph

After departing the temple, the Triumphator would be treated to an extravagant feast, which is opened only to bigwigs in Rome. The spectators that thronged the streets would also head back home and have their own party.

After the banquet, Lictors (magisterial attendants) with fasces adorned with laurel leaves and musicians would escort the truimphator to his home.

It is said that the Senate’s permission that enabled the commander cross the pomerium expired the day after the triumph procession. The general at that point then became a private citizen.

In some cases the party, i.e. drinking and feasting, and games continued for several more days after the triumph procession. Much of the bill for those parties was footed by the general.

The Porta Triumphalis

The triumphator and his entourage made their way into Rome through a gate called the Porta Triumphalis. The gate was used solely for Roman triumph. One time, Roman general Pompey the Great, hoping to outdo the previous triumph honorees, chose to use elephants to draw his chariots. Unfortunately for the Roman general, the elephants could not squeeze through the gate. Pompey put the embarrassment behind him and resorted to horses.

Other interesting facts about the Roman triumph

The Roman Triumph was a memorable spectacle used to publicly acknowledge that the individual was one of Rome’s most influential general. Image: Emperor Marcus Aurelius Triumph

  • Although not without much conclusive evidence, it’s been stated that the Roman general in the procession was accompanied by a slave who held a golden crown above the triumphant general’s head. The slave would whisper certain phrases and adulations in the general’s ear, most notably the phrase “Remember, you are human and not god”.
  • Roman consuls, senators and other important members of the city also took part in the procession.
  • The triumphator was the person who decided the route for the triumph procession.
  • Caesar and Pompey were the first triumphators to erect a building to commemorate their military victories and triumph processions. Caesar for example built a forum.
  • It must be noted that it was not uncommon for a Roman general or Roman emperor to be given more than one triumph. The likes of Pompey the Great, Caesar and Augustus received many triumphs in their lifetimes.
  • Prior to the use of arches to commemorate the triumphant general’s victory, coins were minted.
  • The fasti triumphales, which was prepared during the reign of Augustus, is praised for having the complete list of generals and rulers (from the Romulus’ era in 753 BC to General Balbus in 19 BC) that were honored with triumph.
  • Roman triumph, Rome’s highest military honor, was in some cases used a huge propaganda tool to exaggerate the honoree’s accomplishment or contributions to the glory of Rome. It was also used by unpopular Roman rulers to make themselves more appealing to the public.

Difference between a Roman triumph and an ovation

The Roman triumph was higher than the ovation honor. The ovation, which did not have the same level of spectacle as the triumph, was a Roman honor given to military commanders whose military conquests came against a relatively weaker opposition. It was also the case that an ovation would be bestowed upon a general whose conquest resulted in the deaths of fewer enemy forces. Roman generals that suppressed a slave revolt or eliminated a pirate threat also received ovation. For example Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus – who was Rome’s richest man – received an ovation after he brought to an end the Spartacus revolt (also known as the Third Servile War) 71 BC.

Roman commanders that fought in battles with indecisive result sometimes received an ovation.

An ovation honor did not have as much spectacle or pomp as the triumph. Honorees did not ride a chariot, instead they made their entry on horseback. Rather than bull, sheep was the animal sacrificed in an ovation procession. The military general donned a magistrate robe and a crown of myrtle.

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