Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.01.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.01.39

Maggie L. Popkin, The Architecture of the Roman Triumph: Monuments, Memory, and Identity.   New York; Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 271; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781107103573.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Carsten Hjort Lange, Aalborg University (


Popkin’s new monograph on triumphal architecture along the triumphal route consists of 4 main chapters, plus an introduction, a conclusion, and an appendix (no map of the route is provided). The book is part of a recent outpouring of research on the Roman triumph, with much of this attention focusing on the rules and conventions determining the awarding of triumphs, as well as the spectacle in Rome itself. 1 The book proposes to look at three critical periods: the Punic Wars, the reign of Trajan and that of Septimius Severus.

In the introduction Popkin emphasises that there was an “important connection between the triumph and the monumental space through which it moved” (2). Popkin’s basic approach is presented: the Arch of Septimius Severus’ visual appearance, decoration, and location on the triumphal route make it clear that the arch is to be viewed as a triumphal arch (5). However, this raises the question: is this arch on the triumphal route and thus a triumphal arch, or is it a triumphal arch and thus on the triumphal route? There follows an overview of the triumph (6-11). Unfortunately, the triumph is not looked at in context. To use an exclusively processional approach which all but ignores what happened from the victory in the field until the procession started is problematic and misses the military context of the triumph. A discussion about the de iure triumphi (9) is followed by a long section on approaches to memory studies and collective remembering (11-22), which examines the recalling and reshaping of memories regarding the triumph. Popkin wants to analyse “how monuments along the triumphal route shaped how individual Romans experienced and remembered triumphal processions” (17).

Chapter 1 approaches the triumphal route not as a continuous linear path, but as a network of public spaces and buildings that accommodate crowds. This seems in many ways a sensible approach. Consequently, she argues that the precise location of the Porta Triumphalis has little impact on the ways monuments affected these crowds (26-32). Popkin adds: “The location of triumphal monuments … indicates that triumphs turned from the Colosseum Valley to make their way directly to the Forum” (30). There are however issues: Östenberg offers an excellent correction of the standard view of Coarelli on the triumphal route. 2 Östenberg rightly underlines that no ancient writer describes the route as going around the Palatine. Whatever the answer, this discussion is largely ignored by Popkin. However, Popkin’s spatial flexibility is to be praised: the procession might have been prepared in the northern parts of the Campus Martius because the Circus Flaminius area was heavily built-up; the triumphal procession might have passed through the Theatre of Marcellus, as there was no real alternative (40-43, 127-128).

Chapter 2 looks at the period of the Punic Wars (50-51, 53-57: lists of manubial temples before and during the Punic wars). According to Popkin, manubial monuments consciously and successfully recalled Roman triumphs. She accepts, however, that some manubial monuments were off the route itself. Her main example is Marcellus’ Temple to Honos and Virtus (52, cf. 9), but this monument may have been on the triumphal route after all: M. Claudius Marcellus’ 211 BCE ovation and Alban Mount triumph may be a precedent to Caesar’s ovation in 44 and the joint ovation of Antonius and Young Caesar in 40 BCE, also in terms of the point of entry into the city, most likely through the Porta Capena. There is no evidence stating that the ovation had to go through the Porta Triumphalis. We cannot be entirely sure on the matter, but whatever we make of this, the Porta Capena certainly had triumphal connotations. 3 But once again we need to be very careful: in fact, the temple was vowed in 222 BCE at Clastidium (Livy 27.25.7-10) and later renewed after his capture of Syracuse (Livy 27.25.7-10; 29.11.13; Val. Max. 1.1.8). Importantly, at the time the temple was vowed after Syracuse, Marcellus thought he would be granted a triumph. The devil is in the details. Looking at the Forum Boarium area, Popkin mentions the two triumphal fornices of L. Stertinius and the famous columna rostrata of Duilius (58, 62-65, on the Temple of Janus). In fact Stertinius was a privatus, he had not served as a magistrate and consequently did not have imperium. He could, in principle, not have a triumph and neither did he ever claim a triumph. This thus appears to be the beginnings of triumph-like developments. Popkin emphasises that triumphal building during the Punic Wars spurred architectural innovation in Rome (73). She concludes the chapter by emphasising that “The concreteness of the triumphal route, lined with monuments that purported to be eternal, ensured that the changes the triumph underwent would not bend the ritual beyond the breaking points of its flexibility” (86). The problem is that, at least to this reviewer, Popkin has not shown with any certainty that the triumphal route (ever) went around the Palatine.

Chapter 3 focuses on the reign of Trajan, a period that saw the monumentalization of the Circus Maximus, the spot where most spectators could watch any given triumph. The chapter, however, begins with a brief overview of the transition from Republic to Principate (93-94). Popkin claims that the monopolisation of triumphs resulted from Augustus’s summum imperium auspiciumque. But between 43 and 26 BCE, twenty commanders with no independent imperium triumphed. 4 The imperial adventus was part of this development and these substitute triumphal honours turned out to be an alternative to continuous imperial triumphs. Popkin lists Flavian triumphal projects, including a long section on the triumphal route before Trajan (96, 98-106). We may ask if the Jewish triumph passed through the area of the Colosseum? Yes, but not necessarily because this was on the triumphal route. Turning to Trajan, the chapter focuses substantially on the Circus Maximus (108-125): Popkin again suggests that the triumphal route passed through the area and around the Palatine, supported by the location of the Arch of Titus and the fornix Stertinii at the curved end of the Circus Maximus (115). This may, at first, appear to be good evidence for the triumphal route going around the Palatine, but this may not be the case. The presumption that the route began in the southern Campus Martius and made an anti-clockwise circuit of the Palatine leaves out the ovations from the Alban Mount/the south that entered Rome via the Porta Capena, and avoids the broader issue of how any given victor returning to Rome from the eastern parts of the Empire, along the Via Appia, would have entered the city from the south. How did the triumphatores move around the city and onto the Campus Martius? The only evidence for the pomerium in the area is Tacitus, and we are left with his statement that the pomerium ran “along the base of the Palatine hill” (Ann. 12.24, per ima montis Palatini), which, if taken literally, might imply that the Circus Maximus itself was outside the pomerium. Popkin accepts that no evidence suggests that any triumph passed through the Colosseum (129-131), but “circumstantial evidence provides a compelling case” (129). There is no reason to deny that the Jewish triumph may potentially have passed through the area, but even if accepted, this does not suggest with any kind of certainty that other triumphs passed that way.

The fourth and final chapter focuses on the reign of Septimius Severus. The Arch of Septimius Severus naturally takes a central position in the chapter (144-151). The arch was given as an honour by the SPQR. Popkin’s idea that foreign people are mentioned on the inscription of Septimius Severus’ arch in order to downplay the civil war (150) seems, at least to this reviewer, to be a misunderstanding as the use of the famous phrase res publica restituta on the inscription demonstrates. The chapter also focuses on other parts of Septimius Severus’ triumphal building programme, among them the restoration of the Porticus Octaviae and the Circus Maximus, and the construction of the Septizodium, before returning to the question of whether he triumphed or not (169-173). Popkin concludes that we cannot be sure, but recognises that there is no evidence indicating a triumph (171, n. 70). There follows a section on manipulated memories of triumph (173-179): the claim is that if the emperor did not triumph, the monuments “could have enabled him to make posterity falsely remember he had” (173). To this reviewer the answer seems much simpler: we may ask what constitutes a triumphal arch. From Young Caesar/Augustus onwards at least an arch was granted by the SPQR to the victor as an honour, similar to other triumphal honours. The context of the Parthian Arch of Augustus is representative. The arch was granted to Augustus together with an ovation, but the ovation was declined, while the arch was not: there could be a triumphal arch without a triumph. 5 Similarly with Septimius Severus, the Senate offered a triumph and a triumphal arch; the first Septimius declined, the second he did not. There simply was no manipulation (contra 175).

This book offers stimulating debates on individual monuments and Popkin is right to emphasise the importance of monuments along the triumphal route, even if at times there is a lack of attention to the historical context of the triumphal events discussed. Popkin has brought to light an alternative approach to the triumphal route—as a network of public spaces and buildings—for which she is to be commended, but the biggest quibble remains: why are the Late Republican period and Augustus missing? Imperial triumphs cannot and should not be isolated from the Late Republican transformation. Consequently, a great opportunity to understand the development and transition from Republic to Principate—including the development of triumphal and triumph-like honours during a period from the Middle Republic to the crisis of the third century CE—is missed. Hopefully, this will nevertheless be a starting point for more debate about the triumphal route, a debate that should positively involve greater awareness of the networks of public spaces and monuments along the triumphal route.


1.   T. Itgenshorst, Tota illa pompa. Der Triumph in der römischen Republik, (Göttingen 2005); J.L. Bastien Le triomphe romain et son utilisation politique à Rome aux trois derniers siècles de la République (Rome 2007); M. Beard The Roman Triumph (Cambridge Mass. 2007); H. Krasser et al., I. (eds.) Triplici invectus triumpho. Der römische Triumph in augusteischer Zeit (Stuttgart 2008); E. La Rocca and S. Tortorella (eds.) Trionfi romani (Milan 2008); M.R.P. Pittenger Contested Triumphs. Politics, Pageantry, and Performance in Livy’s Republican Rome (Berkeley 2008); I. Östenberg Staging the World. Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession (Oxford 2009); C. Lundgreen Regelkonflikte in der römischen Republik. Geltung und Gewichtung von Normen in politischen Entscheidungsprozessen (Stuttgart 2011); A. Spalinger and J. Armstrong Rituals of Triumph in the Mediterranean World (Leiden 2013); C.H. Lange and F.J. Vervaet (eds.) The Roman Republican Triumph: Beyond the Spectacle (Rome 2014); C.H. Lange Triumphs in the Age of Civil War: The Late Republic and the Adaptability of Triumphal Tradition (London 2016).
2.   I. Östenberg, “Circum metas fertur: An Alternative Reading of the Triumphal Route”, Historia 53/3 (2010) pp. 304–320; F. Coarelli, “La porta trionfale e la via dei trionfi”, Dialoghi di archeologia 2 (1968) pp. 55-103.
3.   Including the Ara Fortunae Reducis, a substitute triumphal honour (C.H. Lange, “Augustus’ Triumphal and Triumph–like Returns”, in I. Östenberg et al. (eds.), The Moving City. Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London 2015): 133-143, 282-287.
4.   J.W. Rich, “Roman Rituals of War”, in B. Campbell and L.A. Tritle (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (Oxford 2013): 542-568, at 555-556; F.J. Vervaet, The High Command in the Roman Republic. The Principle of the summum imperium auspiciumque from 509 to 19 BCE (Stuttgart 2014), 250.
5.   Cassius Dio reveals as much: Augustus was voted and celebrated an ovation (54.8.3), but this cannot be, as the two ovations of Young Caesar (40 and 36 BCE) are well attested (mentioned on the Fasti Triumphales) and because Dio himself states that Augustus entered the city by night (54.10.4).

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