Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.33

Carsten Hjort Lange, Triumphs in the Age of Civil War: The Late Republic and the Adaptability of Triumphal Tradition. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 333.  ISBN 9781474267847.  $128.00.  

Reviewed by Jessica H. Clark, Florida State University (


Readers of reviews have perhaps grown tired of hearing about the vibrancy of Roman triumphal studies, but it remains a source of delight that the topic continues to invite investigation and debate. Lange has already made significant contributions to the study of Rome’s first-century civil wars, and the present book represents a valuable expansion of this work into questions of triumph and triumphal commemorations. Its main argument is that the oft-assumed rule that Roman commanders could not triumph for victories in civil conflicts is a chimaera; there was no such explicit prohibition in either law or custom during the late Republic. As a result, he argues, the concomitant concern to minimize the “civil” basis for triumphal celebrations is a modern misreading of the evidence. Romans did not celebrate the defeat of exclusively Roman—internal—opponents, but as long as a “foreign” element was present, they were not compelled to conceal or deny the fact that Romans had been too. This has implications for the interpretation of a wide range of first-century texts as well as for our understanding of political self- representation in the late Republic.

In the opening sentence of the Introduction, Lange defines civil war as “domestic political conflict solved by military means” (p. 1). Since the Roman triumph was the preeminent means by which the Roman state recognized successful military resolutions, and since so many conflicts of the first century BCE were primarily civil in origin, Lange proposes that we should appreciate the ways in which the Romans’ need to recognize victories within traditional, formal rituals shaped both their reception of internal conflicts and the function of those rituals. We must therefore dispense with the familiar notion that Augustus (and his predecessors and successors) suppressed or manipulated the reality of civil war to favor the illusion of exclusively foreign victories. Rather, as this book develops in detail, the evidence points to the acknowledgement, and at times even to the celebration, of Romans’ defeat of Romans, so long as a non-Roman element might be adduced in conjunction.

Seven chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix follow the brief introduction; Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and the Appendix are based in part upon the author’s previous or forthcoming work.1 Chapter 1 is concerned with further definitions: first, of the relevant terms in which Lange will periodize his study, and then of the terms of its subjects themselves, “civil war” and “triumph.” With respect to civil war, he makes the important point that, partly in consequence of modern historians’ “tendency to underestimate violence in civil wars during the Late Republic” (p. 22), we have similarly underappreciated the “war” half of the term. As civil wars increasingly became the norm at Rome without a diminution of war’s central importance in Roman political culture, the triumph perforce was made to adapt.

Chapter 2 presents a concise study of Roman triumphal celebrations, including naval triumphs, ovations, and triumphs celebrated on the Alban Mount. Lange’s examples range from the third to the first centuries BCE (which partly explains his argument, in Chapter 1, against the distinctions explored by Harriet Flower in Roman Republics), and he notes the importance of the period 211–174 BCE for the development of triumphal norms and the ovation in relationship thereto. While his discussion of M. Claudius Marcellus is underdeveloped, the analysis of naval triumphs is particularly strong and highlights important connections between the example of Duilius and the commemorative activities of Agrippa and Augustus.

Triumphal lists are the subject of Chapter 3. This is a densely argued and rewarding treatment of the subject. Lange’s decoupling of the end of Augustan-era triumphal lists from the Parthian settlement is intriguing, and although the connection is hard to let go, his arguments deserve serious consideration. Of equal value is his discussion of the difficulties with the evidence of these lists; historians will welcome his careful parsing of the lists’ real value alongside the acknowledgement that “the idea of a single Republican triumphal tradition is thus altogether erroneous” (pp. 54–55). The main contribution of this chapter, however, is the way in which its strands unite with those of the preceding chapter — in which the momentum of the argument was not always clear — to analyze the victory celebrations of Julius Caesar. The use of triumphal alternatives, and the award of triumphs for non-military victories (or for victories not yet achieved!) “suggests that the triumph was becoming a medium for negotiating status and prestige in a monarchy” (p. 66). This major point is elegantly argued and wholly convincing.

Chapter 4 develops this idea in more detail, and focuses on triumphs celebrated from Marius to Caesar (its arguments also appear in another chapter by the author). Without devaluing the significant break after Actium, Lange argues for the utility of connecting certain aspects of triumphal politics from the time of Marius (“the first real dynast of the period,” p. 73) through the early empire. Much of the reconstruction here is speculative (such as the question of what triumphs were awarded in absentia), and, as Chapter 2 did for Chapter 3, the material anticipates the conclusions developed in Chapter 5. That is not an invitation to skip either chapter, however—Lange’s distinct analyses of repeated subjects (such as Mutina) allows him to consider them from a multiplicity of angles, and, significantly for the overall strength of the book, not to force every piece of relevant evidence to lead us to our destination along the same path. That destination, the idea that the normalization of civil war in the late Republic requires us to understand it within the same contexts in which we approach war and politics at Rome more generally, emerges clearly here. The good work of the first four chapters receives an excellent summation in the discussion of the elogia of the Forum Augustum that concludes this chapter (90–94).

In the Introduction, Lange characterized Chapter 5 as “the central chapter of this monograph” (p. 9). He begins it with a discussion of opportunities for civil war triumphs ranging from the first to the fifth century CE, in order to suggest that the distinct prohibition of such triumphs was a response to the extraordinary triumphal honors accepted by Julius Caesar (hostes declarations had been an earlier, preemptive mechanism by which Roman opponents might be quite literally transformed into non-Romans). Lange then analyzes a series of first-century civil-war victories, and ultimately demonstrates two key conclusions: first, that the issue of how to recognize the conclusion of a civil war was a problem with a very specific context — from the time of Sulla to that of Augustus — which each successive warlord addressed in his own way, and second, that during this distinct time-period, the civil aspect of these warlords’ victories was not denied or manipulated, but rather set unapologetically (if differently by different men) alongside the “foreign” elements of their wars.

The final chapters of the book reexamine Augustus’ commemoration of his civil campaigns (Chapter 6) and his victorious entries into the city, whether in triumph or “triumph-like,” since Augustus did not accept a triumph after the triple victory celebration in 29 BCE (Chapter 7, based on work published elsewhere). An epilogue examines a specific fragment of historical relief sculpture (the “Casa di Pilatos” relief) and an appendix (also containing previously published material) which presents brief remarks on triumphal arches, focusing on the three Imperial examples extant in Rome. Without detracting from the significance of this book’s arguments or their ability to convince, these final four sections reinforce a sense of the work as less a monograph than a collection of single-authored papers edited and augmented to form a whole. The seams show, as when material recurs almost verbatim from one chapter to another (e.g., 85, 107; Chapter 2, notes 56-57 and Chapter 7, note 40). I cannot deny the pickiness of criticism at this level, but I venture to offer it as metonymic for the larger issue. There is much that is new here, and more that realizes its potential in this integrated setting, but there was need for greater editorial intervention by both author and press before presenting this within a series of “Classical Studies Monographs.”

Lange’s arguments require that evidence from a wide range of genres and materials, spanning the lion’s share of Roman history, be applicable, in various combinations, to a specific historical question set at a time of rapid and violent political and cultural change. Much of what he builds on these grounds is convincing, but its greater value lies in the new questions that it leads us to ask and the old readings that it provokes us to reconsider. This is a fundamentally dialogic undertaking, but here (on a partly stylistic note) the degree of explicit critical engagement with other scholars’ works may disconcert some readers. I found it alternately distracting and engaging—distracting in cases where it seemed to be a response to something other than perceived errors in interpretations, or when the terms used to express a point of disagreement exceeded its importance, but engaging when it signaled the author’s assessment of what was at stake. If incorrect assumptions about Romans’ attitudes towards civil war are what led us to misread the evidence, then we are best served by broadening or shifting the terms of inquiry, and (in my opinion) many of the scholars whose specific points of reconstruction Lange rejects nevertheless offer methodological or other benefits for our shared historical endeavors. Lange’s not infrequent disagreement with the handful of scholars he names in his main text sometimes seems unduly selective, and his counterarguments are at points impatient with questions or methods that differ from his own. Thus, while the criticisms do provoke engagement (and I use “provoke” positively), they are not always accompanied by sufficient explication of the evidence for their refutation.

It would be a disservice to close on other than a positive note, however. Lange has successfully challenged long-standing ideas about the relationship between triumphs and civil wars at Rome and has shed new light on one of the most-studied periods of ancient history. The consequences for our understanding of the Triumviral period and the early Roman Empire are rich and varied, particularly so with respect to the figure of Octavian/Augustus. Any reader interested in the Late Republic, or the commemorative dynamics of civil war and competitive politics more generally, will find much to reward the time spent with this volume.


1.   As noted in the Acknowledgements (ix–x): respectively, (2014), “The Triumph Outside the City: Voices of Protest in the Middle Republic,” in Lange and Vervaet (eds.), The Roman Republican Triumph: Beyond the Spectacle, 67–81; (2017), “The Late Republican Triumph: Continuity and Change,” in Goldbeck and Weinand (eds.), Der römische Triumph in Prinzipat und Spätantike, 29–58; (2013), “Triumph and Civil War in the Late Republic,” PBSR 81: 67–90; (2015), “Augustus’ Triumphs and Triumph-like Returns,” in Östenberg, Malmberg, and Bjørnebye (eds.), The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome, 133–143; (2012), Constantine’s Civil War Triumph of AD 312 and the Adaptability of Triumphal Tradition,” Analecta Romana Instituti Danici 37: 29–53.

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