Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.35

Fabian Goldbeck, Johannes Wienand (ed.), Der römische Triumph in Prinzipat und Spätantike​.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. xii, 595.  ISBN 9783110445688.  €99,95 (hb).  

Reviewed by Christian Rollinger, Universität Trier​ (

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

With renewed interest in the subject booming since the early 2000’s, the body of literature on the Roman triumph and its many different facets has become so vast as to be almost bloated and, at first glance, it could conceivably seem that there can scarcely be anything more to add.1 That this impression is as unfortunate as it is mistaken is clearly demonstrated by this timely book, the result of a conference held in 2012 in Berlin. With few exceptions (which look to the late republican and the early medieval period), all the papers collected in this volume concern themselves with the Roman triumph as it presented itself in many hues and variations to the contemporaries of the early, high, and late Roman empire. No fewer than eighteen chapters attempt to analyse a variety of aspects relating to the triumph ritual itself, to its literary descriptions, its representation in various media, and the concomitant architectural elements that came to litter the main metropolises of the empire. The result is a sturdy volume of almost 600 pages and a veritable kaleidoscope of different perspectives and methodologies that significantly expand our understanding of the dynamic evolution of what was and was always to remain a singularly Roman ritual.

Chapters are loosely ordered according to a relative chronology (see the table of contents below): the first section (four papers) deals with the early principate, the second one (six papers) with the high empire, the fourth (four papers) with late antiquity. The third section (four papers) is the only one to include a regional differentiation in addition to a chronological one, although one may question the significance of triumphal regionalism in a “decentralised empire” (only one paper, that of Clifford Ando, pp. 397-417, explicitly engages with the subject). If there are certain occasional (and likely inevitable) repetitions across several chapters, this is just as well; things bear repeating if, as is the case here, the reoccurrence serves to further illuminate.

To detail the arguments of all eighteen chapters would be a significant undertaking that I will not attempt here.2 Rather, as this is the first recent publication to engage significantly with the development of the imperial triumph and as it opens up a variety of exciting new research perspectives, I want to give an overview of what I think to be the main theses, perspectives, and inspirations.

In the first instance, there is the nature of imperial (and post-Roman) transformations and variations of an essentially republican ceremony. A fair number of papers attempt to show what was changed and to what purpose (those of Lange, Itgenshorst, Meister, Goldbeck, Michels, Balbuza, Pfeilschifter, Halsall). While Lange emphasises the continuity of triumphal rituals (or, rather, the continuity of change, as he adeptly shows that triumphal innovations were in fact a republican tradition), Itgenshorst unsurprisingly argues that Augustus’ invention of the principate also carried implications for the triumph, the most notable of which was not the limitation of triumphs to members of the imperial house, but rather the concomitant invention of the ornamenta triumphalia. Meister, who focuses on body politics and the cultural history of the body, intriguingly points out that “post-triumphal” honours—privileges such as those granted to C. Duilius, Pompey, and Caesar, among others, that included the possibility of presenting a laureate imago in funeral processions, and of being numbered among the viri triumphales—were no less important than the sheer spectacle of the triumph itself. In continuation of Itgenshorst, he argues that, while the right to triumph for the aristocracy disappeared, the right to post-triumphal honours remained in the shape of the ornamenta. Goldbeck, in his paper dealing with the triumphs of the remaining Julio-Claudians, rightly emphasises the role of Augustus as imperial prototype for his successors, while at the same time explaining how individual emperors adjusted specific aspects of the ritual or their own needs and how one might view the relationship between an emperor and the triumphal procession (as well as the individual changes) as emblematic of his principate as a whole. Michel similarly analyses the subtle nuances in imperial triumphs under the Antonines. Balbuza’s chapter, which is an updated version of an earlier work,3 shows the dynastic uses of the triumph as an appropriate time and place to present and to underline the dynastic functions of presumptive successors. While the majority of these papers deal with the early principate (and Balbuza’s may well be said to apply to the Roman empire as a whole), Pfeilschifter’s contribution is squarely focused on late antiquity and asks whether or not the triumph was indeed “christianised”. Perhaps surprisingly, by drawing comparisons between the triumph and other festivals and/or public rituals, he can convincingly show that this was not the case; rather, as concerns religious aspects, the triumph was ‘neutered’ more than anything else. Finally, Halsall shows the continuing evolution (and eventual demise) of the triumph beyond the survival of the Roman empire (i.e., in the so-called “successor states”).

Pfeilschifter’s conclusion that triumphs were fully “christianised” only in later, Byzantine times, leads us to a methodological problem that is endemic to the subject and that is present in almost all papers. Given the generalisation of “triumphal” rituals as well as of aspects of the triumphal procession, and given the omnipresence of an imperial ideology of victory (or, rather, Sieghaftigkeit), how are we to separate later iterations of the triumph proper from other, steadily approximating rituals such as the adventus? Should we do so, at all? While an affirmation of this last question is implicit in the efforts by the authors to differentiate individual rituals, no ready answer as to the “How?” becomes apparent. That this is not solely a problem of late antiquity is evidenced by chapters by Seelentag, de Blois, and Haake, which touch on this subject in the context of the 1st–3rd century. The argument of the last named, that the triumph served to establish legitimacy and that imperial legitimation of rule was a subject of increasing importance (and difficulty) during the 3rd century is doubtless correct. Haake also explains the relatively new readiness to celebrate victories over internal enemies4 by pointing out that victorious-ness was an increasingly rare commodity for 3rd-century emperors: one had to make do with what one had or was able to achieve. Noticeably, however, the examples on which he bases his conclusions do not depict what may be called “traditional” or “clear cut” triumphs. Some, like that of Severus Alexander in 233, are possibly entirely fictional (though Haake does not think so); others, such as that of Gallienus in 263 did not celebrate victories by that emperor. Even the tetrarchic double triumph of 303 was combined with the vicennalia of Diocletian.5 The rituals discussed by de Blois were also part of the decennalia of Septimius Severus in 202 and Gallienus in 262. Ando presents part of an answer in his own contribution. The “decentralisation” that he analyses is not only regional, but also inherently symbolical. His opening statement that triumphs “were everywhere […] and nowhere” is rather true on multiple levels: geographically and as far as the omnipresent symbolism of triumph is concerned.

A final group of papers deals with individual problems and presents equally individual hypotheses. This is by no means intended to imply that there is a “pick and mix” quality to this: the papers fit neatly into the aforementioned chronological organisation of the volume, and their individual quality is unquestioned. Thus, triumphal aberrations, such as those of Caligula and Nero, as well as their representations and interpretations in imperial literature, are treated in Icks’ paper, and the numismatic evidence for triumphs is comprehensively treated in that of Mittag (with excellent figures, 442-452). Steve Mason’s reading à rebours of the description of the Flavian triumph in Josephus is intriguing. To answer an old question (namely whether or not Josephus was an eye-witness to this triumph and whether or not his depiction is reliable), Mason ventures a solution that is equal parts bold and interesting: Josephus was neither incompetent, nor was he lying—Vespasian and Titus were. In a very lengthy argument (pp. 125-175), Mason explains the inconsistencies in Josephus’ account by laying the blame squarely at Vespasian’s feet and arguing that the triumph itself was a fraud perpetrated on the Roman people in order to secure imperial legitimation for his fledgling dynasty.

Also concerned with the question of legitimacy (and the role of triumphal rituals in procuring it) is Hölscher’s paper, which, somewhat surprisingly (to this reviewer, at least), starts by stating that the performative aspects of triumphs have been receiving almost too much attention of late, to the detriment of “static” (i.e. mostly architectural) elements. (But cf. the papers by Liverani and Bassett, which deal specifically with urbanistic and topographical questions, as well as the recent monograph by M. L. Popkin. 6) As Hölscher is quick to explain, however, his intention is not to turn back the clock on research into the triumph by focusing exclusively on these static elements, but rather to bring them into equilibrium with dynamic and performative ones. This he does, and more, sketching out the transformation of “triumphal spaces” from memorials (connected to specific historical incidents) to representations of an “‘eternal’ presence of universal power,” as well as the evolution of the triumph into “an obligatory biographical ritual” (283). Hölscher then goes further and engages with the problem of ideology and specifically of an ideology of universal and permanent victory, stating that “Sieg wurde als Ergebnis einer dem Kaiser eigenen Sieghaftigkeit, [als] das faktische Resultat einer dauerhaften Qualität erklärt” (310). In a brief sketch, he then postulates that a fourth iteration of legitimacy should be added to Max Weber’s classical model on the basis of these observations: what he tentatively calls “ideological” rule, i.e. “eine Herrschaft, die in einem wesentlichen Sinn als Realisierung eines vorgegebenen ideologischen Kanons verstanden wird” (313).

As with other papers in this stimulating collection, it is devoutly to be wished that further research will be inspired by it. With their impressive (and almost flawlessly produced) volume, Goldbeck and Wienand have taken a significant first step towards a better understanding of the imperial triumph—and simultaneously have shown that there is much yet to be done.

Table of Contents

Johannes Wienand, Fabian Goldbeck, Henning Börm—Der römische Triumph in Prinzipat und Spätantike. Probleme—Paradigmen—Perspektiven

Teil 1: Der römische Triumph im frühen Prinzipat
Carsten Hjort Lange—The Late Republican Triumph: Continuity and Change
Tanja Itgenshorst—Die Transformation des Triumphes in augusteischer Zeit
Jan B. Meister—Tracht, Insignien und Performanz des Triumphators zwischen später Republik und früher Kaiserzeit
Fabian Goldbeck—Die Triumphe der julisch-claudischen Zeit

Teil 2: Der römische Triumph in der hohen Kaiserzeit
Steve Mason—Josephus’ Portrait of the Flavian Triumph in Historical and Literary Context
Gunnar Seelentag—Die Dynamik von Herrschaftsdarstellung und Triumphideologie im ausgehenden 1. und frühen 2. Jh.
Christoph Michels—Sieg und Triumph in der Zeit von Antoninus Pius bis Commodus
Katarzyna Balbuza—Der Triumph im Dienste dynastischer Politik
Tonio Hölscher—Die Stadt Rom als triumphaler Raum und ideologischer Rahmen in der Kaiserzeit
Martijn Icks—Turning Victory into Defeat: Negative Assessments of Imperial Triumphs in Greco-Roman Literature

Teil 3: Der römische Triumph im dezentralisierten Imperium
Lukas de Blois—Two Third-Century Triumphal Decennalia (AD 202 and 262)
Matthias Haake—Zwischen Severus Alexanders Triumph über die Sasaniden im Jahre 233 und den Triumphfeierlichkeiten Diocletians und Maximians im Jahre 303. Zum römischen Triumph im dritten Jahrhundert n.Chr.
Clifford Ando—Triumph in the Decentralized Empire
Peter Franz Mittag—Die Triumphatordarstellung auf Münzen und Medaillons in Prinzipat und Spätantike

Teil 4: Der römische Triumph in der Spätantike
Rene Pfeilschifter—Der römische Triumph und das Christentum. Überlegungen zur Eigenart eines öffentlichen Rituals
Paolo Liverani—Roma tardoantica come spazio della rappresentazione trionfale
Guy Halsall—The Decline and Fall of the Ancient Triumph


1.   Appropriately, the introduction (1-26) by the editors of the volume under review, joined by Henning Börm, presents a very useful review of scholarship.
2.   Among other reviews of this volume, that of Domenic Schäfer in Plekos 19 (2017), 243-256 is commendably thorough in discussing individual papers. See also Isabelle Künzer’s review in Gymnasium 124 (2017), 495-496.
3.   K. Balbuza, Triumph in the Service of Emperor’s Dynastic Policy During the Principate, in EOS 91 (2004), 64-84.
4.   Cf. also M. Haake, “Trophäen, die nicht vom äußeren Feinde gewonnen wurden, Triumphe, die der Ruhm mit Blut befleckt davon trug …” Der Sieg im imperialen Bürgerkrieg im ‘langen dritten Jahrhundert’ als ambivalentes Ereignis, in: H. Börm, M. Mattheis & J. Wienand (eds.), Civil War in Ancient Greece and Rome: Contexts of Disintegration and Reintegration, Stuttgart 2016, 237-301.
5.   As part of his argument, Haake present a truly fascinating piece of evidence, in the form of a plaster mold depicting the triumph of Diocletian and Maximianus, found around the turn of the millennium in Olbia (Sardinia); see pp. 378f. for exquisite plates and cf. M.L. Gualandi, Due imperatori per un trionfo. La matrice de Olbia: un hapax ‘fuori contesto’, in: M. Milanese, P. Ruggeri & C. Vismara (eds.), L’Africa romana, XVIII: I luoghi e le forme dei mestieri e della produzione nelle province africane, vol. 3, Rome 2010, 1915-1933.
6.   M.L. Popkin, The Architecture of the Roman Triumph: Monuments, Memory, and Identity, Cambridge 2016 and cf. the review in BMCR (2017.01.39) by C.H. Lange.

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