BMCR 2007.04.37

Tota illa pompa. Der Triumph in der römischen Republik. Hypomnemata 161

, Tota illa pompa : der Triumph in der römischen Republik : mit einer CD-ROM, Katalog der Triumphe von 340 bis 19 vor Christus. Hypomnemata, Bd. 161. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. 300 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm + 1 CD-ROM (4 3/4 in.).. ISBN 3525252609. €69.90.

In recent years, the Roman triumph has gained increased attention. Scholars now tend to abandon traditional issues such as the origin of the ritual and the role of the triumphator as god or king, both extensively discussed among 20th century historians.1 New questions are raised, some of which, inspired by the trend of ritual and performance studies, focus on the pageant and its impact on Roman spectators and identity.2 Sceptical voices also set out to deconstruct much of our alleged common knowledge of the triumph. Thus, Mary Beard has recently questioned our ability to reconstruct the historical pageants, and emphasises instead the role of the literary descriptions as mimetic representations and active force in the Roman cultural memory.3

Scepticism about the traditional scholarly approach also characterises Tanja Itgenshorst’s Tota illa pompa. Der Triumph in der römischen Republik. The book is a revised doctoral thesis, defended at Cologne University in 2004.4 Itgenshorst seeks to relieve the Republican triumph of many of the accepted truths with which it has been burdened by both ancient Imperial writers and modern scholars. In order to uncover what we really know about the characteristics and function of the Republican triumph, the author proposes to isolate and analyse contemporary evidence only.

The book begins with a prologue set in the time of Augustus (“Prolog: Augustus und der republikanische Triumph”), where Itgenshorst follows a citizen who, strolling the city, met with two monuments that both appeared to provide solid historical facts about triumphs celebrated since the time of Romulus: the Fasti triumphales at the Forum Romanum and, at the Forum Augustum, a gallery of statues representing summi viri of the Republic, dressed in triumphal garb and accompanied with written tituli and eulogies. These images and texts must have had a very persuasive impact on the ancient viewer, but, Itgenshorst asks, did the Roman citizen really learn anything about past triumphators by observing the monuments? And, perhaps more importantly, were the Imperial writers who consulted them provided with any true knowledge of the reality of the Republican triumph itself?

In the first chapter (“Antike Idealtypen”), Itgenshorst highlights the paradoxical situation that most descriptions of the Republican triumph stem from the Imperial period, when the ritual itself had lost much of its earlier dynamic, being restricted to the house of the Emperor and celebrated quite rarely. Itgenshorst observes that the longer Imperial descriptions are Greek, and chooses a few examples for her discussion: Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ account of the procession allegedly held by Romulus after his defeat of the city of Caenina in 753 B.C., Appian’s description of Scipio Africanus’ triumph in 201 B.C. at the end of the second Punic war, Plutarch’s record of the ovatio celebrated by M. Claudius Marcellus in 211 B.C. after his conquest of Syracuse, and finally the story in Zonaras — from Dio Cassius — of Camillus’ triumph after he conquered Veii in 396 B.C. She notes that there are striking similarities among all these Greek descriptions. Most importantly, they are all extremely vague, giving very few specific details of the historic triumphs they set out to describe. Itgenshorst proposes to read the Greek accounts in terms of Max Weber’s ideal type — as idealised anachronistic constructions of the utopian Republican triumph rather than descriptions of real historical events. Outside her chronological frame too, the author interprets Josephus’ account of the Jewish triumph performed by Vespasian and Titus in A.D. 71 as a literary monument instead of an eyewitnessed historical document.

Itgenshorst’s point is that scholars studying the Republican triumph have based their arguments on anachronistic and idealised Greek descriptions that cannot be trusted as sources for a historical reality. Most modern analyses of the triumph are therefore built on faulty premises.

Indeed, several characteristics applied to the triumph, especially the celebrations of early Rome, rest on literary references of a much later date. Itgenshorst is without doubt correct in arguing that many alleged “facts” of the Republican triumph must be revaluated. I agree also on the very non-specific character of several Imperial Greek descriptions. At the same time, I find her arguments too generalising and her selection of examples biased. The Republican triumphs described in the adduced Greek texts were all held before 200 B.C., some even in mythical times. With the late Republic, we are at firmer ground. Thus, Appian and Plutarch’s lengthy accounts of the triumphs held by Pompey and Caesar are, even if certainly not unbiased documentations, full of specific details concerning these particular parades. More importantly, the Imperial period produced a quantity of Latin passages concerning the Republican parades that are quite different in character from the Greek accounts. Surprisingly, Itgenshorst does not discuss these here at all, but states almost incidentally that she is sceptical of modern systematic analyses based on Livy (who is taken up in a later chapter).

The usefulness of both Greek and Latin texts depends very much on what particular questions you ask and what part of the Republic you discuss. One problem with Itgenshorst’s two introductory chapters is that except for the general ambition of reconstructing the authentic Republican triumph based on contemporary sources she reveals very little of her own specific aims and methods. Only after substantial reading, does it become clear that her aim is not the triumphal performance, which she claims cannot be reconstructed.5 Rather, she seeks to analyse the triumph’s character and function by uncovering its Republican status and by examining relationships among its participants: general, Senate, people and soldiers. In a book with such a general overall title, the reading would have been much helped by a clear introductory statement of particular purposes and methodological procedures.6

In Chapter Two (“Spurensuche in der Republik: Plautus, Polybios, Cicero”), Itgenshorst examines traces of the genuine Republican triumph in three authors of that time. The attempt is attractive, and although Plautus, Polybius and Cicero tell us frustratingly little, they do occasionally concern themselves with the triumph in terms that are rewarding for the modern scholar. The trend of reading Plautus in his historical context is fruitful, and Itgenshorst notes that his playful travesty of the triumphantly returning general reflects the self-evident place of the ceremony in the public consciousness of that time. She also interprets passages in several dramas as reflections of civic conflicts related to the victor’s return from a military to a civic sphere.

Although it is a highly curious fact that most of Polybius’ detailed war accounts lack any remarks on the concluding triumphs, he does provide some evidence. Itgenshorst draws attention to how the Greek historian characterises the ritual as a visual spectacle: the function of the triumph was to bring the accomplished deeds in front of the eyes of the people (6.15.8). Another important point isthat Polybius describes how the triumph was controlled by the Senate, who granted or denied triumphs and also decided on their financing. When Polybius in his famed description of the pompa funebris writes that the actors who represented the most prominent deceased citizens wore the finest dresses “embroidered with gold if he had celebrated the triumph or achieved anything similar” (6.53.7-8), Itgenshorst takes “or achieved anything similar” as an indication that there existed other Republican honours equal in glory to the triumph.7 As we shall see, this is one of her main points, to which she frequently returns.

In the section on Cicero, the author discusses (among several issues) the orator’s enumerations of generals and triumphators as rhetorical exempla, underlining the central position of Republican great men in Roman civic memory. Itgenshorst also analyses Cicero’s assault on Piso for refusing a triumph. Her interpretation is attractive: she reads Piso’s return as an anti-triumph that in a reverse sense reflects many traits of the Republican triumph not documented in other early sources. The discussion of Cicero’s self-praising boast of his own triumph-like return from exile is also rewarding.

In the third chapter (“Die Sieger und ihre Monumente: Die Triumphatoren der Jahre 340 bis 19 vor Christus”), Itgenshorst seeks to uncover the Roman generals’ own attitudes towards their martial achievements and triumphs by examining their victory monuments. Monuments are defined in their widest sense, including games, booty dedications, city foundations, cognomina, theatre plays and speeches along with temples, coins and honorary statues. Itgenshorst announces that she will now use all available sources, Republican and Imperial, to analyse the monuments. To the reader, this sudden change in methodology comes as quite a surprise. The author justifies her approach by arguing rather vaguely that Republican buildings were physical entities of the cityscape and thus submitted to public control. There is no mention of other types of monuments, and I fail to see why Pliny and Livy or even Appian and Plutarch should be taken as historical evidence when they write of middle and late Republican victory games, booty dedications or city foundations but not when they describe the processions of that same period.

Like all the chapters, this section includes several separate discussions, and the author treats Republican inscriptions put up by or naming the triumphator and different families’ quite varied strategies of recollecting their great deeds. An interesting analysis concerns the importance of the label imperator, the development of which Itgenshorst follows into a regular title (and with Octavian even into a name). She also reveals that between 169 and 40 B.C., coins were often stamped with victory symbols by members of families that according to our knowledge lacked any triumphator. The author underlines the important fact that very little can be said of the triumphs in this period, as Livy’s account is missing and the Augustan Fasti triumphales is highly fragmentary. Thus, it cannot be excluded that at least some of the Republican victory coins bear witness to unknown triumphators.

With the very broad approach of this chapter, where all kinds of Republican victory monuments form the basis of a complex discussion, one would have expected a rather wide range of aims. Instead, Itgenshorst states (pp. 92-93) that she wishes to examine two specific questions: 1, Did the triumph really (as is commonly believed) represent the highest possible honour of the Roman nobility? 2, Were all Roman triumphators honoured with a statue? Her emphasis on this second question is puzzling. The reader has not been prepared for the issue, and in the following pages too, Itgenshorst treats it very marginally, concluding only in a footnote (p. 143, n. 223) that she finds no evidence that such statues were compulsory. The first question, on the other hand, constitutes a main argument in the book. Itgenshorst proposes to tone down the importance of the triumph to Republican aristocrats. Here, her point is that successful generals (as later their families in remembrance) chose to present themselves in the first place as victors in war and only secondarily as triumphators. She bases her arguments almost exclusively on inscriptions, where she finds few references to triumphs, while both the title imperator and boasts of martial achievements abound. However, the sources, as Itgenshorst herself admits, are both quite rare and of very a diverse character. I am not convinced that formulaic inscriptions of booty dedications such as P SERVILIUS C F ISAVRICUS IMPERATOR CEPIT by the inclusion of the cognomen Isauricus (from his conquest of the Isauri) and the term imperator reflect a preference to boast of Servilius’ victorious deeds rather than his triumph, which is not mentioned. Itgenshorst also argues that so-called triumphatores novi were more inclined to emphasise their triumphs than families in which triumphs were frequent. This might well be so, although again the sources are not unambiguous.

In the fourth chapter (“Livius”), Itgenshorst calls attention to Livy’s treatment of the Roman triumph. She argues that his quite stereotyped descriptions of the Republican celebrations reveal them as unreliable historical sources. In Itgenshorst’s view, Livy uses the triumphs as a rhetorical tool, describing them in repetitive, timeless formulas to underline the effectiveness of the Roman military expansion. The one exception, she argues, is his rather frequent accounts of the senatorial debates that preceded the granting or refusal of the individual general’s application for a triumph. Being much more detailed and varied, these narratives should be taken as truer reflections of the Republican reality. Here, one could of course argue the opposite: that Livy’s laconic standardised phrasings of the triumphal ritual reflect Republican annalistic sources,8 while his more elaborate portrayals of the debates are results of some literary licence. Still, Itgenshorst’s basic argument is important — Livy’s accounts of the Senate’s heterogeneous debates reveal that (in contrast to what most handbooks say) there were no specific criteria, rules or law that prescribed when to grant and when to refuse a triumph. This chapter ends with an appendix, in which Itgenshorst analyses Valerius Maximus’ treatment of the Republican triumph in terms of Pierre Nora’s lieu de mémoire.

Chapter Five (“Zusammenfassung: Merkmale und Funktionen des republikanischen Triumphes”) contains the author’s concluding arguments . In the light of modern ritual theories, she claims that the Republican triumphal ritual was characterised by heavy tensions. Latent and threatening conflicts prevailed between the triumphator on one hand and his soldiers, the people and the Senate on the other. The tensions between the successful general, aiming at glory, and the Senate, controlling the right to triumph, were particularly profound. Thus, when the nobility chose to give prominence to their military success rather than their triumphs, this might be read as a quest for independence from the power of the Senate.

Itgenshorst hereafter discusses rather briefly some diverse functions of the Republican triumph: it served to reintegrate the general and the soldiers into the civic sphere, it made the people of Rome participants in the military success, it presented worthy candidates to office to the spectators and it formed a means of continued communication with the gods. (Itgenshorst here rightly notes that the modern discussion of the triumph as developing from an honest religious ritual to individual, rich show-offs on parade is largely a misconception based on ancient authors’ rhetorical emphasis on the moral decline in Rome.) Obviously, the author concludes, these functions were important, as the triumph remained in stable existence throughout the Republic in spite of its embedded conflicts.

In the Epilogue (“Epilog: Nochmals Augustus und der republikanische Triumph”), the author takes us back to the monuments of the book’s opening scene, the Fasti triumphales and the summi viri in Augustus’ Forum. In the Fasti, Itgenshorst sees a true Augustan monument with clear political motives. One was to set the princeps‘ own triumphs and ovations, which celebrated his handling of external as well as internal battles, in a Republican tradition. More importantly, the list included all types of celebrations, true triumphi together with the often quite debated ovationes and the triumphs on the Alban Mount, celebrated by the general who had been denied a triumphus by the Senate. Thus, the Fasti conveyed an image of social consensus, which in no way reflected the Republican reality. The summi viri in Augustus’ Forum also signalled consensus and continuity. In addition, all these heroes of the Republic dressed in triumphal garb provided a clear impression that the triumph had represented their highest goal. This Augustan construction of the Republic was transmitted to the Imperial authors and taken up by modern scholars.

The book ends with three appendices providing the reader with forty-five stemmata of families with more than one triumphator, a chronological list of Republican triumphs and an index of triumphators from 340 B.C. to 19 B.C. with references to the book’s catalogue numbers. After a list of sources and a twelvepage bibliography, more indices give subjects and passages discussed.

As further assistance to the reader, Itgenshorst adds a handy CD-Rom (in print, the text amounts to over four hundred pages) that includes a catalogue of triumphs from 340 to 19 B.C. The entries are numbered according to their place in the Augustan Fasti triumphales based on Degrassi’s edition.9 Subentries add triumphs that are historically doubtful. In the catalogue, Itgenshorst gives the following information: status, cursus and family of the triumphator, the historical context, monuments (again in their widest sense) that celebrated the victory and triumph, noteworthy and remarkable circumstances and finally how the triumph was recalled by Cicero and Valerius Maximus. The catalogue provides the reader with substantial information, especially as concerns the author’s main targets, victory monuments and senatorial debates. As Itgenshorst doubts that the ancient writers can provide evidence to reconstruct the pageants, very little information concerns the triumphal celebrations themselves. The consequence is unfortunate, as the individual entries in this catalogue of Roman triumphs lack a list of references to each celebration in the ancient literature.10

In sum, Tota illa pompa is a useful reminder of our dependence on Imperial sources to reconstruct a central Republican ritual, and Itgenshorst should be acknowledged for presenting a study very much independent of earlier scholarship. In several of the particular discussions, the book reveals stimulating and interesting insights. I also think that the author is right in emphasising how Augustus used the theme of earlier triumphators to place himself in a traditional context. Certainly, neither the Fasti triumphales nor the summi viri can be treated as unbiased sources to an earlier practice.

As for her two major conclusions; the argument of heavy tensions between general, Senate, soldiers and people is fruitful and provides opportunities for further inquiries. I am more sceptical about her thesis of how the triumph might not have posed the aristocrat’s highest goal. The conclusion is not necessarily wrong, and the idea of how the Senate’s control over the triumph made the successful families try other opportunities to boast their glory seems reasonable. Still, such actions do not in themselves devalue the status of the triumph. In this light, I found it strange to devote such a great part of this detailed study to the rather vague question of whether the triumph was extremely important or just very important.

As regards the author’s methods, I have reservations about her way of discarding all Imperial sources to some questions, such as the celebration of the ritual, and allowing the same voices to describe others (Republican monuments and debates). Itgenshorst is very categorical in her rejection of modern scholars’ attempts to formulate overall arguments on the triumph by consulting non-Republican sources. Still, when the author turns from deconstructing to reconstructing the Republican triumph, she too finds herself forced to consult later evidence. Perhaps this reveals what we do as ancient historians, namely to interpret critically all sources available, contemporary and later, in our efforts to reconstruct the past.


1. Among abundant works, there is the now almost classic monograph by H.S. Versnel, Triumphus. An inquiry into the origin, development and meaning of the Roman triumph, Leiden: Brill, 1970.

2. In 1999, Richard Brilliant addressed the triumph as a public spectacle,'”Let the trumpets roar!” The Roman triumph’, in: The art of ancient spectacle (= Studies in the history of art 56), eds. B. Bergmann & Ch. Kondoleon, Washington 1999, pp. 221-229. My own PhD thesis, Staging the world. Rome and the other in the Roman triumphal procession, Lund University 2003, focuses on the triumph as spectacular procession, reflecting and constructing Roman worldviews. A revised published version is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

3. Mary Beard has published several articles on the triumph. In 2007, her book The Roman triumph will appear from Harvard University Press.

4. The author thanks me in her preface for sending her my unpublished thesis. Except for sharing my own work, I have not been involved in her book.

5. On pp. 192-193, Itgenshorst argues that our knowledge of the Republican performance can be based only on two passages in Cicero and Livy, which tell of the presence of booty, captives and soldiers in the procession. In my view, this is a heavy underestimation of the countless remarks in Livy and others of processional contents, cf. below


6. In fact, the title is misleading. Cicero’s tota illa pompa refers to the triumphal pageant, which is not discussed in the book.

7. As the author later notes (p. 218), it is not clear what other specific merits Polybius has in mind.

8. At pp. 150-153, Itgenshorst herself admits the presence of Republican annals that listed triumphs. Cicero ( Verr. II.1.21.57) writes that objects on triumphal display were officially documented.

9. A. Degrassi, Inscriptiones Italiae, Vol. XIII. Fasti et elogia, Fasc. 1. Fasti consulares et triumphales, Rome 1947.

10. Both Degrassi and Pais (E. Pais, Fasti triumphales populi romani, Rome 1920) list many, but not all, sources to each triumph.