A roman general returning to Rome and holding a triumph is a motive that can be seen on many occasions. Not only the arc of triumph next to the Colosseum in Rome portrays such a scene but countless movies and paintings also do so.
But why were triumphs held? Was it purely about massaging the generals’ ego or had a triumph other more important but hidden meanings?
Triumphs marked the transition of both soldiers and general into the civilian world and the transformation of the generals’ military glory into social prestige. Apart from that the sacrifice at the end of every triumph was also an act of religious cleansing purging the curse of war of the general and the soldiers.
Let`s find out more.
The Importance of Triumphs & Prestige in Roman politics
The idea of social prestige and triumphs is closely connected. Because of that, I would like to go into the concept of Prestige in the political system of the Roman Republic. Please also check out my article on the political system and the institutions of the Roman Republic here for more information.
Prestige in Roman politics
Just like today the Roman Republic also knew different forms of capital. And while financial, educational, and social capital were important the most decisive capital of the Roman Republic was the symbolic capital. The prestige.
The goal of every politician during the Roman Republic was to increase his prestige in order to secure and enhance the political position of himself and his family.
While there were several different ways to increase one’s prestige the triumph was the most eye-catching one. Another way to increase one’s prestige was to pay for the renovation of public buildings.
The attempt to gain prestige is also the reason why many ancient buildings in Rome have an inscription on them listing the name of the roman politician who paid for the renovation.
If you should find yourself in Rome you will be able to find many Roman buildings with inscriptions over their entries. One example would be the Pantheon, where you can find an inscription with the name of the builder Marcus Agrippa.
But at some point in time, every building had a name on it making it much harder to stand out and gain prestige by renovating temples and other public buildings.
Because of that every magistrate, more on how political offices allowed for waging war and earning a triumph here was aiming for a triumph. And that caused massive problems in foreign politics that I will present in the last paragraph of the article.
But for now, I would like to go into the 4 meanings that can be attributed to triumphs. So let`s find out why Triumphs were held!
Why were Triumphs held?
When we think about roman triumphs most of us probably think of a way for the general to celebrate his victory and to gain social prestige. That is definitely one of the reasons why triumphs were held.
But I would like to talk about the social prestige a triumph brought and its importance in the paragraph „The importance of Triumphs“.
Before that, I would like to dive into the 4 ways a triumph can be interpreted.
The ceremony of the triumph had multiple meanings. It was a Rite of Passage, a religious cleansing act, a propaganda act, and especially for the general also a transformation process.
Let`s check out each of the meanings individually.
Rite of Passage
Now the term Rite of passage might sound a little bit esoteric at first. But when we look at the military during the time of the Roman Republic that Rite of passage was extremely important!
The triumph was a rite of passage for the soldiers and the general transforming them from soldiers back into citizens.
That might sound confusing. Why would a soldier have to transform back into a roman citizen?
Well, that is closely connected to the roman military of the time of the Roman Republic. While armies today are usually standing armies of professional soldiers the Roman Republic had another concept.
Originally the Roman soldiers were militiamen. Wealthy farmers would be drafted for individual campaigns and would return to their farms as soon as the campaign ended, more on that here.
In order to ensure a good passage from a soldier’s status back into a civilian status, the triumphs were held.
Over time, that concept of wealthy farmers fighting as militiamen became obsolete. It was the roman expansion that caused the decline of the militia system (and the roman middle class), more on that here.
Because of the events explained in that article, the roman military was transformed and opened to men without wealth or land to return to after a campaign. And that caused problems.
While the Roman military during the late Roman Republic was still organized as an army that was only assembled for individual campaigns it now consisted of professional soldiers.
These soldiers had made war their breadwinning profession. But unfortunately, they were still released from the army after a campaign was over. So a triumph was a visual way to show the end of a campaign.
And while that might not have huge aftereffects on the common soldier it had a strong aftereffect on the commanding general of the army.
During the Roman Republic, nobody was allowed to enter the Pomerium, the boundary of Rome that Romulus himself had set, while wearing weapons. Please check out my article here for more information on the myth (and the reality) of how Rome was founded.
And even a gloriously returning general was affected by that tradition.
As long as the general (who also was a politician) was commanding his army and was holding a military rank he was not allowed inside the city of Rome. The triumph was a visual signal that not only the soldiers but also the general had left the military behind and had become civilians again.
As soon as the general had brought a sacrifice, usually in the temple of Jupiter Maximus, he lost his military position and became a civilian again. More on that in the next paragraph.
Oh and in case you are wondering why a general during the time of the Roman Republic was also always a politician and how the political offices of Rome were interlinked with having command over armies, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Act of Religious Cleansing
While the meaning of a triumph as a visual rite of passage from being a soldier to being a civilian is pretty logical the next meaning, the triumph as an act of religious cleansing seems less logical. At least at first.
The roman republic was a state that was almost constantly at war, for more information on the expansion of the roman republic and the countless wars that went along with that expansion you might want to check out my article here.
With all these wars and the inseparable killing connected to these wars, it might seem strange that Romans actually had a strong aversion against death and dealing with corpses. That might sound even more strange when we think of Gladiator fights and how the duels of these men could end in death, more on that here.
The triumph was also a religious ceremony in which the general cleaned both himself and his army of the curse of war by bringing a sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Through that sacrifice, the general & his army became civilians again.
So I think it became clear that point one and point two are closely connected. Let`s now move away from the mentioned aspects and look at the triumph as an act of propaganda.
Act of Propaganda
In order to fully understand the appeal of holding a triumph we once again have to visit the idea of social prestige and connect that with the self-identification of roman politicians!
The senators of the roman republic saw themselves as serving nobility. That meant that the status of a senator was not inherited (like in most aristocracies) but was gained through serving in at least the political office of Quaestor.
More on why the political office of Quaestor opened the way into the Senate in my article here.
These politicians were voted by the people so more and more extreme measurements were taken to increase one’s popularity. That by the way is also a reason why Gladiators fought, more on that here.
Apart from Gladiator games, and the renovation of public buildings, the triumph was also a highly successful way to increase one’s popularity among the voters while simultaneously increasing ones` social standing among the other senators.
Now obviously not every roman politician was allowed to hold a triumph, there were requirements.
Unfortunately, most of these requirements were lost so it is impossible to say exactly what was necessary that the senate would grant a general a triumph.
But it seems like a man had to have archived a decisive victory and since he needed the Imperium to command an army he also had to be either a consul or a praetor.
That requirement of being among the highest-ranking politicians (Consul and Praetor) is also the reason for the next point.
Transformation Prozess (for the generals)
During the Roman Republic, the military and politics were closely connected. Not only did a man have to serve in several campaigns to qualify for a political career, more on that here, high ranking politicians like praetors and consuls could also be tasked with commanding armies.
And that led to a potentially dangerous mingling of military and political power!
Just imagine: A incredibly successful General returns to Rome with his army and does not officially leave the military and re-enter the status of a civilian. That would have been a major threat to the long-term success of Rome!
Because of the threat that a returning general posed the triumph was also a transformation during which the military glory of the general was transformed into social prestige.
Now that system worked for centuries and was actually one of the three pillars of Rome’s success, more on the other 2 reasons why Rome was so successful here.
But that changed during the late republic. Let`s find out why and how the triumphs played a major role in destabilizing the Roman Republic.
How did the appeal of triumphs undermine Roman politics in the first century BC?
So we just heard that triumphs were an important part not only for gaining prestige but also for reintegrating soldiers and generals into back into civil live.
But during the 1st century BC things went wrong!
In order to trump each other even more, the roman politicians started to look for new ways to gain prestige.
The first step was that Rome was literally paved with inscriptions praising the deeds of politicians and their families. Now as long as there are only a few of these inscriptions people might actually read them and be impressed. But when every public building had these inscriptions nobody would bother reading them anymore.
At some point inscriptions praising the man who paid for them just wouldn`t cut it anymore.
Over time politicians became so keen on holding triumphs that they began to disobey the instructions of the senate which resulted in an erosion of the senates` authority opening the way for the fall of the roman republic.
While the fall of the Roman Republic occurred in the first century BC the foundation for it was already laid during the second century BC.
The second century BC – the Senate uses triumphs to discipline generals
New ways to present one`s deeds to the people of Rome had to be found. And since the triumph was seen as the ultimate boost for both the prestige and the political career politicians started to soften the ways politics were made.
More on the proper way of roman republican politics in my article here.
Generally, the Senate had the privilege to grant triumphs. But the actual requirements are not known and remain a point of debate among historians.
The safest way for a politician to be granted a triumph was to gain a decisive victory. That led to roman Politicians needlessly starting wars to get the chance of holding a triumph while simultaneously damaging Romes` reputation.
After a consul or praetor had served his year of office he would get a province to govern and would also take command over the units in that province. But while governing the province he still had to follow the guidelines the senate set in foreign politics. More on how that system worked in my article here.
The problem was that not every magistrate followed the guidelines the senate set!
Since the second century BC, the Magistrates started worrying more about how they could use their governance over a province to gain personal political advantage than state interests.
That led to magistrates ignoring the instructions the senate had handed out by starting unnecessary wars in hopes of gaining the military glory necessary for a triumph.
In order to gain back control and to discipline the generals who did not follow the instructions of the senate the number of triumphs that were granted declined rapidly since 180 BC.
These disciplining measurements were possible since the Senate was still voting uniformly. But that uniformity was breached by the Gracchi-brothers.
The first Century BC – the Senate loses control
As mentioned. During the second century BC, Generals who were ignoring the instructions of the Senate in pursuit of personal glory had undermined the authority of the senate.
Because of several military crises and radicalization of the domestic politics in combination with the already mentioned loss of senate authority the senate was no longer able to stabilize the situation following the year 100 BC.
The basic political principles of the prohibition of Iteration and Continuation, more on them here, were dropped and the successful general Caius Marius ruled 5 consecutive years as Consul.
Originally every office was limited to one year and could not immediately be repeated in order to prevent one man from becoming too powerful.
But with the limitations on the public offices gone that was exactly what happened!
Only 50 years after Marius Caius Julius Caesar, more on him here, could do as he pleased in Gaul without the senate being able to set boundaries. The senate had not only completely lost its power in foreign politics but also lost large parts of its legitimization to successful generals like Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Marcus Antony, and Octavian who would later be known as Augustus.
By trying too hard to be granted the permission to hold a triumph the roman senator class had slowly created the situation that would not only lead to the end of the Roman Republic but also the end of the senates` authority and its significance.
But the exact events that led to the end of the Roman Republic are a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
A. Heuß, G. Mann (Hrsg.); Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte, Band IV Rom – Die Römische Welt (Frankfurt a. Main 1986).