For the Glory of the Empire? The Roman Triumph Explained

The Roman Triumph was the quintessential celebration of Roman strength and empire. But what did these extravagant ceremonies really mean to the people involved?

Dec 3, 2021By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

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The Roman triumph was one of ancient Rome’s most important civic and sacred institutions. These spectacular processions were celebrations of Rome’s military victories, the courage of its soldiers, and the favor of the gods. They were also one of the highest honors a Roman man could achieve: designated a triumphator, he was awarded a grand procession through the imperial capital. The lavish parade of prisoners and captured treasures was sure to guarantee the eternal fame of the conquering general. Over time, the triumph became an important tool in the manipulation of Roman politics.


While Rome evolved over the centuries, as its empire grew and kings were replaced by consuls who were in turn usurped by emperors, the triumph remained a constant; the significance of the ceremony never wavered. It may have increased in scale, involving more prisoners, more spectacular backdrops, and evermore extravagant loot, but its ideological significance endured. More so, the concept of the triumph has been taken, mimicked, and adapted by successive empires and societies as a very public proclamation of martial power.


What was it, then, that gave the Roman triumph its particular potency?


Origins of the Roman Triumph

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A Roman Triumph, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1630, via National Gallery, London


What was the Roman triumph? In short, it was a parade for a victorious Roman general that processed through the streets of the imperial capital. Traditionally, the Senate retained the right to bestow this honor on a general, although this would change under the emperors. Valerius Maximus (2.8.1) claimed that a general was only eligible for a triumph if he had slain at least 5,000 enemy soldiers in a single battle. However, there does not appear to have been a recognized set of criteria for a triumph to be awarded. This lack of clarity would provoke political tensions and animosities over the centuries. The origins of the ceremony are, like many aspects of Roman tradition, particularly obscure. Much seems to have been based on aspects of Greek and Etruscan culture, absorbed and repurposed as decidedly Roman. Historians from the empire, such as Plutarch, seem adamant that Romulus, Rome’s mythical founder, was the first to enjoy a triumph (Romulus, 16.6).

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A section of the Fasti Triumphales, listing the triumphators of the First Punic War, beginning with Manius Valerius Messalla in 262 BCE, Musei Capitolini, via Wikimedia Commons


This is supported by the Fasti Triumphales, a calendar that records the Roman magistrates who were awarded a triumph. They are presented in four pilasters, each around 11 feet tall. Chronologically, they begin with Romulus, and with a few gaps, proceed to 19 BCE. These Fasti were, it is believed, engraved in 18 BCE during the reign of Augustus, and may have been originally made to adorn the now-lost Arch of Augustus in the Forum. This would have effectively communicated that Augustus was the greatest of all triumphators. When awarded a triumph, the victorious general would don a special toga (toga picta) and lead a dazzling procession through Rome. He would enter the city through the Porta Triumphalis, likely located on the Campus Martius. He would then process around the city and through the Forum, before heading up to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. There, sacrifices were made to the Roman’s chief deity in thanks.


The Spoils of War

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Relief depicting a triumphal procession into Rome with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem, from the Arch of Titus, c. 81 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


As well as a display of strength and divine favor, the Roman triumph was an opportunity for the triumphator to engage in ostentatious displays of wealth. Trophies were captured by the Romans and returned to the imperial capital as a testament to their victory, infamously including the Jewish menorah from the Flavian sack of Jerusalem. The expansion of Roman power into the wider Mediterranean world, particularly in the Hellenistic east during the second century BCE, led to the importation of vast amounts of precious metals, artworks, and other luxurious materials previously unknown in Rome.


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Triumph of Titus and Vespasian, by Giulio Romano, 1537, via Louvre


Livy’s description of the booty seized at Macedonia by Aemilius Paulus in 168 BCE is but one particularly evocative example of dozens: “statues, pictures, woven fabrics, articles in gold, silver, bronze, and ivory wrought with consummate care”. The impact on Rome was staggering, with the empire undergoing something of a cultural revolution, influenced by the artistic tastes imported into the empire during the triumphs. These included spectacular bronze and marble statues.


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Statue of Apollo Citharodos (Apollo with a cithara), 2nd century CE, via British Museum


The materials brought back also included exotic marbles, which changed the very fabric of the city itself. These new structures became the stages on which the triumphators would display their prestige. Over time, the scope for this display of captured wealth to become a means of politically potent munificence and benefaction within the imperial capital would be realized, too. This wasn’t just about creating monuments and vast public buildings but also the provision of entertainment. At least as early as 205 BCE, Scipio Africanus’ victories in Spain occasioned his generals with the funds to put on games in Rome.


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Thusnelda in the Triumphal Procession of Germanicus, by Karl von Piloty, 1873, via Neue Pinakothek


It was not just materials displayed in the triumphs, but people too. Prisoners of war were paraded through the streets of the imperial capital in a degrading display of Rome’s superiority. The ultimate Roman prize would be to take the enemy leader hostage to be paraded in Rome before – more than likely – being executed. This is the fate Cleopatra was so desperate to avoid that she summoned for the fatal asps, as presented by Horace amongst others (including Shakespeare), and one allegedly endured by Zenobia during Aurelian’s triumph in the third century. The triumphator, however, had to ensure that his victories appeared as magnificent as possible. As such, accounts of these noble prisoners often emphasize their splendor and stately dignity of the victims. There is thus a risk with the Roman triumph that the prisoner may upstage the triumphator. The prisoner’s exoticness and futile courage in resisting Rome could turn them almost into the central figures of the processions.


Competitive Consumption: Republican Triumphs

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A Roman Triumphal Entry, possibly of Marcus Claudius Marcellus, by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1816, via Kilgore Gallery


The Roman triumph was an inherently competitive institution in the Empire. For the triumphator, it was an invaluable opportunity to assert his excellence. It also, thanks to the seizure of vast amounts of loot, became the opportunity for him to curry favor. This is a recurring feature of Republican triumphs. The successful generals can often be seen attempting to outdo one another in scale and spectacle as they sought to acquire ever more political prestige. This could even transcend mortality: Cicero noted that in the race for political advancement in Rome, the value of having a triumphator amongst your ancestors – even from the far distant past – was significant. He also notes that this led to the falsification of history. This was not the only moral failing. The increasing ostentatiousness of the triumphs, typified by Hellenistic artworks and marbles, was –  according to some Roman historians, like Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.34.3) and Livy (39.6-7) – corrupting traditional values. Whether or not it was corrupting Roman morals, it is clear that the competition was corrosive to political stability.


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The Triumph of Pompey, by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, 1765, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


The most famous of Republican triumphs was also one of the last. In 61 BCE – coinciding with his forty-fifth birthday – Pompey the Great celebrated a triumph so exorbitant in its riches and captives that it took two days to complete. Awarded after his series of staggering victories in the east and successes in eradicating piracy in the eastern Mediterranean, the triumphator processed through the streets of Rome accompanied by his defeated enemies. These included the pirate chiefs, the family of King Tigranes of Armenia, Aristobulus, King of the Jews, and the sister and children of Mithridates, King of Pontus. The wealth on display was also staggering. Appian claims that Pompey entered in a jewel-encrusted chariot, wearing Alexander the Great’s cloak, while according to Plutarch (Pompey, 45.1) there was “enough to dignify and adorn another triumphal procession”. This was the third of Pompey’s triumphs and considerably more successful than his first. Awarded for his victories in Africa, his attempts to have four elephants draw his chariot into Rome backfired when it quickly dawned on all involved that the captured creatures were far too large to enter through the porta!


Rulers of the World: Emperors and the Roman Triumph

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Gold aureus with obverse bust of Diana and reverse depiction of a temple with military trophy inside, 29-27 BCE, via British Museum


The transformation from Republic to Principate under Augustus decisively altered the triumph as a Roman institution. Politically savvy, Augustus quickly identified the threat of military glory; were a man to acquire too much popularity amongst the legions, he could challenge the emperor. As early as 28 BCE, he had already blocked the triumph of Marcus Licinus Crassus the Younger. The last triumph recorded on the Fasti Triumphales dates to 19 BCE, awarded to Cornelius Balbus for his successes in Africa. Thereafter, all triumphs would be won in the emperor’s name, reflecting his supreme imperium (power). The decision of Marcus Agrippa to turn down a triumph in 14 CE set the precedent for what followed. The number of Roman triumphs awarded fell sharply in the imperial period.


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Veduta dell’Arco di Tito (‘View of the Arch of Titus’), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, c. 1760, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


Moreover, the senate could still debate, but this was merely an empty gesture. It was the emperor’s prerogative to award the triumph. Often, they could turn down the senate’s offer, a show of deference that kept up the appearance of the senate’s political agency, as allegedly occurred after Septimius Severus’ first Parthian War in 196 (Historia Augusta, Severus 9.10-11). He made up for this later, following his Second Parthian War. Accepting the triumph, he monumentalized his victories on the impressive triumphal arch in the Roman Forum (built 203 CE), which is also commemorated on coinage. Such monuments became a common expression of imperial triumph, often depicting scenes of warfare, as well as the treasure and prisoners captured.


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The Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum, via Wikimedia Commons; with representation of the arch on a silver denarius of the emperor, 202-210 CE, via Münzkabinett, Vienna


The ideological potency of the triumph continued unabated, however. For the emperors, the triumphal procession was a means of legitimizing their power on a grand scale. The elaborate spectacles provided them with the means of communicating their mastery over the world and their command of the legions to the people of Rome. A number of emperors celebrated triumphs, including Claudius, for his conquest of Britain, Vespasian and Titus for their victories in Judaea, and Trajan for his Dacian victories. However, their number declined significantly, replaced by various different ceremonies that expressed loyalty to the emperor in different ways. This included the emergence of grandiloquent imperial panegyrics in the later imperial period, rhetorical speeches that vaunted the emperor’s virtues (whether real or imagined), and the adventus, the celebration of the emperor’s arrival in provincial capitals as he traveled. However, they did continue with Theodosius the Great celebrating a triumph in the traditional manner in 389 after defeating the usurper Magnus Maximus. Typically, historians view the triumph of Belisarius, Justinian’s general, to be the last ‘Roman’ triumph. However, even this was held at Constantinople, evidence of a changing empire.


Gods and Heroes: Mythological Triumphs in Ancient Rome

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Thasian marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus, c. 190 CE, via Walters Art Museum


The obscurity of the Roman triumph’s historical origins led some to search beyond Rome’s origins. Attempts to identify Roman attributes in a victory procession of Alexander the Great recorded by Arrian seem fanciful. These attempts to establish connections between two of the ancient world’s most notorious conquerors are likely apocryphal, examples of the Alexander-mania that routinely swept the Roman imagination (such as, infamously, in the case of Caracalla). Roman etymologists instead pondered whether the shout of triumpe! was, in fact, a term derived from the Greek thriambus (θρίαμβος). These were the hymns sung in the processions that were led in honor of the god Dionysus (Bacchus, to the Romans), eventually becoming an epithet associated with the god. As the historian, Diodorus Siculus (Library of History 4.5.2) noted, “Thriambus is a name that has been given, they say, because he [Dionysus] was the first of those of whom we have a record of having celebrated a triumph”.


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The Triumph of Bacchus, by Nicolas Poussin, 1635-6, via The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


The idea of Dionysus’ triumphal return from India captured the imagination of Roman and much later audiences alike. Ovid’s Amores (1.2) presents an evocative, poetic reimagining of the gods’ triumphal return from India, his golden chariot drawn by tigers, leading his ecstatic followers. The subject soon became the popular subject for all manner of artistic depictions, including sarcophagi and mosaics, from Rome and the wider empire, notably in North Africa (the story was seemingly as well-traveled as the god himself). Likewise, the subject captured the imagination of later artists, who captured the grandeur and excess of the god’s triumph. The most famous is perhaps Titian’s exercise in the power of the color blue (Bacchus and Ariadne, 1522-3). In others, Dionysus is a corpulent figure of excess and fine living (see the work of Cornelius de Vos). While others, such as Diego Velázquez, have translated the scene into a contemporary setting (The Triumph of Bacchus, or Los borrachos, 1628-9).


Empires Reborn? The Inheritance of the Roman Triumph

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The Bearers of Standards and Siege Equipment and Caesar on his Chariot, the second and ninth paintings of the series Triumphs of Caesar, by Andrea Mantegna, 1484-1492, via Royal Collection


Although the Roman triumph diminished in use during the Later Roman period, the idea of a triumphal procession re-emerged as a common feature of political life during the Renaissance. This was part of the era’s widespread interest in all things Classical and the perceived capacity of the ancient to add a luster to the modern. The rediscovery of the fragments of the Fasti Triumphales in the 1550s led to this reborn fascination with the triumph. The subject became increasingly popular with artists and writers all over Europe. Imitation and the idea of continuity were key. Onofrio Panvinio, a 16th-century Italian historian and antiquarian from Verona, sought to bring the Fasti up to date with his De fasti et triumphi Romanorum a Romuo usque ad Carolum V (‘Fasti and triumphs of the Romans from Romulus to Charles V). His last entry was for Charles V’s entry into Rome in 1536 after his conquest of Tunis the year before. The idea of the triumph also captivated artists all over Europe, who made the processions the subject of their artworks, often thinly veiled to glorify their aristocratic patrons.


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The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I, by Albrecht Dürer and others, 1516-17, via British Museum


The modern fascination with the Roman triumph did not end with the Renaissance, however. Antiquity retained its particular hold on the elites of Europe throughout the centuries that followed, emerging strongly as a discourse that informed and inspired modern imperialistic ambitions. The triumph, a celebration of military prowess and the subjugation of nations, thus became an appealing model to adopt. One of the most famous practitioners of this was Napoleon Bonaparte. His Romantic view of the ancient world is easily detectable in paintings of the French emperor, notably in Jacques-Louis David’s heroizing portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps to invade Italy. In this painting, the modern general is shown explicitly retracing the steps of Hannibal. He likewise led a triumphal procession back into Paris, which celebrated the treasures he had looted from his conquests. The four bronze horses from Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, removed by Napoleon in 1797, were prominent amongst these.


By far the most enduring testament to the Roman triumph’s hold on political imagination, however, is the triumphal arch. These colossal monuments, Roman in origin, now adorn major cities all over the world. They have been mimicked, adapted, and adopted to an array of contexts, from Paris to Pyongyang, via London and New York.


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A Roman Triumph, by Maerten de Vos, 1532-1603, via National Gallery of Art, Washington


From their mysterious beginnings in the mists of Rome’s regnal past, the Roman triumph has emerged as one of the most enduring cultural legacies of the Roman empire. These grand processions have changed over time, so much so that we can only begin to speculate as to how the Romans themselves saw and experienced them. Out of this, however, has emerged a potent political symbol, readily exploited by modern societies. These grand processions of martial pomp, mixed with the very human tragedy of war, have evolved over time, adapting to changing political pressures, but they have lost none of their potency.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.