The Romans are known for their military prowess and famous conquests. Their successful military campaigns brought new territories, immense wealth, and glory to the armies, their leaders and, by extension – to Rome. No wonder Roman conquests were celebrated in many different ways. Those could include majestic triumphs, lavish spectacles, magnificent monuments, and commemorative coinage.
Celebrating Roman Conquests in Style: Triumphal Processions
The triumph was the quintessential celebration of Roman conquests, of the Roman Empire’s might. Triumphal processions were majestic spectacles, grand parades held in Rome (later, Constantinople) to honor victorious generals returning from successful military campaigns. However, following the foundation of the Roman Empire by Augustus, the honor of triumph became reserved for the emperors and members of the imperial family only. From the beginning to the end, the triumph was the most spectacular ceremony in Rome. The victorious commander, dressed in elaborate attire, would ride through the main avenue of Rome on a chariot, accompanied by his troops, captives and spoils of war brought from the campaign.
The triumph was a sight to behold but also a powerful statement, a showcase of Rome’s power and glory. For instance, when in 272 CE, Emperor Aurelian celebrated his triumph; he paraded his captives – empress Zenobia and Gallic emperor Tetricus – as visual evidence of the emperor’s major success – the reunification of the Empire and the restoration of the Roman world. Interestingly, the last Roman triumph was awarded not to the emperor, but to a general – Belisarius.
Triumphal Arches: The Eternal Witnesses of the Conquest
While triumphs were spectacles to behold, a lavish display of power and glory of Rome and its leader, they were short-lasting affairs. So instead, the Romans built majestic monuments to stand as permanent witnesses of grand victory. The most famous of those structures were triumphal arches, located not only in Rome but in all major cities of the Roman Empire. These majestic buildings were adorned with intricate reliefs, sculptures and inscriptions that celebrated the victorious general, the subjugation of defeated peoples and the conquest of new territories.
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The most famous is the Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the future’s emperor victory in the Jewish war. Another notable example is the Arch of Constantine, which celebrates emperor Constantine’s (inconvenient) victory in the civil war. However, it also serves as proof of its builder’s legitimacy, of a symbolic union between Constantine the Great and the rulers of the past, and a herald of the new Christian religion.
The Triumphal Column: Propaganda Made in Stone
Along the triumphal arches, the Romans built another grand monument, which also acted as a powerful element of imperial propaganda – the triumphal column. The most famous of these pillars commemorating conquest is undoubtedly the Trajan column. The imposing 38-meter-tall pillar celebrates emperor Trajan’s conquest of Dacia. However, Trajan’s Column is more than just a mere monument. It is a striking symbol of the Roman Empire at its apex. Its famed frieze (once vividly painted) is akin to an ancient movie, telling the tale of war, victory and propaganda.
Thus, the column tells us the Roman side of the idealized story, presenting Trajan and his legions as heroes, who brought victory and glory to the empire, and civilization to the barbarians on the other side of the Danubian limes. Other notable triumphal columns include the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, and columns of emperors Arcadius and Justinian erected in Constantinople, now lost.
Public Spectacles: The Greatest Celebration
Public spectacles went hand in hand with triumphs. Following a religious ceremony in which the victorious leader would make a sacrifice to Roman gods, most notably Jupiter, the supreme deity, Venus Victrix (or Victory) and Mars, the Roman god of war, the emperor would preside over a magnificent spectacle. The most famous of these public spectacles were the gladiatorial games held in colossal amphitheaters, such as the Colosseum in Rome, chariot races, mock battles, and animal hunts.
These spectacles were meant to entertain the population, but, more importantly, to enhance the prestige of the emperors, who were often benefactors of the games. The public spectacles also served to display the wealth, power, and cultural superiority of Rome and its leader to both Roman citizens and conquered peoples.
Coins of Roman Conquest: Commemorative Coinage
While triumph, public spectacles and majestic monuments clearly conveyed the might and glory of the Roman Empire to the spectators, the message could be seen only by the citizens of Rome or by those who visited major cities and could see the grand monuments. Coins, however, could easily reach all corners of the vast empire, allowing the emperor’s subjects to familiarize themselves with their ruler, whom they would never see in person, and with his victories. Commemorative coins also played a role in solidifying the loyalty and support of the Roman troops. In fact, even after the Romans ceased their conquests, emperors continued to use the coinage to celebrate their imagined victories. After all, the idea of the Roman Empire and its emperor being unable to defeat their enemies was simply unthinkable.