Honors in Rome - Winter 2006
Imagine yourself in the Roman Forum. Everyone in the city has turned out to fill the theaters and scaffolds erected for the big ceremonies. Three days of festivities welcome the victorious general from his military campaigns abroad. The victor himself appears finally in the long triumphal procession, pulled in a chariot by four horses, and dressed in the most magnificent purple robe. The tune of trumpets, screams, and claps fill your ears as you strain to see one of the many carts fills with glimmering treasure pass by. To the ancient Romans, huge public spectacles such as the triumphs uplifted public morale and glorified Rome and her citizens. Hundreds of such triumphs occurred in Rome between 220 and 70 B.C. and continued into the years of the Empire and even into modern times.
Legend has it that Romulus, the founder of Rome, first instituted the triumph, marked by the carrying of trophies and concluding with a sacrifice. Romulus was said to have dressed in a purple robe with a wreath of laurels around his head. He rode in a chariot drawn by four horses to retain his royal dignity. Although these beginnings are attractive, it is more likely that the Roman triumph was a product of the Etruscan kings of the sixth century B.C. The Etruscan word triumpe is derived from Greek thriambos which can be equated with the Latin tripudium, meaning a musical beat or dance (interestingly observed frequently in the tombs of Tarquinia). Even the triumphal arches derived their architectural shape from the Etruscan portals.
Over the years the route, dress, and significance of the triumphal processions didn’t changed much. The triumphal procession was originally a king’s victorious return from a military campaign with his army to give thanks to the gods. The purposes of the Roman triumph were to acknowledge the power and victories of the Rome army, purify the victor, soldiers, and city of blood and guilt associated with war, appease and honor the gods for their role in the victory, and justify the military campaigns to the senate and people of Rome. A triumph could only be granted by the Senate following certain criteria. First, the general must be a magistrate with the right of command. Second, he must have defeated a foreign enemy in a just war. Third, it was necessary for the general to bring back prisoners and trophies of the defeated city. He must also have killed at least 5000 men. Lastly, the war must have been brought to an end so the army could take part in the ceremony. The Senate also voted for the grant of public money for the expenses of the triumph.
The triumphal procession commonly took longer than one day, and closer to three. It began when the Senate and magistrates met the general and his army in the Campus Martius where the soldiers laid down their weapons before entering the city. The procession entered the city through the Porta Triumphalis, and advanced counterclockwise past the Forum Boarium and Circus Maximus, around the Palatine Hill,
along the Via Sacra, through the forum, and up the Capitoline to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
At the front of the procession marched the magistrates and members of the senate as a reminder of the state’s approval of the event. Next came the trumpeters and carts filled with the spoils of the victory such as armor, gold, silver, and art. Carts displaying re-enactments of the battles followed. Laurel or gold crowns presented to the victorious general by the defeated towns came next followed by white oxen with gilded horns, covered in garlands, with attending priests. The chief captains of the defeated army and hostages preceded the appearance of the general himself who rode in a chariot drawn by four horses. He was dressed in a silk purple toga with intricate gold thread designs. He wore a laurel wreath and carried in his right hand a laurel branch and in his left an eagle-topped ivory scepter. Following the triumphator were Roman citizens who had been rescued from slavery and lastly came the soldiers of the army. Interestingly enough, for a procession so magnificent and splendid, a slave held above the triumphator’s head a golden crown while whispering into his ear, “Look behind you and remember that you are a man” to remind him that he was mortal. When the procession reached the Capitoline Hill the chief captains of the defeated army were executed. The general ascended to the Capitol where he laid his laurel branch and wreath on the lap of the statue of Jupiter and the white oxen were sacrificed. A feast for the Senate followed while the troops were entertained in the temple of Hercules.
Other forms of triumphs did exist. An ovatio could be granted by the Senate to those whom it wished to honor but whose victories didn’t meet all the criteria for a triumph. It was first held in 503 B.C. In an ovation the triumphator proceeded on foot or horseback instead of by chariot and was preceded by flute players instead of trumpeters. He wore a crown of myrtle, held no scepter, and offered a sheep to Jupiter. An individual could also use his own expenses for a triumph if the Senate didn’t approve of one. These triumphs did not occur in Rome, but rather at the Temple of Jupiter on the Alban Mount, the first being in 231 B.C.
The emblem of the splendor of the triumph and power of Rome was the triumphal arch. Arches were significant and immediately recognizable. Their decorations commemorate and celebrate the triumph and triumphator and often depict the triumphal procession itself. One such arch, the Arch of Titus, was erected in 81 A.D. by Titus’ brother, Domitian, in celebration of Titus’ victory over the Jewish revolt. In the right inner portal Emperor Titus is standing and driving his chariot. He is followed by winged victory who crowns his head in laurel. He is led by the personification of the goddess Roma. This illustrates the first time real figures along with divine and allegorical ones appear on a single monument. On the left inner portal soldiers parade by with the spoils of war, including the seven-branched golden menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem. The soldiers appear too big to fit through the arch projected in the background, making it seem as if they have to turn to get there and that we are spectators watching the procession. The movement also portrays the actual direction the procession would move through the arch. The empty background of the portals gives the feeling of atmosphere and the shallow background figures give the illusion of deep space. The Victories that appear in the spandrels and the inner decorations of the arch are in great shape, although the arch has been restored, especially after being incorporated into a medieval fortress of the Frangipani family.
Much of the imagery on the three-bay Arch of Septimius Severus is descended from the Arch of Titus. The victories in the spandrels of the central arch carry trophies on long sticks. Their body, drapery, and wings are less gently modeled in the old classical style and are more harsh and linear, representing a change in the artistic style of the time. River gods fill the spandrels of the side arches. The square area over the side arches depicts narrations of exploits of the emperor. The inscription on the attics records that he fought against Arabs and the Parthians. Severus is depicted on the arch with his sons, Caracalla and Geta, and the style of the figures is shorter and stubbier and the folds are more schematic.
A third arch belongs to Constantine, who is best known as the first Christian emperor who, as legend has it, converted to Christianity after seeing a cross cast across the sun before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. His triumph commemorated the victory over the tyrant and usurper Maxentius. The Arch of Constantine was begun in 312 A.D. and actually incorporated pieces of many of Maxentius’ monuments after the Senate passed a damnation memoriae (eternal damnation) on Maxentius. The Arch of Constantine is located where many of Maxentius’ monuments were clustered. The theme of the arch is a celebration of the decennalia or ten-year rule of Constantine, even though he was only yet in power for three. Constantine’s arch is architecturally similar to the Arch of Septimius Severus. Victories are in the spandrels of the main arch and river gods are in the spandrels of the side arches. Both are descended from the Arch of Septimius Severus, but they are flatter and rather unattractive. More interesting is the use of spolia, or bas reliefs carved several centuries earlier and used to adorn the monuments of other emperors. Some heads were recut to represent contemporary figures. Constantine used these spolia from monuments of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. He believed that he embodied the ideals, reputation, and virtues of these great leaders. He also believed the celebration of their deeds matched his own.
Flanking the inscription on the attic of this arch are panels illustrating the success and formal military role of the emperor that came from a monument of Marcus Aurelius. The standing figures are of Dacian prisoners from a Trajanic monument. The roundels are from Hadrian and refer to abstract qualities to be associated with Constantine. Below the roundels are panels showing the events leading to Constantine’s victory and his first official acts in Rome. One act, the oratio, was a public speech Constantine gave in the Forum. He stands on the raised Rostra in the Roman Forum surrounded with ministers and members of the imperial party dressed in togas. Two seated statues of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian flank him and stare straight ahead. Romans in short tunics stand on the side with heads turned. In the background stand the five-columned monument of the Tetrachs, the Basilica Julia, the Arch of Tiberius, and the Arch of Septimius Severus. The other panel portrays the donatio, or a gift of money to the people of Rome at the Emperor Constantine’s expense. Constantine is raised and surrounded by ministers. The Roman people turn to him adoringly and the four scenes above depict someone distributing money while another with a scroll keeps records.
Of particular importance are the many depictions of Sol Invictus, the sun god, whose characteristic gesture is an outstretched right hand, on the arch. Constantine’s father worshipped the sun god and it is possible Constantine believe Christ was behind sun-worship, evidenced by the fact that he was supposedly converted by an image in the sun. There was constant tension between Constantine and the Senate due to his religion. For the first few years of his reign, Constantine abided by the old traditions and laws. He even participated with the sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter during his triumph. Although there are no recognizable Christian symbols on the arch, depictions of Sol were used as a bridge between paganism and Christianity. Early Christian art depicts a man on a chariot drawn by white horses, beams of light emanating from his head, with a raised right arm. This is a depiction of Christ with symbols associated with Sol. December 25th is the birthday of both Sol Novus and Christ, and the church often compared Christ to the sun.
Even today, hundreds of years later, arches still survive and celebrate the deeds and achievements of the ruler and perpetuate in the public consciousness the memory of an emperor. Although the triumphal arch represented victory in war, there are many other monuments in Rome that represent other aspects of Roman virtues. It is interesting to observe other examples of the Roman desire of spectacle and memory throughout history. Why has the route, order, and dress of triumphal processions remained relatively similar over the centuries? What kind of similarities exist between the Roman triumphs and tombs and sarcophagi of the Etruscans, from whom the triumph was likely originated? Roman triumphs and ceremonies were performed for centuries and were an important part of Roman life. With a history rife with wars, the triumphs were a powerful symbol of the glory of Rome.
Kleiner, Fred. The Arch of Nero in Rome: A Study of the Roman Honorary Arch Before and Under Nero. Rome: Girgio Bretschneider Editore, 1985.
Payne, Robert. The Roman Triumph. New York: Abelard-Schuman, Ltd., 1962.
Peirce, Philip. “The Arch of Constantine: Propaganda and Ideology in Late Roman Art.” Art History 12 (1987).
Ramage, Nancy, and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall Inc., 2001.
Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Touati, Anne-Marie. The Greak Trajanic Frieze: The Study of a Monument and of the Mechanisms of Message Transmission in Roman Art. Stockholm: Bohusläningens Boktryckeri AB, Uddevalla, 1987.