Sunday, March 09, 2008
Mary Beard - The Roman Triumph
Unusually for a classical historian, Mary Beard seems to be adept at bringing to life complex periods of history. Her humourous and immensely entertaining blog, uses the past to shed light on the present and often explains the past through the lens of current events.
Her latest book, The Roman Triumph, examines what is actually quite a niche in Roman History. The Triumph, was the much emmulated procession through the heart of Rome to celebrate a general's military victories. While this might seem an unusual subject to make the subject of a complete book, Mary Beard argues that the Triumph "had an impact far beyond the commemoration of victory, and on aspects of Roman life as diverse as the apotheosis of emperors and the passion of erotic pursuit".
The author documents extensively how the Triumph became the subject of ancient historical study and poetry. Images of Triumphs were carved into sculpture and reliefs and lists of those victories Generals who celebrated the Triumph were carved into tablets and displayed at the centre of the Roman capital.
However the study of the Triumph is not simply a study of what happened, who celebrated them and the event's history. It is also a study of how we examine history, and actually what history is. In this regard, Mary Beard is remarkably critical of some modern historians who, it seems, often repeat unsubstantiated information about the Triumph as if it was historical fact. She describes a "process of conjecture, wild extrapolation, and over-confidence" being "how many of the "fact's" of the triumph are made."
There are many other fascinating aspects to this book. I found it interesting how the notion of "Invented Tradition" plays it's role in both the historical development of the Triumph itself and it's study through the ages. The role of the Triumph in creating an image of Roman, for the Roman people itself is also somethign that comes through the work. The Triumph wasn't "intended to reward private brigandage", only those victories that fitted the Roman ideal would be marked in public in this way - military victories in Roman civil wars rarely were celebrated by Triumph. "Romans only belonged on the winning side" of the ceremony is how Beard puts it.
For the Roman people, the Triumph wasn't always simply about celebration. It could be an occasion for sympathy towards prisoners or amusement at the lack of captured trophies.
While military leaders from Napoleon to Hitler have used parades to celebrate conquests, today military victory isn't marked in quite the same way, (though it's tempting to think of George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" display on the aircraft carrier in the Gulf as a mistaken Triumphal display).
What Mary Beard's book does though is remind us that we are part of a long history. A history that is often coloured by the times we live in, but a history that has shaped the our perception of ourselves. Through is insightful and entertaining book, she thus reasserts the importance of studying the past, if only to illuminate our own present.