Staging War

The Roman Triumph

The Roman triumph was a type of military parade. Generals with imperium could be voted one by the Senate provided a number of conditions were met. Under the Republic victorious members of the Senate (and sometimes non-senators) lobbied hard to be voted a triumph, sometimes waiting for years in the Campus Martius until they achieved this (legally generals could not cross into the city of Rome proper without giving up your imperium). Under the empire the right to hold a triumph was confined to emperor and close members of his family. The route of the triumph is a subject of debate; those seeking a map of various suggestions of the route should go to As the reading below shows, Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome was said to have held the first triumph the following report of his triumph is certainly more myth than history given that this work dates to c. 7 BCE and there were no historical or literary sources from Romulus’ period for the author to consult.

Panel from a representation of a triumph of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius

After he captured the town Romulus ordered the prisoners to hand over their weapons and taking those of their children for hostages as he thought fit, he marched against the Antemnates. After he had conquered their army as he had the previous one by attacking them unexpectedly while they were still scattered and foraging, he gave the same treatment to the prisoners and led his army home, carrying with him the spoils of those who had been killed in battle and the best part of the plunder as an offering to the gods; (he offered many sacrifices as well). Romulus himself came last in the procession, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a crown of laurel upon his head, and, so he might maintain his royal dignity, riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. The rest of the army, infantry and cavalry, followed organized by divisions, praising the gods in Roman songs and praising their general in improvised verses. Citizens with their wives and children came out to meet them and stood on each side of the road, congratulating them upon their victory and expressed their welcome every way they could. When the army entered Rome they found mixing bowls[1] filled to the brim with wine and tables loaded down with all sorts of food; these were placed before the most distinguished houses so that anyone who wanted could take their fill. Such was the victorious procession, marked by the carrying of trophies and concluding with a sacrifice, which the Romans call a triumph, as it was first instituted by Romulus. But in our day the triumph had become a very costly and ostentatious pageant, and was accompanied by a theatrical pomp designed rather to display wealth than to mark bravery, and it has completely changed from its ancient simplicity. After the procession and the sacrifice Romulus built a small temple on the summit of the Capitoline hill to Jupiter whom the Romans call Feretrius; indeed, the ancient traces of it still remain, of which the longest sides are less than fifteen feet. In this temple he consecrated the spoils of the king of the Caeninenses, whom he had killed with his own hand.[2]

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 34

Pompey the Great held three triumphs. The first was after he was victorious in North Africa and was held in 81,80, or 79 BCE on March 12th; this triumph is described below:

After [his victory in Africa], Pompey asked for a triumph, but Sulla opposed his request. The law, he said, permitted only a consul or a praetor to celebrate a triumph, but no one else.[3] Therefore Scipio Africanus the Elder, after he had defeated the Carthaginians in Spain in far greater conflicts, did not ask for a triumph for he was not consul nor even a praetor. And if Pompey, who had scarcely yet grown a beard and who was too young to even be a senator, should ride into the city in a triumph, it would not only bring Sulla’s government into complete disrepute but also increase Pompey’s reputation. This was what Sulla said to Pompey, declaring that he would not allow his request, but would oppose him and thwart his ambition if Pompey refused to listen to him. However, Pompey, was not cowed but told Sulla to reflect that more worshipped the rising than the setting sun, hinting that his own power was on the increase, while that of Sulla was on withering and fading away. Sulla did not hear the words distinctly, but seeing, from their expressions that those who did hear them were amazed, he asked what it was that had been said. When he learned what it was, he was astounded at Pompey’s impudence and cried out twice in succession: “Let him triumph!” And when many people were clearly unhappy and indignant at his plan, Pompey, we are told, was even more eager to annoy them and tried to ride into the city on a chariot drawn by four elephants (he had brought many from Africa which he had captured from its kings). But the gate[4] of Rome was too narrow so he gave up the attempt and changed over to horses. In addition, when his soldiers, who had not got as much as they expected,[5] were inclined to make a disturbance and impede the triumph, he said he did not care at all but would rather give up his triumph than give in to them. Then Servilius, a man of distinction, and someone who had been most opposed to Pompey’s triumph, said he now saw that Pompey was really great and worthy of the honour.

Plutarch, Life of Pompey the Great 14

Pompey’s second triumph took place in 71 BCE for victory in Spain. His third triumph in 61 BCE was for victory over King Mithridates IV of Pontus in the Third Mithridatic War (74-63 BCE). Tigranes, King of Armenia, had been part of the anti-Roman alliance as had a number of other rulers in that area worried about Roman imperial expansion. Into this triumph Pompey rolled a celebration for his victory over the pirates.

His triumph was so magnificent that although it was distributed over two days, still there wasn’t enough time and much of what had been prepared could not find a place in the spectacle – enough to dignify and adorn another triumphal procession. Inscriptions carried in advance of the procession indicated the nations over which he triumphed. These were: Pontus; Armenia; Cappadocia; Paphlagonia; Media; Colchis; Iberia, Albania; Syria; Cilicia; Mesopotamia; Phoenicia and Palestine; Judaea; Arabia; and all the power of the pirates by sea and land which he had destroyed. Among these peoples according to the inscriptions no less than a thousand strongholds had been captured, and almost nine hundred cities, eight hundred piratical ships; he had also founded while thirty-nine cities. In addition to all this the inscriptions said that whereas the public revenues from taxes had been fifty million drachmas, they were receiving from the additions which Pompey had made to the city’s power eighty-five million, and that he was bringing into the public treasury in coined money and vessels of gold and silver twenty thousand talents – and this was separate from the money which he had given to his soldiers, of whom the one whose share was the smallest had received fifteen hundred drachmas. Besides the chief pirates he also led as captives the son of Tigranes the Armenian with his wife and daughter, Zosime, a wife of King Tigranes himself, Aristobulus, king of the Jews, a sister and five children of Mithridates, Scythian women, and hostages given by the Iberians, by the Albanians, and by the king of Commagene.  There were also very many trophies, equal in number to all the battles in which Pompey had been victorious either in person or in the persons of his lieutenants. 5 But that which most enhanced his glory and had never been the lot of any Roman before, was that he celebrated his third triumph over the third continent. For others before him had celebrated three triumphs; but he celebrated his first over Africa, his second over Europe, and this, his last, over Asia, so that he seemed in a way to have included the whole world in his three triumphs.

Plutarch, Life of Pompey the Great 45

The Triumph of Pompey

In 46 BCE Julius Caesar celebrated a quadruple triumph, celebrating his victories over Gaul, Pontus, Africa, and Egypt.

Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, four in a single month, but at intervals of a few days, after defeating Scipio;[6] and another on defeating Pompey’s sons. The first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Spanish, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. As he rode through the Velabrum on the day of his Gallic triumph, the axle of his chariot broke, and he was all but thrown out; and he mounted the Capitol by torchlight, with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces of the procession an inscription of but three words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not indicating the events of the war, as the others did, but the speed with which it was finished.

Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 37.1-2

Caesar’s soldiers sang rude songs about him in his triumphs, something which was a traditional feature of the triumph:

Finally, in his Gallic triumph his soldiers, among the mocking songs which are usually sung by those who followed the chariot, sang these lines, which became a by-word: “All the Gauls did Caesar defeated all the Gauls, but Nicomedes defeated him. But Caesar rides in triumph, victor over all the Gauls,  Nicomedes does not triumph, who defeated the conqueror.”

Life of Julius Caesar 49.4

That he did not refrain from affairs in the provinces is shown in particular by this couplet, which was also shouted by the soldiers in his Gallic triumph: “Men of Rome, keep close to your wives, here’s a bald adulterer. Gold in Gaul you spent in dalliance, which you borrowed here in Rome.

Life of Julius Caesar 51.1

Plutarch gives a similar account of the triumph, minus the songs:

Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, four in a single month, but at intervals of a few days, after defeating Scipio; he held another when he defeated Pompey’s sons. The first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Spanish, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. As he rode through the Velabrum on the day of his Gallic triumph, the axle of his chariot broke, and he was all but thrown out; and he mounted the Capitol by torchlight, with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces of the procession an inscription of but three words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not indicating the events of the war, as the others did, but the speed with which it was finished.

Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar 37

The Triumph of Caesar

Augustus and Tiberius had triumphs, but we don’t have full details of them. We hear rather more of Caligula’s ‘triumph’ for his ‘victory’ over the ocean (he was supposed to be invading Britain):

Finally, as if he intended to bring the war to an end, he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the Ocean, arranging his ballistas and other artillery; and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them “spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.” As a monument of his victory he erected a lofty tower, from which lights were to shine at night to guide the course of ships, as from the Pharos. Then promising the soldiers a gratuity of a hundred denarii each, as if he had shown unprecedented liberality, he said, “Go your way happy; go your way rich.” Then turning his attention to his triumph, in addition to a few captives and deserters from the barbarians he chose all the tallest of the Gauls, and as he expressed it, those who were “worthy of a triumph,” as well as some of the chiefs. These he reserved for his parade, compelling them not only to dye their hair red and to let it grow long, but also to learn the language of the Germans and assume barbarian names. He also had the triremes in which he had entered the Ocean carried overland to Rome for the greater part of the way. He wrote besides to his financial agents to prepare for a triumph at the smallest possible cost, but on a grander scale than had ever before been known, since the goods of all were at their disposal.

Suetonius, Caligula 46-4

The Emperor Claudius did invade Britain and celebrated a triumph for his victory in 44 CE:

He made but one campaign and it was not very important. When the Senate voted him the triumphal regalia, as he thought the honour beneath the imperial dignity and desired the glory of a true triumph, he chose Britain as the best place to get one, as it was a land that had no one had tried to attack since the Deified Julius [Caesar] and was just then in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters. On the voyage from Ostia[7] he was nearly wrecked twice in furious northwesters, off Liguria and near the Stoechades islands. Therefore he made the journey from Massilia[8] all the way to Gesoriacum[9] by land, crossed from there, and without any battle or bloodshed received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome within six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a triumph of great splendour. He allowed not only the governors of the provinces to come to Rome to see the triumph, but even some of the exiles; and among the tokens of his victory he set a naval crown on the gable of the Palace beside the civic crown, as a sign that he had crossed and, as it were, subdued the Ocean. His wife Messalina followed his chariot in a carriage, as did also those who had won the triumphal regalia in the same war; the rest marched on foot in purple-bordered togas, except Marcus Crassus Frugi, who rode a caparisoned horse and wore a tunic embroidered with palms, because he was receiving the honour for the second time.

Suetonius, Life of Claudius 17

The triumph of Vespasian and Titus celebrated their victory over the Jews in the Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). After Nero committed suicide and civil war ensued, Vespasian had returned to Rome to take the imperial throne in 69, leaving Titus in charge of the campaign and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The triumph took place in 71 (the revolt was pretty much over by then, but dragged on because of hold outs like Masada, Herodium, Machaerus, and Hyrcannia). The following account is by Josephus, a Jewish general who went over to the Roman side, and is the most detailed description of a triumph that we have:

Detail from the Arch of Titus showing his triumph held in 71 for his successful Sack of Jerusalem.

He ordered that the leaders of the captives, Simon and John, with the other seven hundred men, whom Titus had selected out of the rest because they were very tall and handsome, should be brought quickly to Italy because he wished to show them in his triumph.[10] So when he had had a good voyage the city of Rome came out to meet him at a distance as it had done before for his father. But what Titus thought was the most wonderful element was that his father [Vespasian] met and received him. But still the mass of the citizens was filled with the greatest joy when they saw them all three[11] together, as they did at this time. Nor had many days passed when they decided to have but one triumph that they would share because of the glorious exploits they had performed, although the Senate had decreed each of them a separate triumph. So, when notice had been given of the day appointed for this solemn triumphal parade not one of the immense multitude was left in the city, but everybody went out to see it although there was only standing room – the spectators left only a passage wide enough for those that were in the triumph to go along it.

Now all the army marched out beforehand by companies and sorted by ranks, under their different commanders, in the night-time; they were around the gates, not of the Upper Palaces, but those near the Temple of Isis. For there it was that the Emperors had rested the previous night. And as soon as it was day Vespasian and Titus came out, crowned with laurel dressed in those ancient purple habits which were proper to their family and then went as far as Octavian’s Walks. For there it was that the Senate, senior magistrates, and those of the equestrian class waited for them. A platform had been erected before the colonnades of the temple and ivory chairs were placed on it. When they came and sat down upon them the army immediately made an acclamation of joy to them and all cried out about their courage while they sat without their weapons, in their silk garments, crowned with laurel. Then Vespasian accepted these cries; but although everyone was still inclined to continue making them, he gave them a signal for silence. When everyone was entirely silent he stood up and, covering most of his head with his cloak, he gave the customary solemn prayers. Titus also gave the same prayers. After these prayers Vespasian made a short speech to all the people and then sent away the soldiers to the breakfast put on for them, as was the custom, by the victorious generals. Then he retired to the gate which is called the Gate of the Triumph because triumphs always go through it. There they ate a little. When they had put on their triumphal garments and offered sacrifices to the gods that were placed at the gate, they sent the triumph forward, and marched through the theatres so they could be more easily seen by the masses.

It is impossible to describe the multitude of the displays as they deserve and the magnificence of them all: they were such indeed as a man could not easily imagine whether he was thinking about works of art, varieties of wealth, or rare items from nature. For almost all the marvellous things that the happiest men ever get by piece by piece were here one heaped on another and they were all marvellous and costly and demonstrated the vastness of the dominions of the Romans by being brought together on that day. Spectators could see a mighty quantity of silver, gold, and ivory, formed into all sorts of shapes and it did not appear as if they were only carried along in a triumphal parade, but, the saying is, they flowed along like a river. Some parts were composed of the rarest purple hangings, and so carried along: and others had lifelike images embroidered by the art of the Babylonians. There were also precious stones that were transparent, some set in crowns of gold, and some in other devices, as the workmen pleased. And of these such a vast number were brought, that we learned from this how vainly we imagined any of them to be rarities. The images of the gods were also carried, being as well wonderful for their largeness and made with great skill; and all of these images were from very costly materials. And many species of animals were brought, every one adorned with trappings. The men also who brought every one of these displays were in great multitudes and adorned with purple garments, all over interwoven with gold. Those that were chosen for carrying these displays also had such magnificent ornaments, which were were both extraordinary and surprising. Besides these we saw that even the great number of the captives was adorned; the variety that was in their garments, and their fine texture, concealed from the sight the deformity of their bodies. But what afforded the greatest surprise of all was the structure of the pageants that were borne along; whoever saw them could not but be afraid that the bearers would not be able to support them, such was their magnitude. For many of them were constructed three or even four stories high. The magnificence also of their structure gave you both pleasure and surprise. For upon many of them were laid carpets of gold. There was also wrought gold and ivory, fastened about them all, along with many different images of the war in a variety of ways, giving a most lively visual representation of that war. For there was to be seen a happy country laid waste, entire squadrons of enemies slain, while some of them ran away and some were carried into captivity, there [you could see] walls of great height and size overthrown and ruined by machines, there were [images of] the strongest fortifications taken and the walls of most populous cities upon the tops of hills seized on, and an army pouring into the walls. [They also showed] also every place full of slaughter and enemies pleading for their lives when they were no longer able to lift up their hands to fight. Fire also sent upon temples was here represented, and houses overthrown, and falling upon their owners: rivers also, after they came out of a large and melancholy desert, ran down, not into a land cultivated, nor as drink for men, or for cattle, but through a land still on fire upon every side. For the Jews related that such a thing they had undergone during this war. Now the workmanship of these representations was so magnificent and lively in how it was constructed that it exhibited what had been done to such as did not see it, as if they had been really present. On the top of every one of these pageants was placed the commander of the city that was taken and how he had been captured. Moreover there followed those pageants a great number of ships. And for the other spoils they were carried in great plenty, but for those that were taken in the Temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest show of all the spoils. These were: the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the Menorah, that was made of gold (though its construction was now changed from that which we made use of. For its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length; their position looks like a trident, and every branch had a brass socket for a lamp at the tops of them. These lamps were seven in number and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews). And the law of the Jews was the last of all the spoils. After these spoils a great many men passed by, carrying the images of victory which were made entirely either of ivory or of gold. After these Vespasian marched in the first place and Titus followed him. Domitian also rode along with them, making made a glorious appearance riding on a beautiful horse.

Now the last part of this triumph was at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and when they got there, they stopped. For it was the Roman’s ancient custom to wait there until somebody brought the news that the general of the enemy was dead. This general was Simon, the son of Gioras, who had been led in this triumph among the captives. A rope had also been put upon his head; and he had been drawn into an appropriate place in the Forum – he had also been tormented by those that drew him along – the law of the Romans required, that criminals condemned to die, should be killed there. Accordingly when it was related that there was an end of him, and all the people had set up a shout for joy, they then began to offer those sacrifices which they had consecrated in the prayers used in such solemn occasions. When they had finished these they went away to the palace; the victorious generals entertained some of the spectators at their own feast; for all the rest there were lavish preparations made for feasting at home. For this was a festival day to the city of Rome, one celebrated for the victory obtained by their army over their enemies; the end that was now put to their civil miseries,[12] and for the commencement of their hopes of future prosperity and happiness.

After these triumphs were over and he had settled the affairs of the Romans on the best foundations, Vespasian resolved to build a temple to Peace. This was finished in so short a time and so glorious a manner as was beyond everything people expected and though possible. For providence had given him a vast quantity of wealth besides what he had formerly gained in his other exploits; he had this temple adorned with pictures and statues; for in this temple were collected and deposited all such rarities as men before used to wander all over the known world to see when they had a desire to see one of them after another; he also placed there those golden vessels and instruments which were taken out of the Jewish temple as records of his glory. But still he ordered that they should lay up their law and the purple veils of the holy place in the royal palace itself and keep them there.

Josephus, The Jewish War 7


  1. The Romans, like the Greeks, mixed their wine with water and believed that only barbarians drank it neat.
  2. The spolia opima, armour stripped from the body of the dead general of the opposing side who had been killed in battle by the Roman general. Besides this only 2 other generals dedicated such armour.
  3. Pompey wasn’t even in the Senate at this point, let alone a consul or praetor; he was also only 26 – not even old enough to enter the Senate under Roman law.
  4. The triumphal gate through which triumphing generals entered the city. No one knows where it was.
  5. Roman generals usually distributed a portion of their war booty to their soldiers. Some were generous, some, like Pompey on this occasion, were a little too reluctant to part with the wealth.
  6. Scipio Nasica was leading the senatorial forces in Africa.
  7. Rome’s port.
  8. Modern Marseilles. The Stoechades islands are about 70 KM off the shore of Marseilles.
  9. A town near modern Calais, just across the English Channel.
  10. Some 97,000 prisoners were taken in the course of the war.
  11. Titus, Vespasian, and Domitian.
  12. The civil wars that broke out after the death of Nero.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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