The Roman Triumph

By Mary Beard

Belknap Harvard.

434 pp. $29.95


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Everyone is familiar with the word

triumph

, and most people probably know it's connected in some way with ancient Rome's lavish and often bloody victory marches.

But having a general idea about something can prove tantamount to knowing pretty much nothing at all, as Mary Beard's

The Roman Triumph

copiously demonstrates.

To begin with, what we mostly have to go on is, naturally enough, what has come down to us from the Romans themselves. Only they don't seem to have had a particularly settled view of the ceremony.

"They puzzled, and disagreed over its origins and the etymology of the word

triumphus

itself," Beard writes.

Given, as well, "limited ancient evidence which is itself contradictory" and "our own desire to impose consistency and rule on Roman practice, and . . . apparently technical Latin terms used differently in different contexts," and you can easily see how historians have quite a problem on their hands.

Consider just one aspect: the slave who stood behind the general in the triumphal chariot and held above the honorand's head a golden crown while whispering, "Look behind you. Remember you are a man." Beard, who holds a chair in classics at Cambridge University, points out that this "has become one of the emblematic trademarks of the triumph," even figuring, in slightly different wording, in the closing sequence of the film

Patton

.

Unfortunately, the inconsistency and contradictions that abound among the various accounts and interpretations of this (and just about every other) part of the ritual mainly show "the fragility of the 'facts of the triumph,' " as Beard puts it. She adds that "the slave certainly has some part in the history . . . but there is nothing to prove that he was the original, permanent, and unchanging fixture . . . he is often assumed to be." Moreover, "different versions of his words were clearly current, and they were interpreted in different ways."

What makes Beard's book so fascinating is not only the subject, but her way of approaching it, which allows one to see historiography in process. Her attention to every least detail, placing one fact next to another to see whether this or that confirms or challenges a given interpretation, is like watching a forensic specialist working to solve a crime.

In the end, the sheer quantity of evidence Beard adduces goes far to support her notion that "the history of the triumph . . . cannot be reduced to a simple story of development and change," and that, in fact, it "often directly subverts the very idea of a linear narrative."

Truth be told, the history of the triumph seems to provide an object lesson in how traditions are at least in part invented to render change legitimate. As Beard notes, "it is always an easy way out to project simplicity onto periods for which we have no evidence." A good example would be the Reformation. One of its justifications for change was that such change represented a return to original practice.

History, judging from what Beard serves up, is less an inheritance from the past than a dialogue with the past: "Innovations can be dressed up as tradition and projected back into the past so successfully that it is almost impossible . . . to distinguish" the authentic past from what has been retrojected onto the past. Remember that the next time you hear a gaggle of pundits on TV going on about what the Founders would have thought about some current political dispute.

Beard's prose is engagingly conversational and as unencumbered by technical terminology as would seem possible given the subject. But

The Roman Triumph

isn't the sort of book you can race through. Each section requires that you pay attention to the evidence being weighed and the interpretations under consideration.

The reward is to realize that not only were the Romans frequently at odds over their customs, traditions and institutions - just like us - but also that their access to information regarding their past was often no better than ours. "No one in the first century BCE . . . had any accurate knowledge of what the early Roman kings had actually worn," Beard writes. And later Roman writers, including the celebrated historian Cassius Dio, had even less.

So one is left with a healthy skepticism both of the past (or, at least, of our understanding of it) and of the present. In fact, the paradoxical effect of Beard's detailed examination of an ancient ritual is to make one more aware of the fads, follies and presumptions of our own day and age.

Frank Wilson recently retired as The Inquirer's books editor. Visit his blog at http://booksinq.blogspot.com.