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Rituals of Triumph in the Mediterranean World

Rituals of Triumph in the Mediterranean World

Edited by Anthony Spalinger and Jeremy Armstrong (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 63). Pp. 157, figs. 8. Brill, Leiden 2013. €98. ISBN 978-90-04-25100-7 (cloth).

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This slim volume is the product of a conference devoted to “Rituals of Triumph in the Mediterranean World from Antiquity to the Middle Ages” held in November 2008 at Swansea University, Wales. Following a brief introduction are seven papers, a bibliography, and an index. These papers cover a wide variety of what might best be described as ways of commemorating military victories in Rome, classical and Hellenistic Greece, Pharaonic Egypt, and Assyria. The impetus for this conference, as the organizers relate in their introduction, was the publication of Beard’s monograph Roman Triumph (Cambridge, Mass. 2007), which fully explicated what we know about this Roman victory ceremony par excellence and stimulated the desire, on the part of the organizers, for comparanda from other ancient Mediterranean cultures.

Armstrong’s contribution (“Claiming Victory: The Early Roman Triumph”) analyzes the triumph in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., linking it closely with the nature of warfare in this period, which was clan-based, not state-sanctioned, with independent elites (condottieri [warlords]) using the triumph both to celebrate their great wealth and to negotiate their relationship with their soldiers, the gods, and the community. Under these circumstances, by granting imperium to a warlord, the community in effect formed a pact with him, giving him permission to use its citizenry in his campaign. A resultant victory brought glory not only to the warlord but also to the community. At the same time, the triumphal procession itself was a manifestation of an important role that the newly coalescing and burgeoning Latin communities played in the lives of the elite warlords, namely as centers of self-representation (18).

Both Egyptian contributions focus on the New Kingdom period in pharaonic history, when the Egyptian empire was at its greatest extent (roughly 16th–11th centuries B.C.E.). Cavillier (“Ramesses III’s Wars and Triumphs at Medinet Habu: Between Narration, History and Identity”) describes a changing narration scheme of war, victory, and triumph from the reign of Ramesses II to that of Ramesses III, which ultimately shapes his interpretation of the commemoration of the latter’s triumphs at Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple in Luxor. Spalinger’s “Egyptian New Kingdom Triumphs: A First Blush” is an attempt, as he puts it, to “pry loose” (95) what information can be had about triumphal celebrations during the New Kingdom. By examining the victories of several pharaohs he is able to reconstruct a basic pattern of victory celebrations that included the king’s return by chariot to northern Egypt, a riverine voyage to Thebes and the quay at Karnak, and ultimately the presentation of human spoils to Amun, father deity of the pharaoh, who prophesied victory.

The two contributions on classical Greece examine in different ways the absence of victory celebrations. Hau (“Nothing to Celebrate? The Lack or Disparagement of Victory Celebrations in the Greek Historians”) explains that Greek historians tended not to include descriptions of victory celebrations in their narratives because the changeability of fortune often rendered such celebrations instances of arrogance and hybris. Greek historians emphasized rather the immediate aftermath of victory—not “festive celebrations” (73) but returning the dead or erecting trophies. As if on cue, Trundle’s “Commemorating Victory in Classical Greece: Why Greek Tropaia?” focuses on the one kind of victory celebration that often occurred among the Greek city-states—the erection of a trophy—by claiming that the practice became common in Greece only in the fifth century and therefore that it likely came to Greece from Persia. He contrasts two different types of trophies—the one erected on the battlefield immediately after the victory with the one erected much later in the victorious city or in a sanctuary or again on the battlefield. The former is impermanent, the latter long-lasting (125–26).

Erskine (“Hellenistic Parades and Roman Triumphs”) revisits the question of how closely (if at all) the lavish Hellenistic processions of Ptolemy II and Antiochus IV in particular were related to Roman triumphs (or in the case of Antiochus even imitated a triumph). He underscores that these two royal processions evinced the kings’ power over the natural and human worlds and included victory ideology insofar as military glory was the province of the king, but no particular victory was being celebrated, in contrast to the Roman triumph. “What [these processions] are doing is not bringing before the people something transitory, a battle that is passed, a victory that is won, but the power of the king, something that exists before and after the procession” (54).

In his analysis of representations of battles and subsequent victory celebrations in Assyrian palaces, Nadali (“Outcomes of Battle: Triumphal Celebrations in Assyria”) identifies two stages in the celebrations after battle: (1) the immediate aftermath in which the city is sacked and soldiers lead prisoners to the king for their reward; and (2) rites performed by the king before the gods, in particular banqueting. He concludes with the “architecture of triumph” (89–94), the palaces where the deeds of the king, especially his military accomplishments, were preserved for posterity.

Even in a collection that ranges so widely in terms of geography and chronology, some themes emerge: the preservation of a community’s memory of battle, of victory, and of victory celebrations, in architecture, art, and narrative; the role of the gods in prophesying and sanctioning victory; and the role of warfare and victory in the king’s public image. This last theme further highlights that four of the contributions (on the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hellenistic rituals) focus on the victory celebrations of kings and hence are aspects of royal ideology. Erskine, in fact, points out that the Hellenistic processions had more in common with Roman imperial triumphs than republican ones (38). This observation, coupled with Hau’s and Trundle’s contributions, which largely argued for the absence of festive celebrations among the Greek city-states, is further evidence, for this reader at least, of the cultural uniqueness of the Roman triumph, particularly in the period of the republic.

Geoffrey S. Sumi
Department of Classics and Italian
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, Massachusetts 01075

Book Review of Rituals of Triumph in the Mediterranean World, edited by Anthony Spalinger and Jeremy Armstrong

Reviewed by Geoffrey S. Sumi

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 4 (October 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1184.Sumi

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