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The Architecture of the Roman Triumph: Monuments, Memory, and Identity
October 2017 (121.4)
The Architecture of the Roman Triumph: Monuments, Memory, and Identity
By Maggie L. Popkin. Pp. xiv + 271, b&w figs. 71, color figs. 11. Cambridge University Press, New York 2016. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-10710-357-3 (cloth).
This book is part of the recent resurgence in interest in the Roman triumph, arguably initiated by works like Itgenshorst’s Tota illa pompa: Der Triumph in der römischen Republik. (Göttingen 2005) but dramatically accelerated by Beard’s The Roman Triumph (Cambridge, Mass. 2007). Indeed, as Popkin notes in the volume’s acknowledgments, the pace of publication on the topic has become so great that she unfortunately was not able to incorporate a number of recent works into this book—most notably, given the focus, Ӧstenberg et al.’s edited volume The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London 2015). This is a fast-moving and exciting area of study with an increasingly diverse range of foci.
In this work, Popkin explicitly builds on recent research on the Roman triumph as a visual spectacle, although she chooses to emphasize a slightly different facet than many previous studies. While Ӧstenberg and others have focused on the procession of the triumph, Popkin explores the wider “visual environment” of the ritual and the construction of “triumphal architecture” that, she suggests, shaped both the nature of the procession and its memory. Within this examination, she includes not only the more traditional aspects of triumphal architecture (e.g., arches, manubial temples) but also a wide array of structures along the proposed route of the triumph that may have shaped its reception—an approach that is both illuminating and also somewhat problematic, as discussed below. Additionally, while her nominal focus is on the art and architecture associated with the triumph, there is also an underlying narrative in this study exploring the role of the ritual as part of Roman identity creation. Drawing on arguments presented by Beard and others, the author argues that the triumph represented a moment when the Roman people were directly confronted with a foreign “Other,” which would have then prompted self-reflection and ultimately self-identification. She then goes on to suggest that the ways in which Rome’s triumphant generals and emperors altered the triumphal route and left permanent reminders of their victories along it helped shape how the Romans engaged in this act of identity creation and manipulation.
Given the size and complexity of the topic, as well as Popkin’s reasonably generous methodology for deciding what counts as triumphal architecture, some limits were needed. As a result, she presents her argument through case studies pulled from three periods: the Punic Wars (ch. 2), the reign of Trajan (ch. 3), and the reign of Septimius Severus (ch. 4). All three of these choices might, and arguably should, immediately raise some eyebrows. The period of the Punic Wars, 264–146 B.C.E., covers more than a century of immense change in Roman society. Although the triumph was celebrated throughout this period, it is hard to accept that either the ritual or the society that performed it was static or stable for the duration. As a result, looking for a single approach to “triumphal building” across this period seems to represent kicking toward moving goalposts. It is also interesting that Popkin dedicates two out of three chapters to the Imperial period, where the triumph seems to have represented a rather different, and arguably less important, ritual than its Republican-period counterpart. Reserved for the emperor and his family alone, as well as being infrequently and irregularly celebrated, the triumph seems to have lost much of its energy under the empire. Indeed, it is often difficult to separate triumphal architecture from other aspects of imperial propaganda. As a result, while the text presents interesting analyses of various monuments and buildings associated with what might be called “Roman triumphalism,” the links to both the specific ritual of the triumph and to Roman society (at least as it existed in specific historical contexts) are sometimes rather tenuous.
The work also suffers from a number of other issues that limit its effectiveness. Perhaps the most significant is the ambiguity that remains regarding the triumphal route. This is a vital issue for the author, as the route of the triumph and the visibility of various buildings along it play a major role in her methodology. However, the triumphal route has always represented something of an enigma and, while Popkin attempts to establish various “nodes” of building and activity that were traditionally included, the route itself is never firmly established. This raises significant problems, as without a set course it is uncertain whether various structures were intended to be on the route of, and therefore influence, future triumphs, or whether they merely represented public statements of victory in a more general sense. The tension between celebrating military achievement and the specific institution of the triumph is never resolved. The argued importance of the triumph during the Imperial period and the concomitant desire to manipulate the ritual through constructions also pushed things a bit too far, at least for this reviewer. For instance, chapter 4 presents a lengthy argument about whether Septimius used triumphal architecture to suggest he celebrated a triumph, even if he did not. One must surely think, however, that Septimius could have celebrated a triumph if he wanted to. While he may have been manipulating the perception of his victories through various constructions, it is unlikely that he was trying to fool people into thinking that he celebrated a triumph when he did not. Here, the disassociation, or “blurring,” of the boundary between triumphal architecture and the specific institution of the triumph is perhaps the most obvious.
Popkin’s work represents an important step toward understanding the wider context of the Roman triumph. While the ritual itself was usually finished in a few days at most, the memory of the triumph lasted far longer and arguably had a greater impact. This reviewer has no doubt that the author is correct in her overall argument that triumphal architecture and the built environment of Rome were used to help shape this memory. In addition, the analysis here of particular monuments and structures is enlightening, engaging, and represents an important contribution to the topic—although flaws in the methodology and approach ultimately hold this work back from achieving its potential. But while this particular study may have been stymied in its investigations, the area surely represents an important and fruitful avenue for future study, and Popkin should be praised for her venture into this difficult and largely unexplored facet of the Roman triumph.
University of Auckland
Book Review of The Architecture of the Roman Triumph: Monuments, Memory, and Identity, by Maggie L. Popkin
Reviewed by Jeremy Armstrong
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/3534