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Staging the World: Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession

Staging the World: Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession

By Ida Östenberg (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation). Pp. xi + 327, figs. 27. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009. $129. ISBN 978-0-19-921597-3 (cloth).

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The last decade has been remarkably productive on the topic of the Roman triumph, with at least a dozen monographs and studies in four languages. However, there is considerable overlap among them, and between them and previous literature. Even in studies that deal with the triumph as spectacle (a recent trend), one does not find significant advances beyond what Brilliant put forward in his seminal article (“‘Let the Trumpets Roar!’ The Roman Triumph,” in B. Bergmann and C. Kondoleon, eds., The Art of Ancient Spectacle [Washington, D.C. 1999] 221–30). This is also true of Östenberg’s book, which nevertheless compensates with a welcome expansion of our factual knowledge of the triumph—a rare achievement after more than 150 years of scholarship on the topic.

The introduction engages with the previous literature and states the book’s intention to look at the procession of triumph as a performance that “defined the spectators, humans and gods as Romans” (14). There follow three chapters on spoils (subsections include arms, army equipment, artillery, ships and rams, coins and bullion, statues and paintings, art and valuables, and golden crowns), captives (prisoners, hostages, animals, trees), and representations (cities and towns, peoples and rivers, war scenes). In the conclusion, the author debates the “messages and meanings” of the triumph, recast as an instrument of Roman self-definition (262). The introduction and the conclusion represent the more theoretical parts of the text, commenting on triumph from the perspective of procession studies. Triumphus is thus “a ritualized play,” and Östenberg is interested in its “processional contents and sequence, acted roles, visual interplay, spectator participation and emotional effect” rather than in the figure of the triumphator or the political connotations of the ceremony (7).

Although the chronological scope of the investigation is roughly 200 B.C.E.–117 C.E., it would perhaps have been better to stop before Augustus. Imperial triumphs are underrepresented in the book, and the changes associated with Augustus, under whom the triumph fundamentally became a Reservatrecht of the emperor, are insufficiently emphasized (T. Itgenshorst, Tota illa pompa [Göttingen 2005] 219–26; H. Krasser, ed., Triplici invectus triumpho: Der römische Triumph in augusteischer Zeit [Stuttgart 2008]). Östenberg does comment on Caligula’s deviant triumph (without M. Kleijwegt’s “Caligula’s Triumph,” Mnemosyne 47 [1994] 652–71), but there is no mention of Nero’s iselastic triumph (J. Gagé, “L’entrée isélastique,” CollLatomus 152 [1977] 69–90).

The material for the complete, variegated catalogue of captives, spoils, and representations is gathered by an inquiry into all the relevant ancient texts. These are taken generally at face value, without the exaggerated skepticism of Beard (The Roman Triumph [Cambridge, Mass. 2007]), but also without an analysis of the limitations of the main source, Titus Livius, as assessed, for example, by Itgenshorst (2005). However, most of the iconographic evidence germane to the study is adduced to complement the written sources.

Apart from the more obvious monuments such as the arches of Titus and Trajan, Östenberg discusses objects often left aside, such as the Capua hydria of the Triumph Painter (27 n. 60) and the Campana plaque from the British Museum (fig. 18). She also reinterprets a painting from Ostia showing ships being transported on wheels (53), a painting from Pompeii with a sacred tree carried on a ferculum (188), and a relief from Cherchel showing a model of a bridge on a ferculum (fig. 23). Archaeological evidence is also reviewed, ranging from recently discovered statue bases in Aphrodisias and the ram from Athlit to the most recent addition to triumphal iconography—Augustus’ trophy from Nicopolis.

One might also have added Pompeii’s trophy, the excavations and reconstruction of which were published by Castellvi et al. (Le trophée de Pompée dans les Pyrénées [Paris 2008]), and the Adamclisi trophy, which is not mentioned despite its rich iconography of captives—not in a triumphal setting but perhaps reflecting one. The porta triumphalis on the terracotta by the potter Pacatus from Aquincum (D. Kleiner, “Triumphal Arches,” JRA 2 [1989] 202) may be missing because the triumphator group is privileged there. Östenberg only occasionally refers to Vergil’s description of the shield of Aeneas, which is actually a grandiose, if indirect, description of a triumph (see A.G. McKay, “Non enarrabile textum? The Shield of Aeneas and the Triple Triumph of 29 B.C.,” in H.-P. Stahl, ed., Vergil’s Aeneid [London 1998] 199–218).

However, it can be unfair to speak of omissions given that the topic is enormous and that, no matter how important the shield of Aeneas may be, the author has the (publisher’s) sword of page count above her head. This might also explain the absence of an analysis of the triumphal route, an essential component of the triumph as a lieu de mémoire, since in “staging the world,” both the stage (the background of monuments against which the parade takes place) and the world (e.g., foreign booty, prisoners) contribute to the show, and the meanings of both are thereby enriched. One of the finest points in this section of the book is Östenberg’s proof that divine statues paraded in the triumph were seen as valuable booty, rather than as cult objects (79–90, 104). Out of the same fear of impiety, the Romans did not lead personified cities in the triumph, since, just like the gods of the conquered, their cities were innocent (271).

The must-read fourth chapter, “Representations,” is the most valuable part of the text. This chapter’s clearly innovative approach, its more polemical tone, and the fact that “representations” (as opposed to both “captives” and “spoils”) is not a category used by ancient authors, set it apart from the rest of the text, which can at times read like an extended Pauly’s Real-Encyclopädie article. Östenberg is able to prove (with the Thesaurus linguae graecae and the Packard Humanities Institute CD-ROM with Latin authors being of great assistance) that the “triumphal paintings,” in the sense that many researchers refer to them (bibliography at 194 n. 18), were actually not intended for “processional display, but commemorative exhibition in a public place or a temple” (194), and that they probably depicted not only the war deeds of the triumphator but his triumph as well. These written and painted tabulae were produced after the parade and were “non mobile records set up for display” (198).

Further, Östenberg shows that the so-called triumphal paintings carried in the procession were not mere paintings. Zinserling alone has suggested that the conquered cities were not represented by paintings but by so-called towers, three-dimensional models of cities or their landmark buildings. In his footsteps, Östenberg conjectures that although no such models are preserved, they must have been like those represented in medieval paintings in the hands of city patrons (202). (Such representations are much older, though, as proven by the British Museum’s 530 B.C.E. basalt statue of Wahibre offering a shrine.) Also, the representations of episodes from a concluded war (e.g., as described by Josephus) were not paintings but multimedia stagings (251). In these tableaux, sometimes on structures with several platforms, the painted background would indicate the setting of the scenes against which simple dramatic postures or movements showing the events were carried out by actors. Incidentally, these scenes were dedicated to the deeds of the defeated enemy, never to the victorious army, which was accompanied by neither representations nor written tituli. The implications of these results, as the author rightly points out, are wide-ranging and go beyond the study of the triumph to that of Roman art (the influence of triumphal painting on the historical relief and on iconographic programs like that on Trajan’s column), the funeral procession (the use of actors in public ceremonies), and the early fabulae praetextae (the development of a sense of political history).

A connection with the world of theater is omitted by Östenberg, who only mentions Plautus once (260 n. 334), despite his long-recognized importance in reconstructing lost parts of the triumphal phenomenon (shown by E. Fraenkel, Plautinisches im Plautus [Berlin 1922]; cf. O. Skutsch, “Quadratus triumphalis,” RivFil 98 [1970] 300–1). After all, even the Praenestine cista, our oldest piece of triumphal art, was published by Bordenache-Battaglia in 1979 (Le ciste prenestine. Vol. 1 [Rome]) as reflecting scenes from Amphitruo.

Östenberg has the merit of offering the first fully fledged investigation of the “them” part of the triumphal procession, as opposed to the “us” part. She skillfully highlights the identity-shaping processes triggered in Roman participants by the otherness inherent in the spoils, captives, and representations shown in triumph. This entertaining read—as picturesque as a triumph—is excellent for graduate students and professional classicists alike.

Catalin Pavel
Department of Ancient History and Archaeology
University of Bucharest
Bucharest 030018

Book Review of Staging the World: Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession, by Ida Östenberg

Reviewed by Catalin Pavel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.Pavel

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