Roman triumph

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The Roman triumph (triumphus) was a civil ceremony and religious rite of ancient Rome, held to publicly celebrate and sanctify the military achievement of an army commander who had won great military successes, or originally and traditionally, one who had successfully completed a foreign war. In Republican tradition, only the Senate could grant a triumph. The origins and development of this honour were obscure: Roman historians placed the first triumph in the mythical past.

On the day of his triumph, the general wore regalia that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly. He rode in a chariot through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession with his army and the spoils of his war. At Jupiter's temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. Thereafter he had the right to be described as vir triumphalis ("man of triumph", later known as triumphator) for the rest of his life. After death, he was represented at his own funeral, and those of his later descendants, by a hired actor who wore his death mask (imago) and was clad in the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga picta ("painted" toga).

Republican morality required that despite these extraordinary honours, the triumphator conduct himself with dignified humility, as a mortal citizen who triumphed on behalf of Rome's Senate, people and Gods. Inevitably, besides its religious and military dimensions, the triumph offered extraordinary opportunities for self-publicity. As Roman territories expanded during the early and middle Republican eras, foreign wars increased the opportunities for self-promotion. While most Roman festivals were calendar fixtures, the tradition and law that reserved a triumph to extraordinary victory ensured that its celebration, procession and attendant feasting and public games promoted the status, achievements and person of the triumphator. These could be further celebrated and commemorated by his personal issue of triumphal coinage, and his funding of monumental public works and temples. By the Late Republican era, increasing competition among the competitive military-political adventurers who ran Rome's nascent empire ensured that triumphs became more frequent, drawn out and extravagant, prolonged in some cases by several days of public games and entertainments. From the Principate onwards, the Triumph reflected the Imperial order and the pre-eminence of the Imperial family.

Most Roman accounts of triumphs were written to provide their readers with a moral lesson, rather than to provide an accurate description of the triumphal process, procession, rites and their meaning. This scarcity allows for only the most tentative and generalised, and possibly misleading reconstruction of triumphal ceremony, based on the combination of various incomplete accounts from different periods of Roman history. Nevertheless, the triumph is considered a characteristically Roman ceremony which represented Roman wealth, power and grandeur, and has been consciously imitated by medieval and later states.


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