Triumphal Processions

This Wikipage is part of the series "Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra" . Other parts of this series are:

The Arch of Severus The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches The Arch of Titus

The Roman Triumphal processions (triumphus) were a celebration of a military commander who achieved great success for Rome. The triumphs left a vivid mark on Roman life, history and culture. In most of Roman history the triumphs were more or less an annual event. For example, between 260 and 251 B.C. there were 12 triumphs held in Rome that were recorded as far as we know. But as always exceptions exist and in 71 B.C. Pompey held a triumph which was the third one that year already.

1. Origins
2. The Ritual
3. Rules about holding a Triumph
4. The ending of the Triumphs
5. Sources
6. See also


The origins of the Roman Triumph go far back in history. Some writers let them go back to the time of Alexander the Great or even to the Greek city of Thebes. Statius tells us that the Athenian Theseus had a Roman style triumph after his victory over the Amazons. However stories like this cannot be true and are a typical case of Romanization by Roman authors. This we can conclude because of the mythological character the authors gave to these stories and the lack of corresponding facts with reality.

The Fasti Triumphales (a list of all triumphs held in Rome until Augustus) gives us an account by Roman historians of all the triumphs. The list starts in 752 B.C. with two triumphs by Romulus. Here again we need to be sceptical because it is unlikely that the accounts of this triumph were preserved more than 700 year to be noted down here. This is yet again symbolic history by Roman authors.

Certainty about this topic is difficult to attain. Some historians have argued that the accounts can be right. The recordings of the triumph may have been a part of Roman culture and have been spread orally. Also temple administrators may have kept records which later authors used in the reconstruction of the Fasti Triumphales. But we cannot be sure where the ritual of a triumph originated. Most scholars say that it came from the Etruscans (or from Greek and/or Near Eastern influence mediated through Etruria).

The reason there is so much support for this theory is simply because there is a lot of proof for it. There are ancient writers who link some aspects of the triumph back to the Etruscans. But also that the end of the Triumph was at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, which was built, according to tradition, in the sixth century B.C. by the Tarquins, the Etruscan kings of Rome hint at this. Also traces have been found in Etruria of a ceremony that looks similar enough to the Roman triumph so that it may be called its ancestor [1].

The Ritual

Route of the Triumphal Procession

We need to understand the Roman triumph is one big religious ritual in which the whole city participates. An account of a triumph held by Vespasian and Titus (71 A.D.) will be given here because it is clearly defined and can serve as a model for many other triumphs.

The ritual starts the day before when the army and commander camp for the night on the Campus Martius (the Fields of Mars). On the following day the parade would go through the city. They followed the red line indicated on the map. It started on the Campus Martius and went though the Porta Triumphalis, which was a gate only used in triumphs. After this it went through some theatres, like the Pompeian Theatre and the Circus Flaminius, so that the people could be seated and still watch the spectacle. Most triumphs went straight to the Circus Maximus but others (like the one by Caesar held for his victories in Gallia went the blue way but these were exceptions). Having passed the Circus Maximus they turned towards the forum and went on over the Via Sacra to Capitoline hill which was the final point of the parade. Here the commander would sacrifice oxen and bulls to Jupiter as a closing of the ceremony. [1]

An important aspect of the triumph was the placement of the participating persons within the whole procession. There existed a clear order. In front there was the Senate headed by the magistrates. After them came trumpeters to announce the arrival, followed by carts laden with spoils of war, which sometimes amounted vast fortunes. After them came even more musicians. Next came the bulls and oxen who were to be sacrificed in the temple of Jupiter. Then Elephants or other rare animals or exotic flora from the conquered territories followed. Afterwards the arms and insignia of the leaders of the conquered enemy were transported. The enemy leaders themselves with their relatives and other captives followed. Next the Lictors of the Imperator followed in a single file, their faces wreathed with laurel. Then the imperator himself came. He stood in a circular chariot drawn by four white horses. He was attired in a gold-embroidered robe, and a flowered tunic. In his right hand he held a laurel bough and in his left he had a scepter. On his head he wore a laurel wreath. His face was painted red. After the imperator was followed by his adult sons and officers. The ranks were closed by the entire body of infantry with spears adorned with laurel. [2]

When the commander rode trough Rome he had a slave standing behind him in the chariot. This was an important man with only two tasks. The first was holding a crown made out of gold above the commander his head and repeating over and over: "Look behind you, remember that you are a man". The triumph was a religious ritual and the commander was representing the god Jupiter (which is way his face was painted red, this was a reference to the face of the terracotta cult statue of Jupiter in his Capitoline temple) during the ritual. Therefore, he needed a slave to remind him that he was not a god but just a mortal man. [3]

Rules about holding a Triumph

Not everybody was entitled to hold a triumph. There were a certain set of rules for when one was allowed to hold a triumph. First of all the commander needed to win a significant victory over a foreign enemy, by killing at least 5000 enemy troops and gaining the title of imperator the honorary title a commander could get not a magistrate with imperium). During the republican period he needed to bring his army home. This was to show that the problem was dealt with and there was no need to keep the army anymore. In the imperial period the army stayed where they were stationed and the commander took a a detachment for the triumph home. Also in the republican period the senate needed to give approval to the commander for holding a triumph, in the imperial period it was the emperor who approved the triumph. [1]

It is important to note that one cannot hold a triumph when he fought internal problems like slave revolts. The conquered enemy needed to be of the same status as the conqueror. As with the triumph itself there are exceptions. For example, Marcus Antonius the orator fought against pirates in Cilicia 102 B.C. but shortly after starting his expedition he returned to Rome to hold a triumph for his victory. Contrary to the statement above that returning the troops meant the problem was dealt with, the pirates still raged strong in Cilicia after Marcus Antonius had left. [4]

The ending of the Triumphs

A clear break with the past can be detected by looking at the triumph held by Constantine after his defeat of his rival Maxentius. If this is not considered an original triumph anymore then the last true Roman triumph would have been the triumph held by Diocletian and Maximian in 303 A.D.. It was held for the 20th anniversary of Diocletian's reign with the victories won by the co-rulers in both East and West.

The reason why the triumph held by Constantine seems like a break with the past is because the original ritual was not upheld anymore. All the triumphs that came before had more or less the same ritual as described earlier. Constantine was different, as a Roman writer noted: "No chained enemy generals were hauled but the Roman nobility marched there "free at last" Barbarians were not thrown in prison but ex-consuls were thrown out". But the most important part of breaking with the old religious ritual was yet to come. Constantine was a Christian after the battle with Maxentius. Thus, he did not want to pretend to be Jupiter during the ceremony and gave no sacrifice to the pagan gods at the temple of Jupiter at the end of the procession. [5]


  1. Beard, Mary: The Roman Triumph,The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, England, 2007.
  2. L. de Blois & R.J. van der Spek, Een kennismaking met de Oude Wereld, Bussum: Uitgeverij Coutinho, 2010.
  3., Chapter XXXIII.
  4. Philip , Souza de, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  5. Künzl, E. Der römische Triumph: Siegesfeiern im antiken Rom., Munchen: Beck, 1988.

See also

This Wikipage is part of the series "Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra" . Other parts of this series are:

The Arch of Severus The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches The Arch of Titus