From Slaughter to Spin
Wyke, Maria, The Independent (London, England)
The Roman Triumph By Mary Beard
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Stroll past the nine life-size panels that comprise Andrea Mantegna's depiction of The Triumphs of Caesar (c. 1485-92). Prized possession of Hampton Court, the series has given spectacular shape to our modern conception of the Roman triumph. A panoply of trumpeters and soldiers, standards and spoils, replicas of cities laid waste, royalty in chains, elephants and sacrificial animals, and, in splendid isolation on his high-wheeled chariot, the garlanded general soaking up the applause. Now we can understand The Triumphs better: not as an accurate reproduction of the ancient ritual as practised, but a surprisingly close approximation in art of the written accounts of this disturbing, yet fundamental, Roman institution.
The painting exposes the risks which ancient writers knew inhered in the celebration of a triumph. A pile of looted armour is close to collapse. The spectators are packed uncomfortably tight. The prisoners are too dignified. A placard boasts that Julius Caesar celebrated victory over Gaul "after envy had been conquered", but painter and viewer know that this conqueror will become envy's victim.
As we might expect from Mary Beard's public persona as a "dangerous don", her much-awaited study emphasises the subversive potential of the Roman triumph: as a public performance which could not be entirely controlled, as the object of ancient criticism, and as the subject of heated and, in her view, often erroneous scholarship. Scratch the surface detail, and out emerge the painting's fanciful amalgams. As its title suggests, Mantegna's series compresses the five triumphs Caesar held in 46 and 45 BC into a single event. It also incorporates spoils and captives associated with Aemilius Paullus (who triumphed more than 100 years earlier) and architectural features linked to the emperors Trajan, Titus and Constantine.
Roman artefacts appear in decay alongside a Renaissance cart and weaponry. According to Beard, ancient historiography and biography, epic poems and encyclopedias, have merged, embellished, diminished or even fabricated Roman triumphs. We must resist taking such "rituals in ink" literally. Instead, we should read them in terms of their intellectual and ideological agendas, and match (or mismatch) them against each other and the rarer reconstructions of Roman triumphs that have survived in stone, coin, or marble.
Copies of The Triumphs achieved wide distribution. They were soon treated as authority and script for the classicising postures of rulers who wished to process grandly into their subject cities. Renaissance kings and autocrats were not imitating the Roman triumph as it was performed, but its imaginative reconstruction. Modern scholars, equally, are too quick to seize on ancient narratives as accurate reporting, in order to extract from them the rules, reasons, and origins of the ritual. …