Book Review by Klingan
I was convinced that I knew quite a bit about the subject when I opened Mary Beard's The Roman Triumph. I expected a lot of new interesting details, maybe even some major elements that normally were left out- this was, however, not the case. A week later when the book was finished and I had put it back into the bookshelf everything had changed. I knew nothing, or at least very little, about the Roman triumph. Even so, in some aspects, this is one of the best books on Roman history I’ve read lately.
Beard's aim in this book is to communicate her own enthusiasm of Roman culture to a broad audience: “This book is intended not only for those who are already experts in Roman history but also for those who wish to discover it,” (p.5). It focuses as much on how something is known as on what is known. It challenges commonly known “facts”, a feature that in my opinion had the upper hand throughout the book. Actually, it had more than just the upper hand, it was completely dominant.
The book is written in nine chapters, not immediately following the ceremony of triumph in any strikingly logical order. Instead of an expected chronological or “what happened in this or that part of the triumph” pattern, each chapter rather focused on a narrow part of the ceremony such as “The Art of Representation”, “Pompey’s Finest Hour” or “Playing God." Each chapter is then divided into several subheadings (which sometimes feels not only unexpected but almost misplaced). All chapters then follow, more or less, the same pattern; a short introduction to the subject at hand, followed by the bulk of the text which was not aimed at describing the part of the ceremony that the heading indicated. It actually seemed more like the introduction was a ramp from which Beard could leap into a rampage and crush all known “facts” we have of the particular subject. This is something which, in all honesty gets tiresome in the end, since this is what the reader comes to expect as soon as a “fact” is brought up. The book also tends to repeat itself now and then, and I more than once sighed while reading about the same example which was being used again for the third or fourth time to strengthen a point.
My main objection about the book is that it does actually not describe the Roman triumph – it only challenges most known facts about the ritual and how we have interpreted our material. The title is thus misleading; a much more fitting one would have been What Do We Know About The Roman Triumph? Yet, this does not mean that the book is bad in any way. Rather the opposite, as stated earlier; this is one of the better books about the ancient world that I have read recently. The strength simply isn’t from the subject announced on the cover, it is with the uncompromising demolition of "facts" about the triumph that are normally taken for granted (the logic used in this book while discussing what we actually know about the triumph also can be applied to other modern works on Roman history).
So, who should read this book? I would strongly not recommend it to someone who is not already familiar with Roman history. It is a rather advanced book in some aspects, discussing such things as how different translations can change the interpretations and how certain passages can be seen from many different perspectives – not to mention extensive name dropping of ancient characters. Nor is it a book for someone who wants to know how a triumph worked, who went where, or how the procession marched through the city. No such answers are presented, and it is as such difficult to argue that it could be used for that purpose. There is however a good use for the book if you feel that you know much about Roman history but wonder how one can know this or that, or if you feel that some things you read seems strange. I am sure that this book, if viewed as a lesson in source criticism and critical thinking when using modern literature, would be very useful not only for learned amateurs but also students and scholars of ancient history.
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