The Roman Triumph, especially in the Republican era was the crowning achievement of a Roman General. The procession of the Roman army, allowed within the city gates for this special event, captured leaders and slaves, and any treasure looted on campaign, was a grand spectacle of enormous proportions.
The historical tradition of the ritual came to Rome from the Etruscans. The first triumphs were those celebrated by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome himself. Rome celebrated the victory of its generals for over 1,000 years, approaching nearly 500 in total by the end of the western empire. 403 AD marked the end of the tradition as the emperor Honorius was the recipient of the last true Roman triumph.
While a political event as much as it was a glorification of Rome, it was perhaps tainted in the Imperial period. Emperors could award themselves triumphal processions at a whim, without care for the true nature of the victory. In the Republic, the climate of the times, and the prominence of ruling factions could also weigh heavily on who was awarded one, and how grand the event. Regardless, the Triumph was an integral part of Roman culture, and one all important purpose was to ask Jupiter to continue the prosperity of Rome.
Consuls, Praetors or Dictators were originally the only magistrates allowed to receive a Triumph, as they were the only officials with the authority to command a large enough force to deserve the honor. When a commander returned from a successful campaign, the matter of a rewarding a triumph was put before the Senate. While the citizen assemblies could certainly influence the Senate's decision, especially in the turbulent late Republic, it was specifically an honor from the Senate. While the magistrate awaited the Senate's decision, he was technically supposed to remain outside of Rome to avoid direct influence over the vote. Theoretically, however, the influence could be managed without his proximity. As in the late Republic once again, the presence of a victorious general's entire army had its own impact.
When a favorable decision was reached, the temples were all thrown open, garlands of flowers were prepared to decorate every shrine and image, and incense smoked on every altar. The Imperator ascended the triumphal car and entered a city gate, where he was met by the whole body of the Senate, headed by the magistrates.
The procession then proceeded in the following order:
1. The Senate, headed by the magistrates. 2. Trumpeters to announce the arrival. 3. Carts laden with the spoils of war, at times vast fortunes. 4. More musicians. 5. White bulls and oxen for sacrifice. 6. Elephants and rare animals or exotic flora from the conquered countries. 7. The arms and insignia of the leaders of the conquered enemy. 8. The enemy leaders themselves, with their relatives and other captives. 9. The lictors of the Imperator in single file, their fasces wreathed with laurel. 10. The Imperator himself, in a circular chariot drawn by four horses. He was attired in a gold-embroidered robe, and a flowered tunic; he held a laurel bough in his right hand, a sceptre in his left, and wore a laurel wreath on his head. 11. The adult sons and officers of the Imperator. 12. The entire body of infantry, with laurel adorned spears.
The route followed a particular course: The Campus Martius, the Porta Triumphalis, a gate used only for triumphs, the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Maximus, Via Sacra Capital, and the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. At the temple, the bulls and oxen were sacrificed to Jupiter for his blessing, closing the ceremony.
Additionally, the Ovation was a sort of smaller triumph. In this less grand affair, the commander entered the city on foot, or in later times on horseback. He was clothed in a purple-bordered robe. His head was crowned with laurel, and a sheep was sacrificed, instead of a bull as was the case of a triumph.
Did you know...?
Imperator is not synonymous of emperor, although it is the root of the English word. Through the history of Rome, the title evolved to the meaning of a general, especially able, who had won an enormous victory. The term Augustus in Latin is more closely related to the true meaning of the English word 'Emperor'.