Friday, July 3, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Miriam R. Pelikan Pittenger, Contested Triumphs: Politics, Pageantry, and Performance in Livy's Republican Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 365. ISBN 9780520241398. $60.00.
Reviewed by Jessica H. Clark, California State University, Chico

Table of Contents

The Roman triumph -- its pageantry, ritual, and role in the commemoration of the past -- looms large in the literary and material record of the Roman Republic. In recent years, the triumph has begun to receive the critical analysis that it certainly merits. Between 2005 and 2009, four monographs and one edited volume have explored the historical and material records for the triumph in the Republican and Imperial periods.1 Miriam R. Pelikan Pittenger's Contested Triumphs approaches the topic from a different, specifically historiographic, angle, and analyzes the process of debate that surrounds the award of the triumph in Livy's narrative. These debates emerge as a venue for the recognition of a commander by his senatorial peers, in which the process can be as important as the result.

In the two main sections of her beautifully crafted book, Pittenger examines the mechanics of triumphal decision-making and examples of triumphal debates in Livy. She argues persuasively that these debates were about much more than who might triumph, or why; rather, they provided an essential arena for the enacting of Roman, elite, collective identity, and both the acclamation of success and the resolution (or, at least, recognition) of conflicts. Ancient sources are translated, and two appendices and a supplemental index give the reader immediate access to triumphs as listed in Livy and the Fasti. Although the ideal audience is surely classics scholars and graduate students, the clarity of her prose and this level of accessibility should encourage researchers in related fields to engage with Pittenger's work.

Pittenger approaches the triumph through its presentation in the text of Livy, an author who experienced his own scholarly renaissance in the 1990s. This makes for a fruitful intersection, as Pittenger is able to take advantage of this recent reconsideration of Livy's methods -- which has tended to focus upon the first ten books -- while adapting and modifying that reconsideration in the light of Livy's later decades. Her chronological focus (on the triumphal debates of the late third and early second centuries B.C.E.) and careful exegesis of the debates' literary context combine to produce a welcome contribution to the political and social history of the Middle Republic and to Livian studies. In addition, the use of separated "Summary" sections at the close of most chapters, and the occasional chapter "Epilogue," will help the reader less familiar with the material obtain a clear sense of what is at stake.

Although Pittenger notes in the preface that her topic might strike many classicists as "frightfully arcane" (xi), her Introduction establishes the wider context and broader interests of a study on triumphal debates in Livy. Her point of origin is the important assertion that the most successful public figures in the Republic were those who possessed superior talent in both the "art of war" and the "art of self-promotion" (1); the triumph and its attendant monumental and textual commemoration is the venue where these abilities combined to generate political capital for the triumphator and exempla for historians such as Livy (1-2). Pittenger frames the body of her introduction around one such example, the disputed triumph of M. Fulvius Nobilior (187 B.C.E.). In this extreme case, Nobilior faced consular opposition but eventual senatorial approval. Before the celebration, the objecting consul attempted to return to Rome from his province -- whereupon Nobilior advanced the date of his triumph, aiming to avoid having "more of a struggle over his triumph than he had in the war" (3; Livy 39.5.12). War may be Politik by other means, but had Clausewitz seen Pittenger's Rome, he might have reversed his nouns.

Part I, "Setting Standards: Imperio Auspicio Ductu Felicitate," addresses the mechanics of triumphal decision-making in six chapters, preceded by an introduction of the question "who deserved to triumph?" The answer, it seems, is the general whose independent and successful military activities in the field might be most articulately linked to the mos maiorum, and its understanding of "independent" and "successful," in senatorial debates -- that is to say, it varied, but within certain limits. Thereafter, Pittenger devotes a chapter apiece to six of the factors that might complicate or challenge the idea of triumphal regulations in the Middle Republic.

Chapter 1, "Triumphal Decision Making and the SPQR," addresses the question of which groups within Rome had the authority to grant a triumph, concluding that while the commander might technically be able to triumph without senatorial approval, the collective approbation of the commander's peers was necessary to give the triumphal award its full symbolic force. Pittenger's focus here, though, is on instances where a commander invoked the people's authority, or his own, in making his bid. The "Summary" makes clear Pittenger's intent: to highlight the vexed nature of these exceptional events, and thus explain the senatorial focus in what is to come.

Chapter 2, "Consular Tribunes and Privati cum Imperio: Magistracy and Triumph," argues that no triumphs were celebrated by either military tribunes with consular power or private citizens invested with imperium. The consistent denial of (or decision not to seek) triumphs suggests a firm requirement of the possession or prorogation of a higher magistracy, although Pittenger does not dismiss other explanations.

Chapter 3, "Crossing Provincial Boundaries: Joint Campaigns and Overlapping Jurisdictions," tackles a similarly focused problem. Pittenger concludes that triumphal awards in cases of a commander's unclear authority were decided on individual bases. Here too commanders might respond to senatorial decisions, strategically yielding honors to a colleague or modifying the formal traditions of the triumphal procession. Problems of succession -- when a commander's imperium might technically have passed to another before a subsequent victory -- could cause the Senate to deny a triumph, grant an ovatio, or in fact award a triumph, without a clear system emerging for imposing consistency in the future.

Chapter 4, "The Importance of Closure," outlines another area of inconsistent senatorial decision-making. Determining when a commander had brought his war to an end, and whether or not that determination ought to rest with the Senate, generated a variety of solutions but no firm criteria or reliable pattern. In consequence, political and personal influences may have exerted both greater and more subtle effects. At this point in her narrative, Pittenger's frequent anticipation of the case studies of Part II creates a certain amount of repetition -- a disadvantage for the reader proceeding from introduction to conclusion, but a decision that allows each chapter to stand on its own.

Chapter 5, "Body Counts; or, Who Killed Whom," addresses another potential source of triumphal criteria, the number of Roman and enemy casualties sustained. After acknowledging the textual and practical unreliability of casualty figures, Pittenger suggests -- interestingly, for the historian seeking a means of using these details -- that these numbers can be read as "a political and cultural artifact rather than as a guide for reconstructing" battles (105), although her subsequent analysis relies more upon adjectives of scale and the inclusion of quantitative details than the numeric figures themselves.

Chapter 6, "Patterns of Success," concludes Part I. Pittenger proposes that the Senate's reluctance to impose impersonal standards for triumphal decision-making arose from a belief that debate was essential to the process. It was not in the interests of the republic to have honors easily awarded or denied. Rather, mechanisms of elite competition relied upon this formal venue for the voicing of political and personal concerns: "triumphs were by no means the only thing at stake in triumph debates" (124). While triumphs were not the only recognition of success, and commanders who were denied or who did not seek triumphs had a range of less formal commemorative options, it was the triumphal debate that allowed a commander and his peers to define and perform their political identities.

In the introduction to Part II, "The Performance of Politics and the Politics of Performance," Pittenger conceptualizes her approach to Livy's triumphal debates. Essentially, the process begins with the historical victory itself: victorious commanders immediately began the promotion of their accomplishments, employing various traditional means in the hopes of determining the reception of their triumphal request well before it came to be made. Other public figures might offer supporting or contradictory views, and whatever images emerged would form the Roman public's "collective memory" of the events and the genesis of later historical accounts (in this, Pittenger compares Livian debates to Homeric heroes' self-fashioning (143-45)). In commemorative terms, the public reception of the event was inseparable from the event itself. This near-codependence of the past upon its present, literary, representation may give some ancient historians pause, but those contemplating graduate seminars on the Roman Republic will welcome Pittenger's meticulously referenced assessment of the performance of elite competition.

The following eight chapters present the case studies upon which the preceding analysis is based. After a short chapter on the triumphal debates of the Second Punic War (Chapter 7), Pittenger devotes one chapter apiece to L. Furius Purpureo in 200 (Chapter 8), L. Cornelius Merula in 193 (Chapter 9), P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica in 191 (Chapter 10), M. Fulvius Nobilior in 187 (Chapter 11), Cn. Manlius Vulso in 187 (Chapter 12), M. Popillius Laenas in 173 (Chapter 13), and L. Aemilius Paullus in 167 (Chapter 14). The range of these examples is extensive: the selection includes the well-known and obscure, the successful and the rebuffed, and encompasses a host of political, military, familial, religious and purely rhetorical factors that determined the outcome of these commanders' triumphal hopes. In each chapter, Pittenger considers Livy's battle narratives in the light of the tone and substance of the triumphal debates, and discusses the ways in which Livy's representations ofultimately political performances in Rome inform his accounts of the events themselves. Chronologically and structurally, the battles come first -- but in commemorative and historiographic terms here, the debates predate their subjects.

Here, then, is a key for navigating the complex interrelation of Augustan Livy, his sources, and the Roman past (itself having the twin forms of its transmission and the equally shadowy wie es eigentlich gewesen). When paired with the excellent exposition of this complexity presented in the Introduction (7-20), the great benefit of Pittenger's critical approach here is undeniable. That said, each case-study may spark disagreement on specific points -- but the inclusion of her reading of each episode, much like presenting one's own translations, allows the reader to follow the process of interpretation, and thus increases the utility of these episodes as a basis for the generalized arguments of Part I.

Pittenger's Conclusion ("Triumphs and Roman Values") begins with a series of approaches to the ritual of the triumph itself, in terms of its power as spectacle, its origins, and its relation to time and space. Pittenger highlights certain details: the Fasti's ascription of the first triumph to Romulus, for example, literally inscribes the triumph as coterminous with Roman identity (277); the slew of variations among triumphal processions not only defies classification but served a historical purpose, leading Roman viewers to question and explore the notion of tradition and evolution, past and future (279). It is this notion, then, that joins with the specific arguments of preceding chapters to support Pittenger's ultimate conclusion, that the triumphal debates (in Livy's post-civil war context) represent an attempt to reconstruct the Republic's most effective mechanisms of self-governance, wherein the conflicts of commanders and statesmen received a formal venue for their resolution and the performance of Roman values. Livy thus allows the very "real" characters of the Roman historical memory to enact a Roman collective identity, at once inseparable from its present but unimaginable without its past.


1.   In chronological order: T. Itgenshorst, Tota illa pompa: Der Triumph in der römischen Republik (Göttingen, 2005); M. Beard, The Roman Triumph (Harvard, 2007); J.-L. Bastien, Triomphe romain et son utilisation politique à Rome aux trois siècles de la république (Rome, 2007); H. Krasser, D. Pausch and I. Petrovic, eds. Triplici invectus triumpho: Der römische Triumph in augusteischer Zeit (Stuttgart, 2008); and I. Östenberg, Staging the World. Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession (Oxford, 2009).

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