Friday, March 26, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Ida Östenberg, Staging the World: Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 327. ISBN 9780199215973. $129.00.
Reviewed by Amber Scaife, Kenyon College


The history of scholarship on the Roman triumph follows two main paths. Early work on the triumph sought to uncover such mysteries as the origins of the procession, the meaning behind the triumphator's costume, and the exact route of the parade through the city, all questions for which, incidentally, satisfactory answers remain undiscovered today and seem to be essentially unanswerable.1 This search for historical details of the procession remained the main thrust of triumphal scholarship until relatively recently, when scholars began to look at the triumph in its literary contexts.2 Östenberg's contribution to the field, Staging the World: spoils, captives, and representations in the Roman triumphal procession, nicely straddles both paths and is an important addition to the existing body of scholarship. In this work, which is a recent volume in the Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representations series, Östenberg seeks to offer a comprehensive view of the triumph through collecting and analyzing the various individual elements of the procession, reading the triumph as a window into both how Rome viewed the world and how Rome thought the world viewed Rome.

In her introduction, Östenberg clearly establishes her place within past and current scholarship on the triumph and explains how her research methods not only include written historical accounts of the triumph, from both Greek and Roman authors, but how she also takes into account what authors writing in other genres have to say about the triumph, in particular the Roman poets. In addition to her treatment of literary evidence, Östenberg sets out her methodology in incorporating art, architecture and numismatic evidence as well. Östenberg 's topic is a sizeable one, as is the variety of evidence she cites, but the introductory chapter very clearly describes how she has organized and used that evidence, as well as explains what has been left out and why. Beyond the introduction, Östenberg structures her analysis into four chapters: chapters 2-4 are each devoted to a different category of the elements on display in the triumph ("Spoils," "Captives," and "Representations," respectively), and chapter 5 functions as a conclusion, tying the three categories together and summarizing the overall picture of the parade they create.

Chapter 2 discusses how captured spoils were displayed in the triumph. Östenberg starts with what may be the most immediate element to come to mind when one thinks of spoils, namely the enemy arms. She gives a description of the historical background of arms as spoils, including the history of the spolia opima, and then continues with a treatment of the Roman methods of, and motives in, presenting the arms in piles and heaps instead of organizing them according to types. Here Östenberg cites the possibility that the Romans were presenting the arms strictly as spoils in order to show that, by virtue of the Roman victory over them, they were in fact arms no longer. From here Östenberg moves on to discuss chariots, military standards, war engines, ships and rams, coins, statues and paintings, art, and crowns within the procession. In the discussion of war engines, Östenberg focuses particularly on the cases of the triumphs over Syracuse and Ambracia, noting the logistics of transporting such large pieces of equipment to Rome for display in the triumph. Östenberg sets out the possible motives of M. Claudius Marcellus and Fulvius Nobilior for including siege engines in their triumphs, making the thoughtful argument that the generals used the engines in the triumph as persuasive tools against the murmurings amongst the Romans who doubted the authenticity of their victories. Östenberg returns to the topic of the logistics of certain elements of the spectacle when discussing the parade of entire ships within the triumph. She also sets out the differences between a 'regular' triumph and a naval one, and argues that the naval triumph -- and the inclusion of ships and rams in the procession -- was a way for Rome very publicly to claim dominance over both land and sea. In her treatment of coins in the triumph, Östenberg again brings up several important issues. The importance that the Romans placed on this particular element of the parade is clear, Östenberg argues, in the fact that the display of coins is one of the only elements that was meticulously accounted for and officially registered, a point which also highlights the link between the triumph and the treasury, where the coins were ultimately deposited. Östenberg also points out the difficulties of interpreting the details given to us by the sources on the display of coins, as most authors recalculate the exact amounts into their own currency (and thereby add yet another level of conquest to the spoils). For the topic of statues and paintings, Östenberg returns to the triumphs over Syracuse and Ambracia, citing Marcellus' triumph over Syracuse as the first triumph to include captured art as spoils. These particular triumphs act as the stage on which the Romans act out their anxieties over issues of introducing unknown luxuries into Rome and whether or not it is a sacrilege to include statues of the gods in the triumph.

With chapter 3, Östenberg deals with the spectacle of the captives themselves in the triumph, focusing on prisoners, hostages, animals, and even trees. Östenberg rightly points out that, of course, human prisoners formed a key element of the triumph and of these the noble captives were the most important. The captured leader or king was "conspicuously staged" (p.131), and was placed in the procession immediately in front of the triumphing general, so as to create a visual juxtaposition of the two main, yet polar, characters of the spectacle. Östenberg spends time interpreting the displays made in the particular examples of Perseus, King of the Macedonians, in the triumph of Aemilius Paullus, and also the cases of Arsinoe and Cleopatra as female versions of this pivotal moment of display. Other important elements which Östenberg engages under the rubric of prisoners on parade include the display of "outsiders" (p. 148), namely pirates and Amazon-like women, and the particular arranging of captives as spectacle. For example, she points out that only the most fit and attractive of the prisoners were kept and shipped to Rome for display in the triumph, and some Romans (she cites Caligula in particular) notoriously used 'filler' captives in their triumphs -- actors hired to look and act the part of particular ethnic groups. In the discussion of animals as captives, Östenberg lays out the evolution of animal displays in the triumph, which moved from strictly exotic, captive enemies to being portrayed as still foreign elements, but now under the service of the general -- here Östenberg cites Pompey's attempt at yoking elephants to his chariot and Caesar having elephants flanking him and carrying torches.

Chapter 4 turns to the subject of representations and paintings as displayed in the triumph, and here Östenberg deals with the issues of how cities and towns, peoples and rivers, and battle scenes from the war were depicted in the procession. Östenberg spends some time addressing the misconception on the part of past scholars about triumphal paintings. Östenberg argues that there are two categories of works which are known to us as 'triumphal paintings': those which are representations made specifically to be displayed in the triumph, and those which were commemorative paintings of the victory or the triumph itself and were not meant for display in the parade, but for stationary display in a public space. Östenberg also details how the Romans tended to represent towns and cities in the triumph not by personifying them, as we might think, but by focusing on depictions of the walls. Östenberg explains the Romans' hesitation to present cities as personifications by arguing that this would by nature define the personified city as captive, whereas the Romans preferred to present peoples as simply subjects of Rome and not as subdued by Rome. Rivers, on the other hand, were frequently staged as personifications, and Östenberg discusses the various descriptions we have of rivers on parade in the triumph, including Ovid's descriptions of triumphal flumina. Here Östenberg also includes her arguments in favor of reading poetic descriptions of rivers in triumphs as accurate depictions. From here Östenberg moves to the portrayal of war scenes in the triumph. She discusses the various words used in the sources to describe these scenes and concludes that they could refer to paintings, inscriptions, tapestries, sculptures and even actors portraying specific events, possibly in front of a painted background. As far as what was conveyed in the war scenes, regardless of the medium, Östenberg argues that they focused not on the general and his feats, but were instead linked to the main prisoners.

In chapter 5, Östenberg turns to a discussion of the bigger picture painted by all of these individual elements of the triumphal display. She starts by dividing the procession in half, noting that non-Romans and the Roman army were kept separate, and that the triumphing general marked the dividing line between the two halves. For Östenberg this is important, as she argues that, "Rome defined herself by displaying others" (p.262). She cites conquest as the most important message of the triumph, and argues that the ordering of the procession, which, remarkably, kept its same form down through the years, is a reflection of the importance of this juxtaposition of the conquered and the conqueror, the non-Roman and the Roman. Within this rubric, Östenberg returns to the individual elements treated earlier in the work and carefully places them in their positions within the procession, arguing for the importance and significance of each placing. Östenberg ends her treatment of the triumph with a discussion of the spectacle as a display which announced the conquest of the world, citing the triumphs of Pompey, Caesar and Augustus as self-proclaimed triumphs over the orbis terrarum and displaying Rome as a world power. According to Östenberg, in the triumph, the whole world was brought to the city of Rome, and, "...Rome and the city were one." (p.291). The concluding chapter is followed by an extensive bibliography and a full and helpful index.

Östenberg's work is impressive in its ambition to cover all of the individual aspects of the procession and in its engagement of a broad spectrum of sources. Östenberg makes use of all types of literary sources, including the obvious historical writers, but looking beyond these as well: the list of cited authors includes, for example, Plutarch, Livy, Lucan, Perseus, Appian, Josephus, Strabo, Dio, Cicero, Quintilian and Ovid, in addition to a healthy amount of epigraphical evidence. She adds to the literary sources many references to material culture, including evidence from art, architecture and numismatics. Her organization and interpretation of the evidence is methodical and well-structured. However, the one weak point of the work comes in Östenberg 's occasional attempts to draw conclusions from too little evidence and her readiness in places to substitute conjecture where evidence is missing. For example, when arguing against the idea that war scenes were depicted as simply two-dimensional paintings, Östenberg claims that since the vocabulary used to describe these scenes stresses the vividness in them, they must be more than just paintings, as paintings alone would not have evoked such a response from the Romans. She draws this conclusion, it seems, solely on the basis of the idea that the Romans were used to the drama and spectacle of the gladiatorial games, against which a mere painting would pale in comparison.

Despite intermittent stretching of the evidence in her interpretations, Östenberg has provided a work that will quickly find its place as an important reference tool. Because of Östenberg's comprehensive treatment of all the individual elements of the triumph and her gathering, sorting and interpreting of an impressive amount of source material, this work will prove to be an excellent resource for scholars and students of the triumph alike.


1.   For details of the triumphal procession and a summary of the theories about its origin and meaning, see, for example, Versnel, H. S. (1970) Triumphus: An Inquiry into the Origin, Development, and Meaning of the Roman Triumph. Leiden. For a thorough listing of the known rules and regulations for obtaining a triumph and the various circumstances of voting for a triumph in the senate, see, for example, Auliard, C. (2001) Victoires et Tromphes à Rome. Paris.
2.   See, for example, Itgenshorst, T. (2005) Tota Illa Pompa: Der Triumph in der Romischen Republik. Gottingen. and Beard, M. (2007) The Roman Triumph. Cambridge.

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