Monday, January 26, 2015


Jessica H. Clark, Triumph in Defeat: Military Loss and the Roman Republic. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 240. ISBN 9780199336548. $74.00.

Reviewed by Ida Östenberg​, University of Gothenburg (

Version at BMCR home site


Crisis, trauma and loss are highly relevant topics of our times. Consequently, many humanistic disciplines have seen a recent outpouring of books that analyse how different societies handle collective misfortunes. A few novel publications show that the theme of crisis has now become of interest to Roman scholars as well. Jerry Toner's Roman Disasters (Cambridge and Malden, 2013) and Gregory K. Golden's Crisis Management during the Roman Republic. The role of political institutions in emergencies (Cambridge and New York, 2013) both explore how the Roman society responded to crisis.

Toner and Golden note the trauma caused by defeat on the battlefield, but neither dwells in any detail on Rome's handling of military loss. This is symptomatic, as Roman military defeat is a truly understudied topic. Certainly, there is a never-ceasing flow of books that discuss the major defeats at Cannae and Teutoburg. But monographs dedicated to overall questions of how Rome handled military loss are basically limited to Heinz Bruckmann's Die römische Niederlagen im Geschichtswerk des T. Livius (diss. Münster 1936) and Nathan Rosenstein's Imperatores victi. Military defeat and aristocratic competition in the middle and late Republic from 1990.1

As the first monograph in twenty-five years on Roman military defeats, Jessica Clark's Triumph in defeat: military loss in the Roman Republic is a most welcome contribution to the fields of Roman history and political culture. The book started out as a PhD thesis, and Clark should be credited for taking an unexplored path already at a doctoral stage. She is well aware that her book represents a novelty, and identifies the conspicuous lack of works on Roman military loss as an important reason for undertaking this study.

Triumph in Defeat: Military Loss and the Roman Republic does not deal specifically with the military reasons for and consequences of battlefield setbacks. Nor does the book set out to investigate the long-term memorial implications of military loss. Instead, Clark targets the more immediate responses to defeat in Rome. She is particularly interested in challenging the definition of victory, and throughout her book, she discusses defeats in relation to military success. As she justly points out, the outcomes of Roman wars were not decided solely on the battlefield, but ultimately by the Senate's verdicts. Hence, Clark asks, at what point did the Senate chose to declare a war finished and to celebrate a triumph? What can this tell us about Roman perceptions of war, of victory and defeat? One might say that Clark inquires into the Roman theology of victory by analysing how defeats were handled and worked into meaningful historical narratives.

Clark's study is limited to the period between the Second Punic war and the rise of Marius. To explain a start in 218 B.C., she stresses the difficulty of accessing contemporary reactions to defeat at earlier dates, the birth of Roman literature at this time and the decisive impact that the major defeats against Hannibal had on the later Roman perception of victory and loss. At the other end of the time table, she argues that the domestic wars of the first century and the changed political landscape, with the diminishing power of the Senate, created a new arena where the questions she sets out to explore are less valid. As much as I understand the desire to limit one's chronological scope in order to proceed with an in-depth analysis, I also believe that a broader time frame could have produced valuable results. I find it problematic to exclude the battles at the Allia and the Caudine Forks (they are briefly noted in the introduction) when discussing perceptions of Roman Republican military loss as these defeats had such a profound impact on later Roman views of victory and failure. To end the book with Marius is more justifiable. Certainly, Rome did not lack major defeats against foreign enemies during the first century B.C. (just think of Carrhae) but Clark is right: this is a very different political scene, especially if one strives to pinpoint the authority of the Senate in deciding on martial matters.

One of the most striking aspects of Roman defeats is the near absence of reminders of loss in the material culture. Clark discusses this fact in her first chapter, and rightly notes the different practice in Athens, where the fallen were celebrated through rituals and memorials in victory as well as in defeat. She interprets the Roman absence of material reminders of defeat as a consequence of monuments in Rome being manifestations of the individual's drive to advertise success. This is not untrue, but does not by itself provide a satisfactory explanation for the difference between Athenian and Roman practices, which should be undertsood, I believe, as a consequence of fundamentally different societies, built on democratic and aristocratic values respectively. Also, even if Clark is absolutely right that material reminders of defeat are virtually lacking in Rome, there are a few significant exceptions that could be addressed. One is the Roman calendar (with its mention of the dies Alliensis), another is the temples vowed and inaugurated in times of distress. For example, what can the shrine dedicated to Mens on the Capitol, vowed after Flaminius' defeat at Trasimene, tell of the Roman handling of loss at this time?

Clark's focus is on the historical texts, and the most important result that emerges from her inquiry is the conclusion that all defeats were integrated into broader stories of Roman victories.2 The triumph played an essential role here, providing a sense of successful conclusion both as a ritual performed on the streets of Rome and as a narrative endpoint.3 Clark shows that the Romans understood military defeats as temporary setbacks on the road to final success. This Roman mindset influenced the narrative strategies in their historical writing, where victories could quite literary overwrite (oblitterare) previous setbacks, and also their contemporary political decision making.

Defeats were always considered preludes to victory, but the political and narrative strategies to counter military loss shifted with time, according to Clark. Hence, in her four main analytic chapters (2-5) she investigates the reception of defeat in chronological order: 218-201 B.C., 201-167 B.C., 156-130 B.C. and 120-101 B.C. Clark argues that Rome's refusal to accept even hugely devastating defeats during the Second Punic war (chapter 2) created a powerful idea of moral strength and heroism that set the standard for generations to come. In the period following Zama (chapter 3), the Senate successfully managed to redeem military loss by encouraging defeated commanders to re-engage with the enemy until they proved successful. In order to prove that the triumph signified the actual end of a war, the Senate made efforts to hinder subsequent fighting in areas already subdued. As a result, Clark argues, people trusted in the triumph as a meaningful celebration of a war completed, and the Senate upheld its authority. Things changed in the following phase (chapter 4: 156-130 B.C.) when prolonged wars challenged the established notion of earlier defeats leading up to a final victory. To mark its strength, Rome reacted with impatience and brutality, as is most evident in the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. During this period, defeated generals were exposed to public trials (although they were mostly charged on other accounts), which exposed the Senate's loss of its former control over both political strategies and war narratives. In the last phase (chapter 5: 120–101 B.C.) the process of an increasing decline in the Senate's authority continued. Powerful families and individuals now set the agenda, and triumph hunting resulted in a devaluation of the ritual.

Clark is most certainly right in the overall depiction of the Senate's increasing difficulties in upholding its authority in matters of warfare both on the battlefield and on the public arena in Rome. But I am not fully convinced that the division of inquiries into such small time spans as twenty to thirty years provides the optimal method of investigation, especially not in light of the huge difference that the presence and absence of Livy's books make for the period at large. At times, it seems that the need to demonstrate a significant change of practice in each phase forces Clark to stretch the evidence too far in order to prove her point. For example, her determination to downplay the state of crisis during the Hannibalic war leads to a problematic reading of the passage in Livy on the ver sacrum (pp. 61-62) as evidence that the Romans were certain of a swift victory against Hannibal also after Trasimene. Another example is the discussion of triumphs awarded and denied for the Spanish campaigns in the 140s and 130s, which is built on a rather speculative analysis of very fragmentary sources. (In fairness, Clark is aware of the problematic state of the sources.) Clark also takes Nathan Rosenstein's argument that imperatores victi were not disadvantaged in their future careers one step further and argues that a military defeat could even work as an electoral advantage for the defeated commander (pp. 128-130). This is contrary to the recent discussions by Waller and Rich, and in my view, the interpretation stretches the statistically very uncertain small samples of sources too far.4

It is evident that Clark masters the full corpus of relevant source material and scholarship. The overall style is very pleasant. My concern is a certain lack of clarity in the argumentation. There are quite a number of discussions where important steps of the arguments are left out, which leaves the reader slightly confused as to what exactly the sources say and what information we can extract from them. Clark has a tendency to start off each chapter with a summary of the conclusions to be drawn, which makes it difficult to assess methods and results. However, it should be noted that the writing improves by and by, and at the end of the book, she presents her conclusions in a clear, comprehensible style.

Triumph in Defeat: Military Loss and the Roman Republic is not an easy read. The reader often has to struggle in order to grasp the full implications of Clark's detailed study. At the same time, the book has strong merits. All chapters include insightful analyses of Roman warfare and political decision-making. The overall conclusion that Rome handled her defeats by reworking them into narratives of success is very convincing. Most importantly, Clark has managed to prove what generations before her have failed to see: that the ways in which Rome countered military loss were just as important as how they celebrated their victories. Her book has placed Roman defeats on the scholarly agenda and the topic is here to stay. ​


1.   A few other works deserve mention. In 2003, The Classical World published a special section on Roman defeat, Herbert Benario (ed.), 'Roman military disasters and their consequences', in The Classical World 96.4, 2003, 363-406. A Spanish conference on defeat in the ancient world was published in 2012, F. Marco Simón, F. Pina Polo, and J. Remesal Rodríguez (eds.), Vae Victis! Perdedores en el mundo antiguo, Barcelona. Jessica Clark and Brian Turner are at present editing a volume on military loss in the ancient world, to be published by Brill in 2016.
2.   I fully agree with Clark on this point; see I. Östenberg, 'War and remembrance. Memories of defeat in ancient Rome', in B. Alroth and C. Scheffer (eds.), Attitudes towards the past in Antiquity: Creating identities. Proceedings of an international conference held at Stockholm University, 15-17 May 2009, Stockholm 2014, 255-265.
3.   See now also R. Westall, 'Triumph and closure: Between history and literature', in C. Hjort Lange and F. J. Vervaet (eds.), The Roman Republican triumph: Beyond the spectacle, Rome 2014, 33-52.
4.   M. Waller, 'Victory, defeat and electoral success at Rome, 343–91 B.C.', Latomus 70, 2011, 18-38; J. Rich, 'Roman attitudes to defeat in battle under the Republic, in F. Marco Simón, F. Pina Polo, and J. Remesal Rodríguez (eds.), op. cit. n. 1, 83-111. ​

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