“I’m interested in saying, look, how can you challenge the Asterix-and-the-Romans kind of image that we tend to have of Rome? We are determined to turn a blind eye to Roman subtlety, humour and sophistication because the Romans do a very good job for us of being bridge-builders and thugs. The Greeks are sophisticated guys who go round thinking about the meaning of life, and the Romans conquer people. And those kinds of symbols of difference are terribly convenient for modern culture to use, as you can see if you look at how Rome appears in movies.”
I’ve recently been in Cambridge to talk to Professor Mary Beard about her radical re-evaluation of one of ancient Rome’s quintessential rituals – the triumph. There are few images more evocative of ancient Rome than the triumph. It’s one of the favourite set-pieces of countless “sword-and-sandal” epics.
To be awarded a triumph was the greatest accolade for a victorious Roman general. He would be drawn through the city’s streets, dressed as a god and surrounded by his raucous troops, his exotic prisoners of war and his captured booty. Surely nothing could better sum up the raw aggression and triumphal militarism?
Hang on a moment, though, says Mary Beard, in her recent book on The Roman Triumph (Harvard University Press): Are we really sure we know what was going on? And what was at stake for the general? And what the Romans themselves thought about a practice that lasted in some form or another for over a millennium? Isn’t there a lot more to the triumph than we customarily think?
Listen to the podcast and you will hear that Mary’s answer to this last question is a resounding yes. Indeed, as you’ll hear, rethinking the triumph is a very good way to begin to re-evaluate our whole relationship with ancient Rome.
You can follow Mary’s never less than stimulating commentary on life ancient and modern on her blog, A Don’s Life.