Want to know what a triumph is?
It’s a word that gets used very lightly these days. It might be said that Djokovic triumphed over Nadal on Sunday at Wimbledon. Or that Obama triumphed in the last US Presidential election. Or that our school cricket team triumphed in the local derby. But overuse has obliterated the historical significance of the word. For in the Roman world (especially in the ‘good old days’ of the Roman republic), they were only awarded to a special few as the result of a full vote by the Senate, and only for those who had achieved an extraordinary military victory. And it was quite a display.
To give an idea, here is a colourful description in Imperium, Robert Harris’ wonderful fictional account of the journey of the statesman Cicero to the Consulship. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey the Great) has been awarded a triumph by the senate while still only in his early 30s, as a result of victories in Spain. Harris has drawn on extensive research for the book, including Cicero’s own letters and speeches – so this is a pretty reliable imagining.
The narrator is Cicero’s faithful slave and private secretary, Tiro.
The twenty-ninth duly arrived, and what a day that was – Rome had not seen such a spectacle since the days of Sulla. As I waited by the Triumphal Gate it seemed that everyone in the city had turned out to line the route.
- First to pass through the gate from the Field of Mars was the entire body of the Senate, including Cicero, on foot, led by the consuls and the other magistrates.
- Then the trumpeters, sounding the fanfares.
- Then the carriages and litters laden with the spoils of the Spanish war – gold and silver, coin and bullion, weapons, statues, pictures, vases, furniture, precious stones and tapestries – and wooden models of the cities Pompey had conquered and sacked, and placards with their names, and the names of all the famous men he had killed in battle.
- Then the massive, plodding white bulls, destined for sacrifice, with gilded horns hung with ribbons and floral garlands, driven by the slaughtering priests.
- Then trudging elephants – the heraldic symbol of the Metellii – and lumbering ox-carts bearing cages containing the wild beasts of the Spanish mountains, roaring and tearing at their bars in rage.
- Then the arms and insignia of the beaten rebels, and then the prisoners themselves, the defeated followers of Sertorius and Perperna, shuffling in chains.
- Then the crowns and tributes of the allies, borne by the ambassadors of a score of nations.
- Then the twelve lictors of the imperator, their rods and axes wreathed in laurel.
- And now at last, to a tumult of applause from the vast crowd, the four white horses of the imperator’s chariot came trotting through the gate, and there was Pompey himself (see right), in the barrel-shaped, gem-encrusted chariot of the triumphator. He wore a gold-embroidered robe with a flowered tunic. In his right hand he held a laurel bough and in his left a sceptre. There was a wreath of Delphic laurel on his head, and his handsome face and muscled body had been painted with red lead, for on this day he truly was the embodiment of Jupiter.
- Standing beside him was his eight-year-old son, the golden-curled Gnaeus, and behind him a public slave to whisper in his ear that he was only human and all this would pass.
- Behind the chariot, riding on a black war-horse, came old Metellus Plus, his leg tightly bandaged, evidence of a wound incurred in battle.
- Next to him was Scipio, his adopted son … and then the legionary commanders, including Aulus Gabinius, followed by all the knights and cavalry, armour glinting in the pale December sun.
- And finally the legions of Pompey’s infantry, in full marching order, thousand upon thousand of sunburnt veterans, the crash of their tramping boots seeming to shake the very earth, roaring at the top of their voices, “Io Triumphe!” and chanting hymns to the gods and singing filthy songs about their commander-in-chief, as they were traditionally permitted to do in this, the hour of his glory.
It took half the morning for them all to pass, the procession winding through the streets towards the Forum, where, according to tradition, as Pompey ascended the steps of the Capitol to sacrifice before the Temple of the Jupiter, his most eminent prisoners were lowered into the depths of the Carcer and garrotted for what could be more fitting than that the day which ended the military authority of the conqueror should, also end the lives of the conquered?
Now so what, you might well ask? Well it is precisely this sort of event that fired the apostle Paul’s imagination – and which he would so wonderfully subvert over a hundred years later when describing the cross of Christ.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:13-15)
What is so ingenious in Paul’s metaphor is that an event less like a military triumph you could never find than the cross. And yet of course it was far more than that. It was nothing less the greatest victory in human,and even cosmic, history. For at the cross and resurrection, the vanquished became the vanquisher – of all that is evil, cruel, oppressive and terrible. But this conqueror was no vain, preening, idolatrous Roman general who needed a public slave to keep his feet on the ground. He was the Lion who is the Lamb, the Master on his knees to serve, the creator dying like his creatures. For this conquerer was not only human and his rule would never pass. He is the Lord of All.