Roman Triumphs Were Buck Wild
In the Roman Republic, the Senators were incredibly worried that someone would try to make himself a king. They’d had a monarchy from 753 BCE until 509 BCE. They overthrew that king and committed themselves to never going back. This is actually what got Caesar killed. Brutus and all the rest said that Caesar was trying to make himself a king. (Narrator Voice: He was.)
If you went around wearing purple, wearing a crown, or just generally being too popular, senators started plotting to poke holes in you. There was one notable exception to this: a Roman triumph. A triumph was traditionally granted to generals who expanded Roman territory, but eventually, they just served as celebrations for generals everybody liked.
It’s important to know that generals were not allowed to cross the pomoerium, an imaginary line around the city. Once they crossed the pomoerium, they became ordinary citizens. Same with soldiers. They weren’t even allowed to bring weapons across the pomoerium. Commonsense gladius control.
A general would wait outside the city with his army and send a letter to the Senate asking for a triumph. If the Senate approved, he was allowed to cross the pomoerium with his legions (still unarmed). They had a buck wild parade through the streets that sometimes ended with a mass human sacrifice or just torturing a king to death. This is what passed for big fun in Rome.
August 13, 29 BCE
Before Julius Caesar died in 44 BCE, he adopted his niece’s son, Octavian. After Caesar died, Octavian gathered some legions and fought a protracted civil war. There were breaks in the ongoing war so that the legions could go fight other wars.
Octavian fought one of these alternate wars against the Dalmatae. They were a nomadic society on the Adriatic Sea; they were in present-day Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dalmatae fought against the Romans for about 200 years, but in the Roman Civil War, they sided with Pompey against Julius Caesar. Octavian couldn’t let that slide. So, he conquered them once and for all. For this, the Senate granted him a triumph on August 13, 29 BCE.
So, what exactly was a Triumph?
What Was a Triumph? There Was A Lot of Blood.
First, a general needed to conquer some new land. Then, he would wait outside of the city with his armies and ask the Senate for a triumph. If they approved it, he would have a massive parade. He would dress in a purple toga and wear a crown of laurel leaves. These signified that he was basically a god-king for a day.
The captives would be the first stage of the parade. These were enemy soldiers who had been captured, but they could also be random enslaved people. Some of them would be sold into slavery, while others would be murdered for the Romans’ amusement. If there were any kings or generals captured, they’d be in this procession too. That would be a really big deal. Caesar captured Vercingetorix, King of the Gauls, and he kept dude prisoner for six years just so he could murder him in public. Romans were like that.
Next came the treasure. This would have been weapons and gold captured during the war. It was a visual piece of propaganda. Look how awesome I am. Look at all this gold I brought you. Love me.
Then there would be massive billboards that showed significant moments from the war or just paintings of the conquered country itself. If you were a Roman who had never left the Italian peninsula, you’d need some visual aids to understand how big of a deal it was to fight in Germany in the winter or Egypt in the summer.
Next, the general rode in on a chariot surrounded by politicians. It terrifies the conscience to imagine what a politician would do to get next to a general during his triumph. And y’all thought Congress was bad…
The most widely-known aspect is the enslaved person who might have ridden in the chariot with the general. Some sources claim an enslaved person would ride in the chariot with the triumphant general and repeat something like “memento mori (remember death)” or “you’re only a man” to remind the general that he’s not actually a god-king.
Last came the general’s soldiers. They sang vulgar songs and chanted. In one of Julius Caesar’s triumphs, the triumphant soldiers sang “Oh, Romans, watch your wives. Here comes the bald adulterous whore. We fucked away all your gold in Gaul and come to borrow more.”
Finally, they would get to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. They would sacrifice two white oxen at the temple. Sometimes, they would sacrifice a bunch of the captives. It must have been a horrifying scene. After the blood orgy, the Roman citizens went to parties in different places. If the general was really rich, he would finance wild parties from his own pocket. This is one of the ways Julius Caesar made the people love him.
Triumphs were pretty uncommon until the Late Republic period (circa 80 BCE). Eventually, they became pretty common because of all the generals conquering stuff. Octavian became Caesar Augustus in 27 BCE. After that, triumphs became both common and irrelevant. A Roman emperor didn’t need to play at being a god-king; that’s what was on his business cards.
Historia Civilis has a super informative YouTube video explaining Roman triumphs. You can find a more detailed explanation here.