Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mary Beard's "The Roman Triumph"

Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of the highly enlightening and engaging blog "A Don's Life."

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book The Roman Triumph, and reported the following:
The best history is not just about WHAT we know about the past. It is also about HOW we know it.

My Roman Triumph explores an amazing ancient ceremony: the lavish parade held after all major Roman victories (or “massacres” – depending on whose side you were on). It could be mind-blowing in its extravagance. Famous works of art, despondent or proudly unbowed prisoners, piles of bullion, captured weapons, even exotic trees were carted through the streets. It is a ceremony that has been imitated by successful generals ever since – including Admiral Dewey who had a triumphal parade, including a cardboard and plaster triumphal arch, down Madison Avenue in 1899.

But my book is also about HOW we reconstruct the ancient ceremony – and whether we can believe what either ancient or modern historians choose to tell us. In fact I explode an awful lot of myths about the triumph.

So on page 99 I am in the middle of an intriguing quest to discover the route that the parade took through Rome and the position of the so-called “triumphal gate.” This has been the holy grail of triumph studies for a couple of hundred years and there are plenty of maps of Rome that plot it confidently. Here I’m showing – with a dash of humour – what a fragile edifice this is:

We may judge these arguments and identifications a brilliant series of deductions, a perilous house of cards, or a tissue of (at best) half truths and (at worst) outright misrepresentations and misreadings. But impressed or not, we will find it hard to reconcile this reconstruction with the single surviving piece of ancient literary evidence that provides an explicit context for the gate....

Or more succinctly:

Why stretch the argument to such tenuous lengths?

Here, it’s true, I’m being pretty negative, clearing the ground of some sloppy mistakes. But my overall aim is very positive. I hope that specialists will sit up and take notice of my Triumph. But I’m also writing for non-specialists – who so often get cheated of the best bits of history. I’m fed up with writers who think that the “general readers” just want a good story, and don’t want to bother their heads with the problems and controversies. Here I’m assuming no prior knowledge, but I’m putting the fun of disagreement, of “how we know,” back into the book.

To be honest, page 99 isn’t my favourite page. But then I’d be hard pressed to pick a single highlight. In this case, though, I hope you can tell the book by its cover. I just love Tiepolo’s vision of the glamorous prisoner Jugurtha, upstaging his beefy Roman Roman conqueror, lurking in his chariot in the background.
Read an excerpt from The Roman Triumph and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue