Roman Triumph by the Latin Church

The triumphal arch in Besancon, c. 170 AD. Photo: Wikipedia

Roman triumphs have provided a model for the celebration of military success, inaugurations of leaders and ecclesiastical self-representation. There has hardly been a monarch, prince, bishop, pope or general who has not looked back to Rome for a lesson in how to mark a victory on the battlefield, to assert power or to present the divine kingdom on earth.

The triumph is a ritual, a procession or a ceremony, which asserted the power of the mighty and the humidity of the subjects. It has been calculated that the triumph was celebrated more than three hundred times in the history of Rome, from its foundation in the eight century BC until its decline in the fifth century. Within Roman culture the triumph was the context and prompt of the balance between power and subordination, failure and success, public support and lonesomeness on the top.

The triumph made an impact far beyond the commemoration of a victory, like today’s winners of championships.  The triumphal procession was a display of booty, enemy captives, and other trophies of the battleground and conquered cities and territories.

The victorious general or (later) emperor rode a triumphal chariot, followed by his troops. The procession followed the way to the most important temple, the Temple of Jupiter or, after the civil war in 69 AD, the Circus Maximus in Rome.

Public spectacles are ephemeral events and written documents, coins, arts and architecture played an important role in fixing the occasions in public consciousness and memory. Triumphal arches are among the colossal memorials.

They became fully established in the late Republic and the Empire. Other buildings, such as temples and other religious memorials commemorated the triumph as well. These buildings were funded out of the riches and the booty of war and they were permanent showcases and memorials of the prowess of the general, the support of the Gods and the power of Rome.

One of the best documented Roman triumphs is the ceremony of 61 BC by Pompeius the Great (106-48 BC), celebrating his third triumph, after the occasions in 81 and 71 BC. The theatre complex, inaugurated in 55 BC, was a successful attempt to set his latest triumph in stone.

The theatre does not exist anymore, but it was the first stone Roman theatre and famous for its splendour and magnificence. The Arch of Titus, erected in 80AD, and the Arch of Constantine, built after his victory in 312, still dominate the skyline of ancient Rome.

These (provincial) arches were not used at the occasion of triumphal processions of victorious emperors or members of his family, since they took place in Rome. They were rather used to express the Roman triumphs and their imagery as part of their self-representation and rhetoric of power by the locale elites.

The Latin church used (pagan) imperial roman architecture as symbol of power and eternal existence as well, such was the prestige of Rome. The Romanesque art and architecture of the eleventh and twelfth century referred to the Roman heritage. Pagan symbolism of the Roman empire was eagerly included into the building programs and selfrepresentation.

The triumphal arch in Besançon (Vesontio in the Roman empire) serves as main symbol of divine victory and supremacy. The arch was erected by Marcus Aurelius (121-180) to commemorate his victory over German tribes in 167 AD. Religious processions and ceremonies passed the arch on their way to the cathedral.

The porches of Romanesque churches copied the Roman triumphal arch, but with Christian iconography, in particular the Last Judgement.

The Gallus Porch of the Münster Cathedral in Basel is just one of the many examples of this Roman legacy. The porch dates from the twelfth century and its history should be put into the perspective of the triumphal arch in Besançon, the Archbishopric to which Basel belonged in this period.

The long lasting Roman legacy in stone, arts, writing, language and ecclesiastical organization can be seen across Europe. (Source: Mary Beard. The Roman Triumph, London 2007).