Cardinal John Henry Newman, staying in Rome in 1833, wrote in a letter of “the columns of heathen pride with the inscriptions still legible, the Jewish candlestick still perfect in every line on the arch of Titus…” Newman, of course, was writing as a Christian; Mary Beard writes as a classics professor at Cambridge, evaluating the evidence before her rather than making value judgements about it. Her subject is those extraordinary pageants with which the ancient Romans regularly regaled themselves: the triumphal processions of victorious generals (and later, the emperors) through the city of Rome that celebrated the empire’s greatest victories against its enemies.

These elaborate processions, which wound up at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, included the general being drawn in a chariot behind a long display of captured booty, prisoners and troops. One might consider this a narrow aspect of such a rich field, but such is Mary Beard’s erudition and enthusiasm for her subject that she carries the reader along in her masterful detective work. For history, especially classical history which, by definition, lies in the distant past, is, as the author demonstrates, a matter often of careful conjecture and inspired guesswork. This makes the book exciting to read -– but also frustrating; what really took place is the question lurking behind every piece of ‘evidence’ examined and the answer, as often as not, is that we literally do not know.

Taking as her starting point the triumph of Pompey on 29 September 61 BC, the author examines the nature of the triumph itself. Was it about luxury and the cult of glory or did it hold within it the seeds of retribution? Later reports of triumphs by Roman writers such as Cicero, Seneca and Suetonius might embellish, exaggerate or interpret the occasions according to the writer’s viewpoint. Pompey himself was murdered after his defeat by Caesar at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, which would cast his earlier triumph in a somewhat hollow light. As Beard makes clear, the “culture of the triumph in ink” is quite different from the ceremony in practice. Cicero wrote waspishly of the “invented triumphs” with which leading families glamorised their own past which distorted the evidence to be examined centuries later.

For instance, the aspect of the triumph which most excites the imagination of a modern reader, that of the slave travelling in the same chariot as the general and constantly whispering in his ear, “Look behind you. Remember you are a man” was, according to Beard, not a regular ritual practice at all; different strands of evidence have been stitched together to make a fascinating -– but largely false -– anecdote. Perhaps; one of Beard’s merits is that she writes with a shrewd but open mind, thus allowing for the principle that sufficient smoke will make a little fire, if not a conflagration.

Many of her conclusions strike a distinctly modern note. History doesn’t change much. When she writes of ritual as being “a mixture of attention to precedent, convenient amnesia and the ‘invention of tradition’” I think of the next Coronation we shall experience in the UK: that of King Charles III (his mother is in excellent health I hasten to add; long may this continue). Certainly his Coronation, if not proclaiming him a “defender of faiths”, as apparently he had hoped, will be a more nuanced Christian ceremony than that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

As well as discussing the written evidence, Dr Beard examines panels and monuments. These liberally illustrate the text. In a panel celebrating the triumph of Marcus Aurelius in 176 AD, she explains the rather awkward gap in the chariot where his son, the future Emperor Commodus, was deleted after his assassination in 192 AD. She also shows that while there were bona fide triumphs for proper victories, there could be also sham ceremonies for empty victories, such as Nero’s “triumph” in 67 AD after his rigged “victory” in all the major Greek games at Olympus. Suetonius’ account of this spurious spectacle -– “in front of his chariot placards were carried blazoning the names and places of the athletic and artistic contests he had won…” -– is reminiscent of that potent piece of propaganda, the film Triumph of the Will, made by Leni Riefenstahl for the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, which depicted Hitler (much like Nero) as a demi-god surrounded by his adoring troops.

Beard concludes with her own juxtaposition: the description of a triumph at the royal court in Abyssinia in 1916 by the father of the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who was also present at this colourful occasion. Her point is that both father and son were recipients of a public school education, so would have viewed the Abyssinian spectacle through classicist eyes and “translated” it as such in their reminiscences. Her conclusion; that triumphs included many conflicting ideas, a demonstration of power, thanksgiving for victory and purification after “blood-guilt” being among them.

The book is written with vigour and knowledge. Yet I do not think it petty to raise one quibble: where I have written “BC” and “AD” in this review, Dr Beard has actually written “BCE” and “CE”. To accede to political correctness by introducing a supposedly “Common Era” is not uncommon nowadays, but it must be challenged.

This has been done magisterially by an Oxford classicist and senior editor at Oxford University Press, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, in his recently published, The History of Time. I do not quote him as a dispute between classical scholars or as a battle of wits between the two ancient universities, but as a victory for common sense over nonsense. He writes: “If [this timeline] does not commemorate the birth of Christ, it has no business to exist at all, for no other event of world-historical significance took place in either 1 BC or AD 1…Although, as a date for the birth of Jesus Christ, the epoch is almost certainly wrong, it remains a commemoration of that event…Attractive, especially in a globalised age, as a purely secular era may appear, the Christian era cannot be made secular by denying its origin.” If Cardinal Newman had been alive today, he might have called it an example of “heathen pride.”

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.