The Ancient Roman cult of victory reveals the deep piety of the Roman heart.
Sallust uses the expression ‘extremely religious mortals’1 to describe the early Romans, and there is a saying by Cicero that ancient Roman civilisation superseded every other people or nation (omnes gentes nationesque superavimus)2 for its sense of the sacred. Analogous testimonies can be found in many variations in many other ancient writers. Against the prejudices of a certain kind of historiography, which persists in evaluating Ancient Rome only from the juridical and political point of view, we hold that the effectively spiritual and sacred content of Ancient Romanness must be brought to the fore, and indeed should be considered the most important element thereof, since it can easily be shown how the political, juridical and ethical forms of Rome in the last analysis took as their basis and common origin precisely a special religious vision, a special kind of human relation to the supersensible world.
Only that this relationship differed considerably from that which was to become paramount to the beliefs that subsequently came to predominate. The Roman, as ancient and traditional man in general, conceived of a meeting and a reciprocal interpenetration between divine forces and human forces. A special sense of history and of time was contained in this, as we ourselves have had occasion to draw to our the reader’s attention, whilst discussing a book by Franz Altheim. The Roman found the locus of divine manifestation, not so much in the space of pure contemplation, detached from the world, nor in the immobile, silent symbols of a hyperkosmia, an ‘overworld’, but rather in time and in history and in everything which unfolds through human action. He thus experienced his history more or less in the terms of a ‘sacred history’, or at least a ‘fateful history’: and this was so from the very earliest days of Rome. In his Life of Romulus, Plutarch writes that ‘Rome would not have succeeded in gaining so much power if it had not had in some way a divine origin, such as might offer to the eyes of men something of the great and inexplicable’.3
From here arose the typically Roman conception of an invisible and ‘mystical’ counterpart to the visible and tangible part of the human world. It is for this reason that every explication of Roman life, be it individual, collective, or political, was accompanied by a rite. And from here, too, came the peculiar conception that the Roman had of the fatum: the fatum was not for him, as it had been for late Grecian antiquity, a blind power; rather it was the divine order unfolding in the world, to be interpreted and understood by means of an adequate science, in order that the effective directions of human action might be presaged – directions by which human action might attract a force from on high, toward the ends, not only of gaining success, but also of producing a kind of transfiguration and higher justification.
As these ideas were extended in Ancient Rome to every facet of reality, they were also reaffirmed in the domain of military ventures, of battle, of heroism and of victory. From here we see precisely what those scholars miss, who consider the Ancient Romans essentially as a race of half barbarians, a race who through the brute force of arms alone imposed themselves on the world, taking from other peoples — the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Syriacs — whatever they possessed of true and authentic culture. It is rather the case that Ancient Romanness possessed a particular mystical conception of war and of victory, a conception whose importance has curiously escaped the notice of scholars of Romanness. These last confine themselves to distractedly alluding to the many related and well-documented Roman traditions.
It was an essentially Roman opinion that, if a war was to be won materially, it needed first be won – or at least propitiated – mystically. After the battle of Trasimene, Fabius told the soldiers, ‘Your fault was more in having neglected the sacrifices and in having ignored the warnings of the augurs, than in having lacked in courage or ability’.4 No Roman war was commenced without sacrifices, and a special college of priests – the fetiales – was charged with the rites relative to war, which could be considered a ‘just war’, iustum bellum, only insofar as it undertook these rites. As de Coulanges has already had occasion to note, the basis of the military art of the Romans originally consisted in avoiding being forced to fight when the gods were against it — which is to say, when no concordance of human forces and forces from on high could be ascertained through ‘fatal’ signs.
In this way too the centre of military affairs fell on a plane which was more than merely human – just as both the sacrifice and the heroism of the combatant were considered more than merely human. The Roman conception of victory is of particular importance here.
According to this conception, every victory has a mystical side, in the most objective sense of the term: in the victor, in the leader, in the imperator acclaimed on the fields of battle, one had the sense of a sudden manifestation of divine force which transfigured this figure and transcended his humanity. The same warrior’s rite according to which the imperator (in the original sense of the word, not of ‘emperor’, but of victorious leader) was carried on a special shield, is not without its symbolic counterpart, as can be inferred from Ennius: the shield, which was already sacred in the Capitoline temple of Jove, is equivalent to the altisonum coeli clupeum, the celestial sphere, beyond which the man who had triumphed would be lifted by his victory.
Unequivocal and significant confirmations of this ancient Roman conception are offered in the nature of the liturgy and the pomp surrounding a triumph. We speak of ‘liturgy’ because the character of this ceremony, with which every victor was honoured, was considerably more religious than it was military. The victorious leader here was presented as a kind of manifestation or visible incarnation of the Olympian god himself, from which he drew all of his marks and attributes. The quadriga drawn by white horses corresponded to that of the solar god of the luminous sky, just as the mantle of the triumphant leader, the purple toga embroidered with golden stars, reproduced the heavenly and stellar mantle of Jupiter. The golden crown was as the sceptre held aloft by that same sacred deity. And the winner painted his countenance with minium, precisely as in the cult of the temple of the Olympian god, before whom he then presented himself, solemnly depositing the triumphal laurel of his victory at the feet of the statue of Jove, signifying thereby that Jove was the true author of his victory and that he had won essentially as a divine force, as a force of Jove himself: whence the ritual identification between the two in the ceremony.
The noteworthy circumstance, moreover, that the paludamentum5 which here indicated the triumphant leader corresponded to that of the ancient Roman kings, might give rise to other considerations: it might be reducible to the fact, as Altheim has highlighted, that even before the first definition of the triumphal ceremony of the king, in the Priscan Roman conception, this paludamentum likewise appeared as an image of celestial divinity. The divine order, over which this image presided, is reflected and manifested in the human order, which is centred precisely on the king. In this regard – in this conception which, as various other first things,6 was then to re-emerge in the imperial period – Rome bears witness to a tradition of universal bearing, one which is to be found in an entire cycle of great civilisations: in the Indo-Aryan and Aryo-Iranic world, in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Egypt, in the Far East.
But so as not to drift away from our subject, let us mention another characteristic element of the Roman conception of victory. Precisely because it was not considered a merely human fact, the victory of a leader often assumed for the Romans the traits of a numen, of an independent divinity, whose mysterious life became the centre of a special system of rites aimed at nourishing it and confirming its invisible presence amongst men.
The best-known example is constituted by the Victoria Caesaris. Every victory, it was believed, actuated a new centre of forces, one disconnected from the particular individuality of the mortal man who had realised it; or, if you prefer, the victor, through victory, himself became a force subsisting in an almost transcendent order, a force not of some victory accomplished at a specific historical moment, but – precisely as the Roman expression had it – of a ‘perpetual or perennial’ victory. The cult of such entities, which was decreed by the law, was intended to stabilise, so to speak, the presence of this force, that it might invisibly join with the force of the race, leading it toward outcomes favoured by ‘fortuna’, and thus making of new victories the means of revealing and further reinforcing the energy of the first. And thus it is that in the celebration of the dead Caesar in Rome, confounded with that of his victory and consecrated to the Victoria Caesaris of the games, thereby transforming into a significant ritual, Caesar could be considered a ‘perpetual victor’.
The cult of Victory, which has been judged prehistoric in its origins, can be called more generally the secret soul of Roman greatness and of Roman faith in its own fated destiny. From the times of Augustine, the statue of the goddess Victory had been placed on the altar of the Roman Senate, and it was even a rite that each senator, before taking his place in the chambers, must pass before that altar and burn a sprig of grain before it as incense. The force of Victory thus seemed to preside invisibly over the deliberations of the curia. It was also customary to extend one’s hands toward that same image when, at the advent of a new Prince, one swore fidelity, and then again on 3 January of each year, when solemn vows were taken, in the senate, for the health of the emperor and for the prosperity of the empire. Particularly worthy of notice is the fact that this was the longest-lasting Roman cult from the days of so-called ‘paganism’ — it was the ‘pagan’ cult which longest resisted Christianity, after the destruction of all the others had been effected.
Other considerations could be made on the Roman notion of the mors triumphalis, the ‘triumphal death’, which presented various characteristics. We might speak of this on another occasion. Here we want only to add something regarding the special aspect of heroic dedication, connected to the Ancient Roman concept of devotio. This expresses what might in modern terms be called a ‘tragic heroism’, but it itself is tied to a sense of the supersensible forces and to a higher, very clear, end goal.
In Ancient Rome, devotio did not signify ‘devotion’ in the modern sense of the meticulous and fearful practice of a religious cult. It was rather a ritual warrior action, in which one made a sacrifice of oneself, consciously dedicating one’s own life to the ‘nether’ powers, whose unleashing, by producing an irresistible power in oneself and panic in one’s enemies, would contribute to victory. This was a rite formally decreed by the Roman state as a supernatural weapon to be used in desperate cases, whenever it was believed that the enemy could surely not be overcome with normal forces.
We know from Livy all the details of this tragic rite, and even the solemn, evocatory and sacrificial formula that the man who intended to sacrifice himself for victory was to pronounce, repeating after the pontifex, who was dressed in the praetexta,7 with veiled head, his hand poised on his chin and his foot upon a javelin. After which he would hurl himself into the fray, as though conjuring a fatal force, to find death therein.8 There were patrician Roman families in which this tragic rite was almost a tradition: for instance the line of the Deci practised it in 340 B.C. in the war against the rebelling Latins, then in 295 in the war against the Samnites, and in 79 in the battle of Asculum: almost as if it had been the ‘law of their family’, as Livy puts it.
As a purely interior attitude, this sacrifice, in its perfect lucity and willingness, might remind one of that which occurs even today in the warfare of Japan: we know of special torpedoes or Japanese aeroplanes that go hurtling with their crew against their target; and here, too, sacrifice, almost always carried out by members of the ancient warrior aristocracy, by the samurai, is tied to a rite possessing a mystical aspect. The difference is surely that here one does not aim to the same extent at an action which is something more than merely material, at a true and authentic evocation, as in the ancient Roman theory of devotio.
And naturally, the modern and above all Western environment, on account of a thousand causes which have become, shall we say, constitutional through the centuries, makes it extremely difficult to draw forces from behind the curtains, and to give to every gesture, to every sacrifice, to every victory a transfiguring significance, similar to those which we have indicated here. It is nonetheless certain that, even today, in this wild and unbridled moment, to feel oneself no longer alone on the fields of battle, to have some presentiment, despite everything, of relations with an order more than merely human and pathways which are not measured by the values of this visible reality alone — it is certain, I say, that all of this might become the fountainhead for a force and an imperviousness, whose effects, on every level, could not be overestimated.
1Bellum Catilinae, 13.
2De Haruspicum Responsis, IX, 19.
3Life of Romulus, I, 8.
4Livy, Ad Urbe Condita Libri, Book XVII, 9. Cf. XXXI, 5; XXXVI, 2; XLII, 2.
5That is, the cape attached to one shoulder which often accompanied military men of high rank, as is indicated by any number of Ancient Roman statuary portraits of the same. — Ed.
6Italian: come varie altre delle origini, literally ‘like various other origins’. — Ed.
7A ceremonial white toga trimmed in purple which distinguished certain royal and priestly functions and functionaries. — Ed.
8Ad Urbe Condita Libri, VIII, 9.