Anthony Miller. Roman Triumphs and Early Modern English Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. 223pp. ISBN 033394822X.

Kevin Curran
University College Dublin

Curran, Kevin. "Review of Anthony Miller. Roman Triumphs and Early Modern English Culture". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 14.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/revcurra.htm>


  1. Ancient Rome provided early modern England with a plethora of rituals and social practices that could be grafted onto indigenous ceremonies. This was particularly true amongst the social elite. As is frequently noted, royal and aristocratic wedding celebrations, civic processions, and coronations all bear the marks of a strong Roman influence. The prolific work of critics such as Roy Strong and Frances Yates has contributed significantly to our understanding of how the semiotics of Roman political display informed renaissance festivals and monarchical self-presentation. Anthony Miller's book builds upon such work, but also stands very much outside it in approach.

  2. In Roman Triumphs and Early Modern English Culture, Miller focuses on one kind of public spectacle--the triumph. This form of ceremonial was, traditionally, a military celebration, consisting of the Roman army and their captives being paraded through the city streets after a successful foreign campaign. Spoils and riches were displayed as trophies of the completed endeavour. The ritual held immense "imaginative power" (2) for early modern England, attested to by the vast array of political uses to which its rhetoric and iconography was put. Anthony Miller considers these various after-lives enjoyed by the triumph in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. In the process, he also traces the transmission of the ritual from Rome to England via fifteenth and sixteenth-century Humanist commentators. Unlike previous studies of renaissance 'triumphalism', Miller does not limit his enquiry to the dialogue between Roman practice and early modern royal appropriation. He looks, instead, at the use of triumph in a much larger context, including as his sources not only court masques and elite portraiture, but also popular pamphlets and the public theatre. Miller's study, that is, does not just "treat triumph as a ceremonial or enacted genre, like the royal entry or the masque. Rather, it treats triumph as a discourse that can incorporate, or be incorporated by, those and other genres" (5).

  3. As well as being wide-ranging in its generic approach to the Roman triumph, Miller's book also adopts quite broad historical parameters. The second chapter (after a concise introduction) is dedicated to ancient Rome. It discusses the diversity of the triumphal tradition in its indigenous context. The third chapter concentrates on Italian and French Humanists' uses of the ritual. This chapter provides a useful bridge between ancient Rome and renaissance England by showing early examples of how the symbolism of the triumph could be translated into Christian didacticism. Miller then moves into a reading of English appropriations of the triumph that covers close to a one-hundred year period. He looks at the triumphal rhetoric of the 1588 Armada victory (Ch. 4), Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Ch. 5), and the paradoxical invention of the 'triumph of peace' within the iconographies of the early Stuart Kings (Ch. 6). This is followed by an ambitious chapter called 'Shakespeare and Stuart Drama' (Ch. 7), which sets out to locate the uses of triumphalism in seven plays. Chapter 8 discusses the reconfiguring of triumphal rhetoric during the periods of the Civil War and Commonwealth, and chapter 9 concludes the study by examining the relationship between spiritual and military 'triumph' in the writings of Milton and Marvell.

  4. There are good things and bad things about the impressive breadth of Miller's study. He does manage to keep his temporally diverse primary materials in constant communication with each other. This allows us to view disjunctions and continuities within English triumphalism that would not be possible in a book conceived within a narrower historical or generic framework. However, I did at times feel that the book's expansiveness resulted in fairly superficial readings of texts and events that may have been usefully looked at into more detail. One wonders, for example, if Miller's chapter on 'Shakespeare and Stuart Drama' could not have been brought into sharper focus by extending the fascinating discussion of Antony and Cleopatra's diverse uses of both triumph and mock-triumph. As it is, Antony and Cleopatra is only given a limited amount of space, alongside (occasionally mundane) readings of six other plays. More generally, I felt that Miller's location of residual Roman triumphalism in such a variety of textual, performative, and ceremonial practices raised some important theoretical questions that may have been explored in more depth: what, for example, can the Roman triumph tell us about the relationship between imitatio and interpretation is renaissance England? And how do the politics of public ceremony change when that ceremony is no longer a spectacle, but a printed and distributed text? Questions like these have received an increasing number of answers over the last two decades of early modern studies. With a slightly more elaborate theoretical framework, I think Miller's book could have made an important contribution to this discussion.

  5. The strength of Roman Triumphs and Early Modern English Culture lies in its author's ability to read early modern texts in a broad range of temporal and national contexts. In moving between French, Italian, and English literary production, Miller's study benefits from a Europeanism that is often absent from contemporary Anglo-phone scholarship. In addition, Miller displays an understanding of classical texts that is equally nuanced as his command of sixteenth and seventeenth-century literature. If, on the theoretical and methodological front, Miller raises more questions than he cares to answer, his book still offers an intelligent, original, and historically grounded survey of the disparate ways early modern English culture reproduced the language of Roman triumphs.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).