I have a NIV Journal the Word Bible which I find eminently useful. The margins are wide and lined so I have plenty of space to note where the same Greek word has been translated by different English words or where the same English words in a passage are, in fact, different Greek words. I recently opened it to 2 Corinthians 2 and read verse 14: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere”. I was struck with the thought: “I bet Paul is referencing a Roman Triumph”.
There is always the chance he was not. Most armies had some sort of celebration when returning triumphant from the battlefield. There is a celebration recorded in 1 Samuel 18: “Now it had happened as they were coming home, when David was returning from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women had come out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy, and with musical instruments. So the woman sang as they dance and said; “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens thousands” (verses 6 & 7). The great carved scenes in Egypt portray the triumphant Pharaoh and captives in chains. I am not prepared to say unequivocally that Paul is referencing specifically the Roman Triumph.
And yet, Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38, 25-28). Unger’s Bible Dictionary states, “The character of a Roman citizen superseded all others before the law and in the general opinion of society, and placed him amid the aristocracy of any provisional town” and refers to Tarsus, the city of Paul’s birthplace, as “no mean city”. As Paul, or Saul as he was then, would probably have been thirteen when he went to Jerusalem to take up his studies, I can’t say with any certainty that he would have ever visited Rome and seen a Triumph for himself. However, Paul was extremely well read, showing familiarity with Greek authors (Acts 17:28), so I have no doubt he’d have been familiar with the details of a Roman Triumph. Both The Passion Translation and The Archeological Study Bible suggest Paul was alluding to the Roman Triumph in their commentaries on this particular scripture.
Since it is a possibility, what word picture could Paul be painting by comparing believers to captives in a Triumphal procession? What exactly did a Roman Triumph consist of?
Firstly, they were far more frequent during Rome’s Republic than during its Empire when only Emperors could hold them. They were the highest honor awarded to a military commander but were thought to be the pinnacle of a political career as well. There were rigorous criteria that had to be met before a Triumph could take place. Philip Matyszak writes, “The most important of these are: 1: At least 5,000 enemy combatants must have perished in battle. 2: The battle must have brought the campaign to an end. 3: The campaign must have enhanced the majesty of the Roman empire”.
The senate had to vote to allow a Triumph and, once the afore mentioned criteria had been verified and a Triumph granted; Rome prepared for a party. Streets and squares were festively adorned, temples were opened, decorated with flowers, and incense burned on the alters. The commander gathered with his troops in the Campus Martius near the temples of Bellona and Apollo and then were met at the Porta Triumphalis-a gate used only for triumphal processions-by the senate, the city magistrates, and numerous citizens who took the lead of the procession, while lictors opened a way through the crowd. Trumpet fanfares heralded the approach of the triumphant general. The spectators would not see him yet.
The Military Commander or Emperor in later years would have sent on ahead the booty captured for the state and this consisted of armour, standards arranged as trophies, models of the cities or ships taken from the enemy, pictures of battles, tablets with the deeds of the victor inscribed on them, statues personifying the rivers and towns of the subjected country-all of which followed the city dignitaries and tibicines (flute-players) and would be carried by crowned soldiers at the points of long lances or on portable stands, or would be trundled through the streets on wheeled carts. There would also be art, valuables like plate and vases, and gold and silver coins.
There was human booty as well. The survivors of the conquered army came in chains and were jeered at by the crowds and not just the surviving fighters: kings, princes, and other nobles were paraded through the streets. The procession also contained sacrificial oxen who had their horns gilded accompanied by the priests, and then there were more singers, musicians, and dancers.
Finally, came the triumphant general himself. He would be in a turret-like triumphal chariot with his male offspring accompanying him on horseback. He would have a crown of gold and either have a laurel crown held over his head or be holding a branch of laurel taken from a grove planted by the emperor which would be planted again after the Triumph. After the general came more musicians and representative cohorts of his triumphant legions.
This would be a spectacular site, to be sure, but what could Paul mean by saying God leads us captive in Christ’s Triumphal Procession? Captives did not fare well in a Roman Triumph. Some were sold into slavery, some went to fight in the amphitheater, some were destined to imprisonment in the Mamertine prison, and some were strangled inside that prison at the foot of the Capitoline Mount. There are a few instances of some (like the British King Caratacus) who were allowed to live out their days in Rome but still; it wasn’t a happy thing to be a captive in a Triumphal Procession. Better to be one of the conquering army, marching in the Triumph of our great general to the cheers and accolades of all the inhabitants of the city.
Yet, Paul says we are led captive in Christ’s triumphal procession. There is joy in Paul. It can’t be missed. He delights in doors being opened for him to teach in Troas but how he was troubled in his spirit because he could not find Titus there and so continued to Macedonia. Then comes that cry, “But thanks be to God…!” (2 Corinthians 2:12-14). What, if anything at all, can be gleaned from this passage?
God-willing, I will share what I have found next week. Until then, the blessings of the Lord be upon you.
Archeological Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005
NIV Journal The Word Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973/2016
The Passion Translation, Broadstreet Publishing Group, LLC, 2018
Dando-Collins, Stephen, Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion, St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York, 2010, Pages 81-83
Guhl, E. & W. Koner, The Romans: Life and Customs, Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Pages 290-295
Matyszak, Philip, Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual, Thames & Hudson Ltd. London, 2009, Pages 183-185
Unger, Merrill R., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1957/1982, Page 831