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>
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.