The word triumph comes to us from Latin, but its usual meaning in that language is not the one we commonly give to it in English. To the ancient Romans, a triumphus was a parade celebrating a great military victory. The victorious general would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome to the steps of the Senate, a slave standing beside him holding a crown of laurels over his head. The general’s army would follow, leading the defeated enemy commander, captured slaves, and great wagons of spoils from the victory. The day was a holiday and the entire city would turn out to cheer, to feast, and to drink. Roman poets also used the word triumphus to refer to the victory itself, as did later prose writers in Imperial Rome. But this second sense was relatively rare in Latin, and the word usually referred only to the processional and accompanying celebrations.
But both these senses were borrowed into English. There is one Old English work that uses the word, the translation of the works of Orosius, a late Roman historian. The Anglo-Saxon translator uses triumpha to “translate” the Latin word, and adds a lengthy note not contained in the Latin original on the meaning of the word, indicating that it was not at all familiar to his audience:
Þæt hie triumphan heton, þæt wæs þonne hie hwelc folc mid gefeohte ofercumen hæfdon, þonne wæs heora þeaw þæt sceoldon ealle hiera senatus cuman ongean heora consulas æfter þæm gefeohte, siex mila from ðære byrig, mid crætwæne, mid golde & mid gimstanum gefrætwedum, & hie sceoldon bringan feowerfetes twa hwit. Þonne hie hamweard foran, þonne sceoldon hiera senatus ridan on crætwænum wiðæftan þæm consulum, & þa menn beforan him drifan gebundene þe þær gefongene wæron, ðæt heora mærþa sceoldon þy þrymlicran beon. (OE Orosius 2.4)
(They called that a triumph, that is when they had overcome any people in battle, then it was their custom that all the senators would meet their consuls after the battle, six miles from the city with a chariot adorned with gold and gemstones, and they should bring two white quadrupeds. Then as they went homeward, the senators would ride in chariots behind the consuls and the men who had been captured would be driven bound before them, so that their glory would be more magnificent.)
But this Old English use appears to be unique; the word only appears in this one work and only when describing the Roman triumphs of history. Triumph really makes its English appearance in the late fourteenth century. Geoffrey Chaucer uses the word in his poem Anelida and Arcite, written c. 1374, which opens with a description of a triumph given for Theseus following his conquest of the Scythians. Yes, the context is Athenian, not Roman, but medieval poets aren’t known for being scrupulous about historical accuracy, and the change of venue shows that Chaucer is using the word in a context a bit broader than Roman history:
With his tryumphe and laurer-corouned thus,
In al the flour of Fortunes yevynge (lines 43–44).
(With all his triumph and thus laurel-crowned, in all the flower of Fortune’s giving.)
But Chaucer is still using the word in the sense of a victory processional.
Use of triumph in what is now the more common sense, that of a great victory itself, comes into play a generation after Chaucer. The poet Thomas Hoccleve uses this sense of the word in his The Regiment of Princes, written c. 1412, when discussing the sorrow of Roman consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus following the sacking of Syracuse in the Second Punic War, which among other things, resulted in the death of Archimedes:
With herte tendre than considered he
And hadde of folkes dethes swich pitee
That from wepynge he mighte him nat restreyne;
Al his triumphe was to him but peyne
(With a tender heart he then considered and had such pity of the people’s deaths that he could not restrain himself from weeping; all his triumph was to him nothing but pain.)
Hoccleve’s poem was enormously popular in the fifteenth century, one of the bestsellers of the era, to put an anachronistic spin on it. Ever since, triumph has been used in this sense.
Hoccleve, Thomas, The Regiment of Princes, ed. Charles R. Blyth, TEAMS Middle English Texts, 1999.
The Old English Orosius, ed. Janet Bately, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
“triumph, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“triumphus,” A Latin Dictionary, Lewis and Short, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton