War of words – ‘ovation’

with Marc DeSantis.

Today, an ‘ovation’ – often a lengthy period of applause – is highly desired. A ‘standing ovation’, in which onlookers come to their feet as well, is even more coveted.

In Ancient Rome, however, an ovation (from Latin ovatio) was a lesser victory parade that came a distant second in prestige to the more splendid ‘triumph’ parade that all generals craved. Ordinarily, it was awarded for victories deemed as somehow not warranting a triumph.

In one example, following his 212 BC capture of Syracuse, Marcus Claudius Marcellus asked the Senate to grant him a triumph. He was refused because the fighting in his former province of Sicily was still ongoing, and his army was not with him to support his claim. Instead, he was given only an ovation.

A Roman Triumphal Entry, possibly of Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Painted by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844).

The term first appears in English in John Bellenden’s 1533 translation of the historian Livy, concerning another denial, this time to Gnaeus Fabius Vibulanus, consul in 421 BC. With his victory over the Aequi, Vibulanus had restored Roman martial pride after an embarrassing defeat under Gaius Sempronius, a previous consul.

But Livy says that Vibulanus had won too easily. ‘And for that caus the triumphe wes denyit to him; yit because he put away the schame and dishonoure that fell afore be necligence of Sempronius, he gat the loving of ovacioun.’

The ovational parade marched, like the triumph, to the Capitoline Hill. It varied, among other elements, in that the celebrated general entered Rome either on foot or riding a horse, not in a four-horse chariot, and the wreath on his head was myrtle, not laurel.

The historical grounds for the second-rate parade’s existence are difficult to deduce, as are its conferring criteria. It may be that the ovation was simply a consolation prize for those commanders who were not granted a triumph.