The Grand Olympic Opening Ceremony will apparently inform us ‘who we are, who we were and who we wish to be’ — just in case we had forgotten — and you will have to pay to sit in a stadium to watch it. Romans did not go in for this sort of claptrap, let alone restrict attendance to officials and a few paying customers. When they celebrated, it was for everyone.
The Roman triumph featured a massive procession through the streets led by the victorious general’s army, with booty, captives and paintings and three-dimensional models of Great Moments on display. There would be street parties, shows and handouts.
For Pompey’s celebration of his conquest of the East in 61 BC, 700 ships were brought into harbour. Captured royalty and generals (324 in number), all in native costume, featured in the march-past, with gold mountains, thrones and statues, and wagons hauling 75,100,000 silver drachmas, more than the total revenue of the whole Roman empire, enough to feed two million people for a year.
Julius Caesar’s triumph over Pompey in 46 BC, after a civil war fought all over the empire, was celebrated in five separate and different performances. Crowds, saddened by depictions of the heroic death of Romans they respected, cheered and laughed at the paintings of the demise and flight of exotic foreigners. One of the placards celebrating a victory in Turkey proclaimed ueni, uidi, uici. Horse races, plays, musical contests, athletic contests and gladiators all featured, with ‘an elephant fight with 20 beasts a side, and a naval battle with 4,000 oarsmen plus a thousand marines on each side’. Handouts to soldiers and people, rent-remission and luxury street dinners capped the fun. Forty elephants carrying lamps accompanied Caesar to the Capitol by torchlight for the final thanksgiving at the temple of Jupiter. People were crushed to death in the crowds.
Now that’s a celebration. Our Grand Olympic Opening Ceremony will have to end by midnight to allow spectators to get home by public transport.