Applause for Thought – An Irishman’s Diary on why ovations are a back-handed compliment

As recorded by the poet Ovid, it was on May 26th in what we now call 17AD that Germanicus entered Rome in triumph after a series of victories over the Germans

It’s not every day you can mark a double-millennium anniversary. But today is one such occasion, thanks to the Roman soldier Germanicus Julius Caesar, who had his finest hour on this date 2,000 years ago.

As recorded by the poet Ovid, it was on May 26th in what we now call 17AD that Germanicus entered Rome in triumph (triumphus) after a series of victories over the Germans.

“Triumph” is a much-reduced word these days. But back then, it was a very big and formal affair – senate-sanctioned and the greatest honour a general could receive short of deification.

Among other trappings, it entitled him to parade on a garlanded chariot, wearing a crown of laurels, and accompanied by his troops, along with a selection of their most exotic prisoners and loot.


Even so, it should not have been the highlight of Germanicus’s career. He was designated heir to his father, the Emperor Tiberius, after all.

Instead, two years later, aged only 33, he died in suspicious circumstances, possibly poisoned.

So he was long afterwards romanticised as the “Roman Alexander”, a perfect soldier-leader who had died too young. But he was a loss to literature too, because he had been a promising poet before affairs of state distracted him.

Like many Roman customs, the triumph still influences public celebrations today. It may be the unsuspected model for most sporting victory parades, with the open-topped bus now deputising for the garlanded chariot.

It has also given us the arches of triumph that decorate many modern cities. The prototype was the Arch of Titus, built in first-century Rome to commemorate the victories of the eponymous emperor.

That has since been surpassed in size and fame by Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon and modelled on the Roman one. And the Parisian arch was itself outdone eventually – in size, anyway – by a 1980s remake in Pyongyang.

But Dublin has its own Arch of Titus too, albeit of more modest proportions, at the main entrance to St Stephen’s Green. Officially it’s the Fusiliers Arch, after the local soldiers who died in the Boer War and whose names are inscribed in the ceiling. For some, less admiring of their cause, it was “Traitors Gate”.

Either way, it’s a miniature of the Roman original.

In the nearby Gaiety Theatre, incidentally, audiences often give “ovations” to performers. This indeed was the general subject of a recent exchange of letters on this page, sparked by another, unnamed Dublin theatre’s boast of “standing ovations nightly”.

The writer’s complaint was that such audience tributes are now too common. And based on some of my own recent experiences, I agree. Ovation inflation threatens to make standing at the end of shows the norm, instead of a special compliment to brilliance.

But that's an argument for another day. My point here is that it is to the ancient Romans that we also owe the original ovatio. And interestingly, for them, it was a second-class honour, ranking well below the triumph. Thus if a war had not been dangerous enough, or if the enemy was of low status, a general had to make do with an ovation.

In that case, there was no chariot or laurel wreath. The recipient entered the city on foot, wearing a crown of myrtle, instead. It was still a big honour, but one doesn’t speak today of anyone resting on his or her myrtles, which says it all.

Maybe there’s a warning there for performers who take standing ovations seriously.

The most famous ovation in Ancient Rome was a result of the Third Servile War, aka Spartacus's revolt. That had posed a major threat to the empire and was therefore put down with exemplary brutality. The Roman leader Crassus crucified 6,000 prisoners, enough to line a 120-mile section of the Appian Way.  But his enemies were mere slaves, so there was no question of the Senate giving him a triumph. A mere ovation had to suffice.

On which sobering note, I want to mention a tribute event taking place in a Dublin theatre tonight. No it’s not on Appian Way, luckily. It’s about a mile west of there, on Francis Street, in a venue called Stage 19.

The subject is that modern-day Ovid, Leonard Cohen, in whose honour a group called Leonard's Corner (and invited guests) will be performing songs and poems at 8pm.

There are no chariots or laurel wreaths involved. But aptly, I'm told that Leonard's Corner is led by a Portuguese women whose name, as part-hibernicised by marriage, is Rita Garland.