The morning of September 21, 46 B.C., was a day of celebration for the citizens of Rome. A general was about to claim the highest honor a Roman could receive: a triumph, a spectacular celebration in which he paraded through the streets flaunting his prisoners of war and spoils of victory. This day promised to be like none other before it: Today was the first of four triumphs, all held to honor the same man, Julius Caesar. Over the next two weeks, Rome could look forward to three more giant parades.
Caesar’s triumphs were exceptional not only for their immense expense and grand scale, but also for the fact that he was the only person in Rome’s history to receive four, one for each of his victorious campaigns. By celebrating Caesar, Rome was also celebrating itself, because this general had enlarged and enriched the republic like no other man before him. The one who came closest was Caesar’s ally turned rival, Pompey the Great. He had received three triumphs. Although past triumphs were not the focus of Caesar’s plans, they had set a high bar, which Caesar was set to overcome with great flair. (See also: How Julius Caesar Started a Big War by Crossing a Small Stream.)
In the Roman Republic, generals requested triumphs, but it was the Senate that granted them—only if a victory met a series of conditions. The win had to be a major battle (with a minimum of 5,000 enemy casualties ) that ended a war. While the Senate deliberated, the general would wait outside the city gates. If he failed to qualify for a full-blown triumph, he could be granted an ovatio (ovation), a slightly lesser celebration.