Monday, 4 June 2012


Ancient cities were fond of pageants and processions.  Athena, Demeter, Dionysos, Zeu, Isis--they all seemed to have liked  elaborate parades.  Statues of the gods would be dressed gorgeous draperies and carried throughout the city, accompanied by handsome young horsemen got up in their best on neighing steeds; priests in magnificent robe;, musicians playing lyres, flutes, sistra; celebrants crying 'euoi, euoi!' or 'ite Bacchai, ite Bacchai', as the case might be; sacrificial cattle with gilded horns, garlanded with roses or ivy; incense and offerings.  Hellenistic kings paid for floats on wheeled carts, showing scenes from mythology or of battles where they'd defeated their enemies; crowds would be showered with coins, or flowers, or nuts and sweetmeats. The Rhodians, and other naval powers, went in for naval processions, with their magnificently decorated ships processing past the cheering crowds on shore. The Romans were as eager as the Greeks: their triumphal processions were probably the most elaborate of all ancient pageants, and were so intoxicating to the triumphing generals that a slave had to be appointed to whisper in the victorious ear, 'Remember that you are mortal!'

When the Roman Empire went Christian, the processions carried on, though the excuse for them switched from gods and glory to God's glory: North Africans used to celebrate saints' days by processing round the churches, drinking heartily at each, a kind of sanctified pub crawl which drew occasional criticism from their bishops.  Byzantine basileis and medieval kings eagerly seized any excuse for show and display, and Renaissance geniuses contributed mechanical contrivances, playlets, and painted backdrops; gunpowder allowed fireworks.

It all seems very jolly, but recent experience has left me wondering how much the average woman in the street actually saw of all this cheerful vainglory.  We went down to London yesterday to watch the Diamond Jubilee river pageant, but the crowds were so thick I couldn't even see the river.  I did just about glimpse the queen, because the royal barge was tall enough that the top was briefly visible through binoculars as it departed downstream.  All the rest--the flotilla of rowboats; the barges of bells and musicians; the fire brigade's working boat imitating a moving fountain, the Dunkirk little ships--was hidden behind a wall of backs.  I only know about them because I looked at the BBC website afterwards.

I'm not really sorry I went, though.  It's something, to be able to say 'I was there' at what may prove to be the monarchy's last hurrah, and there was entertainment in looking at the crowds--the girls with the union jack lipstick; the children waving flags; the people in the queen and Prince Charles masks; the man opening a bottle of beer against the curb.  A brass band emerged twice from a private party on a moored boat and played 'Rule Britannia', 'Land of Hope and Glory', and 'God Save the Queen', which the crowd sang lustily.  I just wonder how many people at, say, Augustus's triumph, saw no more than the top of the model of the Pharos going slowly past above a sea of heads.

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