Seeing reliefs of trophies at the Pergamon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminded me that I’d written an essay on trophies back in 2007. The essay didn’t make it to my revamped Forgotten Delights site, so here it is.
While writing an essay on the William Jenkins Worth Monument, I had to describe a feature of the Monument known as a trophy. And I wondered: how did we come to use the same word for a collection of flags and weapons, and for a beautiful woman who’s much younger than her husband? Some prowling about the library and the Net made the progression clear.
By the 6th or 5th c. B.C., the Greeks were erecting memorials on battlefields at the point where the enemy was put to flight. The noun tropaion, from which “trophy” derives, comes from trepo, turn. The earliest trophies were tree trunks with captured enemy armor nailed to them in a roughly anthropomorphic shape.
The military trophy was at once a warning to potential enemies, an offering to the gods, and a symbol of victory. Not surprisingly, it soon appeared with the mythological figure of Victory. In a vase of ca. 450 B.C. by the “Trophy Painter“, Nike/Victory is shown putting the finishing touches on a trophy.
In time the use of trophies expanded to commemorate victories other than those where an infantry force turned the tide of battle. By the Hellenistic period (ca. 323-100 B.C.), naval battles might be celebrated with a trophy that included the bronze beaks from ships – the distant predecessors of the beaks adorning the column of the Columbus Monument at Columbus Circle. (See this essay from Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan.) The trophy might also be in the form of a pile of mementos on the ground. These two second-century examples of trophy reliefs from Pergramon are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 17, 2016.
By the Hellenistic period (late 4th-1st c. BC), representations of Aphrodite sometimes showed a “trophy” of the armor of her husband Mars, whom she conquered by love.
The Romans adopted the trophy form from the Greeks by the 2nd c. B.C., and transformed it into a more permanent display by hanging the weapons and other spoils from commemorative structures such as triumphal arches. To celebrate a victorious campaign, a coin was often issued showing Mars carrying a trophy.
Over a millennium later, when Renaissance artists looked to the Romans for inspiration, the trophy was one of the images they revived. At that point, though, the meaning of “trophy” was expanded even further to mean almost any group of related objects loosely arranged together. Trophies composed of musical instruments were very common: here’s a later version.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which picks up the story ca. 1500, the meaning of trophy was transferred from the original military trophy to any prize taken in war or hunting, especially if it was displayed as a memorial of the event. Thus a stuffed moose head became a trophy. Harnett’s After the Hunt is a 19th-c. trompe l’oeil depiction of a hunting “trophy,” with a rifle, powder horn, knife, hat, and dead critters.
From a reminder of a specific event, the OED explains, derives the figurative meaning “anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valour, power, skill, etc.” – hence trophies for sports triumphs. And from there we finally arrive at “trophy wife,” which a 1997 addition to the OED defines as “a wife regarded as a status symbol for a (usu. older) man.”
- Grove Dictionary of Art (1996), 31:368-9, s.v. “Trophy,” by Luca Leoncini.
- Peck, Harry Thurston. Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1897, s.v. “tropaeum.”
- Oxford English Dictionary online, accessed 3/26/07.
- Vermeule, Cornelius. Review of Gilbert-Charles Picard’s Les Trophees romains (1957), American Journal of Archeology 64:3, p. 300 (available on JSTOR).
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