Question regarding defeated Roman generals pouring ashes on their heads

I’ve been reading Simon S. Montefiore’s “Stalin The Court of the Red Tsar” p. 424

"Later, Stalin humiliatingly emptied his pipe on Khrushchev’s head: “That’s in accordance with Roman tradition,” he said. “When a Roman commander lost a battle, he poured ashes on his own head… the greatest disgrace a commander could endure.”

I haven’t been able to find any reference to this Roman tradition of defeated Roman generals pouring ashes over their heads. Did this tradition begin with the Romans or does it go back further? I look forward to your feedback.

Possibly it began with Stalin. Who’s going to dispute his recollections of history?

Heh, if pouring his pipe ashes on your head is all he’s gonna do to you, you’d just count yourself lucky. :wink:

“Stalin The Court of the Red Tsar” does mention that Stalin reading the historian Robert L. Vipper’s. Perhaps Stalin’s sources were questionable.,%2BRobert%2BIurevich+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

" The range of Vipper’s scholarly interests was extremely wide: from the history of ancient Greece and Rome to modern times. Vipper was the author of numerous works written in a brilliant literary style, including textbooks on ancient, medieval, and modern history for secondary and higher schools."

There are quite a few references in the Bible to people covering themselves with ashes (and wearing sack cloth) as a sign of grief or repentance. Some Christian denominations maintain a symbolic version of this for Ash Wednesday, although I am not sure if this represents a continuous tradition, or a more recent re-introduction.

Thanks Mangetout. I also found those references but not in the context of defeated Romans generals. Perhaps these were Christianized Roman generals. Then it makes sense.

I’ve been reading and studying Roman history for 30 years, and read most of the primary sources. I’ve never come across anything like that, either for Christian or non-Christian Roman generals. I think Stalin made it up.

Thanks GreenWyvern. It’s doesn’t surprise me. It fits Stalin’s character. Unfortunately Montefiore didn’t comment on it in his book. There are many testimonies instead to his prodigious knowledge and memory.

The symbolic use of ashes to symbolise acknowledgement of failure, shame, repentance or rejection of worldly fame or honour is quite widespread. The Christians, of course, got it from the Jews but in the ancient world we also find references to this among Greeks, Egyptians and possibly others. And ashes were (and are) used in Hindu culture also, with a similar signficance.

And it’s a fairly obvious symbolism. Ashes represent something which has been destroyed or consumed, and also something from which fire (representing spirit or life) has departed. Hence a general association with death and/or loss. Plus, ash is often used as an abrasive cleaning agent; hence an association with purification.

Given all this, it’s possible that a defeated and degraded Roman general would employ ashes. But it wouldn’t be a practice particularly associated with Roman generals. You might equally say that in our time it is the custom for American teenagers to eat Turkey at Thanksgiving. True, but also misleading.

Thanks UDS. Thank you all.

Darn tootin’. I read years ago that Molotov would always take an aide along with him, carrying a suitcase with a fresh change of clothes, whenever Stalin summoned him to the Kremlin. Stalin scared him so much that he sometimes shat himself.

I’m wodering if Montefiore made up the Stalin-Kru-ashes story.

Point is that the concept pre-dated the Romans. They might have invented it independently of the existing tradition of course, but the Romans had a bit of a thing for adopting bits and pieces of other cultures, so it seems likely that if they did it at all, they borrowed or inherited the idea from other/older cultures.