The Imperial Aesthetic of the Ancient Roman Pantomime: The Shift from Dance to Pantomime

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

Photo: Karl Toepfer

The Shift from Dance to Pantomime

The pantomime, as it evolved during the Roman Empire, was a mysterious form of theatrical performance whose aesthetic qualities now seem far stranger and thus perhaps much more “modern” than other forms of ancient performance. The Latin pantomimus derives from the Greek pantomimos, “imitator of all.” The pantomime has assumed a “mysterious” identity because of the density of ambiguity associated with its performance practices. These practices blurred distinctions between genres, between sexualities, between audiences, between performance contexts, between dance and drama, between text and enactment, between actor and character, between singing and speaking, between the mythic and the pseudo-mythic, and between cultures of the Mediterranean. The ambiguities of signification created by the pantomime indicate fascinating problems of perception. For audiences in imperial antiquity, the pantomime embodied a highly complex and sophisticated way of looking at the world and especially at the body’s freedom to act within the world. For these spectators, this pantomimic power of the body to convolute perception of itself was the source of an intense, enduring, and unstable emotional attachment. Pantomime transmitted an imperial ideology that helped to sustain public confidence in the Empire. 

            But both ancient and modern commentators on the pantomime have faced an even deeper problem of perception: what exactly did the pantomimes do to produce such an enigmatic representation of the body’s relation to space, time, and language? In 1930, the philologist Louis Robert argued persuasively that pantomime performance, on a professional level, existed throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean at least as early as 80 BCE, the date of the earliest epigraphic evidence referring to a pantomime performer, and probably emerged as a distinct category of performance during the early Hellenistic period of the previous century (Robert 1930). In 1944, Otto Weinreich, another philologist, proposed that fragmentary evidence from Varro (116 BCE-27 BCE) indicated that pantomime as the Greeks produced it was a pervasive mode of performance in the eastern Mediterranean by 280 BCE and in Rome by about 60 BCE (cf. Zanobi 2008: 6). Moreover, as Weinreich further observed, if the pantomime had its origins in the pyrrhic dance described by Xenophon in the Anabasis, which dates from around 370 BCE, then pantomime probably originated in Greece, not Egypt, during the earlier half of the Fourth Century BCE (Weinrich 1948). Evidence of the pantomime and its immense popularity persists until the advent of the sixth century CE. Knowledge of pantomime as the Greeks fashioned it scarcely exists beyond obscure epigraphic references, and whatever the Greeks called pantomime the Romans redefined in accordance with ideological objectives that Hellenistic theater was unable to imagine let alone accommodate.   

But although the pantomime was the dominant form of theater entertainment in the ancient Mediterranean world for at least six hundred years, the accumulated discourse on it has succeeded in adding to rather than diminishing the uncertainty regarding the nature of this performance mode. Since Renaissance times, the Greek model of theater performance developed in Athens during a fifty-year span of the fifth century BCE has dominated perception of “classical” theater in antiquity, primarily because this model evolved in very close relation to the production of literary dramas that projected an existence, as literature, independently of its performance in the theater. One supposedly “sees” theater more effectively by reading dramas, and this assumption, sanctified entirely by the controlling authority bestowed on literary texts to determine the value or significance of theater, has long urged people toward a serious misperception and devaluation of the cultural and historical significance of the pantomime. Compared with the achievements of the great Greek theater of the fifth century BCE, the pantomime always appears in cultural histories as marginal, corrupt, a debasement of a once great theatrical aesthetic, evidence of an almost interminable decay in literary, philosophical, and aesthetic values in relation to public pleasures. But from the perspective of the audience for the pantomime, quite the opposite was more likely the case: the pantomime was the monumental summation or distillation of an already venerable theatrical consciousness, for which the fifth century Greek theater was simply an innovative interlude or prototypical, tentative phase of development. 

            The pantomime that flourished between 280 BCE and 600 CE was a theatrical performance in a tragic key in which narrative elements in a mythic vein manifested themselves through the movements of an actor or actors accompanied by a singer/narrator (interpellator), chorus, and musicians. This is the definition that Ernst Wüst offered in his excellent 1932 Real Encyclopedie article on the pantomime, and no one has seriously questioned it, even if it has not produced any accurate or even particularly vivid image of pantomime performance. But while the definition seems bland, it nevertheless subtly indicates by its deceptive precision and congenial opacity not only the extraordinary power of the pantomime as performance but the basis for the difficulties of perception provoked by the performance. For one thing, the definition describes a mode of performance that other performance contexts besides the conventionally designated theaters accommodated: the circus stadiums, the banquet-symposium milieu of the great villas, the ritual processions to the temples, and, eventually, the ancient forms of nightclub entertainment. Moreover, the definition describes performances given by star pantomimes. The star pantomimes, however, tended to appear as the outstanding attractions within a program of spectacles provided by a company of entertainers. While the conventions of pantomimic performance remained quite stable over the centuries, the conventions defining the program of spectacles in which it appeared were not only less stable, they were and remain much more difficult to define than even the pantomime itself. The physical, material ambiguity of the pantomime performance world invested it with considerable, and often volatile, political, moral, and cultural ambiguity. Furthermore, its ambiguous, uncertain relation between the performing body and the space of performance allowed the pantomime aesthetic to construct a complex, innovative, richly enigmatic, and hitherto completely underestimated relation to narrative, language, speech, sound, and visual sensation. The power of the pantomime aesthetic to elude vivid definition or provide a stable image of itself was what made it such an enduring and seductive embodiment of an imperial consciousness or attitude toward the freedom of bodies in a reality defined as much by the cosmic concept of fate and the pressure of mythic imagery as by the evidence of sensory perception.  

            The ancient literary evidence for the pantomime is largely Greek rather than Latin, which has the effect of amplifying the perception of the pantomime as a fundamentally Greek art form imported by the Romans rather than adapted and integrated by them into a complex cultural program with a distinctly Roman agenda. In the Latin sources, pantomimusis virtually interchangeable with saltatio(dancer) and histrio(actor); histriomay derive from the Etruscan hister(dancer). In the nineteenth century, some historians proposed that the dance theater was of Etruscan invention. The Romans adopted it in 364 BCE, when a plague afflicted the city and nothing the citizens did could please the angry gods. The skill of the Etruscans at performing dramatic dances to the accompaniment of a flute urged the Romans to call upon them for help. Etruscan dancers then appeared regularly in Rome. Roman youth “not only imitated these dancers, but also recited crude and jocose verses, adapted to the movements of the dance and the melody of the flute” (Schmitz 1875: 612). Leonhard Schmitz further contended that the freedman Livius Andronicus (285-204 BCE), author of numerous dramas of which only a few fragments remain, introduced the idea of the singing interpellator, a slave, who “carried on a dialogue” with the dancer accompanied by the flute. More likely, however, is that the Roman pantomime was the result of manifold influences from Greece, Egypt, and Etruria. Latin authors tend to be perfunctory and often highly ambivalent in their comments on pantomime, especially in regard to performance itself. But the incidental character of the Latin commentary seems absurdly inadequate to the task of accounting for the pervasive authority of pantomime as a preferred mode of performance throughout Roman imperial civilization. In any case, both Greek and Latin authors assume their readers already know what pantomime is, and the task of the commentary is to clarify an effect of performance without explaining the circumstances of the performance itself. 

            The most famous of the ancient commentaries, Lucian’s “On the Dance” (ca. 165 CE), is so informal and chatty and permeated with displays of ironic rhetoric that it almost seems like an elaborate effort to disguise a serious inability to articulate in words the material manifestation of pantomime performance. His discussion of the pantomime remains almost entirely on a generic level, punctuated only occasionally by anecdotes that merely stress the quaintness of his subject. Although he claims that pantomime “rouses the mind to respond to every detail of its performance,” he himself provides hardly any evidence of such detail (Lucian 1936 V: 289). Lucian (ca. 125-ca. 180 CE) prefers instead to wander genially through the history of dance, with inventories of subject matter and reasons for appreciating the dance, in the manner of a connoisseur affably conducting an excursion through the various pleasures associated with an underestimated and unfairly maligned entertainment (cf., Anderson 1977). “In general, the dancer undertakes to present and enact characters and emotions, introducing now a lover and now an angry person, one man afflicted with madness, another with grief, and all this within fixed bounds. Indeed, the most surprising part of it is that within the selfsame day at one moment we are shown Athamas in a frenzy, at another Ino in terror; presently the same person is Atreus, and after a little, Thyestes; then Aegisthus, or Aerope; yet they are all but a single man” (271). While this language does give a sharper image of the pantomime than the definition examined above, Lucian’s defense of the dance theater never achieves any greater precision about what he actually saw in the theaters (even his anecdotes are second-hand stories) and certainly no deeper insight into its significance. His text is important because of its articulation of an urbane attitude toward the pantomime. But this urbanity, with its dinner-table affability and lavish display of “curious” erudition, is primarily a pose designed to obscure and neutralize the justification for the defense in the first place. The pantomime emerges here as a pretext for showing the capacity of rhetoric to construct an image of a sophisticated spectator rather than a sophisticated image of the performance that attracts this spectator. Nevertheless, a major consequence of Lucian’s text is that from the Renaissance on, readers of it have treated Roman pantomime as a form of dance as people since that time have understood the word, even though the Roman idea of dance was broader insofar as pantomime referred to a speechless performance that was sometimes dancelike, but not a dance, because the body did not move according to prescribed or even codified steps or movements.   

            Around 361 CE, Libanius (ca. 314-ca. 393 CE), a rhetorician, also composed a relatively lengthy defense of the pantomime (LXIV), ostensibly a response to a now lost attack on the pantomimes by Aristides nearly two hundred years earlier. In his 1908 edition of Libanius, Richard Foerster noted so many similarities to Lucian’s dialogue that both he and Josef Mesk considered the possibility that Libanius used Lucian’s text to formulate his own argument (Mesk 1909: 65-69). Scholars of the pantomime tend to make little use of Libanius’s text, partly because the difficult text remained untranslated into any language until Margaret Molloy translated it into English in 2014. For Libanius, the pantomime was primarily an opportunity to display the authority of rhetoric to transform perceptions and attitudes. The pantomimes have a widely assumed reputation for bad morals. The task of rhetoric, then, is to show how skillful deployments of words can get the listener to believe that bad people can produce beautiful actions and that some actions are expressions of goodness even if only corrupt people can perform them. With this objective, it is not necessary to focus much on the details of pantomime performance; rather, the focus is consistently on the details of argumentation logic: “For who is unaware that we spend entire days in the theaters because of the number and variety of spectacles, where it is possible to see boxers, others fighting in single combat or matched against wild beasts, and still others doing acrobatics?  So then do we go straight from the viewing into a state of being just like what we see? Do the boxers make us stronger? Do we love killing through [seeing] men dressed in armor? Do the beast-baiters inspire us to take on a lion? Do we become more nimble at leaping thanks to the acrobats?” (Libanius 1908: Paragraph 60, 458-459; Dorchak 2000, n.p.; Malloy 2014: 158). Libanius here suggests that people do not imitate actions just because they enjoy watching them. But this point muddles his other point, that the beauty of pantomimic actions is independent of the moral character of those who perform them. Indeed, the implication of the passage is that the pantomimes perform actions which the spectator should not desire to imitate for apparently moral (rather than technical) reasons, such as men impersonating women, in which case it is necessary to discuss performance values in greater detail. Yet Libanius’s defense remains an important document of pantomime scholarship insofar as it dramatizes so suavely the central problem haunting practically all thinking about the pantomime in a literary mode: to what extent, if any, did the moral consternation associated with the pantomimes explain the nature and significance of pantomime performance and its audience?  This question looms over the assumption of modern sensibilities that the pantomime culture signifies a protracted period of “decay” in the public theater of the ancient world. But from Libanius’s perspective, it was difficult and perhaps absurd to equate pantomime performance with a “decay” of dramatic imagination, so it was not necessary to discuss performance values to construct a defense of them. 

            However, in his Table-Talk (Quaestiones convivales), IX, 15, composed around 100 CE, Plutarch (46 CE-120 CE), a scholar and aesthete, purports to describe to the Roman consul, Sossius Senecio, a banquet lecture by Ammonius, Plutarch’s teacher, on the subject of narrative dancing, in which Ammonius claims that “today nothing enjoys the benefits of bad taste so much as dancing,” for dancing, “having tyrannously brought almost all music under her sway […] is mistress of caprice and folly of the theaters, but has lost her honour among men who have intelligence and may properly be called divine” (Plutarch 1961: 297-299). In other words, Plutarch does associate the pantomime with a “decayed” art form, but he implies that this decay results from the corrupt taste of audiences rather than from the bad morals of dancers. Aesthetic decadence is for Plutarch primarily a problem of inferior “intelligence,” which marked the pantomime culture when the poetic voice became detached from the dancing body. Yet this supposed detachment may have occurred as much as three hundred years before Plutarch commented on it, and it may well be the case that the voice of the interpellator became a supplement to pyrrhic dancing without pantomime ever experiencing a phase in which the voice issued from the dancer.      

            The complex relation between bodily movement, language, and voice in the pantomime, which Plutarch only very lightly touches upon, is the fundamental source of controversy regarding the ancient literary evidence for this entertainment. The Latin commentary on the pantomime, while scattered over a wide assortment of incidental fragments, is perhaps even more mysterious than the Greek in its comprehension of the pantomime. Indeed, the most complete ancient description of any pantomime performance appears in Book X of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, written around 150 CE, wherein appears an elaborate account of an enactment of The Judgment of Paris at a theater in Corinth. But since this is a work of fiction, an underlying message of the account is that pantomime performance possesses a peculiar power to transform itself into something more imagined than actually seen: pantomime performance, like the transformation of the narrator into a donkey, is about metamorphosis, about the mutability and relativity of any activity designated as “real.” Moreover, Apuleius’s description of the pantomime is in tension with Wüst’s definition of it as the work of a soloist. The donkey narrator, having been condemned to copulate with a murderous woman as part of her public humiliation, must participate in a “triumph” celebrating the punishment. He is brought to a theater to attend festivities preceding the triumph. These include a pyrrhic dance performed by “gorgeously attired” boys and girls, who move in a “comely order,” and these performers, as William Adlington’s 1566 translation puts it, “would trip round together, sometime in length obliquely, sometime divide themselves in four parts, and sometime loose hands and group them on every side.” When the curtain rises on the stage, a young man appears, “a shepherd representing Paris, richly arrayed.” A second young man soon appears, “all naked,” and gives Paris a golden apple as commanded by Jupiter. Then three women enter, representing Juno, Minerva, and Venus, all attended by waiting servants, including Castor and Pollux. Juno plays the flute; Minerva is accompanied by Terror and Fear, followed by another flute player; Venus, the favorite of the audience, appears attended by a “great number of little boys” representing Cupids. After them arrives “a great multitude of fair maidens” impersonating the “comely Graces” and the “beautiful Seasons.” It is difficult to see how this elaborate passage, involving nine separately performed characters and “a great number” of others, describes a pantomime, when virtually all other ancient texts treat the genre as the work of a solo performer. But of course, the point of pantomime for the Romans was to produce a performance that escaped the control or even definition by words.  

            Because the ancient literary evidence is so vague on details of pantomime performance, the bulk of modern scholarship has dealt mostly with the status or social significance of pantomime performers. The aim of scholarship has been to show how the dubious moral reputation of the pantomimes discloses insight into the social, political, or moral fabric of the imperial Roman civilization, and most of the epigraphic evidence which has surfaced in this century generally serves to support an argument about the ambiguous social status assigned to the pantomimes and how this status clarifies relations or tensions between social classes.  Latte (1913), Bier (1920), Robert (1930), Weinreich (1941, 1948), Rotolo (1957), and Bonaria (1959) initiated a trend, supported entirely by epigraphic and philological evidence, of focusing on the pantomimes rather than on pantomimic performance, of dwelling on the problematic social-political identity of the pantomime performer rather than on the historical-aesthetic significance of the pantomime performance. Jory (1970, 1984, 1996), Leppin (1992), and Slater (1994) have pursued this literary perspective to produce a highly complex and enigmatic perception of the ambiguous, shadowy social identity ascribed to the pantomimes. But to build upon this impressive chain of scholarship, one must acknowledge that the extraordinary power the pantomimes exerted on public imagination, especially in the realm of political feeling, depended on their art. It depended on their mastery of a performance aesthetic whose function, for centuries, was to articulate the “mystery” or strangeness of human identity in a world that was much less certain of its relation to the gods, nature, and fate than one might suppose by focusing on the pantomimes as “disruptive” emblems of a precarious social hierarchy. How was it possible for pantomimes to acquire “influence” over audiences and publics if not through the seductive power of their performances? Regardless of their particular moral reputations, pantomime performers complicated perception of social identity in Roman culture by their association with a way of acting and moving, with a specific way of dramatizing and theatricalizing bodily expressivity that was distinct from other entertainers, such as mimes, gladiators, charioteers, and reciters. Kokolakis (1959, 1960) attempted to correlate a huge assortment of references and allusions (in Lucian) to pantomime and to theater in the ancient literature (especially Aristotle) in an effort to construct a detailed picture of pantomime culture as a profession, a vocation, a way of life. But the performance dimension still remained occluded or obscured by debate over the authenticity or credibility of statements. The significance of the pantomime as a cultural phenomenon, as a disclosure of complex attitudes toward identity, the body, action, power, freedom, space has never seemed to preoccupy the discourse. In any case, Kokolakis’s discussion of performance values, which relies too much on the authority of Lucian, projects an excessively static view of the pantomime as a form of entertainment that changed little over the course of centuries. The history of an art, in this case, becomes synonymous with its definition.

            It seems obvious that pantomime scholarship could supplement the many limitations of the ancient literary sources with iconographical and archeological evidence. But this approach entails peculiar difficulties that remain unresolved. Because the pantomime was a mode of dance theater, it makes sense to examine the imagery of ancient dance to get a serious understanding of how the pantomime exploited bodily movement to dramatize mythic scenes, especially when ancient writers themselves sometimes tangle up their discussion of the pantomime with references to other forms of dance. However, the relation between dance imagery and dance performance is by no means clear, even in modern times, and it is easy to underestimate the degree to which the pantomime complicated the dance culture of the ancient world if one overvalues the evidence of artworks to explain theatrical performance. The composer-scholar Maurice Emmanuel (1862-1938) produced a perhaps unsurpassed treatise on ancient Greek dancing (1896) that has served as a model for subsequent, excellent French scholarship on the subject by Prudhommeau (1965) and Delavaud-Roux (1993, 1994). Emmanuel systematically catalogued nearly six hundred ancient images of dance and categorized them according to numerous signifying practices: movements of particular body parts, steps, positions, rhythms, group movements, and combinations of movements. He further supplemented the ancient iconography with his own sequential photographs of a woman (sometimes in ancient costume) performing some of the movements to give an idea of the kinetic dimension to the ancient dance vocabulary. The overwhelming majority of images came from a time (before the Third Century BCE) that preceded the advent of pantomime culture and the professionalization of dance art. But Emmanuel contended that the movement vocabulary available in the pre-Hellenistic era differed little from that deployed in the ensuing centuries of Roman civilization; indeed, it was pretty much the same as the movement vocabulary available to Western civilization in the twentieth century. But a vocabulary of movement tropes is not the same thing as a performance culture. We have a dictionary of admissible movements, but no clear idea of how the ancient cultures constructed “sentences,” ideas, which we can call performances out of the vocabulary.  

            Germaine Prudhommeau (1965) built upon Emmanuel’s work to produce a huge, encyclopedic description of the ancient Greek dance vocabulary using over 800 photographic reproductions of ancient Greek and Roman artworks; and she correlated the imagery with literary sources to a greater degree than Emmanuel. Like Emmanuel, she concluded that the movement vocabulary of the ancient world was quite similar to that of Europe in the twentieth century, except that ballet possessed several positions that the Greeks never seemed to have discovered. Moreover, the visual evidence urged her to contend that ancient dance did not add anything significant to its vocabulary after the third century BCE, which implies that the pantomime, if considered a type of dance, relied entirely on a movement rhetoric that not only preceded it but remained unchanged during the centuries of its cultural prominence. While Prudhommeau made abundant reference to pantomime evidence in constructing the ancient movement vocabulary, she did not clarify how the pantomime mobilized the vocabulary on behalf of an objective that differed from those of other forms of dance, such as folk dancing, ritual dancing, and ceremonial dancing. Indeed, following Emmanuel, she acknowledged that the ancient peoples did not make a clear distinction between dance, gymnastics, and acrobatics. In an article on ceramic representations of the pyrrhic dance, which was the foundation of pantomimic movement, Poursat (1968: 560) asserts that art historians are reluctant to describe actions in an image as a “dance” unless the image contains the presence of a flute player, so easy is it to confuse representations of dance with representations of athletic prowess or merely decorative posing. Furthermore, Emmanuel (1896: 283) contended that “always, always the Greek dancer acted,” an observation that helps link the Greek movement vocabulary to the histrionic impulse dominating the pantomime. Acting involves the concept of an impersonated “character,” and a body becomes a character because it appears within specific narrative contexts that allow audiences to read signifying practices as constructs of characters. But neither Emmanuel nor Prudhommeau theorized relations between bodily movement and narrative, so it’s difficult to see which movement tropes, beyond the pyrrhic step, were especially efficacious in establishing the superior power of dramatic dancing in the public imagination. The mere fact that the pantomime performer wears an extravagant costume will shape the choice of movements. But costume choices do not naturally subordinate the expressive value of movement in creating characterizations, particularly in a genre that focused on the skill of the performer in designating characters through bodily gesture rather than through speech. On a higher theoretical plane, the failure to theorize relations between movement and narrative leaves completely obscure why the pantomime achieved unique professional status within the realm of “dance” and why the pantomime was a preferred mode of theatrical entertainment in the ancient world for nearly six centuries. This lack of theorization between movement and narrative has pretty much the same consequence as the lack of theorization between speech and movement in theater history of the same period. It creates the misleading impression that the “great” moments of dance in the ancient world occurred before the third century BCE and that the pantomime was a marginal deployment of a movement “language” which achieved maximum expressive power before the imperialistic rise of Roman control over Mediterranean cultures.

            In numerous articles published across three decades, Lillian Lawler (1898-1990) explained the historical evolution of ancient dance culture from a localized, cultic phenomenon to an international, professional art. Her work suggested that this transformation resulted from changed attitudes toward the expressive power of the body. In ritual dancing with a religious objective, the movement vocabulary of the body implied strong constraints on bodily movement to produce an “austere” or in any case appropriately serious expression of feeling (Lawler 1943), signified primarily by continual repetitions of a basic set of movements (Lawler 1946). Steps controlled the identity of the dance, and the effect of movement on the dancer, rather than on a spectator, determined the expressive power of the dance (Lawler 1927, regarding, especially, female bacchant dancing). By contrast, the expressive authority of pantomime, as a professional activity, depended above all on its effect on an audience. The pantomimes sustained the attention of audiences by continual and “surprising” variations of movements and through precisely calculated efforts to construct an exciting “image” of the body. Pantomimic action became a beautiful visual experience for spectators instead of an intense (and often exhausting) emotional adventure for the dancer (and village community). Of course, ritual or ceremonial dancing did not disappear with the rise of pantomime, but Lawler observed that ancient writers tended to view the difference between the two modes in terms of a “degeneration” or “corruption” of the “austere” mode by dancers with professional ambitions (Lawler 1943: 60-61). Pantomime associated bodily movement with voluptuous or erotic display of the body, and such display was apparently a constant sign of “degeneration” from the time of Horace to that of sixth century Christian ideologues. 

To heighten voluptuousness, the pantomime did not locate the identity of dance in steps or in footwork but in the upper body, especially the hands, arms, and head. The pyrrhic step remained the basic source of propulsion, while innovation focused almost exclusively on the upper body. It was probably the virtuoso use of hands that above all differentiated the professional performer from the occasional ceremonial dancer. Folk dances innovated, if at all, in the deployment of steps. But complexity of footwork does little to intensify the dramatic, visual qualities of dance, because increased complexity of steps tends to be dominated by rhythmic patterns that do not increase the emotional complexity of the spectator’s response to the movement. (Tap dancing, for example, often contains elaborately complex steps, but it seldom conveys more than a mood of cheerful, spirited “friendliness”; and in any case, professional tap dancers usually supplement their steps with precise and often contradictory upper body movements to make the body “say more” than any combination of foot movements or purely rhythmic structures alone seems capable of saying.) But because the iconographical evidence does not successfully clarify when the shift to upper body expressivity occurred, one relies on the “evidence,” confused and polemical as it is, of a “degeneration” in the performance culture of the ancients to determine the advent of the pantomimic aesthetic. In the Poetics(ca. 335 BCE), Aristotle (384-322 BCE) discusses tragedy in the theaters as if it were firmly under the control of literary texts and authors. He doesn’t even allude to the pantomime aesthetic as a threat to the performance of this genre: dance and musical elements remain strictly subordinate to the literary values that define the tragic performance culture. If we assume the Poetics is a late work in Aristotle’s career, then it seems unlikely that the pantomime, whose expressive power emerged within the institutionalized performance of tragic literary drama, did not gain control of the theater until after the death of Alexander and the stabilization of a new political order in the eastern Mediterranean. This order pursued an imperial vision of civilization at the expense of localized economies and cultural identities. The rise of pantomime coincided with the decay of the city-state as a model for the political organization of society. 

            Lawler’s prolific research focused on the localized nature of ancient dance and its relation to cult religions. Ancient dances, she argued, were expressions of and responses to religious myths within a comprehensive religious cult system that encouraged the fragmentation of Mediterranean civilization into small, localized political units. Religious beliefs, when manifested chiefly through cult activities, lack the power to unify localized cultures into a large-scale, transcultural political apparatus. In two books (1993, 1994), Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux has examined the extent to which religious dances survived (or did not survive) the historical pressures exerted upon the originating, localized cultures. The ancient religious dances, she implies, generally did not survive intact beyond the Hellenistic era. Rather, elements of dances survived into modern times (as Emmanuel and Prudhommeau had already suggested) as a result of an ambiguous signifying practice that allowed them to communicate a secular meaning outside of their cult context. Delavaud-Roux’s research concentrated on the migratory expressive value of the “pyrrhic” movement (1993), which was a fundamental component of the pantomime aesthetic, and on the degree to which the performance of Greek literary drama incorporated dance elements, especially in choral passages. She tends to emphasize ancient dance as a group rather than individual activity (1994: 23, 145-179). In setting up a distinction between male-driven “armed dances” in the pyrrhic mode and female-driven “pacific dances” in a gestural mode, she furthermore revealed the authority of sexual difference to shape the secular institutionalization of bodily expressivity in the civic theater. In the theater, the male body became the locus for a synthesis of the pyrrhic and gestural modes of movement, women being forbidden to perform there. But this synthesis had the effect of heightening the association of dancing with masking, with the signification of multiple, conflicted, and concealed identities within the body. Because she focused on the shift from cultic to theatrical dance performance, Delavaud-Roux’s research did not extend much beyond the Hellenistic era. She greatly marginalized the later shift from literary-vocal to pantomimic-bodily expressivity in theatrical performance; indeed, she treated the pantomime as but a remote echo of the pre-Hellenistic dance culture rather than as an art which had superceded that culture and rendered it remote for audiences in the imperial political environment.  

Fritz Weege’s Der Tanz in der Antike (1926) had the great advantage of integrating the pantomime (considered as a distinctly Roman art form) into a wide, international cultural perspective that included not only the substantial contributions of the Greeks to dance culture, but those of the Egyptians, the Etruscans, the Minoans, the Jews, and various ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Weege insightfully viewed the pantomime as a refined art form feeding off a complex cultural heritage. But he nevertheless regarded it as a minor, almost incidental achievement. In comparison with the other cultures that preceded it, what above all marked the Roman contribution to dance art (or rather, marked the pantomime during the Roman Empire) was its “poverty” of imagination and lack of “fullness” in the appreciation of dance. For the Romans failed to value the dance as “a splendid instrument for the harmonic education of the body” (147). Because of a presumed suspicious, Roman attitude toward dancing bodies pervading the Empire, the pantomime, despite its considerable aesthetic complexity, became a symptom of decay or decline in the fortunes of ancient dance. A “full” appreciation of ancient dance apparently manifested itself more appropriately in some mysterious cult context, where, however, the sexual identities of dancers, at least in iconic representations, were less ambiguous than in the professional milieu of the theater. Weege’s book contains a curious tension. On the one hand, he presents the “ancient dance” as a panorama of intersecting cultures. On the other hand, he marginalizes the pantomime as a decadent, over-refined phenomenon because it was in a sense too international, too lacking in a specific (localized) cultural identity. And this internationalism resulted apparently from an “unharmonic” Roman perception of the body as a fundamentally theatrical manifestation constantly capable of provocative (and often disturbing) transformation, metamorphosis, and instability of identity, not least of all in the realm of sexual difference.  

            A more precise image of the historical significance ascribed to the pantomime now emerges. In modern histories, the pantomime appears as a marginal or “decadent” phenomenon. It is decadent for a variety of reasons.

  1. Some ancient writers, even defenders of the pantomime, refer to a time when dramatic dance embodied cherished values that have waned during the time they are writing. 
  2. Male dancers impersonated female roles in a manner that was apparently excessively voluptuous compared with the impersonations of female roles by tragic actors in the pre-Hellenistic theater.
  3.  The social status of pantomimes was much lower than that of tragic actors in the pre-Hellenistic theater, and because they lacked social prestige (which somehow negated their star appeal for often huge audiences), they were vulnerable to lives of dubious moral repute that somehow tarnished their artistry in the theater. 
  4. The pantomime detached language and speech from the body of the dancer and made the body the dominant source of expressive value in theatrical performance.
  5. The pantomime aesthetic displayed little respect for literary texts and authors, for all language, music, and decorative effects took their cues from and remained subordinate to the expressive values emanating from the body of a star pantomime. This aesthetic therefore produced no important literary texts, no “life” independent of its performance context.
  6. Because star performers rather than educated literary minds controlled the theater, pantomime performance was much more about acting as a pervasive reality than about characters in an imaginary (and remote) world. Imperial audiences for centuries clearly favored a sort of deconstructive treatment of ancient mythic material rather than efforts to construct the illusion of a mythic world that inspired enduring belief in its repertoire of heroic images, ideals, or spiritual ideologies. 

            But when was this (mythic) time in which dramatic dance was not decadent? It was that time, apparently, when theatrical performance entailed a superior unity of mind and body–that is to say, it was that time when text and speech dominated and indeed regulated bodily expressivity. No one provides anything resembling a precise date when dramatic dance was not decadent. In the Ars Poetica, written around 12-8 BC, Horace (65 BCE-8 BCE) condemned the “lasciviousness” of dancers in the theater and the enthusiasm of audiences for bodily spectacle (ll. 212-222), but he clearly assumed that it was still possible for authors of dramatic texts to reclaim the theater and move it to a “higher” level of achievement, provided they followed correct rules of dramatic composition which were by no means original to himself. Horace himself acknowledged that his model was archaic, not only for dramatic composition but for the relation between author and performance. That the fifth century Athenian theater of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides scarcely described the reality of Roman theater in his time did not trouble his attachment to an ideal that had survived for so long on paper rather than on the stage. This model was also Aristotle’s in the Poeticsover three hundred years earlier, for while he did not write with Horace’s stern determination to restore order and sobriety to an overly sensuous theater, he obviously preferred examples of drama from the previous century rather than from his own time. Laws of dramatic composition preoccupied him less than principles for appreciating elements of tragic performance that justified the writing of dramas in the first place. For Aristotle, it was only necessary to remind audiences of Alexander’s time of powerful social-philosophical values embedded in the authority of literary language; such authority already resided in the great dramas of the previous century. By Horace’s time, it was necessary to impose strict laws and rules of composition to establish the authority of a literary language (Latin) in a theater culture that, even before the comedy writer Plautus (ca. 254 BCE-184 BCE), consistently evaded and even repudiated such authority. But the authority of language is a political matter, a resource through which a culture articulates and circulates power, control over consciousness. Yet no one could argue persuasively that the authority of the Latin language in general decayed during either the Republic or the Empire. Nor for that matter did the authority of the Greek language decay, even though it failed to produce any tragic drama comparable to the achievements of fifth century Athens. Nor can one truthfully say that theater culture failed to attract serious literary work because it lacked the “authority” authors sought for language. If anything, the authority of theater was never greater than when the pantomimes controlled it, and the phenomenon of “decadence” may actually operate according to a different principle. The decline of literary drama coincided with the rise of a spectacular theater architecture and with a monumental expansion of public investment in and enthusiasm for theater, for the Empire provided theatrical performance spaces on a scale unprecedented for any civilization.  

            The focus of so much pantomime scholarship on the dubious social status or diminished social prestige of performers has created the impression that the pantomimes are interesting, not because of what they did in performance, but because their curious political identity encourages the formation of critical perspectives on the limitations of power and authority held by emperors, governments, ideologies, and audiences. The pantomimes appear as strange figures of popular culture whose function was to mediate underlying tensions between various political “factions,” between imperial elites and broad public sentiments, and in this role they contributed to the evolution of an expanding authority of popular sentiment within imperial-authoritarian political systems. But such scholarship tends to assign this mediating role to a generic (marginalized, stigmatized) class status imposed upon the pantomimes, not to semiotic values identified with pantomime performance. The effect in the end is to affirm the sovereign power and authority of class structures rather than to reveal the power and authority of a unique mode of bodily performance. Moreover, deeply embedded in the discourse on the social status of the pantomimes lies a largely implied attitude toward the professionalization of theatrical art. The decline of the literary drama also coincides with the rise of professionalism in theatrical performance and the desire for an all-year-long theater culture free of confinement within the localized, cultic notion of an annual dramatic festival or contest that kept performances strictly regulated during only a two-week period. Popular demand for constant theatrical entertainment depended on performers who devoted their lives to performance and whose livelihood depended on performance. The social status of performers declined because they appeared in the theater for money or favors and not for the honors, trophies, and hallowed laurels bestowed mostly on the very privileged, aristocratic men who performed in the cultic milieu. Professional performers understood the appetite of audiences for the performance of exciting personalities rather than for the effacement of personalities behind the masks of imaginary mythic characters. Performers found themselves obligated to audiences, to the fickle reality of human desires; audiences seldom felt themselves obligated to pay humbling respect to any sort of heroic ideal that lived more in words than in the body. With the expansion of Roman power in the Mediterranean, the status of performers sank even further, to the point that many performers were slaves, whose pursuit of freedom dominated their motives for performance and their desire to acquire the favor of audiences. The Romans hugely amplified the physical scale of theater in cultural life, but the monumental scale always worked to create an aura of tremendous power in the audience to decide the fate and fortunes of the performer, a living body. It did not create an aura of tremendous power in literary language or authors to articulate the fate and fortunes of audiences, whose identities in any case invariably seem less real than those of performers and sometimes even literary characters.  

            Such circumstances were responsible for the corruption of public veneration for serious literary drama, or so one can easily infer from the way the pantomime aesthetic has been marginally situated within ancient cultural history. But a further political complication arises from the perception that dance, as well as literary, studies tend to venerate the pre-Hellenistic era–or rather, the pre-imperial period, since the imperial world view emerged with Hellenism, with the Macedonian invasion of Greece and the ensuing ambitions of Alexander. The decadence of theater culture then appears to coincide with the ascent of imperial politics, which definitely subordinate the authority of local cultures to a transcultural concept of power rooted, essentially, in a centralized organization of military and economic resources. With their small scale of power, local cultures seem more “democratic” because it is easier to see in them how representations “speak for” the society as a whole and constitute a basis for generalizations.  Democracy means “common people” having a “voice.” And when voice achieves the complexity of public utterance ascribed to literary drama, democratic ideals achieve affirmation. Even if modern ideas about democracy are remote from the reality of democracy in pre-Hellenistic Greece (Athens), the modern world still regards the Athenian example as the hallowed origin of an infinitely greater modern reality. Sophisticated literary language connects people to a complex metaphysical reality. But as the Greeks apparently discovered by the end of the fifth century, it does not connect people to a more intense or enlarged awareness of physical reality, because it is always trying to get people to see something hidden behind physical reality. In theatrical performance, a larger and more intense sense of the physical reality in which culture articulates itself occurs when perception focuses on the movement of the body in space and time, especially when bodily movement operates in different performance contexts, as the pantomime aesthetic did. The preoccupation with the body (rather than with the voice) as the dominant sign of expressive value in theatrical performance belongs to an imperial view of culture. An imperial perspective favors communication systems that transcend linguistic boundaries and make the body (rather than language, nature, or supernatural forces) the defining element of physical reality. The authority of law depends on the bodies that enforce the law, and the authority of bodies (above all military bodies) to define the physical reality of law depends on the skill of bodies to command space and perception. Such is the logic supporting the long, imperial-era preoccupation with bodily performance and the pantomime aesthetic. Conventional modern views of imperial politics tend to suppose that the concept of empire is antithetical to democratic sentiment. Powerful elites or oligarchies, according to conventional thinking, impose imperial ambitions on huge masses of people, and theater history informed by democratic ideals pursues the task of showing how these ambitions constrain perception, squander opportunities for more truthful representations of reality, or disclose unfortunate tensions between rulers and ruled. That broad masses of people should assume responsibility for the creation of imperial ambitions obviously contradicts the democratic belief that they are not important beneficiaries of these ambitions. Yet large and diverse audiences were indeed responsible for the shift from a language-oriented to a body-oriented performance culture, not lawmakers and certainly not authors. The preoccupation with bodily expressivity entailed a larger appreciation of the physical rather than mythic nature of identity, which in turn entailed an enduring disillusionment with the power of literary language to release the body (and identity) from the oppressive constraints imposed upon it by highly localized cultures. Pantomime glorified the authority of the body to move with greater freedom and independence in the world rather than in a community. 

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