Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Nudity

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

PDF version of the entire book.


Indeed, the display of nudity shaped audience perception of the pantomime much more than the display of extraordinary costumes. The pyrrhic movement was originally a display of warrior nudity [Figure 9]. Visual artists for centuries pervasively depicted dancers in various degrees of nudity. Recently, Pierre Cordier (2005) has described at length the extent to which imperial Roman civilization encouraged and discouraged the display of nudity according to an elaborate, uninscribed code that designated when the display of nudity was appropriate, depending on the social relations between those displaying their nudity and those viewing it. Nudity was appropriate in art only in relation to certain themes; it was appropriate in public only in relation to particular functions, including the theater and bathing, but never in relation to a situation in which nudity leveled distinctions between social classes or social status. Indeed, the code may have been so intricate that it regulated degrees of exposure of the body, thus encouraging in the pantomime scenes in which otherwise nude performers wore masks. Art that represented mythic themes was abundant with nude or partially nude figures, and in images related to Dionysos (Bacchus), nudity was almost inescapable [Figure 27]. The pantomime sought to “bring to life” the sort of mythic images that appeared in paintings, friezes, sculptures, and mosaics; performance functioned to affirm the “reality” of myth, although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that myth functioned to affirm the idea of a “reality” that existed beyond the power of the culture to define or control it but within the power of individuals to experience. In The Golden Ass, Apuleius uses the “Judgment of Paris” scene to show how the “perfect beauty” of the naked and almost naked bodies of the male and female performers has the effect of metamorphosing a glamorous myth of selecting the most beautiful body into the communal “reality” (that is, pleasure) of enjoying the bestial degradation of a murderous, “wicked harlot.” Literary chroniclers sometimes make disparaging remarks about the immodesty of the pantomimes to indicate the moral decadence of the culture about which they are writing. In his Roman History, written about 30 CE, Veillius Paterculus (19 BCE–31 CE) explains (ii.83) how the “treacherous” general Glaucus Plancus, assigned by Caesar to guard his former employer Cleopatra, staged a banquet pantomime in which he performed the role of Glaucus the Nereid, “a dance in which his naked body was painted blue, his head encircled with reeds, at the same time wearing a fish’s tail and crawling upon his knees” (Veillius 1924: 227). Nearly six hundred years after Plancus performed his dance, Procopius, in the Secret History, described (9.15) how Theodora (500-548 CE), future empress of Byzantium, displayed her nudity before pantomime audiences. By referring to state regulation of nudity, he makes clear that nudity was an expected feature of pantomime performance: 

She would throw off her clothes and exhibit naked to all and sundry regions, both in front and behind, which the rules of decency require to be kept veiled and hidden from masculine eyes. […] Often in the theater, too, in full view of all the people she would throw off her clothes and stand naked in their midst, having only a girdle about her private parts and her groins—not, however, because she was ashamed to expose these also to the public, but because no one is allowed to appear there absolutely naked; a girdle around the loins is compulsory. With this minimum covering she would spread herself out and lie face upward on the floor. Servants upon whom this task was imposed would sprinkle over her private parts, and geese trained for the purpose used to pick them off one by one with their bills and swallow them. Theodora, so far from blushing when she stood up again, actually seemed to be proud of this performance. […] Many times she threw off her clothes and stood in the middle of the actors on the stage, leaning over backwards or pushing out her behind to invite both those who had already enjoyed her and those who had not been intimate yet, parading her own special brand of gymnastics (Procopius 1966: 83-85).

Lucian defended the pantomime against accusations of excessively voluptuous nudity by ignoring them, although these, of course, eventually became an obsessive feature in the anti-theater diatribes of early Christian propagandists, such as Tertullian, for whom the pantomimes best typify that “immodesty of gesture and attire which so specially and peculiarly characterizes the stage” (Tertullian, De spectaculis, 10.84). Instead, Lucian justified what for him were the merely modest costumes of the pantomimes by condemning the affection of actors for ludicrously extravagant costumes in the performances of spoken literary dramas: “As far as tragedy is concerned, let us form our first opinion of its character from it outward appearance. What a repulsive and at the same time frightful spectacle is a man tricked out to disproportionate stature, mounted upon high clogs, wearing a mask that reaches above his head, with a mouth that is set in a vast yawn as if he meant to swallow up the spectators! I forbear to speak of pads for the breast, for the paunch, wherewith he puts on adscititious, counterfeit corpulence, so that the disproportion in height may not betray itself the more conspicuously in a slender figure” (Lucian 1936: 241). In any case, a costume was significant and beautiful, not because it accurately or glamorously bestowed rank, importance, class, or wealth upon either the character or the performer, but because, along with sensuous movements, it invited the spectator to evaluate the whole performance in relation to the erotic appeal of the performer’s body. Pantomime identified erotic appeal with the “incarnation” of a mythic persona. But to say that pantomime “reduced” erotic appeal to the incarnation of a mythic persona is to miss the point of this art and to betray an anxiety about the phenomenon of incarnation that did not afflict audiences in antiquity. 

Figure 27: Nudity of mythic identities appears in a wall painting from Pompeii, first century CE, showing Andromeda and Perseus, in the Museo Nazionale, Naples. Photo: Maiuri (1953).

Previous Section

Next Section


Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s