Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Consequences of the Pantomime Riots

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

Consequences of the Pantomime Riots

The pantomime riots of 14 CE arose out of a profound cultural shift that emerged with the new emperor. During the reign of Augustus, pantomimes were freedmen, like Pylades and Bathyllus, and perhaps mostly from distant regions of the empire. These pantomimes could treat their performances as a business, selling shows to those who found these entertainments useful in building political opportunities. Augustus curbed the “lawlessness” (Suetonius Augustus 45.4) of the pantomimes by instituting (2 CE) a rigid hierarchy of seating in the theater (Suetonius Augustus 44.1-2) that situated spectators according to their social rank; he also had actors scourged and banished for offending persons of superior rank; the lex Julia (18 BCE) had already codified the inferior status of actors. However, the erotic charisma of the pantomimes extended well beyond the theater, and Augustus’s laws were obviously ineffective in controlling it. Therefore, according to Tacitus, the Senate forbade knights to “surround” pantomimes as they “go forth” in public. Why would knights surround pantomimes on the streets? The most persuasive answer is that knights who favored or sponsored a particular pantomime moved in entourages through the streets as a way of proclaiming their affiliation and gathering audiences—a kind of promotional stunt or procession. Pantomimes received protection from the knights against hostile parties attached to rival pantomimes and political factions. Even though pantomimes may have received generous compensation under Augustus, it is difficult to believe they could earn enough to pay for fan clubs or claques, which Libanius (Orations 41.9), speaking of Antioch in the fourth century CE, claimed to reach as many as 400 persons per claque, although Alan Cameron (1976: 234) does contend that the pantomimes paid for their claques“to ensure that their act was adequately appreciated.” However, the only evidence he presents to support this assertion is a vague quotation from John Chrysostom (Homilies in Matthew 37. 6-7): claques “sell their voices to their bellies. For the sake of three obols they prostitute their salvation to the dancers,” which does not really clarify who pays the three obols (Leyerle 2001: 39). Indeed, he goes on to refer to sources, Eunapius (Vita Sophistrarium VI. 2. 8) and Suetonius (Nero 20. 3) that comment on emperors, Constantine and Nero, who paid for their theater claques, with Nero paying 40,000 sesterces to leaders of different sections within his imperial claque, which, Suetonius says, consisted of 5,000 young men “from the common people.” 

William Slater (1994: 139-144) does not clarify why the knights surrounded pantomimes in the streets, but nevertheless he proposes that the riots resulted from the desire of knights to become pantomimes themselves. The knights, he says, were willing to risk the ignominy thelex Julianaimposed on them for pursuing careers on stage to acquire the huge sums of money pantomimes could earn. The unwillingness of Tiberius to provide sufficiently generous funding for the Augustalia contests, Slater argues, diminished this career option. The Emperor and the Senate, he contends, embodied a conservative Roman hostility toward the emasculating influence of the Greek gymnasium, with its oiled and perfumed bodies and pleasure in the display of male physiques, which the pantomimes apparently appropriated with great success. But this attitude seems to belong to the era of the Republic. What more likely agitated the Senate was the hooliganism and extortionate behavior of the claques than any threat to Roman morality from the seductive aura of Greek body culture. Presumably Tiberius did not want his administration evaluated according to the expectations and values identified with Augustus. If he accommodated the claques’ demand for greater pantomime subsidies, then the Emperor (and members of the Senate) risked getting caught up in an escalating cost of managing political ambitions that did not align with his own. By capping the cost of pantomimes, the Emperor and the Senate made it more difficult at least for knights to outbid each other to retain the services of pantomimes whose performances as “gifts” to the public played a significant role in forming and clarifying the constituencies of the performance sponsors. The idea behind the legislation was to make it harder to create pantomime stars by inflating their salaries or by associating star power with the money invested in a star and the claque attached to the star. While some knights may have announced a desire to appear on the stage and become stars themselves, it is quite possible that such announcements were a form of posturing, a ploy to publicize their ambition to shape a new, post-Augustean direction for themselves, and behaving as if they were exempt, immune, or indifferent to the lex Juliana helped to disclose this ambition. The dominant goal of these knights was to use pantomime performance to establish power bases that would enable imperial opportunities for them. From Tiberius’s perspective, a “new direction” implied moving away from the idea that aristocrats could buy constituencies and opportunities by allowing the imperial government to escalate the cost of those opportunities. Tacitus and Suetonius (Tiberius 46-47) describe the Emperor’s distaste for subsidies of almost any sort and his awareness that when he (or Augustus) had been charitable, their generosity did not make reliable friends. When the Senate heard the plea of Hortalus for a subsidy to his distinguished but financially troubled family, Tiberius withheld sympathy, for “if a man is to have nothing to hope or fear from himself, industry will languish, indolence thrive, and we shall have the whole population waiting, without a care in the world, for outside relief, incompetent to help itself, and an incubus to us” and “if we drain [the Treasury] by favouritism, we shall have to refill it by crime” (Tacitus, Annals II, 38; 1931: 441). The failure of Hortalus to improve his family fortunes even after Tiberius reluctantly provided him a subsidy could only reinforce the Emperor’s conviction that indulging aristocratic ambitions at state expense was not helpful in strengthening his own position. Tiberius’s aversion to making public appearances nourished his aversion to spending on public works projects, including, certainly, the theater, where apparently he believed many in the audience circulated unkind words about him (Suetonius, Tiberius 66). Tiberius was hardly the most exemplary proponent of the “bread and circus” philosophy of governance. Nevertheless, he appreciated the political value of pantomime performance, for he did not wish to eliminate it, only to curb the extortionist violence of the claques. The cap on star performer salaries meant that pantomime sponsors could not build constituencies around the status, popularity or wealth of star performers; constituencies would emerge in relation to deep uncertainty about the “real” economic value of the performance talent. But this uncertainty would actually encourage the expansion of pantomime culture rather than its decay.  

The legislation of 15 CE led rather to the decay of the professional pantomime, to the decay of the commercial development of the art. Under Augustus, the incentive for becoming a pantomime arose from the belief that acquiring pantomime skills from those educated in the art according to the Greek model as processed by the Alexandrian school of pantomime was an appealing path to upward mobility within imperial society. Under Tiberius, it became very difficult for a professional pantomime to amass enough wealth to achieve serious, if indeed any, upward mobility. The law forbidding knights to enter the home of any pantomime had the effect of compelling aristocrats to summon pantomimes to their own homes if they wanted to do business with the performers. But even summoning the professional pantomimes might prove unhelpful in developing political ambitions if the supply of professionals remained limited and it was no longer convenient to outbid one’s rivals to obtain their services. The most efficient method for developing the pantomime culture was within the villa domain itself, by training slaves and freedmen to emulate the professionals. Villa owners could improve their status by their success in perfecting the talent of the people they “owned.” Under Tiberius, pantomime performance shifted away from independent, entrepreneurial ensembles to adjuncts of villa households. The rivalry between Bathyllus and Pylades assumed a legendary status in public consciousness, as rivalry between factions and between ensemble owners dominated the evolution of the art. Theaters became secondary or auxiliary sites of performance, which took place primarily in villas. The art became dispersed and fragmented as it spread further from Rome. Such codification of the art as derived from the Alexandrian school weakened as performers groomed within the villa milieu absorbed more local influences, tastes, and distinctions. Innovation in performance occurred less systematically and probably more often as ensembles responded to local opportunities, resources, and objectives. Competition between owners for constituencies most likely intensified the introduction of innovations and variations in performance more quickly than would have been the case had the Greco-Alexandrian model remained entrenched. The end of the Augustalia did not mean the end of public contests between pantomimes in Rome or elsewhere. But it did mean that success in the contests depended on unique or novel performance qualities rather than on how well performance honored Augustus or any subsequent emperor, especially Tiberius, who showed little interest in public competitions of any sort. While the Tiberian legislation of 15 CE led to the decay and probable extinction of a distinct professional class of pantomimes, it facilitated, accelerated, and expanded upward class mobility for slaves and freedmen who became pantomimes. Slaves who were pantomimes enjoyed higher status within the slave hierarchy than many slaves who were not pantomimes, and slave pantomimes could well believe that strong performance skills were a path to manumission. Freedmen who were pantomimes of course enjoyed even higher status if they were on a sponsor’s payroll or benefited from a sponsor’s investment. They achieved this status because of the claques attached to them, the entourages or gangs that presumably were also on the sponsor’s payroll. Within this villa-controlled organization of the art, pantomimes had little incentive to act independently of their owners or sponsors or to auction themselves off to the highest bidder. Violence between rival factions probably did not disappear altogether, but pantomime riots approaching, indeed exceeding, the magnitude of the 14 and 15 CE riots did not arise until much later in the empire, in the fourth century and far from Rome. The transition from Augustus to Tiberius clarified in public consciousness that the knights could not use their wealth, position, or resentments to build careers, power bases, or constituencies by financing extortionate violence. But the transition also confirmed that the pantomime was a valuable instrument of political power, a fundamental representation of the empire’s capacity to provide upward class mobility. The transition established that the pantomime was an art belonging, so to speak, to the aristocracy, and efforts to make it a “popular” art, as perhaps the knights from the tribune sector tried to assert through the riots of 14 and 15, would not succeed, no matter how big or passionate the fan clubs might become. Any art that is a “gift” to the public is not really popular. The public delighted in pantomimes and showed great and even quite discerning appreciation of their skills, but pantomime did not become an art that encouraged the public to see itself represented beyond the image of a solitary moving figure, within whom lived manifold mythic identities. The gift-economy of the pantomime milieu implied that both pantomimes and their audience always “owed” something to the gift givers. Pantomime codified a political compact between the aristocracy and the public (constituencies) that stabilized the hierarchical class structure of the empire and located the possibilities of class mobility (“metamorphosis”) entirely within the actions of a solitary individual rather than within the collective movements of a social class.

As the villa owners assumed greater responsibility for pantomime culture, they saw opportunities to use their pantomimes for other kinds of performance than entertainments in the peristyle, one of which included processions. Tacitus’s remark that the new law forbade knights to “surround” pantomimes in the streets suggests that in Augustus’s time, professional pantomime stars created their own processions as they moved about the streets with their entourages. Public processions had been a frequent and much appreciated feature of Roman and Italian life for a very long time, with the Etruscans, though not deeply interested in developing complex public urban spaces, nevertheless apparently enthusiastic about some kinds of processional spectacle that are difficult to decipher yet probably inspired imitation or emulation by neighboring societies (Steingräber 1986: 301; plates 64 and 65; Torelli 2000: 127, 239). 

Processions were largely civic and communal activities that could occur on manifold occasions depending on the goals of their sponsors. A procession could celebrate a religious ritual, a birthday, a marriage, a harvest, an inauguration, the dedication of a building or a holiday; it could also accompany a funeral or the appearance of a government official. Processions appear to have been commonplace throughout the empire, yet information is very scarce about how they worked as performances. Even the most spectacular processions, associated with the infrequent “triumphs” in Rome honoring generals who achieved great victories (Beard 2007: 69), have little documentation to explain them and much ancient writing about the triumphs is tangled up with mythic or fanciful statements designed to advance a particular writer’s agenda long after the events described. In The Deipnosophistae (V, ii, 193c-203d; 1928: 377-421), Athenaeus, writing around 200 CE from a lost Greek source, described in great detail an enormous procession celebrating Dionysios staged nearly five hundred years earlier in Egypt by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. No document exists that describes a Roman procession in even remotely similar detail, although Appian, in The Mithridatic Wars (116-117, ca. 155 CE), does describe, in some detail, the triumph in Rome that Pompey sponsored in 61 BCE as memorable for its spectacular display of vast, sumptuous, and exotic plunder confiscated from the defeated Mithridates. Ptolemy Philadelphus’s procession was memorable not only for the many thousands of richly attired persons who paraded along with a huge entourage of exotic animals, but for the stupefying array of gold objects displayed in each section of the enormous event. Athanaeus provided lavish detail on this procession because the purpose of the procession was to display the immeasurable wealth of Ptolemy Philadelphus, to reveal an unsurpassable capacity for luxury. The Romans seemed to have experienced a conflicted understanding of the function of the triumph, which was an Etruscan invention (Dumezil: 1966 Vol. 2, 566): was the procession a representation of a sponsor’s or community’s wealth or of its power, for some commentators and the Senate itself viewed ostentatious displays of wealth as corrupting and leading to the decay rather than the consolidation of power? While the infrequent triumphs sponsored by victorious generals incorporated into their processions a display of the plunder they had confiscated from their defeated foes, the triumphal processions themselves functioned above all to display power, not wealth. The famous sculptural depictions of the triumphal procession on the Arch of Titus in Rome (82 CE) are remarkable for their elegant, vivid, commanding, and seriously (almost somberly) posed bodies, with the muscular horses of Titus’s chariot foregrounded to emphasize an idea of imperial power under the emperor’s reins that even the noble bodies around him cannot match. The section showing the procession somberly carrying the menorah and trumpets captured in Jerusalem in 70 CE is likewise remarkable for its skillful symbolic evocation of triumph over a culture that possessed great wealth—originally the menorah and trumpets were painted gold against a blue background (Piening 2013), which dramatizes effectively the idea of wealth as the object of conquest while the object of procession is to glorify the power of conquering bodies. But this image of the triumph idealizes the event. Supposedly triumphs required the approval of the Senate, which expected participants in the procession to present an image of dignity, nobility, an even solemnity, as perhaps modeled by the procession of nobles represented in the frieze of the Augustan Ara Pacis (13 BCE). However, as Mary Beard (2007: 67-68) has observed, some ancient writers reflecting on the triumphs, sometimes hundreds of years after they happened, complained that they were evidence and cause of decadent extravagance, a corrupting public appetite for luxury and ostentatious display of wealth. But the precipitous decline in triumphs during the imperial era had less to do with moral concern over presumed deleterious effects of extravagant displays of plunder and more to do with imperial usurpation and consolidation of large scale public ceremonies. As Beard remarks: “it was not in the interests of the new autocracy to share with the rest of the elite the fame and prominence that a full triumphal ceremony might bring, especially military prominence” (2007: 70). 

While the triumph may have been the summit of processional performance in the Roman world, it is by no means clear to what extent the extravagance or solemnity of triumphal processions modeled the use of pantomimes in commonplace processions throughout the empire. In his description of Pompey’s triumph celebrating the victory over Mithridates, Appian (XII.17) says that the procession included tableaux or staged scenes of Mithridates’ fall:

There were carried in the procession images of those who were not present, of Tigranes and of Mithridates, representing them as fighting, as vanquished, and as fleeing. Even the besieging of Mithridates and his silent flight by night were represented. Finally it was shown how he died, and the daughters who perished with him were pictured also, and there were figures of the sons and daughters who died before him, and images of the barbarian gods decked out in the fashion of their countries (Appian 1899 I: 410). 

This procession occurred forty years before the apparent introduction of pantomimes to Rome. But Livy contended (History of Rome 39.6) (ca. 10-12 CE) that the triumph celebrating Cneius Manlius Vulso’s defeat of the “Asiatic Gauls” in 187 BCE, in which considerable riches confiscated from the Gauls were displayed, revealed that “it was through the army serving in Asia that the beginnings of foreign luxury were introduced into the City,” including “girls who played on the harp and sang and danced” at banquets. In other words, the use of performers in triumphal processions did not coincide with the introduction of pantomimes to Rome, and it can be assumed that during the imperial era the use of pantomimes in more commonplace processions was not an especially bold innovation. Most processions did not exist to display the wealth of the sponsoring community; they functioned to display the stability and unity of the community, its veneration of traditions, of heroes, gods, distinctive events (such as marriages, births, deaths, and harvests), and festive occasions. They probably followed formats that varied little from performance to performance, and some processions probably contained elements that resemble processions still performed in parts of Italy today. But the introduction of pantomimes into a procession does entail a unique political dimension because of the alignment of pantomimes with the factions or claques controlled by the ensemble owners. In other words, the presence of pantomimes in a procession could undermine communal unity, if pantomime owners and their factions were rivals for power and were not able to agree on the conditions under which public processions involving their pantomimes would prevail. Extant historical sources are not much help in clarifying how disruptive such potential for communal disunity was, but then the historical sources do not provide much evidence about how processions in general operated or how ambitious politicians built up their power bases at the local level. Nevertheless, after the legislation of 15 CE, nothing in the historical sources indicates that the presence of pantomimes in the streets or as performers in processions in Rome or elsewhere was a cause for concern at the imperial level.

Figure 53: Third century mosaics of religious processions. Top: The Triumph of Bacchus, Sousse Museum, Tunisia. Bottom: Dionysian procession, from El Jem, Musee National du Bardo, Tunisia.

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