Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime and Political Affiliations

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

Bust of the Emperor Lucius Verus (130-169 CE), reigned (with his brother Marcus Aurelius) 161-169 CE. Verus brought to Italy pantomimes from the Eastern part of the Empire and in doing so precipitated the shift of pantomime from an aristocratic to an imperial entertainment. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Pantomime and Political Affiliations

Another feature of pantomime culture was its involvement with the factions attached to chariot racing teams in various cities, particularly in the eastern part of the empire. This involvement apparently only occurred late in the history of the empire; Alan Cameron (1976: 194-195) cannot find evidence for an earlier date than 490 CE. But the evidence for the involvement focuses on the social disorders that resulted from it. Why this peculiar involvement occurred when and where it did requires some background.

            The legislation of 15 CE regulating pantomime performances did not put an end to troubles attributed to these artists and their sponsors. In 23 CE, according to Suetonius (Tiberius 37, 2), Tiberius exiled leaders of factions and the pantomimes they supported after a bloody incident in a theater, although Dio Cassius (lvii, 21, 3) suggests, with even less clarity, that he banished all actors from Rome because they debauched women and caused “tumult.” It is hard to discern much from these sparse remarks by historians writing long after the event. Did Tiberius ban all pantomimes or all actors or only some pantomimes who had violated the law of 15 CE? Did banishing pantomimes mean that the pantomimes could not perform in public theaters? Or does it mean that they could not live in Rome and perform in villas? Are the “leaders of the factions” different from the sponsors of the factions? Perhaps the most one can take from these remarks is that something involving the pantomimes and their factions happened in a theater, and the emperor, always suspicious of any public entertainment, felt compelled to intervene with a measure of severity. Dio (lix, 2, 3) says that upon the death of Tiberius (37 CE), Caligula “at once” recalled the actors, implying that the actors had not been banished to remote places but could simply be summoned to the stage without difficulties. What had actors been doing for fourteen years that allowed them to restore theater culture to Rome “at once”? Presumably they had performed and educated new actors in provincial towns and in villas located outside Rome. What is clear, though, is that Tiberius never considered pantomimes as a threat to morality or public order outside Rome. Only the attachment of pantomimes to factions within Rome created political turmoil, which the emperor regarded as potentially damaging to his power, even though by 23 CE he was spending more time away from Rome than in it. By 26 CE he had discarded Rome altogether to spend the remaining eleven years of his regime on Capri, and he was determined that in his absence Rome could not use pantomimes to build factions or popular moods of discontent. The mythic content of pantomime performance did not inspire factionalism or discontent. Nor could ambitious politicians build discontent or factions from the emperor’s supposedly unpopular unwillingness to fund public spectacles. For most of the imperial era, the factions attached to chariot racing teams seem not to have worried emperors or the Senate, even though sponsors of pantomimes may well have invested in chariot racing teams and their factions. The factions attached to pantomimes were so volatile because the pantomimes projected such an intense sexual aura on stage and off. Pantomime performance linked erotic feeling to political ambition or “charisma.” The suave movements and poses of pantomimes fostered an atmosphere of highly competitive attractiveness or glamour. They incarnated an erotic and even ecstatic idea of the power of metamorphosis. The incarnation of this idea is inflammatory, awakening and amplifying competitive energies that destabilize societies rather than unify them—which is why it is a valuable, though highly risky, instrument of political power. The violence of the claques against each other and sometimes toward those who belonged to no faction was proof of the power of the pantomimes to infuse their fans with wild and thrilling feelings of transformation into persons free of the constraints by which others must live. But the power of the pantomimes lay not only in their skill at displaying different roles for privileged audiences; it also lay in their success at constructing a seductive personality off stage as well as on stage. Seductiveness of this sort has a contagious effect. Sponsors of pantomimes became themselves seductive insofar as their indulgence in pantomimes led to public perception of them as representatives of a particular political disposition—they appeared as advocates for a more permissive, more indulgent, a “freer” and more luxurious, even voluptuous philosophy of governance, compared with those who perhaps favored a more “disciplined” or austere approach to governance and found the factions attached to the chariot racing teams more congenial to their aspirations, although even these were not above ruthless behavior against each other’s teams in the hippodromes (Futrell 2006: 191). The kinetic-erotic aura of the pantomimes inspired in their followers a desire to perform themselves actionsconsidered of sufficient transformative magnitude because of the clarity with which they revealed that the most exhilarating experience of power entailed the infliction of violence.    

            It is not clear if Caligula, in summoning pantomimes to the stage in Rome, also permitted the restoration of the factions; the ancient sources are silent. Suetonius says (Caligula 55, 1) that Caligula was so fond of the freedman pantomime Mnester that he kissed him openly at the theater and personally whipped any spectator who made the slightest noise while Mnester performed. So, at least in relation to the imperial pantomime Mnester, the strongest faction was the most silent. In the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE), however, the factions again stirred up trouble. In 47 CE, Claudius delivered edicts curtailing the behavior of “the populace” at theaters after spectators had mocked a consul and several others “of rank” (Tacitus, Annals, XI, 13). Meanwhile, the notorious Empress Messalina pursued an adulterous sexual liaison with Mnester, the Emperor’s pantomime. Mnester apparently had a peripheral role in Messalina’s extravagant scheme to replace her husband on the throne with her chief lover and then husband, Caius Silius, “the handsomest of the young nobility of Rome” (Tacitus Annals, XI, 12). When Claudius finally acknowledged the scope of his wife’s debauchery and treachery, he ordered the deaths of many men who belonged to her orgiastic and conspiratorial entourage. His own advisors worried that he would grant clemency to Messalina, whom he nevertheless loved, when she made desperate appeals to him, but he did not, and she died by the sword of a tribune (Annals XI, 37-38). However, the case of Mnester “caused some hesitation.” He explained to the Emperor that he, Claudius, had placed the pantomime in a difficult position when Messalina, so “desperately enamored” of Mnester that she had bronze statues made of him, “found herself unable in any way either by making him promises or by frightening him to persuade him to have intercourse with her, […] had a talk with her husband and asked him that the man should be compelled to obey her, pretending that she wanted his help for some different purpose. Claudius accordingly told Mnester to do whatever he should be ordered to do by Messalina; and thus it came about that he lay with her, in the belief that this was the thing he had been commanded to do by her husband” (Dio Cassius LX, 22, 3). Mnester could not disobey either the Emperor or Empress without risking his life; as he reportedly remarked, “Others had sinned through a bounty of high hope; he, from need; and no man would have had to perish sooner, if Silius gained the empire. The Caesar was affected, and leaned to mercy; but the freedmen decided him, after so many executions of the great, not to spare an actor: when the transgression was so heinous, it mattered nothing whether it was voluntary or enforced” (Tacitus Annals XI, 36). What role, if any, the theater factions played in this scandal is obscure, although many of those executed could well have been sponsors of factions, and the incredibly brazen behavior of Messalina and her entourage was possible because of the many people who saw opportunities for themselves by doing her bidding. Dio Cassius writes (LX, 28) of “people” being “vexed” at Mnester’s “failure to dance” because Messalina was “keeping him with her”; indeed, “the people” protected Mnester by refusing to inform Claudius of “the true state of affairs.” But Claudius was apparently fond of his pantomime, even though Mnester rose to prominence under the despised Caligula. And that was the central problem with pantomime: the same artist could inspire the affections of Caligula, Claudius, and Messalina, and an art that could stir the emotions of three such diverse persons was inherently destabilizing. The Messalina scandal showed that the sexual allure of pantomime possessed the potential to undermine the empire, to cripple the credibility and authority of the imperial leadership, and to link the “metamorphosis” of identity as pantomime incarnated it to fluctuating, untrustworthy loyalties, desires, intimacies, and affections.

            Under Nero (reigned 54-68 CE), problems with the pantomime culture assumed a new form, apparently as a result of the emperor’s own taste for dissolving distinctions between theater and reality. Tacitus explains (Annals XIII, 25) that, during the consuls of Quintus Volusias and Publius Scipio (ca. 56-57 CE), Nero delighted in disguising himself as a slave and venturing at night with an entourage of thuggish pals into the streets of Rome, where he engaged in brawls and deceits with persons who did not know he was the Emperor. “When it was notorious that the emperor was the assailant, and the insults on men and women of distinction were multiplied, other persons too on the strength of a licence once granted under Nero’s name, ventured with impunity on the same practices, and had gangs of their own, till night presented the scenes of a captured city” (Tacitus 1876: 239). Nero then encouraged the rivalry between pantomime claques into “something like a battle by the impunity he allowed, and the rewards he offered, and especially by looking on himself, sometimes concealed, but often in public view […].” The violence soon became a social calamity, the “only remedy” for which was the “expulsion of the offending actors from Italy” and “the presence once more of the soldiery in the theater.” Around 59 CE, however, Nero allowed the banished pantomimes to return to Italy, but he forbade all pantomimes from performing in his newly established Neronia, a huge festival celebrating (60 and 65 CE) competitions in the field of singing, poetry, oratory, gymnastics, and riding (Annales XIV 20; Suetonius, Nero 12). According to Cassius Dio, though, Nero also instituted a Juvenalia to celebrate the sacrifice of his beard to Jupiter, and in these “youth games” he compelled Roman aristocrats to display some kind of performance talent, including pantomime, for in one presentation of the games, a rich noblewoman at least eighty years old, Aelia Catella, “danced in a pantomime” (LXII, 19; also Suetonius, Nero 11). Then, according to Suetonius (Nero 54), Nero shortly before his death planned to study pantomime so that he could perform “Turnus in Virgil”; “and some write” that he ordered the assassination of the pantomime Paris to eliminate comparison with a master rival, although Elaine Fantham (2013: 20) doubts the reliability of this assertion, arguing that Nero’s artistic obsession was always singing, not dancing. Of course, the purpose of all this gossip about Nero’s taste for pantomime in these historical sources is to reinforce the perception that any affinity for pantomime at the highest levels of government only weakens the Empire, only undermines the moral authority necessary for the ruling class to achieve economic and political stability throughout the Empire. These historians, adopting a largely conservative view of state and nation that idealizes a time long before they were born and perhaps even before the Empire, were deeply skeptical of the concept of “metamorphosis” when applied to life beyond the realm of private cults or individual spiritual experiences. They could not see imperial power as itself a manifestation of metamorphosis, a kind of vast theater, a system of masks and shifting identities linked to shifting alliances and allegiances, a huge, dynamic apparatus powered, driven by the idea that identity everywhere was unstable, capable of change and transformation in relation to ever shifting opportunities for advancement, release, or good fortune. The pantomime culture vividly incarnated this imperial ideology and thus established an “intimate,” corporeal relation between subject and emperor, as if this relationship itself were a body fluctuating between movement and pose, between face and mask.

            Great instability certainly befell the Empire after the death of Nero and “the Year of Four Emperors” (68-69 CE). When stability prevailed under Vespasian (69-79 CE), the historical sources found almost no reason to comment on pantomime, even though the emperor was generous in spending on public entertainments (Suetonius, Vespasian, 19). But then, Vespasian was a skillful producer of propaganda. His sponsorship of writers like Tacitus and Josephus, along with his intimidation of anyone who wrote critically of him, assured that historical chronicles would leave a favorable impression of his rule, especially when compared to the reign of Nero, whom many throughout the Empire remembered more fondly than the historical chronicles imply (Ferrill 1965). However, Pliny the Elder, a friend of Vespasian, in the section of his Natural History (ca. 77 CE) on sudden deaths (VII, 54), mentions the case of two knights who died on the same day in the arms of the pantomime, Mysticus, who was “remarkable for his singular beauty.” He classifies the case under “instances of persons dying a happy death” (Pliny 1855, 216). Perhaps, then, under Vespasian, pantomimes and their sponsors enjoyed very good times indeed. 

            But under Domitian, Suetonius observes, pantomimes again contaminated the morality of the imperial capital. The emperor’s wife, Domitia, became infatuated with the pantomime Paris (Domitian 3; cf. Leppin 1992: 272-274), and as a result, he divorced and banished her, but then took her back, although he forbade pantomimes from performing in public (Domitian 7) and he executed a young student of Paris because the boy “resembled his master” in appearance and performance (Domitian 10). Pliny the Younger, in his Pangyriucus Traiani (ca. 106 CE; 46. 2f.), asserts that Nerva recalled pantomimes during his reign (96-98 CE), but that when Trajan succeeded to the throne (98-117 CE), he banished public performances of pantomimes (ca. 100 CE) yet eventually (ca. 107 CE) permitted them to return to the stage. According to Pliny’s logic, “the same populace, having watched and applauded an actor-emperor [Nero], has now turned against the pantomimes and damns their effeminate art as shameful for our time.” Pliny also claims that Trajan “considered praise originating from those effeminate actors a degradation of his name” (Panegyricus 54, 1-2; Vossius 2010: II, 875). However, Marcus Fronto, in one of his letters (41.5 ca. 165 CE) to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, says that Trajan, “a supreme warrior, nevertheless occasionally took delight in pantomimes” (Fronto 2013: 137). These tiny scraps of evidence about pantomime culture, embedded within voluminous commentaries on poetry, rhetoric, and praise of imperial power, indicate the willingness of the writers to avoid correlating pantomime performances with instability at the highest levels of government. Indeed, after Domitian, when the Empire enjoyed a prolonged period of expansion and great prosperity, efficient management of the pantomime culture appears to have become a commendable skill of the imperial leadership. Both Pliny and Fronto treat the pantomime as a necessary entertainment for the “vulgar crowd” (Pliny), but not as a matter worthy of discussion among aristocratic aesthetes such as themselves, who find literature and rhetoric of much greater value to their class. A point they both emphasize is that pantomime is an effeminate art, an art that “nevertheless” a “warrior supreme” can enjoy “occasionally.” This effeminate art could never be a danger to the empire; its purpose was to affirm the feminine identity of the populace in relation to the patriarchal emperor. By the time (ca. 165 CE) Lucian wrote his defense of pantomime, the main controversy surrounding it was apparently whether it could be taken seriously as an art. When around 200 CE Tertullian condemned pantomimes in De spectaculis, the effeminate and perverse identity of pantomimes constituted a serious threat to Christian morality because it represented the immense seductive power of imperial institutions in the grip of unholy, satanic, feminine spirits.            

            At any rate, the historical sources are silent regarding the activities of the claques in Rome from the reign of Trajan until the Christian era. It is doubtful that these had disappeared from Rome due to strong imperial intervention. More likely, the aristocratic sponsors of public pantomime performances had discovered that imperial regulation of performances in Rome was more effective in advancing political ambitions than the pre-Trajan system, when certain politicians could establish their clout or desire for greater power and office by demonstrating their capacity to cause social disorder. In his treatise on astrology (ca. 155 CE), Vettius Valens describes a complicated series of planetary movements that shaped the life of a pantomime. Valens says that when the pantomime was twenty, he was arrested “during a mob uprising.” But with “the help of his friends,” who defended him before the governor, “he was released through the pleas of the crowd and became even more famous” (Valens 2010: 107). Moreover, “four signs” related to Venus, the moon, Saturn, and the Ascendant” were “indicative of the riot, the quarrelsomeness, and the rivalry throughout the affair.” Valens goes on to remark that when the pantomime was 32, “he lost his office, his rank, and his livelihood, and lived in disgrace,” because he was inattentive to planetary abnormalities that put him at odds with “the Lot of Fortune,” and “as a result he caused his own downfall, being arrogant and boastful” (Valens 2010: 107)—he had no “friends” to help him. This incident, which probably occurred around 140 CE, suggests that the social turmoil caused by pantomime performances and claques—the “rivalry” and “friends” of pantomimes—had shifted to the provinces, while in Rome, some kind of hierarchy of imperial favor inhibited the claques from engaging in bad behavior; they had no incentive for being associated with notions of “riot” and “uprising.” 

            Outside of Rome, outside of Italy, the art of pantomime gradually expanded its function of being an emblem of imperial power rather than of aristocratic luxury. The strongest evidence for this expansion comes from the eastern regions of the Empire. During his reign (117-138 CE), the Emperor Hadrian embarked on a vast program of public works in those regions, including the building of numerous theaters, the founding of cities, and the establishment of festivals (Birley 1997: 166-174, 186-187, 215-228). The idea was to make imperial power more pervasive and palpable throughout the Empire and less dependent on the peculiar political dynamics in Rome. As a result of these extensive imperial investments in the provinces, citizens grasped that their concept of the future, their economic and political opportunities, and their capacity for “transformation” lay in their connection to other parts of the empire, not with unique cultural values and institutions that separated them from Roman hegemony—a goal that the Jews completely underestimated in their catastrophic attempt to rebel against Roman authority in 132-136 CE. The Historia Augusta claims that Hadrian gave “popular entertainments of unbounded extravagance” but “never recalled from Rome a single wild beast hunter or actor”; “in honour of Trajan he caused essences of balsam and saffron to be poured over the seats of the theater. And in the theater he presented all kinds of plays in the ancient manner and had the court-players appear before the public.” He furthermore “often gave the people military exhibitions of Pyrrhic dances” (Hadrian 19.2; HA 1921: 61). Relentlessly inquisitive, the emperor apparently cultivated engagement with artists and philosophers, yet “however ready Hadrian might have been to criticize musicians, tragedians, comedians, grammarians, and rhetoricians, he nevertheless bestowed both honours and riches upon all who professed these arts, though he always tormented them with his questions” (Hadrian16.8; HA 1921: 53). The goal of such engagement was to establish that performing artists could achieve their highest status in the Empire without having to satisfy audiences in Rome. Pantomime might seem an excellent medium for representing the idea of a hegemonic Roman identity built from the metamorphic expressive power of the body, because it did not require as much “translation” as other media in cultures that hesitated to embrace Roman values and expectations. But perhaps it was actually the semantic ambiguity of physical movement that was the key to metamorphosis and “hegemonic body.” Hadrian experienced difficulties with the Jews in Palestine when he initiated a proscription against circumcision and inaugurated a plan to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city. A passage in the Hagigah section (5b) of the Babylonian Talmud describes a “pantomimic conversation” in Hadrian’s palace in Palestine (ca. 130 CE) performed for the emperor by a Christian and Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania. “The former showed by gestures that the God of Israel had hidden His face from the Jews; the latter showed, by a movement of the arm, that God still stretched forth His hand to protect Israel” (Hagidah 1891: 22; Graetz 1902: 406; Graetz 1908: 133). The Talmudic passage does not explain the circumstances under which this strange gestural dialogue took place between representatives of alien religions. Although Hadrian asked the Christian and the Jew to “explain” their movements, he does seem to have wanted the performers initially to use only their bodies to describe the Jews’ relation to God. The passage implies that the Christian and the rabbi used different movements to dramatize how God either hid his face from the people of Israel or extended an arm to protect them, but it also implies competing interpretations of similar movements, so that pantomime obfuscates rather than clarifies the body’s relation to God. From the Emperor’s perspective, bodily movement encodes ambiguous messages that political factions “mistranslate” to advance their agendas and diminish uncertainty about significations from God or the gods. That is the point of pantomime: to embody a fundamental ambiguity about the sources of metamorphosis within the body, within human identity. Because of the semantic ambiguity of human movement, it is socially beneficial to integrate the body into a larger (imperial) system of institutions in which a “higher power” (imperial authority) arbitrates conflicting interpretations of what bodies “say” or desire. This logic explains why Hadrian and subsequent emperors established contests in the east that included pantomime, which previously had operated there as an aristocratic entertainment without any official status or association with the imperial cult, although probably Hadrian’s most successful attempt at imperial institutionalization of bodily ambiguity was his creation of the hugely popular Antinous cult, following the death of his beloved boyfriend in 130 CE. 

            Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius (138-161 CE), preferred to stay in Rome throughout his long, peaceful, and prosperous reign, but he steadily displayed great generosity, “equanimity,” toward the provinces. The Historia Augusta says that “he was very fond of the stage,” and that he sponsored games involving spectacular displays of wild animals—“all the animals of the whole earth” (HAAntonius Pius, 10.9; 11.2; HA 1921: 129). This was the period in which the pantomime flourished as Lucian (ca. 125-180 CE) had experienced it by the time he wrote his treatise on it around 163-165 CE. It is most likely, also, that Apuleius wrote, in The Golden Ass, his description of the pantomime in Corinth during the reign of Antonius Pius (ca. 150-158 CE). Lucian makes repeated reference to dancers and performance sites in Greece, Asia, and even Egypt, and he constructs the impression that the pantomime has reached its most refined expression in the east. When he wrote his treatise, Antioch, “a very talented city, which especially honours the dance,” was evidently already a major center of pantomime culture (Lucian Vol. 5 1936: 277). 

            The fortunes of the pantomime and the Empire further increased during the strange joint reign of the brothers Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE) and Lucius Verus (161-166 CE). In his governing style, Aurelius consistently displayed prudence, careful calculation of all options, a highly intellectual mind, and an intense desire to act justly, while Verus became notorious for his love of luxurious, extravagant entertainments, even though, in carrying out instructions from his brother, to whom he always deferred, he largely succeeded in achieving ambitious goals. Fronto, in one of his letters to Aurelius, condescendingly implies that the Emperor is right to support, as Trajan did, pantomime entertainments in Rome as a way of rewarding the public for its civic good behavior, by which he apparently means its willingness to abandon the “vulgar,” rowdy, and insolent activities previously associated with the claques (Fronto 2013: 137). Aurelius sent Verus to the east to conclude a campaign against the troublesome Parthians. But Verus took his time getting there, engaged as he was in hunting expeditions and opulent entertainments in the cities he visited, “accompanied by orchestras and singers” (HA, Verus, 6.9). “And when he came to Antioch, there he gave himself wholly to riotous living” (HA, Verus, 7.1). He was evidently so fond of the pleasures that city offered that “many of the jibes which [the Syrians] uttered against him on the stage are still preserved” (HA, Verus, 7.4). In addition to great enthusiasm for chariot racing and gladiatorial combats, Verus displayed a passion for pantomime. Upon his return to Rome (165 CE) to celebrate his triumph over the Parthians, Verus “brought actors out of Syria as proudly as though he were leading kings to a triumph. The chief of these was Maximinus, on whom he bestowed the name Paris” (HA, Verus, 8.7). The Historia Augusta (Verus 8.10-11) goes on to remark that, “Verus maintained also the actor Agrippus, surnamed Memphius, whom he had brought with him from Syria, almost as a trophy of the Parthian war, and named Apolaustius. He had brought with him, too, players of the harp and the flute, actors and jesters from the mimes, jugglers, and all kinds of slaves in whose entertainment Syria and Alexandria find pleasure, and in such numbers, indeed, that he seemed to have concluded a war, not against Parthians, but against actors.” Following the triumph, Verus built a “notorious villa” outside Rome in which to enjoy his “boundless extravagance,” but he didn’t live long to explore new dimensions to his “debauchery.” The two emperors crossed the Alps to repel barbarian invaders, and when they had accomplished this task, they returned to Aquilea, where soon after, Verus suddenly died of a heart attack while trying to hurry his way back to his villa, leaving Aurelius to govern the Empire alone (HA, Verus, 8.6; 9.7-10). 

            The almost comical partnership between the brother emperors was immensely valuable in demonstrating that Rome could function as a vast, imperial power while cultivating “unbounded” appetites for luxurious pleasures. By bringing so many entertainers from Syria, Verus established the east as a powerful source of innovation and splendor in the art of entertainment, and this was a major reason for defending the east. The Empire had entered a phase in which the idea of itself as a “civilization” could not rest alone on the efficiency and efficacy of its laws, public services, engineering ingenuity, military prowess, and economic ambitions: Aurelius and Verus linked the “happiness,” so to speak, of the Empire’s citizens to an unprecedented magnitude of leisure, to an unprecedented diversity of pleasures or aesthetic experiences. This idea of pleasure as a pervasive, even defining, feature of “civilized” life throughout the Empire—rather than as a luxury distributed arbitrarily or inscrutably by Fortune—was itself an unprecedented development in the evolution of state power, although Christian or moralistic historical perspectives frequently associate it with manifestations of “decadence,” of an inclination toward “excessive” sensual indulgence and loss of focus on some “higher” sense of purpose to justify a vast government. But at the time of Aurelius and Verus, the metamorphosis of the state into something “higher” than a protective shield against famine, pestilence, lawless behavior, and barbaric enemies appears to have meant that the state was powerful and rich enough to regard such dangers, not as crises, but as occasional themes for testing administrative efficiency and ingenuity. Such is an implication one can draw from the entertaining accounts of Verus and Aurelius in the otherwise moralistic Historia Augusta.

            With Aurelius and Verus, a significant shift in the pantomime culture apparently took place. Pantomimes became tightly integrated into the imperial administration. They began to receive something like official positions and titles and were no longer merely hired entertainers. With this elevation in status, pantomimes associated with the emperor dominated the hierarchy of status within pantomime culture. The pantomime ensembles owned or sponsored by aristocrats no longer controlled or defined performance trends or expectations. More precisely, pantomimes associated with the imperial cult enjoyed a distinct advantage in terms of prestige, claque support, and public favor. Such is the implication of the scholarship on Greek inscriptions from Asia Minor related to pantomimes, particularly Tiberius Iulius Apolaustus, a freedman of Trajan, during the reign of Commodus (177-192 CE) (Slater 1995: 280-282, 289-290; 1996: 200-201; Robert 1930: 119-121). Around 180 CE, Greek cities, under imperial auspices, began to hold festivals that included pantomime competitions (Slater 1995: 271-272), and these competitions attracted the most innovative and gifted performers of the art, downgrading the Italian competitions that had operated since the time of Augustus. Inscriptions on monuments for pantomimes identify the prizes won by the pantomime. Styles of pantomime developed in the eastern provinces supplanted the Alexandrian style of pantomime cultivated in Italy and descended from Bathyllus and Pylades. Pantomimes in the east set the standard for excellence in the art, and Antioch became famous, indeed notorious, for its extravagant support of pantomime culture. As a result of imperial encouragement, pressure, or investment, a variety of cities in the east initiated pantomime competitions: Delphi, Eusebia, Sebasta, Epheseia, Pythia, Leukophryneia, Magnesia (Meander), Isthmia, Pergamum (Slater 1995: 266, 269). Public performances of pantomimes in theaters became more common, as municipalities and the imperial cult found it expedient to provide these “gifts” to their constituents, although aristocratic families may have decided that it was more convenient, politically and economically, to operate through public institutions. The Historia Augusta describes how, under Commodus, the freedman Cleander rose to a position of enormous influence in the government (185-190 CE) as a result of the emperor’s desire to devote himself to extravagant pleasures and “debaucheries” (HA, Commodus, 6.4). Dio Cassius echoes the Historia Augusta in asserting that Cleander “amassed more wealth than any who had ever been named cubicularii” by selling “senatorships, military commands, procuratorships, governorships, and, in a word, everything” (Roman History, LXXIII, 12. 3-5). Dio further remarks (12.5) that of this vast wealth Cleander had accumulated through bribery, fees, taxation, and extortion, “A great deal of it he gave to Commodus and his concubines, and he spent a great deal on houses, baths, and other works of benefit either to individuals or to cities” (Dio Cassius 1927: 97). Cleander’s predecessor, Perennis, may have set the example, for he was “driven by an insatiable lust for money” (Herodian, Commodus, 1.8). Seeing how open Rome was to the sale of imperial authority and how focused the emperor was on the pursuit of extravagant entertainments, cities in the east probably petitioned the emperor for subsidies to support pantomime entertainments or bribed the emperor to obtain official recognition for their pantomime contests. Both Perennis and Cleander, brazenly ambitious, could build, for the right price, a popular power base in the east by bestowing imperial favor and protection on innovative civic initiatives, like theaters and the competitions performed in them. It’s possible that by this time, claques in Rome paid the emperor a fee to organize and demonstrate on behalf of their star pantomimes, a complete reversal of the situation in 14-15 CE, when the claques attempted to extort money from the emperor to foster the pantomime rivalries. In the western part of the Empire, however, pantomime culture showed far less inclination to adopt the Italian and Greek enthusiasm for public competitions, prizes, and juries. In Gaul, Hispania-Lusitania, and Britannia, vast estates governed economic life, and military affairs dominated urban centers. Pantomime remained largely an exotic entertainment within the villa culture, and when it was an occasional gift to the public by pantomime owners, it was in relation to the owners’ agenda and schedule rather than in relation to an official, civic calendar of festivals. 

The situation in North Africa seems more muddled. During the second and third centuries, cities and towns in North Africa demonstrated considerable enthusiasm for establishing civic institutions and developing glamorous urban societies, including the construction of the sumptuous theater at Sabratha, begun under Aurelius and completed under Commodus, an opulent theater with attached odeon in Carthage, and numerous other, smaller theaters in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco (cf., Theatrum 2015). It is surprising how many theaters the Romans built in North Africa in the second and third centuries CE in what our time would consider obscure and remote places (Lachaux 1979: 14, 20, 26). Jean Claude Lachaux (1979: 15) identified 31 theaters in “Africa proconsularis,” which consisted mostly of what is now Tunisia, and all of these were apparently built between 114 CE (Carthage) and possibly 305 CE (Ammaedara). While the evidence of extensive theater construction in the region does not necessarily mean that these towns hosted extensive theatrical activity, it is also evident that the hinterlands of the Empire in North Africa were vastly more blessed and prosperous than they are today. The town of Ammaedara (Haidra), with two theaters constructed between 198 and 305 CE, lay considerably inland, on what was then the border between Africa proconsularis and Numidia and what is now the border between Tunisia and Algeria; devoid of military significance, the town was nevertheless “important” and “rich” because of its functions as a gateway to the Empire and as a hub for the processing of foods grown in the valley for transportation to the coast (Pagniol 1912: 70-71). Timgad, in Algeria, was only a little less remote than Ammaedara, yet there was discovered the longest inscription related to pantomime found anywhere in the ancient world, a memorial to the dancer Vincentius, who died at the age of 23 late in the second century, but whose skill at moving his hands could captivate audiences until evening fell (Bayet 1955). In other words, during the second and third centuries CE, North Africa had the audiences and resources to support a sophisticated pantomime culture. Yet it is difficult to discern a distinctly North African approach to the art, even if Rome first embraced pantomime as Bathyllus and Pylades had developed it in Alexandria back in the first century BCE. In the second and third centuries CE, the African sector of the Empire did not pursue the opportunities for closer integration with Rome that occurred in the eastern sector of the Empire. The ruling elites in North Africa apparently considered it to their advantage to maintain a measure of autonomy from Rome, and Rome itself, while investing extensively in North African infrastructure projects throughout the second and third centuries, was never forgetful of the Punic wars, and probably felt that it was wise not to trust any “influence” from a region in which many people still spoke the Punic language, even after Septimius Severus became in 193 CE the first (and only) emperor from Africa (cf. Matthews 1957: 23-25). For these reasons, the African sector did not produce an alternative or counter-Eastern form of pantomime as a manifestation of its “influence” over Rome; instead it appears that the African sector absorbed the Eastern approach to pantomime, judging from St. Augustine’s remarks in the Confessions (III. 2, ca. 400 CE) about his enthusiasm in his youth for shows in Hippo Regius depicting “lovers when they sinfully enjoyed one another.” It was the Eastern sector that saw pantomime as a measure of its influence over its Roman masters, a sign of its ascendency. 

Previous Section

Next Section

References

Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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