Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime and Religious Procession

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

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Pantomime and Religious Procession

Images are only somewhat helpful in understanding how pantomimes may have participated in processions. Mosaics from villas and friezes on sarcophagi sometimes depict processions, often in fanciful ways, inspired by mythic ideas of celebration, with Dionysian parades a favorite theme. In the Dionysian images, nude or semi-nude figures ride wild animals, blow horns and bang tambourines, strum harps, brandish a thyrsus, grape cluster or wine jar, assume dancelike poses, or ride in chariots pulled by lions, leopards or centaurs, all combined to convey an ecstatic sense of communal/orgiastic abandonment [Figure 53]. Pantomimes would seem compatible with processions promoting a bacchanalian mood in public. Indeed, Apuleius, in The Golden Ass (ca. 150 CE), describes (X. 46) in great detail the bacchanalian “triumph” that precedes the pantomime in which the ass-protagonist is expected to perform a pornographic scene; actually, it is difficult to separate the procession from the performance itself, as the procession, like the one in which Pompey celebrated his defeat of Tigranes over two hundred years earlier:

When the day of triumph came, I was led with great pompe and benevolence to the appointed place, where when I was brought, I first saw the preamble of that triumph, dedicated with dancers and merry taunting jests, and in the meane season was placed before the gate of the Theater, whereas on the one side I saw the greene and fresh grasse growing before the entry thereof, whereon I greatly desired to feed: on the other side I conceived a great delectation to see when the Theater gates were opened, how all things was finely prepared and set forth: For there I might see young children and maidens in the flowre of their youth of excellent beauty, and attired gorgiously, dancing and mooved in comely order, according to the order of Grecia, for sometime they would dance in length, sometime round together, sometime divide themselves into foure parts, and sometime loose hands on every side: but when the trumpet gave warning that every man should retire to his place, then began the triumph to appeare. First there was a hill of wood, not much unlike that which the Poet Homer called Idea, for it was garnished about with all sort of greene verdures and lively trees, from the top whereof ran downe a cleare and fresh fountaine, nourishing the waters below, about which wood were many young and tender Goates, plucking and feeding daintily on the budding trees, then came a young man a shepheard representing Paris, richly arrayed with vestments of Barbary, having a mitre of gold upon his head, and seeming as though he kept the goates. After him ensued another young man all naked, saving that his left shoulder was covered with a rich cloake, and his head shining with glistering haires, and hanging downe, through which you might perceive two little wings, whereby you might conjecture that he was Mercury, with his rod called Caduceus, he bare in his right hand an Apple of gold, and with a seemely gate went towards him that represented Paris, and after hee had delivered him the Apple, he made a signe, signifying that Jupiter had commanded him so to doe: when he had done his message he departed away. And by and by, there approached a faire and comely mayden, not much unlike to Juno, for she had a Diademe of gold upon her head, and in her hand she bare a regall scepter: then followed another resembling Pallas, for she had on her head a shining sallet, whereon was bound a garland of Olive branches, having in one hand a target or shield: and in the other a speare as though she would fight: then came another which passed the other in beauty, and presented the Goddesse Venus, with the color of Ambrosia, when she was a maiden, and to the end she would shew her perfect beauty, shee appeared all naked, saving that her fine and dainty skin was covered with a thin smocke, which the wind blew hither and thither to testifie the youth and flowre of the age of the dame. Her colour was of two sorts, for her body was white as descended from heaven, and her smocke was blewish, as arrived from the sea: After every one of the Virgins which seemed goddesses, followed certaine waiting servants, Castor and Pollus went behind Juno, having on their heads helmets covered with starres. This Virgin Juno sounded a Flute, which shee bare in her hand, and mooved her selfe towards the shepheard Paris, shewing by honest signes and tokens, and promising that hee should be Lord of all Asia, if hee would judge her the fairest of the three, and to give her the apple of gold: the other maiden which seemed by her armour to be Pallas, was accompanied with two young men armed, and brandishing their naked swords in their hands, whereof one named Terror, and the other Feare; behind them approached one sounding his trumpet to provoke and stirre men to battell; this maiden began to dance and shake her head, throwing her fierce and terrible eyes upon Paris and promising that if it pleased him to give her the victory of beauty, shee would make him the most strong and victorious man alive. Then came Venus and presented her selfe in the middle of the Theater, with much favour of all the people, for shee was accompanied with a great many of youth, whereby you would have judged them all to be Cupidoes, either to have flowne from heaven or else from the river of the sea, for they had wings, arrowes, and the residue of their habit according in each point, and they bare in their hands torches lighted, as though it had beene a day of marriage. Then came in a great multitude of faire maidens [. . .] (X, 46; 1972: 256-258).

Presumably Apuleius exaggerates his description for satiric effect, to expose a public obsession with the fantastic “metamorphosis” of bodies even in or perhaps especially in provincial towns like Corinth. But this lengthy passage makes clear that pantomimes contribute decisively to the fascination with metamorphosis through their performances in public processions as well in villa peristylesand on theater stages, and a remarkable feature of this contribution is that the process of metamorphosis assumes even more powerful representation by the peculiar melding of the procession with the staging of the “Judgment of Paris” pantomime, which the community expects to include a scene where the donkey-hero engages in public sexual intercourse with a condemned woman. Apuleius satirizes the bacchanalian idea of metamorphosis that motivated certain kinds of procession. It is possible, though, that he describes a scene that was familiar to his readers, a fairly accurate representation of a provincial procession, to show how the phenomenon of metamorphosis, as embodied most dramatically by the transformations of the narrator, is so deeply embedded within commonplace pretensions of transformation, such as communal processions, that no one can really recognize it—it is not “familiar” or visible within the mythic masquerades of social unity. This interpretation seems even more possible by considering the startling ending of the book, in which the narrator, having been transformed by a witch from a cynical, pleasure-loving adventurer into an even more cynical donkey before being restored to human form, becomes an adept in a cult of Isis, renouncing altogether the identity with which he began the book to achieve, at the command of the goddess, “great glory by being an advocate in the court” (1972: 282). Apuleius links the participation of pantomimes in a procession to a religious activity, namely a cult of Venus, although the description makes clear that it is difficult to separate religious observance from theatrical enactment and allegorical representation of the world. The nudity of the figures and the luxuriousness of the props and accessories clarify that voluptuousness in the performance of religious rituals was not exclusive to the bacchanalian mood of Dionysian cults. The magnitude of voluptuousness in a religious procession had little to do with the attributes or values ascribed to the god or goddess. Apuleius’s induction into an austere Isis cult at the end of the novel hardly means that Isis somehow cast a shadow of austerity and sobriety over all her worshippers in the Roman world. Roman religious cults did not follow a uniform set of ritual practices. While a unique set of signs identified a god and a cult associated with the god, cults varied in their ways of honoring their gods and interpreting messages from the gods. No hierarchy existed to regulate religious cults; there were only imperial proscriptions against religious activities deemed detrimental to the well being of the empire. Cults emerged in relation to highly local conditions. A god might inspire several cults within the same city, and these cults, having their own temples, priests, and sponsors, might have no connection with each other. As Georges Dumezil explains: “In Rome […] as far back as one goes, each priest, college or sodality, has its own department; cases of pluralism are rare and regulated, and the replacement of one priest, college, etc., by another is exceptional” (1966 II, 578). In the Roman religious cosmos, gods act differently in relation to different places and people: cult activity was an intensely local phenomenon, an attempt to control or understand a god’s mysterious relation to a unique time and place. To obtain the most favorable relations with the gods, people did not worship one god exclusively or above all others, and they shifted their devotion to divinities when portents or auspicious signs indicated that another god might prove more helpful in dealing with an immediate, local problem. Cults attracted followers based on the people who managed the cults, chiefly the priests and sponsors, and not on any power of belief in a presumed, inherent, transcendent authority of the values ascribed to the god or goddess. In comparing Roman religions with Vedic religion in India and Celtic religion, where “priests were essentially equivalent and interchangeable,” Dumezil remarks: “in India every sacrifice requires the combination of several priests holding quite different parts, each articulated with the others. [. . . F]or the Vedic Indians the differentiation lies not in the men, but in the roles which each, indiscriminately, may be called on to fill for the length of the ceremony; while for the Romans it lies with the men, each of whom has his own autonomous specialty” (578). He goes on to observe that each flamens or cult official is “autonomous and solitary” and works in “isolation” from others of his status (580-581). The reason why Roman religions focused on “sacerdotal” men and their personalities rather than on abstract roles is that for the Romans a religious “principle” was credible or efficacious to the extent that humans “embodied” it. A flamens “is valuable as much by reason of his body as by his words and his actions [. . .].” “He is the palpable, human end of a string of mystic correlations [. . .]” (581). This idea that humans “embody” the aura, so to speak, of the gods they worship is what provided an opportunity for a range of persons, including slaves and pantomimes, to participate in religious processions. Embodiment in this sense is alien to Christian doctrine, wherein faith in God entails a transcendence of the body in order to achieve the revelation and perfection of a greater, deeper, immaterial, and metaphysical level of identity: “the soul.” Indeed, from the Christian perspective, pagan rituals are a kind of theater insofar as they encourage the idea that the god has inhabited the body of the worshipper and given the worshipper a new identity. St. Augustine, in The City of God (Book II, Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8 [413-426 CE]), says that actors are especially knowledgeable about the secret (obscene) rituals of the pagans, that theater began in Rome as a religious response to pestilence, and that cult rituals or “assemblages” pervasively involved the “licentious acting of players,” although, of course, he neglects to mention that the Church incorporated elements of pagan processions into its own processions. Korinna Zamfir bluntly asserts: “Priests of both sexes often enacted the divine drama through ritual, by means of impersonation and mimesis” (2013: 331). At any rate, pantomime owners who were also sponsors of cults and temples could deploy their pantomimes in processions and perhaps even in temple performances to gain the favor of gods and to attract constituencies. 

A Bacchic inscription in Greek, dating from 160-170 CE, unearthed in Tusculum, a suburb of Rome, and now at the Metropolitan Museum reveals the complexity of cult organization. The inscription rested at the base of a lost statue of the Dionysian cult’s founder, Pompeia Agrippinilla, an aristocratic woman whose family had migrated to Rome from Asia Minor, and listed the first names only of about 400 of the cult’s members, their rank, and apparently their order in the procession to the sacred site. Although Dionysian cults appealed strongly to women, this particular cult included numerous male followers, and many of the members bore titles that are quite obscure, such as “bearers of the winnowing fan” ([a kind of cradle] three women), “bearer of the sacred phallus” (one woman), “fire-bearers” (two women), “chest bearers” (three women), a “secretary” (female), as well as various categories of bacchantes (bassaroi and bakchai), initiates, and “silent” novices. At the top of the list are the “hero,” Macrinus, the “torchbearer” Kathegilla, seven priests, three priestesses, the “hierophant” Agathopous, two “bearers of the god” (theophoroi), and some sort of custodian of Silenus (Alexander 1933: 264-270; Vogliano and Cumont 1933: 215ff.; Alföldy 1999: 172-182). Only 70 of the names are Roman; the rest are Greek, and only a third of the names are female. Vogliano contends that the upper leadership of the cult consisted of family members and persons of senatorial families, while many and perhaps most of the other persons listed were part of the family’s entourage (Alexander 1933: 264). But the inscription probably does not list all members of the cult, only those who contributed payment toward the shrine or cave to which the cult had brought the statue. While it does not explicitly indicate the presence of pantomimes, the inscription exposes the scale and intricacy of the procession—it was a large-scale performance entailing manifold components, with ten priests and priestesses and several section leaders involved in the design and management of the project. Agrippinilla may not have owned pantomimes, but even if she did, the inscription would not have identified them as such, for it lists all persons only according to their status within the cult. Pantomime owners who also sponsored cults could assign their pantomimes to enhance processional performances. More likely, pantomimes saw a benefit to themselves by adopting the cult enthusiasms of their owners, as was obviously the case with so many humble men and women recruited into Agrippinilla’s cult. Performances of plays to honor the god would take place outdoors and not in the temple, if the cult even had a temple, for temple architecture, no matter how grand, creates interiors that encourage stillness, awe, and intimacy or solitary encounter with the god. Most private cults probably did not have temples; rather, they designated sacred spots for the performance of their rituals: groves, caves, woodlands, ravines, fields, or maybe beaches. The Greeks shaped the idea of performing plays as a way of gaining the respect and attention of the gods, but the Romans seem to have absorbed the idea via the Etruscans in the fourth century BCE, if we accept Livy’s account (VIII, 2) of how the Romans imported dancers and “scenic representations” from Etruria to “placate the wrath of heaven” during a prolonged pestilence. The government integrated dancers, theatrical spectacles, and gladiatorial games (which the Romans had absorbed from Oscan and Etruscan funeral rites) into public (state) religious rituals with such seriousness that at least from the third century BCE on considerable anxiety arose when a dancer or musician made a mistake, and it was necessary to repeat the entire ritual to avoid offending the god (Cicero De Haruspicum Responsis [57 BCE] III, 23). 

But with the establishment of the Empire, worship of the state gods (chiefly Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Juno, and the Vestae) became increasingly linked to the deification of the emperor—that is, the government encouraged the public to see the state as having a divine power in itself or at least a kind of supernatural identity that put it into a more intimate relation with the gods than during the Republic. In effect, the deification of the emperor deepened the belief that the fate of Rome depended less on accommodating the ambiguous, arbitrary, and often inscrutable messages of the gods and more on adapting to the ambitions and mysterious desires of Rome’s human leaders in a world in which efficient administrative control mattered more than arcane relations between the future and cryptic “signs” or portents. As a result, emperors saw no great supernatural benefit in performing plays as part of state religious rituals; the government supported the performance of plays as part of a secular, political scheme, chiefly through the sponsorship of theatrical contests (like the Augustalia) in Rome—if an emperor, such as Nero, cultivated an appreciation for theater. While Apuleius shows that private cults as late as the second century CE continued to perform plays as part of religious festivities, most private cults followed the state religious practices by dispensing with plays as supernatural communications, preferring instead to make the rituals more dramatic and allowing worshippers a larger role in the performance of rituals that had become more theatrical. With the importation and accommodation of eastern gods into Rome, ritual practices became aesthetically more elaborate and less focused on correct procedure. The ceremonial beauty of the communication with the god took precedence over arcane, “superstitious” organization of detail. Ritual elements, including invocations, auguries or prophecies, the reading of signs, sacrifices, and especially processions, became more dramatic insofar as cults offered a larger sense of the “metamorphosis” of the worshipper than the “old” religious rituals in which worshippers performed, almost mechanically, obscure actions that emphasized their detachment from remote, inscrutable deities. Even Apuleius’s description of the pantomime performed at the Venus festival makes it difficult to separate procession from play, performers from bystanders, and the town from the scenery of the spectacle—for metamorphosis is precisely this dissolution of clear distinctions between identities. 

A prominent example of this alignment of state and private cults is the “mysteries of the Mithra.” Under the Empire, this archaic, eastern, exclusively male cult, composed almost entirely of soldiers, ascended from obscurity in Persia to become a kind of shadowy adjunct to the emperor cult: indeed, worship of Mithras was inseparable from demonstration of loyalty to the emperor (Merkelbach 1998: 154-160). The cult was secretive, conducting its rites in quasi-subterranean chambers and shunning public scrutiny of its activities. Processions in public were not a feature of the cult any more than the performance of plays. Nevertheless, membership in the cult involved the performance of intensely elaborate acts of initiation, invocation, purification, sacrifice, and declarations of loyalty to the emperor as well as pleas to the god for protection in battle. Within the cult, members advanced in “grade” through a series of complex performances or “ordeals” that dramatized the transformation of the worshipper in relation to an esoteric system of mystical powers ascribed to creatures (bull, lion, raven, toad, stag, snake, eagle), objects (diadem, lamp, torches, sword), natural elements (fire, water, rock, tree), and planets. Each of seven grades involved ritual practices that dramatized the transformation of the worshipper’s identity within the cosmic power hierarchy. Purified initiates knelt nude before flaming altars while priests and other members enacted scenes from the mythology of Mithras and the symbolic interaction of the mystical powers. “Caterpillars, pupa, bees, transformation, metamorphosis: it is clear how well these phenomena harmonize into a mystery cult, in which a phased ascension occurred through seven distinct forms” (Merkelbach 1998: 90). Some rites were apparently monumentally complex, judging from the manifold Mithras friezes and reliefs that have been excavated from throughout the ancient world. In some rites or at least in the rites of particular strands of the cult, members wore lion masks, but all rites occurred in narrow caverns (not temples) illuminated only by torches that cast flickering shadows on walls covered with murals depicting the peculiar symbolic images associated with the architecturally segmented sectors of initiation (Merkelbach 1998: 77-108, 283, 288-289, 292). Passage from one grade to the next was an intensely emotional experience, a gripping drama that tested the worshipper’s capacity to abandon parts of his identity for the sake of acquiring a new identity infused with powers from an ethereal world accessible only to members of the cult. This idea of metamorphosis as something achieved through emotionally stirring cult ritual practices that dissolve distinctions performer and spectator is one major reason why the Empire invested so heavily in the building of monumental theaters everywhere without showing much interest at all in the performance or even writing of plays as conventionally understood in our time. Conventional distinctions between performer and spectator, between text and performance, between role and identity or mask and face simply did not offer as powerful an experience of metamorphosis as cult rituals that dissolved these distinctions using effective theatrical devices for allowing worshippers to step “outside” of themselves. Pantomime performance embodied this imperial aesthetic of metamorphosis more concretely, more intimately, and more objectively than any of the other arts, because it showed that the value of metamorphosis was not dependent on a particular configuration of cosmological beliefs; it was an ideology that defined the social consciousness or world view of a hugely diverse civilization seeking to absorb and integrate manifold identities and possibilities for becoming “someone new.”  

Most cults, unlike the Mithras cult, needed to produce public activities to attract followers and to assert their influence over local affairs. An annual or semi-annual festival in honor of the cult’s god was a common feature of cult public activity, and a festival inevitably entailed a procession, although processions might well occur without a festival context. Processions offered the greatest opportunity for a cult to demonstrate in public its power to achieve metamorphosis for its followers, not only because a procession was a communal movement from one place to another, distinctly different place, but also because the organization and “staging” of a procession revealed the skill with which a cult was able to make its followers appear “different” from how the rest of the public usually perceived them, for they wore costumes and sometimes even masks, they sang, and they carried idols, flowers, sacred objects, and images associated with the cult’s mythic domain. Writing around 220 CE, Athenaeus delighted in describing dances related to religious dramatic festivals in Greece at the time of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and he quotes poets or scholars who claim that the gods themselves dance, as when he says that “Eumelus, or Arctinus, the Corinthian, somewhere or other introduces Jupiter himself as dancing, saying [as if conjuring a procession]—

And gracefully amid the dancing throng                                                                         

 The sire of gods and mortals moved along (Deipnosophistae I, 40; Athenaeus 1854: 36).

Athenaeus then names several men who achieved distinction “among the ancients” for their dancing, and presumably (it’s not altogether clear) these men performed in relation to the “ancient” religious festivities. Even less clear is whether Athenaeus is recalling the origins of enduring religious practices involving dance or waxing nostalgic over vanished aesthetic elements in rituals, an uncertainty that is perhaps inescapable when the ultimate purpose of the discourse is the pedantic display of erudition. Visual and textual references to religious processional dances are numerous for the Attic era; Nilsson (1906: 148, 195ff., 242, 246, 303, 380, 415, 420ff., 434) identified much evidence of public choral female dancing for various cults (Demeter, Artemis, Dionysius, Aphrodite, among others) in the Attic-Hellenistic period. Based on document fragments they compiled, the Edelsteins (1945: 196-197) attempted to describe a generic procession of the Asclepius cult “in later centuries,” but their description is still very vague:

[I]t was customary for the pious to carry the statue of the deity with them. In Athens the procession was supervised by the archon (T. 567); in other places other officials were in charge of it. In some cases, it seems, everybody took part in these parades, men and women, and small children, even those under seven years (T. 787). In Epidaurus, the communities which were on friendly terms with the host city had the right to send legations which in an official capacity participated in the pageant, a cause of pride to the smaller neighboring towns. The animals which they intended to sacrifice were taken along with those dedicated by the city of Epidaurus (T. 563). On special occasions, however, the procession was limited to certain groups of citizens, men selected from each tribe, the best of the city; they appeared in white garments, and with flowing hair, holding in their hands garlands of laurel for Apollo and branches of olive for Asclepius (T. 296). Or the procession had to be formed by young people, carrying in their hands suppliant boughs, bright offshoots of the olive (T. 593). In Cos, at the yearly festive assembly of the national god, the “children of Asclepius,” the physicians, staged a very costly procession of their own (T. 568) (Edelstein 1945: 196). 

It is difficult to grasp from this description how processions of the Asclepius cult differed from the processions of other cults or how Asclepius processions changed over time in relation to new political, economic, or social pressures. The scanty textual evidence allows the description to provide only a rudimentary, “timeless” idea of a routine, mediocre procession in which the focus is on who is in the procession rather than on how the procession operates as a performance. The intense competition for glory across the whole of imperial society assured that cult processions in the Empire, even in the poorest zones, were more varied and alluring than the pitiful textual documents beyond Apuleius imply. It is possible, though, that with the ascension of the imperial cult, coinciding with the disappearance of play performances as an element of ritual, cult activities operated much more in the private than the public sphere—that is, processions occurred in relation to the ambitions of local politicians and leaders and not in relation to a specific time of the year associated with a god’s blessing, as happened during the Republic. For that reason, those who chronicled the history of the state and of Rome itself, where the vast majority of state religious rituals took place, perhaps regarded cult rituals as utterly provincial affairs, no matter how alluring they were as spectacles, and thus peripheral to the main story of the emperors’ connections to the gods, even if cults made efforts to align themselves with state religious practices. 

            Indeed, the most vivid textual description of a cult procession is from the Republican era (ca. 55 BCE) in Lucretius’s De rerum natura, wherein the poet “does not imagine a mythological scene [but . . .] has a real, cultic event in mind” (Summers 1996: 337): 

Seated in chariot o’er the realms of air 
To drive her team of lions, teaching thus 
That the great earth hangs poised and cannot lie 
Resting on other earth. Unto her car 
They’ve yoked the wild beasts, since a progeny, 
However savage, must be tamed and chid 
By care of parents. They have girt about 
With turret-crown the summit of her head, 
Since, fortressed in her goodly strongholds high, 
‘Tis she sustains the cities; now, adorned 
With that same token, to-day is carried forth, 
With solemn awe through many a mighty land, 
The image of that mother, the divine. 
Her the wide nations, after antique rite, 
Do name Idaean Mother, giving her 
Escort of Phrygian bands, since first, they say, 
From out those regions’’twas that grain began 
Through all the world. To her do they assign 
The Galli, the emasculate, since thus 
They wish to show that men who violate 
The majesty of the mother and have proved 
Ingrate to parents are to be adjudged 
Unfit to give unto the shores of light 
A living progeny. The Galli come: 
And hollow cymbals, tight-skinned tambourines 
Resound around to bangings of their hands; 
The fierce horns threaten with a raucous bray; 
The tubed pipe excites their maddened minds 
In Phrygian measures; they bear before them knives, 
Wild emblems of their frenzy, which have power 
The rabble’s ingrate heads and impious hearts 
To panic with terror of the goddess’ might. 
And so, when through the mighty cities borne, 
She blesses man with salutations mute, 
They strew the highway of her journeyings 
With coin of brass and silver, gifting her 
With alms and largesse, and shower her and shade 
With flowers of roses falling like the snow 
Upon the Mother and her companion-bands. 
Here is an armed troop, which by Greeks 
Are called the Phrygian Curetes. Since 
Haply among themselves they use to play 
In games of arms and leap in measure round 
With bloody mirth and by their nodding shake 
The terrorizing crests upon their heads, 
This is the armed troop that represents 
The arm’d Dictaean Curetes, who, in Crete, 
As runs the story, whilom did out-drown 
That infant cry of Zeus, what time their band, 
Young boys, in a swift dance around the boy, 
To measured step beat with the brass on brass, 
That Saturn might not get him for his jaws, 
And give its mother an eternal wound 
Along her heart. And it is on this account 
That armed they escort the mighty Mother, 
Or else because they signify by this 
That she, the goddess, teaches men to be 
Eager with armed valour to defend 
Their motherland, and ready to stand forth, 
The guard and glory of their parents’ years…
(Lucretius 1916: 67-68).

It is difficult to believe that a real procession would have actual lions pulling Cybele’s chariot, but Lucretius clearly depicts actions occurring in a city street, so it is easy to suppose that in a real Cybele procession humans would impersonate the lions, just as “the armed troop […] represents the “arm’d Dictaean Curetes.” The scene is wild, spectacular, and suffused with turbulent emotions. The members of the procession pantomime scenes from the myth of Cybele and Attis, a kind of voluptuous, surging dance drama supported by various luxurious details (Cybele’s turret crown, the Phrygian entourage, the cymbals and tambourines, the “fierce” horns, the “terrorizing crests,” the knives), which violently agitate the crowd and urge them to heap “brass and silver” coins upon the wild entourage, as well as a blizzard of “roses falling like snow.” Presumably the procession included people whose job was to pick up all the “alms and largesse” tossed to Cybele by the crowd. But the money is there because a powerful, calculated, flowing pantomime has urged the crowd, “the rabble,” to give, to release themselves, to become transformed, for a moment, into warriors “eager with armed valour to defend their motherland.” The performance generates an astonishing complex of conflicting emotions in the audience: “solemn awe,” savagery “tamed” by “care of parents,” shame for ingratitude toward parents, frenzy, panic and “terror of the goddess’ might,” “bloody mirth,” exuberant generosity, intense protectiveness, and eagerness to “stand forth” in “glory” as guardians. This level of performance is possible only with considerable preparation, a deep understanding of how details of theatrical action move audiences without any words being spoken; Lucretius does not even mention any singing of hymns. With cult theatrical imagination achieving such an exciting and engaging impact on audiences, it is understandable how, after the pantomime legislation of 15 CE, the patrician class could feel confident that it could develop a sophisticated pantomime culture without the help of a professional (commercial) theater class and without a theatrical aesthetic that relied on texts or even theaters. 

            But Lucretius describes a cult procession that took place over thirty years before pantomimes were introduced to Rome. It may be that when Pylades and Bathyllus appeared in Rome in 22 BCE, the Augustan society decided to experiment with a commercialized pantomime, believing that, with the emperor’s oversight, competition for the audience market would lead to escalating quality of performance in this medium. When, however, the “excitement” of pantomime performance became increasingly entangled with the engagement of audiences through unruly claques attached to the pantomime stars, the commercialization phase came to an end: theater, from the perspective of Tiberius, the Senate, and probably Roman society as a whole, should never lead to social disorder nor to the formation of Mafioso-style gangs owned by knights seeking to extort their way into positions of power. At any rate, the powerful cult processional aesthetic described by Lucretius apparently adapted well to the new imperial environment even as the state (public) religious cults became integrated into the emperor cult with its tendency toward remote, platitudinous solemnity. But visual evidence prevails over textual sources in relation to cult processions in the imperial era. Much, if not most, of the imagery comes from the private sphere: mosaics from villas, reliefs from sarcophagi, and even from elaborately decorative features of tableware, such as the Dionysian figures embedded in the Great Dish of the Mildenhall Treasure (Hobbs 2012: 22-23). This imagery is quite fanciful and processions of the Dionysian cult are a favored theme. Nude or semi-nude figures of both sexes dance, ride lions, satyrs and centaurs sometimes appear, children sometimes appear, figures may lead leopards, lions, elephants, or camels, and maenads bang tambourines or blow horns or flutes. But the artists strive to infuse their images with movement by having humans assume dance-like or delirious poses and by having animals display animated expressions. The scenes may depict fantasy processions, but the desire of the patrons who commissioned the artworks to commemorate so vividly, even ecstatically, the processions of the cults to which they belonged does suggest the great power of the procession to constitute a transformative experience in the life of the villa or in the life of the deceased. In the imperial era, the performance of cult processions could, like pantomime performances in the villas, establish the influence of their designers (rather than the cult gods) over local populations. 

            The silver Great Dish of the Mildenhall Treasure in the British Museum shows how refined and glamorous processional imagery had become in the provincial villa culture late in the fourth century CE [Figure 66]. Perhaps just as spectacular, though, is the Parabiago Plate in Milan, which also dates from late in the fourth century [Figure 38]. This is possibly the silver lid of an urn. The imagery depicts figures and symbols associated with the cult of Cybele and complex relations between natural forces, divinities, zodiacal elements, allegorical figures, and humans (Shelton 1979: 185). But our interest in this mysterious encoding of a turbulent and “tragic” cosmos centers on the middle section, which shows Cybele and Attis seated in their chariot pulled by four lunging lions. Accompanying them are “three dancing Corybantes,” as Shelton calls them, each brandishing the “knives” that Lucretius explains are the “Wild emblems of their frenzy, which have power/ The rabble’s ingrate heads and impious hearts/ To panic with terror of the goddess’ might.” While all the figures in the image have been designed with considerable refinement and dramatic effect, the three dancers capture the attention of the viewer, perhaps even more than the goddess and her consort. The dancers are larger than any other figures. But they also exude a vividness that the artist and probably also the commissioner of the plate wanted emphasized. The two dancers in front of the lions perform the pyrrhic step with shields upraised and their torsos turned inward toward the goddess behind them. The third Corybante strikes a militant, heroic pose behind the chariot, conveying the sense that the movement of the pyrrhic step culminates in the powerful, statuesque pose that shields the goddess from manifold dangers. The dancers wear the distinctive endromides boots associated with the depiction of “horsemen, deities, warriors, heroes, personifications of the city, generals, and emperors” (Goldman 1994: 123; Morrow 1985: 178). It may be, though, that members of particular cults wore such boots to signify their membership, for in the Villa of Mysteries fresco nearly three hundred years earlier, an otherwise nude boy reading a book wears laced boots as does a winged female figure. The helmets of the Corybantes are also unusual, somewhat sleeker than the typical centurion’s helmet, a kind of armored variation of the Phrygian cap worn by Attis. Unlike the other figures in the Parabiago plate, the Corybantes appear as if the artist had actually seen them in a procession. The idea is that the procession is the key to the power of the cult and its access to a complex array of cosmic energies. And the Corybantes dominate perception of the procession; their pyrrhic dancing leads the chariot of the goddess and urges the chariot forward from behind.

Figure 66: Great Dish of the Mildenhall Treasure showing Dionysian procession. Photo: British Museum.  

For viewers of the plate and for viewers of the procession the artist has represented in the plate, the dancing Corybantes connect the Cybele cult to a turbulent, ecstatic metamorphosis of its followers. But it’s not clear from the imagery in the plate or from the sparse knowledge of Cybele processions, which center overwhelmingly on the pre-imperial era (Summers 1996: 342-348), if the artist intends for the dancers, with their high-status boots and helmets and larger scale, to signify the elevated rank of those who appear as Corybantes in the procession or merely to represent the dance-like frenzy of those devoted to the goddess, regardless of their rank. Shelton (1978: 185) says that “technical details and stylistic parallels […] suggest a place of manufacture in the West, perhaps in the city of Rome,” although it does not seem inconceivable that the plate was made in the vicinity of Parabiago after Milan became the capital of the Western Empire in 286 CE. A Milanese manufacture strengthens the idea that the artist modeled the Corybantes on persons he actually saw in the procession of the local Cybele cult. Even if the artist worked in Rome, the patron probably entrusted the manufacture of the plate to someone close to the cult and familiar with the excitement generated by the cult procession. Considering that social rank apparently did not correspond with rank or position within the cult procession, it is possible that pantomimes performed the roles of the Corybantes in the procession to achieve the most sophisticated dramatic effect. What is unlikely, however, is that three powerful male pantomimes would come from the same sponsoring family. Three pantomime Corybantes would imply a consortium of families sponsoring the cult, which is certainly possible as long as different families did not compete with each other in relation to a common political goal, although it is hardly clear that private cults accommodated such cooperation or alliance. More likely is that the Corybantes performers studied pantomime movements and sought to emulate them in the procession. Pantomime clarified the idea of metamorphosis by connecting bodily movement to the incarnation of mythic identities—to other, greater beings within the body. The pyrrhic step, the foundation for all movement in the pantomime, glorified a linear presentation of movement and was therefore highly appropriate for processional activity. In the Parabiago plate, we may not be seeing pantomimes escort Cybele and Attis, but we do see a visual imagination intensely stirred by the pantomimic metamorphosis of unknown bodies into mythic figures. The plate is evidence of the power of pantomimic movement to connect bodies to ecstatic experience well beyond the conventionally designated spaces (theater, villa) for its performance. That is because the mythic scenes enacted by the pantomime always remained subordinate to a much greater ideology—an imperial aesthetic—that linked movements of the body to the experience of ecstasy regardless of place, social rank, or affiliation with a spiritual doctrine. 

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