Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime in the Eastern Empire: Female Pantomimes

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

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Figure 69: Ivory carving found in Trier, Germany depicting what some scholars regard as a female pantomime, ca. Fourth-Fifth Century CE. Photo: Staatliche Museen Berlin.

Pantomime in the Eastern Empire: Female Pantomimes

The eastern sector expanded the pantomime mythic repertoire primarily by focusing on erotic scenes from Greek mythology. As Lucian puts it, referring to the amorous affairs of the gods, “Before all else, however, [the pantomime] will know the stories of their loves, including the loves of Zeus himself […]” (Lucian 1936: 262-263). By the time of Verus, the “influence,” so to speak, of the east was shifting pantomime from a largely tragic to a largely erotic mode of performance. In the following decades and centuries, pantomime content only became more erotic and even pornographic, as one might presume from reading, in the Secret History (9.20-22; ca. 558 CE), Procopius’s description of Theodora’s Leda and the Swan performance in Byzantium (ca. 520 CE). Documentation of pantomime culture during the long Pax Romana is weak because the Church guardians of morality omitted so much of it from the historical record, believing that it was not to their benefit to leave behind evidence indicating that the Roman Empire remained powerful and healthy despite imperial fostering of entertainments that were so contrary to Church dogma. Of course, since the time of its introduction in Rome the pantomime culture had projected an intensely erotic aura. But the documentation largely attributes this aura or notoriety to the supposed sexual availability of pantomimes off stage or to the sexual ambiguity or “effeminacy” of pantomimes or to the power of glamorous star pantomimes to awaken, through their suave movements, disturbing erotic desires in knights or aristocratic female spectators. The claques may have recruited followers by providing access to sexual favors from members of pantomime ensembles. The historical commentary does not contend that the mythic scenes in performance were especially erotic; if anything, commentators introduce a tone of condescension, as if to suggest that because they evoked mythic figures through their bodies rather than through poetic words, pantomimes were unable to project the “heroic” level of identity associated with Greek mythology or with its sculpture, if not its literary language. However, by the time (162 CE) of Verus’s visit to Greece, Apuleius had probably already written Chapter X of The Golden Ass, in which the pantomime performance in Corinth appears as a kind of communal orgy, a pornographic bacchanal. Nudity was commonplace in pantomime programs, justified perhaps by the use of poses to emulate or indeed compete with nude statues of mythological figures. Female pantomimes had become a feature of even provincial ensembles when Apuleius wrote The Golden Ass. A stone epitaph excavated near the Baths of Caracalla and dated in the late second century or early third century CE describes the life and character of a woman who was a pantomime in addition to being a devoted wife and mother (Starks 2008: 138-145). 

However, most evidence of female pantomimes comes from the fourth century CE or later. Aristaenetos, the name ascribed to an otherwise unknown Greek writer from the fifth century CE (Bing 2014: xiii-xiv), wrote a literary letter to a pantomime named Panarete, in which he praised her skill as a “painter of realism”: 

You write down actions, you express all sorts of words, you are absolutely the body image of all nature, using your hands for different formations and varied expressions instead of colours and speech, and like some Egyptian Proteus you appear to change from one character to another to the accompaniment of the artful song of the chorus. The people have risen straight up in amazement […] (Starks 2008: 111; Aristaenetos 1610: 119-120). 

The Greek Anthology contains three epigrams ascribed to Leontius Scholasticus, who, inspired by images of her, writes praise of one Helladia, a Byzantine pantomime in whose “dancing of this goddess of war [‘the lay of Hector’] there was both desire and terror, for with virile strength she mingled feminine grace” (Greek Anthology 1918: 330-331). The North African poet Luxorius, writing at the time of the Vandal occupation (ca. 525 CE), mocked a diminutive pantomime named Macedonia, who “always dances the part of Andromache and of Helen and of others who had a tall figure” because in vain “she thinks she can become like them by playing their roles and she wants her body to grow by her make believe movements” (Rosenblum 1961: 126-127). A small ivory relief, found in Trier and now in Berlin, depicts a pantomime holding a seven string lyre in one hand and three masks in the other hand [Figure 47]. The date of the relief is uncertain. Bieber (1961: 236) proposes “about the fourth century,” while Bell (1978: 262) suggests the early sixth century. Bell also ascribes an Egyptian origin for the relief. The sex of the pantomime has also provoked uncertainty. Hall (2013: 463) claims the figure is male, but others, including Bieber and Bell, assert that the figure is female. As Bell remarks, the face contains “features that recur in ivories of the early sixth century such as the Ariadne in the Cluny Museum.” The torso, furthermore, displays intensely feminine qualities. The hat is a curious item and apparently confers a special status on the pantomime, rather than on any impersonated character; if anything, it adds to the femininity of the figure. At the very least, the relief evokes an atmosphere of sexual ambiguity: the artist creates deep uncertainty about whether the pantomime has a feminine or a feminized identity. This leads to the question: what was the motive for allowing or encouraging women to become pantomimes? 

            Female dancers had been a feature of ancient entertainments long before the introduction of pantomime to Rome. Romans had even celebrated some female dancers before the advent of the pantomime. In his Letters to Atticus (4.15), responding to an inquiry about her from his correspondent, Cicero wrote favorably of Arbuscula, a dancer who was “a great success” at the performance he attended, while Horace, writing of the same dancer in the Satires (I, 10, 76), remarks on her skill at returning hisses to a sector of the audience that had hissed her performance. Cicero also remarked (77 BCE), in his speech For Quintus Roscius the Actor (VIII), that a female dancer of his time, Dionysia, could earn 200,000 sesterces per year (approximately $1,050,000). Pliny, in his Natural History (7.159), while describing persons who lived to a great age, mentions a dancer, Galeria Copiola, who performed at the votive games (9 CE) for Augustus at the age of 104; she had begun her career at the age of eight. But these women were emboliariae, dancers of interludes (embolia) between scenes or sections of larger theatrical programs. Women and girls as dancers, acrobats, singers, or musicians were evidently a feature of Roman entertainments well prior to the pantomime and had their precedent in Etruscan forms of entertainment. It is not clear when women first became mimes, but they seem to have preceded female pantomimes by a considerable span of time. Reich (1903 I: 529) hints that female mimes appeared on the Hellenistic stage, but his earliest evidence is Orelli inscription 4760 (= CIL 6, 10106), a fragment referring to Claudia Hermione, an archmima, “the first to inherit,” from some time in the late Republic. Other inscriptions mention an archmima, Fabia (CIL, 6, 10, 107) and Basilla (CIG, 8, p. 1023) (Henry 1919: 381; Schwabe 1900: 10). Horace, Satire 2, 55, mentions an actress named Origo, for whom one Marsaeus gave up his “paternal estate and seat.” Cicero (Philippics 2, 22) mentions the actress Volumnia (Cytheris), as a mistress of the “profligate” Marc Anthony, who preceded him (49 BCE) on “an open litter” through various Italian towns followed by a “car full of pimps and a lot of debauched companions”; in a letter to Papirius Paetus, Cicero (FIX, 26) even mentions that he dined with her at the home of Volumnius Eutrapelus, although he “had no suspicion she would be there” (Cicero 1900:102). Virgil (Eclogue X), Ovid (Tristia, II, 445), and Martial (Epigrams 8.73. 5-10), and especially Propertius (Elegies, I), who calls her Cynthia while the others refer to her as Lycoris; all of them mention her apparently notorious later significance as the deeply beloved mistress of the politician-poet Gaius Cornelius Gallus (70-26 BCE), prefect of Egypt. Gallus wrote numerous elegies about Cytheris, of which only a few fragments exist (Raymond 2013: 59-67; Gibson 2012: 172-185; Hollis 2007: 219-226). In one fragment, he laments her departure to the Rhine and hopes that Alpine frosts and the icy river will not hurt her (Camden 2004). His affair with her may have begun as early as 45 BCE, and he remained devoted to her until the end of his life, even though she seems to have abandoned him and he even chides her in another fragment for her “misbehavior” (Pap. Qasr. Ibrim inv. 78-3-11/1 (LI / 2). An epitaph (CIL, 6, 10096) for a freedwoman, Eucharis, who died at the age of fourteen, claims that she “was the first woman to appear before the people on the Greek stage,” but although she was “learned and cultivated in all accomplishments,” her most distinctive achievement apparently was that she “lately adorned the games of the nobility with [her] dancing” (Langeveld 2013: 53-54). Langeveld claims that the epitaph comes from the late Republic, but Henry (1919: 380) believed it was “probably from the time of Nero.” However, references to female mimes during the Empire are extremely scarce until the Christian writers began condemning the theater; Juvenal (Satires I, 36) and Martial (Epigrams I, IV) refer to an actress, Thymele, who performed in farces for the emperor. Of course, at least one famous painting excavated from Pompeii depicts a female mime in the first century CE [cf., Figure 43]. 

            If female mimes were a facet of Roman theater culture before the establishment of the Empire and a feature of the culture under the Empire, why, then, did female pantomimes not appear until at the earliest the middle of the second century CE? Perhaps one reason lies in the story of the relationship between Cytheris and Gallus. For Virgil, Ovid, and Propertius, Gallus’s passion for the actress awakened a fatal hunger to write poetry that was as powerful as his political ambitions, although Gallus himself never blamed Cytheris for his downfall and eventual suicide. Because of his love for her, Gallus created a new way of writing about erotic passion, the elegy: a passionate love always ends sadly and can only be remembered elegiacally, even if, as in the case of Gallus, the passion lasts for many years and even if the object of passion is not altogether virtuous. However, from the standpoint of the imperial elite, especially Augustus, Cytheris might well have inspired a sense of confidence or recklessness in Gallus that exceeded his better judgment, causing him to speak too uninhibitedly about his political ambitions and causing the Senate and the Emperor to see him as a dangerous opponent. It was not that Cytheris “influenced” Gallus in the manner of a conspirator plotting her own rise to power in collusion with an equally ambitious ally. Rather, Gallus consorted too openly and happily with a woman who earlier had been the mistress of Marc Anthony, a man catastrophically divided by the claims of his mistress and the claims of state power. The actress had infected Gallus, a man of relatively humble origins, with an excessive estimation of his ability to control his identity. His “metamorphosis” depended too much on her own bewitching power of metamorphosis. This mode of metamorphosis was dangerous for the stability of the new empire: the transformation of a state was not synonymous with the transformation of an individual. The imperial elite could easily assume that, when embodied by actresses, especially ones as notorious as Cytheris, women revealed a dangerous dimension to the concept of metamorphosis, for they had the power to make the metamorphosis of a man depend on the metamorphosis of a woman, which could well lead to deception, betrayal, and catastrophe. At any rate, Augustus, with his amendments to the lex Juliana (18 BCE), among other actions, imposed a moral tone, apparently not popular, that intensely discouraged women from pursuing any roles other than daughters, wives, and mothers. The rise of the pantomime diminished the cultural status and importance of mime. Pantomime incarnated the idea that all mythic identities, male and female, were under the control of a male performer, and thus reinforced the perception of metamorphosis as a concept arising within and governed by a male body. The claques attached to male pantomime stars and their sponsors created a volatile political atmosphere for the emperor. The introduction of female pantomime stars most likely would have intensified the volatility of the claques; even the aristocratic sponsors might have experienced great difficulty in managing their claques if their pantomime stars were female. Perhaps for this reason, no law appears to have been introduced forbidding women to become pantomimes: such a law was unnecessary to keep women from entering the profession, even if women desired to become pantomimes. It was not that women lacked interest in pursuing careers as pantomimes or that audiences had no desire to see female pantomimes; it was more likely that aristocratic sponsors saw no benefit to their political ambitions in building pantomime ensembles around female stars. Educating and elevating to stardom a female pantomime would entail a radical political goal and inaugurate a level of competiveness that was simply unimaginable to the ruling class, the sort of self-destructive action that characterized men like Marc Anthony and Gallus. 

            For at least a hundred and fifty years, then, pantomime was an entirely male form of performance, supported sometimes by female dancers, singers, acrobats, and musicians. By the middle of the second century CE, Rome had understood for some time that the Greek aristocracy believed it served its interests best by enjoying autonomous privileges rather than by struggling to achieve a dominant role in the Empire. The Greek aristocracy simply lacked the resources to build large-scale power bases and to compete with immensely powerful Roman and Western Empire families for control of the Empire. Within Greece, the political goal of pantomime performance was to affirm the autonomy rather than imperial competiveness of the aristocracy. A manifestation of autonomy was a freedom to innovate within a performance environment that was not situated in such a complex political apparatus or hierarchy as in Italy; the Greeks could further claim to possess greater authority over the scope and “authenticity,” so to speak, of the mythic material that was the basis for pantomime performance. Moreover, because the Greek aristocracy lacked the resources of the Roman elites, the organization of public performances of pantomimes apparently unfolded in close collaboration with municipal governments, a relic of the old polis-centered idea of governance—in other words, public performances relied much more on tax revenues than in Italy or elsewhere in the Empire. In this context, the idea that the performance was a “gift” to the public required the sponsors to be more attentive to the diversity and subtlety of audience tastes and enthusiasms than was perhaps the case in Italy. While the claques most likely operated in Greece, too, it was also most likely that they were not so deeply implicated in a huge web of political alliances as they were in Italy, because aristocratic sponsors did not have the money to fund large payrolls of “clients.” It was not until the capital of the Empire shifted to Constantinople that pantomime claques became powerful, disruptive forces, and even then, such claques achieved this distinction in Constantinople and Asia Minor, not in Greece. The claques in Greece were probably much like social clubs that gathered people according to aesthetic tastes rather than the expectations of an employer. That is to say, claques arose in response to unique artistic features of a performer rather than in relation to the performer’s ability to represent a larger social-political perspective outside the mythic world represented in performance. 

            As mentioned already, the Greeks greatly expanded the range of erotic themes performed by the pantomimes; pantomime culture focused largely, perhaps even exclusively, on describing the peculiarities of erotic desire. The expansion of erotic themes enabled male pantomimes to incarnate an ever-increasing repertoire of female identities, so that the scope or limits of the performer’s art rested upon his skill at impersonating different manifestations of the opposite sex. That is a major reason why Pliny, among others, could refer to pantomime as an “effeminate” art. It may be, however, that by the middle of the second century CE Greek audiences had become distrustful or impatient with male pantomimic representations of feminine identities. The autonomy of the Greek aristocracy depended on its power to “reveal” feminine identity in a bolder fashion than Rome encouraged: pantomime culture thus evolved in relation to a struggle for control over the construction of feminine identity. From its beginning, pantomime was about sexual ambiguity and the notion that metamorphosis involved the interaction of masculine and feminine sectors within a single body. But if the performing body is always only male, then as male pantomimes proliferate, it becomes evermore and even extremely difficult for pantomimes to become stars by constructing distinctive representations of both male and female identities. They can expand the range of erotic themes, but eventually the introduction of new characters will require a more elaborate movement vocabulary for all pantomimes, if each pantomime is to achieve sufficient distinction to become or remain a star. The pantomimes would favor standardization or replication of each other’s movements to reduce competition between each other under the philosophy that all benefit when none are better than any other. From the sponsor’s perspective, this attitude undermines both the idea of aristocratic autonomy and the credibility of claque-fronted political powerbases. Indeed, the attitude undermines the very concept of stardom and encourages provincial allocation of pantomime talent. The introduction of female pantomimes would intensify competition between all pantomimes and bring greater diversity to the movement vocabulary for embodying male and female identities within a single body. After all, the whole point of excluding women as pantomimes (but not dancers, acrobats or singers) was that a female body would produce quite different representations of mythic characters, even if female performers replicated the movements of male performers. Female pantomimes would create a different relation of the mythic characters to the audience. It could not escape the thinking of the Greek sponsors that encouraging women to impersonate mythic characters, male and female, connected to heavily erotic themes, would create, in the public spaces of performance, a new relation between the (mostly male) audience and the performance: the sponsors would establish their privileged autonomy as brokers of a sexually permissive milieu in which sexual favors dispensed by agents attached to the theater ensemble received a kind of mythic endorsement through the performance. In his discussion of Empress Theodora’s origins, Procopius indicated this link between promoters of mythic erotic performance in public and pimping (Secret History 9. 8-12), and although he wrote centuries after the introduction of female pantomimes, his writing (ca. 558 CE) does evoke a cultural atmosphere (ca. 510-518 CE) in which “Circus” performers, “Dancing Masters,” and female performers, of whom Theodora was a pantomime, provided entertainments that facilitated sexual transactions off stage:

Now for a time Theodora, being immature, was quite unable to sleep with a man or to have a woman’s kind of intercourse with one, yet she did engage in intercourse of a masculine type of lewdness with the wretches, slaves though they were, who, following their masters to the theater, incidentally took advantage of the opportunity afforded them to carry on this monstrous business, and she spent much time in the brothel in this unnatural traffic of the body (Procopius 1927: 106-107).

The second century CE seems to have ushered in a long period of relaxed sexual morality, perhaps precipitated by the behavior of emperors themselves, who in so many cases consolidated their power by demonstrating their immunity to moral censure. Apuleius’s description of the Corinth public porno-pantomime in The Golden Ass suggests how even in relatively provincial communities an extravagantly libidinous, even orgiastic spirit could grip an entire town. By the end of the second century, the early Christian writer Tertullian had completed his De Spectaculis (ca. 198 CE) condemning the “filthy lewdness” and “immodesty” of the theater “such as finally the pantomime submitteth to in his own body from his childhood, that he may be able to be an actor. The very harlots also, the victims of the public lust, are brought forward on the stage, more wretched in the presence of women, from whom alone they were wont to conceal themselves, and are bandied about by the mouths of every age and every rank: their abode, their price, their description, even in matters of which it is not good to speak, is proclaimed” (Tertullian 1842: 207-208). Subsequent Christian writers would continue this condemnation, but it is clear from De Spectaculis that well before the end of the second century, the Carthaginian pantomime culture had adopted the Greek fixation on erotic themes about which, according to Tertullian, it was impossible for a Christian to speak without becoming “defiled.” Perhaps the identification of pantomime with intensely erotic performance was why Greek artists discouraged the inclusion of pantomimes in competitions (Slater 1995: 289). 

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