Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime Repertoire and the Performance of Imperial Ideology

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

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Figure 68: Demeter (left), goddess of agriculture, and her daughter Persephone (right), goddess of the underworld, instructing a boy, possibly Triptolemos, a mortal teacher of agriculture, as depicted in a Roman copy of the Greek Eleusinian Marble Relief made in 27 BCE – 14 CE. Photo: Metropolitan Museum Art, New York, original in National Museum, Athens.

Pantomime Repertoire and the Performance of Imperial Ideology

In the East, pantomimes did two major things to enhance the power of their art to excite audiences. First, they vastly expanded the range of scenes from Greek mythology that were appropriate for pantomimic performance. This is evident from Lucian’s protracted discussion of mythic scenes that he ascribed to the pantomime repertoire as he observed it in Syria, Antioch, and Greece in the middle of the second century CE. He delights in overwhelming his reader with the abundant variety of mythic “moments” that pantomimes were able to embody. 

[…] the castration of Uranus, the begetting of Aphrodite, the battle of the Titans, the birth of Zeus, the stratagem of Rhea, the substitution of the stone, the fetters of Cronus, the casting of lots among the three brothers. Then in order, the revolt of the Giants, the theft of fire, the fashioning of man, the punishment of Prometheus, the power of the two Erotes, and after that, the errancy of Delos, the travail of Leto, the killing of Pytho, the plot of Tityus, and the discovery of earth’s central point by the flight of eagles” (Lucian 1936: 248-251).

But this is merely the beginning of an extensive inventory of mythic scenes that constitute “the dancer’s learning,” for the dancer “must know everything,” “beginning with Chaos and the primal origin of the world […] down to the story of Cleopatra the Egyptian” (248-49). Lucian describes many mythic moments that even in his time were familiar probably only to highly educated audiences and in any case not readily recognizable in performance without help from the interpellator.

[…] the wandering of Demeter, the finding of Core, the visit to Celeus, the husbandry of Triptolemus; the vine planting of Icarius, and the sad fate of Erigone; the story of Boreas, of Oreithyia, of Theseus and Aegus. Also, the reception of Medea and her flight to Persia, the daughters of Erechtheus, and the daughters of Pandion, with what they suffered and did in Thrace. Then Acamas, Phyllis, the first rape of Helen, the campaign of the Dioscuri against the city, the fate of Hippolytus, and the return of the Heracleidae […] (Lucian 1936: 250-253).

Lucian classifies the mythic material according to its geographical origin: Athens, Megara, Corinth, Mycenae, Sparta, Elis, Crete, Thessaly, Thrace, Asia and the “many dramas there,” Phoenicia, as well as “the Ethiopian tale of Cassiopea, Andromeda, and the Cepheus” and “somewhat mystic Egyptian tales”—“Epaphus and Osiris and the transfigurations of the gods into their bestial forms” (262-263). Italy, however, only contributes the myth of “Eridanus, and Phaeton, and the poplars that are his sisters, mourning and weeping amber” (260-261). The idea that a pantomime would have all of these mythic scenes in his performance repertoire is not credible, even if, at best, the cosmic scope of this mythology was part of his consciousness. To enact so many scenes with physical movements that are distinctive and sufficiently competitive in relation to other pantomimes who presumably were also performing this vast repertoire would have entailed a choreographic and scenic imagination or indeed genius of monumental scale, especially at a time when pantomime was becoming a large scale industry, while nevertheless most pantomime performances by stars probably lasted no more than an hour with maybe twelve scenes consuming five minutes each. Even the spectacular Corinthian pantomime described by Apuleius would have involved the elaborate coordination of numerous performers in relation to the enactment of a single mythic scene: The Judgment of Paris. Rather, Lucian’s inventory of mythic themes “selected out of many, or rather out of an infinite number” (264-265) that are fundamental to “the dancer’s learning” is a rhetorical device to drive the point that the whole of Greek mythology is available to pantomime culture, as long as pantomime remains a serious rather than comic art. 

The inventory conveys the impression that spectators of pantomime were able to see an enormous array of mythic figures incarnated by a large, expanding, and diverse class of dancers operating across different geographical zones. The catalogue of mythic themes further reinforces the perception of a grandiose metamorphosis of human identity through pantomimic performances throughout the eastern empire. But this metamorphosis is the work of a plenitude of pantomimes competing with each other by introducing in performance “new” or unexplored sections of the mythic database. The idea that all pantomimes knew how to dance all the mythic scenes in Lucian’s sprawling inventory presupposes a standardization of pantomime performance. But, as discussed earlier, pantomime performances followed conventions that undermined standardization of the art: there was no “code” by which the dancer performed this or that mythic scene. Standardization of performance entails the functioning of an academic pedagogy that implements educational goals assuring that all performers achieve a common level of skill expected of those working professionally. But Lucian does not mention any schools responsible for “the dancer’s learning.” In any case, it is extremely difficult to believe that any school, even with numerous teachers, could provide a curriculum or pedagogic method that enabled all students to master or even devise choreography for such a vast repertoire of mythic scenes. Pantomime schools apparently existed during the Hellenistic period, when theater performances were the work of a socially advantaged professional class, rather than slaves and freedmen. The school in Alexandria, from which came Bathyllus and Pylades, was perhaps the most famous pantomime academy relic of the expired Hellenistic world, but also possibly the last. Instruction probably focused on developing a repertoire of movements, a movement vocabulary, rather than on clarifying the relation between movement vocabulary and the representation of mythic figures. When Bathyllus and Pylades came to imperial Rome, they discovered that the Romans loved rivalries between performers, they encouraged intense competition between performers, and they saw pantomime and the concept of metamorphosis as articulations of power dynamics within their society—that is, pantomime was the articulation of an ideological rather than philosophical world-view. Competition encourages innovation, which is the enemy of standardization and “professionalization” as the Greeks understood it. From the time of Bathyllus and Pylades to the Tiberian legislation of 15 CE, a fairly small number of pantomimes operated in Italy. These pantomimes were professionals familiar with the Alexandrine vocabulary of performance. They could build their careers around a small number of mythic scenes, for what captivated the Romans was the opportunity to compare different dancers in relation to the same mythic scenes. Comparing one actor with another or indeed comparing an actor to the different roles he performed in a single performance established the primacy of the performer over the character and over the mythic material, making the performance above all a narration of enactments rather than the narration of a myth. 

With this mode of comparing performances, audience attention centers on identifying “the better” or “the best” performance of a mythic scene rather than on acknowledging an alternative version of the scene in a presumably less hierarchical cultural environment that is not so preoccupied with the larger themes of winning, triumphing, and conquering. Pylades, with his tragic or serious style approach to the mythic material, apparently triumphed over Bathyllus and his supposedly more light-hearted or perhaps satiric handling of myth. But of course, determining what is “the best” or “better” performance is often highly subjective and even controversial. This uncertainty about what is the best or highest level of performance gives rise to opportunities to exert the levers of “influence” or power within the society; it allows for the politicization of performance to an intense degree. Thus, the greatest or most powerful kind of performance (which replaces the best or highest) is not necessarily the most popular, but the one with the most generous sponsor, the one with the strongest claque, the one with the most passionate constituency, or perhaps the one with the most success in asserting the concept of rivalry. Evaluating pantomime performance involves more than a critique of what happens on a stage or in the villa peristyle; it is necessary also to assess the public persona constructed by the pantomime–his success in advancing the ambitions and political goals of his sponsors, his factions, or his imperial benefactors. Augustus sought to introduce “objectivity” into the evaluation of pantomime performance by initiating a contest in Naples in 2 CE, which then led to the Augustalia games with a category for pantomime competition (Suetonius, Augustus, 98). 

But with the death of Augustus and the pantomime riots that ensued in 14 and 15 CE, sparked by Tiberius’s disinclination to preserve the Augustalia, it was evident to Tiberius and the Senate that pantomime contests had less to do with objective evaluations of pantomime art and a lot more to do with creating opportunities for knights and their pantomime claques to establish in public their “influence” in relation to imperial largesse. The legislation of 15 CE undermined the power of the contests to determine the “influence” of pantomime claques and their sponsors and established pantomime as above all a villa entertainment; indeed, contests disappeared until a sort of revival in Campania around 100 CE. The rivalry between schooled, professional pantomimes evolved into a rivalry between aristocrats to fashion slaves and freedmen into pantomime artists. One learned the art by working with a pantomime attached to an estate to which one “belonged,” rather than from an academic environment that focused on mastering a basic movement vocabulary. This mode of education fostered greater individuality or diversity of performance styles, as pantomimes shaped their art to accommodate the idiosyncratic tastes and goals of their owners and the communities that surrounded the villas. 

At the same time, however, the diversity of themes or scenes could expand only to the extent that pantomimes moved beyond the repertoire of “appropriate” scenes established in Italy by the academically educated artists who introduced the art to the Romans. The freedmen and slaves who entered the pantomime culture following the legislation of 15 CE were not likely to have had an erudite education in Greek mythology, and not likely either to have the resources to improve their education a great deal in this direction. It was to their advantage to develop highly distinct performance styles in relation to a stable set of “appropriate” mythic scenes familiar to Roman audiences, who themselves probably had a fairly circumscribed knowledge of Greek mythology—that was one reason why the Romans invented the role of the interpellator. But when Verus made his trip to the east, he saw that the Greeks did not build their pantomime culture around a core set of “appropriate” mythic scenes. Rather, the eastern pantomime culture developed highly localized connections to Greek mythology, as pantomimes built their repertoires from the geographical origins of the mythic scenes. That is why Lucian makes a point of identifying mythic scenes according to their geographical origins. The repertoire for the whole of the eastern sector was therefore much larger than the Italian repertoire, even if the repertoires of individual pantomimes were no larger than those in Italy. While visiting the eastern sector, Verus grasped the opportunity to expand a stagnating pantomime culture in Italy by bringing back various pantomimes from the east who would introduce a wider range of mythic scenes and infuse the pantomime culture in Rome with a new competitive spirit. Moreover, through his importation into Rome of eastern pantomimes, Verus established the expansion of the mythic repertoire as an imperial initiative, subject to imperial management, consolidation, and centralization. The idea emerged, through Verus and with Aurelius’s consent, that the entire empire would perceive Rome as determining the scope of the mythic imagination and its incarnation through the movements of pantomimes. But the deeper motive for expanding the range of mythic scenes through imperial initiative was to consolidate imperial authority over the concept of metamorphosis and thus create a much greater sense of the pliancy of human identity within the empire, a much greater appreciation of how the empire enabled its citizens to become “someone else” or at least to adopt more complex ways of constructing their identities, which implied a greater condition of freedom. 

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