The Pantomime Performance Program: Pantomime Innovation and Aristocratic Competition

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

Pantomime Innovation and Aristocratic Competition

It may seem as if an immense conservatism defined pantomime performance in relation to the triclinium. The banquet pantomime performance of Daphnis and Ariadne that Xenophon described around 380 BCE in The Symposium could perhaps have taken place at a banquet in 300 CE. The format of the banquet had hardly changed at all over seven hundred years: a small group of guests reclined around tables, tasted different, often exotic meals, engaged in “convivial” conversation, and after they finished eating, they sipped wine, while the host provided “intimate” entertainments that might include pantomimes. Guests often interacted with the performers, commented on the performers, compared them with other performers, which further inspired exchanges of gossip, anecdotes, displays of erudition, or philosophical commentary. The end of a banquet might well entail the initiation of sexual liaisons with other guests or with persons “made available” by the host. The evidence of triclinium entertainment from Xenophon, Petronius, Plutarch, and Macrobius indicates a remarkable continuity of structure and ambiance. The format was apparently so successful at achieving the social or political goals of villa banqueting that innovation seemed unnecessary, and one might assume that triclinium entertainments cultivated an aesthetic that encouraged improvisation without innovation.

However, the retention of conventions across many centuries does not mean that innovation was absent. During the imperial era, villa owners clearly escalated the atmosphere of luxury while dining by introducing beautiful wall paintings and mosaic floors, by using elaborately crafted serving utensils, by having male and female guests together, by perfuming the triclinium, by installing elegant divans and cushions for reclining, by serving new exotic dishes, and by expanding the number of persons serving the guests, which probably entailed increasing the diversity of entertainments offered guests. The evidence does not suggest that hosts during the imperial era sought to increase the number of guests in the triclinium; rather, some villa owners designed two or three triclinia in their villas, although it is not clear that they did host banquets involving more than one triclinium at the same time. Even if they did, the number of guests would still remain quite small compared with public feasts they sponsored. Dunbabin (1991: 136, 147) contends, on the basis of a mosaic fragment from Carthage, which she dates to the last quarter of the fourth century CE, that banqueters may have begun to sit in benches or chairs at long tables at that time, although Blanchard-Lemée (1996: fig. 45) thinks the scene depicts a feast in the fifth century CE; it also depicts a pair of dancers with crotali accompanied by an old man playing Pan pipes. These male crotali dancers are perhaps the most interesting feature of the fragment. The villa owner probably had no pantomimes if he wished to commemorate his status by depicting these two dancers, instead of performers who enjoyed much higher status as artists, although to be sure much of the image is missing. Why two dancers using crotali? It is doubtful that a second crotaleum was necessary to amplify a rhythmic pattern shared by both dancers, for the sound of a single pair of castanets was quite loud, especially in such a small space as a triclinium. More likely each dancer performed a separate rhythmic pattern to produce a complex rhythmic interplay of sound and movement, like a contest or duel of clicking and movement. The performance of such a dance would require considerable skill that one might encounter only very rarely. That perhaps was what the villa owner wished to commemorate in the mosaic: the innovation in banquet performance that he enabled. Banqueting was an intensely competitive activity for hosts, for banqueting functioned to enhance the status of the host and affirm his ability to advance people within the social hierarchy. Competition encourages innovation, and the imperial state apparatus encouraged aristocratic families to compete with each other for positions, opportunities, and honors within the bureaucracy and within the economic infrastructure. Banqueting operated like a contest in a culture that supported contests of all sorts. Innovation in banquet entertainment was necessary for hosts to establish their competitiveness in using the banquets to achieve social and political goals. 

Innovation might involve a wide spectrum of entertaining performances: dwarf performers, bizarrely gifted acrobats, scantily clad women performing gymnastic stunts, such as the famous “bikini girls” in the fourth century CE mosaic of Room 38 at Piazza Armerina (Wilson 1983: 41). Iconographic evidence supports, up to a point, the notion that villa ensembles entertained audiences with a range of stunts and acrobatic dances. Artists over the centuries consistently celebrated innovative or “novel” aspects of performance. Artworks from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE show non-pantomimic dancers and acrobats as solitary figures who display adroit manipulation of props while moving. Figure 50a shows female caryatid dancers from the fifth century BCE performing the pyrrhic step while balancing crown-like “baskets” on their heads (Lawler 1974: 109-110). Fifth and fourth century BCE images include dancers performing with “clappers,” balancing on tables or pedestals while manipulating objects, and engaged in contortionism or nude twirling of their bodies. The third century BCE produced figurines of the so-called “veiled” female dancers in a variety of poses and movements that indicate the erotic charm of bodies undulating against the luxurious fabric wrapped around them. The Taranto National Museum contains two nude dancing figurines as a pair, and although it is not altogether clear if these two were meant to be seen together or are simply variations of a popular pose, the subtle differences between the two suggest a conscious effort on the part of the artist to treat the pose as a dynamic, theatrical phenomenon, as a way of comparing dancers with each other. In the second century BCE, dance figurines show even greater sophistication in cultivating tension between nudity, swirling diaphanous fabric, and elegance of movement [Figures 50b; Lawler 1974: 78, 103, 111, 132, 134]. The third and second century figurines reveal an unprecedented awareness of the dancing body as a source of interest when seen from any angle, not just a frontal or profile view, but the second century figurines suggest a new enthusiasm for exploring the expressivity of the face while dancing. A first century CE image introduces even greater complexities [Figure 50c]. Here the preoccupation with linking dance and nudity entails a pleasure in describing the elegant power of the dancing body to manipulate a complex assortment of props: the staff in one hand and an unidentified thing in the other; the fabric decorously looped around one arm, over the shoulder, down between the breasts, and over the other arm. The curious headdress somehow magnifies the ambiguity of the movement, simultaneously propulsive and twisting, to show the body in profile and frontal perspectives at the same time. 

Figure 50: a) Fifth century BCE caryatid dancer, Berlin, Pergamon Museum, Photo: Weege (1926: 41); b) Second century BCE figurine dancers, Taranto Museo Nazionale, Photo: Caratelli (1983: Plates 587, 599); c) First century CE relief of a dancer moving with a thyrsus, hand mirror, and shawl; Weege contends (96) the dancer is a hermaphrodite, Photo: Weege (1926: 108).

First century mural paintings from Pompeii perpetuate the theme of graceful bodies moving with a range of props: a large tambourine, a platter, a pair of cymbals, and, most intriguingly, balancing a large basket of grapes on the head while carrying a thyrsus [Figure 6]. But these paintings are most informative for the measure of color they invest in dance. Nudity continues to seem an alluring feature of dance, but then one observes the effect of delicate, varied fabric colors in heightening the charm of watching dance and encouraging diaphanousness and fabric layering to compete with a possibly greater urge in dance to reveal the body. First century Pompeii also produced the strange sequence of wall paintings, now at the Naples Museum, depicting rope dancers suspended in a kind of sprawling, dark attic-garden above the gaudy panel of theatrical architecture that originally stood beneath them [Figure 51]. Marble dance figures from the second century indicate an expanded interest in showing relations between nudity and movement by exploring a wider range of dance positions than previous art encompassed (Dietrichs, 46-49, 60); here, at last, emerges a sense of dancers interacting with other bodies, or at least with each other, subsumed under the eternally popular theme of “maenads,” although a gravestone image of a naked teenage dancer from Aquinium (Hungary) manages to convey a congenial naturalistic perception of the dancer, freed from mythic idealization and thus reinforcing the view that nudity in performance was more a matter of theatrical convention than an element of artistic fantasy (Kob 1997: 171) [Figure 52]. Yet in a fourth century mosaic from Madaba, Jordan, a female dancer wears a long dress that does not flatter her body but which also does not impede perception of her delight in performing the fancy trick of clashing cymbals attached to her wrists with cymbals attached to her ankles; next to her dances a nude male or possibly a hermaphrodite, although Piccirillo describes the figure as a “satyr” (Piccirillo 1993: 76, fig. 33) [Figure 26].

Figure 51: First century wall paintings from Pompeii (House of Cicero) depicting acrobats performing on ropes. Photo: Guillaud (1990: Plates 26, 28).
Figure 52: Female dancer on a second or third century CE gravestone from Contra Acquincum (near Budapest). Photo: Kob (1997: 171).

Innovation therefore was a feature of villa entertainment because it strengthened the social competitiveness of villa owners. The introduction of pantomimes was itself a major innovation in the imperial villa culture. But this innovation resulted from an even larger innovation. With the establishment of the empire under Augustus, pantomime performance moved away from being an art of professionals who earned their living by performing in theaters, as was the case during the Hellenistic period, to an art owned by wealthy patricians who nourished the art through the slaves and freedmen attached to their estates. When Pylades and Bathyllus moved to Rome (22 BCE), Alexandria quickly lost its status as the center for learning the art of pantomime; the study of pantomime became decentralized. Performers learned the art primarily by watching other performers at entertainments, a situation that would encourage less standardization of performance and greater diversity of performance styles compared with a professionalization of the art, where regulatory guilds or associations tend to favor “standards” or protective conventions that assure appropriate “value” for the price paid to see the performance. During the imperial era, the “value” of pantomime performance did not depend on what audiences were willing to pay to see the performance; it depended on what social or political goals the performance aided the owner in achieving. In a sense, the value of the performance was a matter of the price the owner was willing to pay to achieve or sustain a “competitive” social status. The displacement of the cantica tragicaat the end of the Republic by the pantomime facilitated the displacement of theater by the villa as the primary site of pantomime performance, where voices belonged mostly to the guests and not to the performers. But to gain a deeper understanding of innovation in pantomime performance, it is best to examine a third zone of pantomime performance to comprehend the scope of innovation for the art. 

Pantomime performance in the villa culture extended beyond the realm of dinner parties and exclusive occasions for small aristocratic and elite audiences. The owners of pantomime ensembles used their artists to pursue unique interfaces with the public to achieve political ambitions that the private entertainments alone could not achieve, although the villa performances were nevertheless crucial in developing this larger public interface. 

Members of pantomime ensembles sometimes performed in religious or civic processions sponsored by wealthy citizens who wished to engage public attention to their seriousness about benefitting the communities wherein the processions occurred. Public processions to celebrate or commemorate a wide range of occasions were, of course, a feature of Roman cultural life for hundreds of years prior to the introduction of pantomimes. However, with the advent of the Empire and particularly with the enthronement of Tiberius as Emperor in 14 CE, a significant shift in the organization of processions occurred, at least in relation to the involvement of pantomimes. In the Annals (1.77), Tacitus, in a very enigmatic paragraph, refers to “disorders” or “disturbances” or some sort of excessive freedom (“licentia”) linked with theater in Rome that had started the year before (that is, in 14 CE), and the following year erupted into extensive rioting in which many civilians died as well as many soldiers attempting to quell the violence. When the Senate debated the matter, some elders considered actors to be the cause of the disturbances and proposed a law that would allow praetors to scourge actors. But a tribune of the people, Haterius Agrippa, opposed such a law, presumably because he believed it would exacerbate rather than curtail the violence, which would explain why Tacitus bothers to mention that Asinius Gallus then rebuked Haterius Agrippa, while Tiberius, who was present, remained silent, feigning an attitude of indulgence toward free senatorial debate. The Senate rejected the proposed law, and instead enacted “many” other laws that put an end to the unrest, at least for several years. Augustus, the Senate determined, had decreed that actors were exempt from scourging, and Tiberius had no inclination to overturn the previous emperor’s decree, although Suetonius (Augustus 45.4) remarks that Augustus ordered the whipping of actors who had misbehaved. The laws enacted by the Senate fixed the amount of pay actors received, Senators were forbidden to enter the house of a pantomime, knights should not surround pantomimes in the street or elsewhere appear as if they were players of the theater, and praetors had the authority to exile all those responsible for the disturbances. 

Civilians and soldiers died when the soldiers constrained crowds attempting to attack a magistrate. In theory, magistrates were responsible for sponsoring the Augustalia, the musical and theatrical contests that celebrated Augustus on his birthday (23 September) or 12 October. Augustus had died on 19 August 14 CE. The magistrates may have felt that with the death of the emperor, it was not necessary or appropriate to continue the Augustalia. His successor, Tiberius, disclosed no enthusiasm for public entertainments and may well have believed that continuing the Augustalia was not helpful in establishing his authority to move the empire in a new direction. However, Dio Cassius, writing in the early third century, asserted (56.47.2) that the disturbances of 14 CE resulted when a pantomime refused to enter the theater for “the stipulated pay.” He says the tribunes convened the Senate on the day of the rioting to request more funding than the law allowed, which indicates a sense of urgency about the issue, but Dio then abruptly “ends [his] account of Augustus” with remarkable refusal to supply further details about this obviously ominous conclusion to the life of the man, Augustus, his history so ardently venerates (Swann 2004: 375-376). Perhaps he felt the less said the better. But Tacitus’s account of the riot of 15 CE suggests that in 14 CE, the Senate agreed to raise the pay of actors, and the following year, the instigators of the disturbances decided to pursue the same strategy of creating public havoc to extort greater funding for their theater entertainments. The strategy failed to intimidate the Senate and the new emperor. Or rather, having suppressed the riots through military action, the Senate took time to debate, less on how to prevent further riots, since the new regime had already made clear its willingness to resort to violent force to curb unruly crowds, but more on how to subordinate the theater culture to a new idea of how it should operate within the empire. After all, the Senate’s enactment of a law capping the pay of actors would seem to reject altogether the ostensible motive for the riots and to suggest that the rioters did not represent public sentiment as a whole, for neither the emperor nor the Senate sought to punish the general public by banning pantomime performances in the theater, although that option eventually found favor. Arthur Murphy’s 1753 translation of the passage in Tacitus is probably more accurate when he renders “At theatri licentia” as “theatrical factions” rather than as “the theater,” as in other translations (Tacitus 1832: 69). Tiberius and the Senate did not want to “scourge” the actors, because they did not believe the actors were at the root of the disturbances. The actors were pawns in a larger game played by factions attached to the actors. But these factions were under the control of knights or aristocrats who saw the pantomimes as useful in building political constituencies. The violence of the riots seems to have entailed more than an intense protest against the government’s unwillingness to spend more on the theatrical contests. The instigators of the violence saw the contests as foundations for the expansion of political power bases, and control over the contests was key to preserving these foundations, which Tiberius and the Senate regarded as dangerous. The riots attempted to demonstrate the power of theatrical factions, fan clubs associated with particular pantomimes, to define the political ambitions of the aristocrats who hired pantomimes to entertain their clients and constituents. The magnitude of the violence implies that it encompassed fighting between rival factions or at least rampaging meant to test the authority of the state to control the ambitions of the instigators. Competition between rival factions included the ability of individual factions to outbid others for the favor of a star pantomime, but the fees sought by the stars probably cost the instigators less than the cost of maintaining the fan clubs. The pantomime riots of 15 CE were about the costs the instigators were willing to pay to establish ambitious political identities. This apparently was not a problem as long as Augustus generously compensated the imperial pantomimes, and the pantomimes could not expect anyone to outbid the emperor who gave them access to Rome. 

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