The Pantomime Performance Program: Villa Performance

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

Villa Performance

While theaters provided important opportunities for pantomime performance, it is good to remember that those opportunities were occasional rather than regular. Pantomime ensembles performed in theaters only because their owners saw some larger advantage to themselves in allowing their ensembles to perform in theaters as a “gift” to the audiences. For the most part, pantomimes performed for much smaller audiences consisting largely of persons belonging to the aristocracy or to the higher levels of government. Ownership of a pantomime ensemble was a measure of an aristocrat’s wealth, but it was a measure only to the extent that it could be displayed and shared with diverse audiences. For this reason, ownership of a pantomime ensemble probably conferred a greater image of wealth than simply owning slaves or houses or valuable commodities. A pantomime ensemble signified a superior capacity for luxuriousness insofar as one owned an ensemble for the purpose of “sharing” with others the beauty of its performance. It is not at all clear what hierarchy prevailed in relation to various capacities for luxuriousness through performance and spectacle. Was owning a pantomime ensemble a higher or lower measure of status than owning gladiators or a chariot racing team? Perhaps, if gladiator or chariot racing teams belonged to groups of investors rather than to a sole individual. Perhaps not, if the giving of gladiator contests or chariot races exerted greater impact on the public when the owners sought to use the spectacles to claim their influence over their audiences and thereby strengthen their political power. And perhaps such distinctions are not even helpful: some owners of pantomime ensembles probably invested in gladiatorial spectacles, even though the Empire kept pantomime performances and gladiatorial spectacles strictly separate, never combined. Moreover, in some parts of the Empire, owners assigned pantomime ensembles to support and agitate the fan clubs for the chariot teams in which the owners had invested. But the “giving” of gladiatorial spectacles and chariot races allowed aristocrats to exert influence primarily over large public audiences. While pantomimes also allowed their aristocratic owners to cultivate the favor of public audiences, they were even more useful in allowing their owners to exert their influence over other aristocrats and high-ranking officials from beyond the local environment. The major reason for owning a pantomime ensemble was to impress other aristocrats with an entertainment that was exclusive, designed for a privileged and chosen audience. Because access to pantomime performance depended on quite arbitrary circumstances, on the unique socio-political ambitions of pantomime owners, the public could regard the “gift” of pantomime performances as a more privileged activity than attending gladiatorial spectacles or chariot races, which, having become deeply institutionalized well before the establishment of the Empire, the public treated as an expectation, as entertainments “owed” it, as fundamental components of the “bread and circuses” philosophy of state governance. What bestowed exclusivity on pantomime performances was their occurrence in “private,” luxurious settings—the great houses and villas of those who owned the pantomime ensembles         

Howe (2007: 13) observes that houses belonging to “the families of the 300 to 600 men of the senatorial order and the perhaps ten thousand of the ‘equestrian’, or business, class” […] were as much instruments of their social power as they were places of luxury and retreat.” He further remarks that, “This need for the elite to appear politically effective was the driving force behind a great deal of continuous innovation in Roman culture from the third century BC onward, from the importation of gladiatorial spectacles to aspects of Greek art and architecture” (14). “The wealth and drive” of the Roman elite “to create an effective and innovative show sparked an explosion of artistic creativity.

They assembled their resources to invent an innovative type of “lofty and lordly” seaside villa, with “libraries, picture galleries, and basilicas, outfitted in a manner not dissimilar to the magnificence of public works” and they continued to build them over the next two centuries, and build them ever more elaborately. The art and architecture which they commissioned to surround themselves and their highly political house guests, with their numerous allusions to classical divinities and legends, were as much an assertion of their erudition, “dignitas” and sophistication as were their collections of art, their libraries, their skilled cooks, their entertainers, their resident philosophers and poets, their exotic fishponds, and their jewels and silverware (15).

The scale of some estates was enormous, designed to support the lives and work of many persons, as Rostowzew explained in detail back in 1904 (Rostowzew 1990: 41-77) and as evidenced most spectacularly by the ruins of Hadrians’s Tivoli villa and the mysterious, gigantic residential complex of Piazza Armerina. Indeed, as the Empire grew older, villas became such self-sufficient communities that towns in Sicily and elsewhere decayed or lost their justification for development (Wilson 1983: 95). Estates as large and as luxurious as those described by Rostowzew (1990), Drerup (1957, 1990), Mansuelli (1990), and Bergman (2010) could easily have accommodated pantomime ensembles as part of the extensive staff required to make the properties effective in achieving their social, political, and recreational goals. Even if pantomime owners could not or did not wish to keep their ensembles in their villas or in the villas of others when they traveled, they could rent apartments for their performers, as was evidently the case in Pompeii and Ostia, at least when one considers the apparently thriving business in seasonal rentals of apartments and inns in those cities. But presumably an owner who could maintain a pantomime ensemble in villas enjoyed higher status than an owner who was improvising, so to speak, or in the early phase of his adventures in high society entertainments. Because nearly all pantomimes were slaves or freedmen, it is highly unlikely that an owner would expect a pantomime ensemble to do nothing but perform shows. Even if an ensemble gave a performance once a week, which would be exceptional rather than commonplace, especially when other or competing pantomime ensembles as well as other spectacles can claim the attention of audiences both aristocratic and popular, the owner would expect the members of the ensemble to perform other duties besides rehearsing and performing pantomime acts. A typical pantomime ensemble built around a single star performer would include a dozen or so persons, in addition to the star: two or three musicians, a chorus of maybe four or five, three or four acrobats and dancers, and an interpellator, as well as maybe three or four persons involved with off stage mechanical and production support. Only very large villas could accommodate this many persons in addition to the other servants the owner relied on to make the villa and his life operate as expected. Indeed, a major reason the pantomime evolved around a single star performer is that the resources to sustain a larger scale of production would emerge only if the aristocracy gave up its privileged access to the pantomime and allowed the state or municipalities to treat pantomime entertainment as public investment paid for primarily with taxes raised from the aristocracy. Such a public approach to pantomime performance would defeat the purpose of pantomime ensembles to establish degrees of exclusivity and distinction within the aristocracy and to establish the authority of the aristocracy to bestow “gifts” on the public if gifts were to remain a significant instrument for “swaying” sectors of a local or regional public. When it was convenient, owners could collaborate in merging pantomime ensembles to produce larger shows for larger and more public audiences. The Corinth performance described by Apuleius in Book X of The Golden Ass is an example of a larger production that would rely on performers from more than one owner. It is important to remember that, because of the dubious moral status ascribed to pantomimes and the performances, pantomime ensembles served their aristocratic owners rather than aristocratic households or any particular sector of the aristocracy. Pantomimes could provoke tensions and divisions within aristocratic circles and even within aristocratic families they entertained. In his epistles (Book 7, Letter 24, to Geminius), Pliny the Younger describes (ca. 80 CE) a woman, Ummidia Quadratilla, who “retained a set of pantomimes, whom she encouraged more than becomes a lady of quality,” but who apparently never encouraged her grandson, Quadratus, to see any of the pantomime performances she arranged. 

Quadratus never witnessed their performances, either when she exhibited them in the theater, or in her own house; nor did she exact his attendance. I once heard her say, when she was commending her grandson’s oratorical studies to my care, that it was her habit, being a woman and as such debarred from active life, to amuse herself with playing at chess or backgammon, and to look on at the mimicry of her pantomimes; but that before engaging in either diversion, she constantly sent away her grandson to his studies: a custom, I imagine, which she observed as much out of a certain reverence, as affection, to the youth.

Indeed, Quadratus tells Pliny that “the first time I ever saw one of my grandmother’s freedmen dance” was at the Sacerdotal Games in which her troupe had entered the competition, after her death. Pliny commends Quadratilla for protecting her grandson from her pantomime entertainments while disparaging 

a set of men of a far different stamp, [who] in order to do honour to Quadratilla (I am ashamed to employ that word to what, in truth, was but the lowest and grossest flattery) used to flock to the theater, where they would rise up and clap in an excess of admiration at the performances of those pantomimes, slavishly copying all the while, with shrieks of applause, every sign of approbation given by the lady patroness of this company. But now all that these claqueurs have got in pay is only a few trifling legacies, which they have the mortification to receive from an heir who was never so much as present at Quadratilla’s shows (Pliny the Younger 1915: 58-63).

The motive for writing about Quadratilla was that she left two thirds of her estate to her grandson—that is, she recognized in Quadratus sterling scholarly qualities, a “pristine dignity,” a superior capacity for “glory,” while nevertheless cultivating a base or corrupting enthusiasm for pantomime. But it is evident from the letter that in receiving the pantomime troupe from his grandmother as part of her will, Quadratus did not disband the troupe or sell it or give it away; he entered it into the competition of the Sacerdotal Games, and he assumed that, even if she shielded him from pantomime performances while she was alive, his grandmother believed the pleasures of pantomime performance would prove useful and engaging for him when she was no longer around to enjoy them herself. Presumably by entering his pantomime troupe in the Sacerdotal Games, Quadratus enhanced his prestige as a lawyer or politician, but not simply because he displayed the measure of his wealth by now owning a pantomime ensemble. Pliny’s letter reveals how pantomimes functioned as a major measure of aristocratic character: the “true aristocrat,” like Quadratilla and her grandson, does not scorn, discard, or shame the pantomimes; nor does the true aristocrat, unlike Quadratilla’s “claques,” suffer an “excess of admiration” for the pantomimes. The true aristocrat adopts a more detached attitude toward the pantomimes, for he sees them as serving a social and political purpose beyond entertaining their audiences: this detached attitude toward the pantomimes is what allows both the aristocracy and the public to believe in the integrity of the owner, to trust him with power. 

            Roman villas were as varied as the individuals and families that owned them. How pantomimes performed within villa settings depended on their skill in adapting to the unique or defining spaces offered by a villa. A generous capacity for improvisation was necessary to accommodate the peculiarities of space and occasion controlling villa performances. A few grandiose villas contained their own indoor theaters, and the peculiar features of performance of such theaters have been described above. But most villas did not contain theaters; performances took place in spaces considered appropriate in relation to the general components and functions of villa architecture, for even if villas varied according to the tastes and circumstances of their owners, the basic architectural organization of villas followed the general principles that Vitruvius described in De Architectura (Book VI, Chapters 1-6, ca. 20-15 BCE), wherein the author prescribes close attention to symmetry, carefully calculated structural proportions, and sensitivity to the proprietary functions of spaces. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (1994: 38-61) explains in detail “the social coding of architectural form and decoration” shaping the “articulation” of Roman houses, wherein the richest houses maintained a pronounced distinction between “highly visible” and “invisible” areas that separated the display of luxurious living from the living and working quarters of servants. He stresses (44), however, that this distinction did not entail separation of private from public functions within the domestic spaces, for Roman civilization, especially at the highest levels, entailed an “incompatibility of public life with privacy,” at least to a degree that is alien to our own time. “The Greek house is concerned with creating a world of privacy, of excluding the inquisitive passerby; the Roman house invites him in and puts its occupants on display. Vitruvius’s contrast is not between space for visitors and space for family but between space for uninvited and for invited visitors” (45). Clearly only specifically designated spaces within the villa were appropriate for pantomime performance, with the peristyle being the most obvious, and the exedra and the cenatio possibly engaged for this purpose. Figure 44 shows a ground plan of a villa in Pompeii that lacks a theater, although a single ground plan does not indicate the variety and complexity of villa design. Wallace-Hadrill further observes (52) “the sheer proliferation of spaces for entertainment” in the “richer surviving houses of A.D. 79,” and Vitruvius (VI, 6, 2) recommended that the ideal villa contain at least three dining rooms, one each for spring, autumn, and summer. To some extent, then, the scale on which the owner desired or was expected to reveal his status and his capacity to entertain visitors determined the opportunities for pantomime performance within the villa, assuming that the owner appreciated the advantages of owning a pantomime ensemble, which, of course, not all owners did, although even owners who did not own ensembles might well host visitors who did own them and brought their performances as “gifts” for the host. 

Figure 44: Ground plan for the villa Casa del Labirinto, Pompeii, first century CE, from Wallace-Hadrill (1994: 115), after Strocka (1991). 

The peristyle seems the space most likely to provide the best environment for pantomime performance. Wallace-Hadrill (1994: 86-87), evaluating the statistical data on Vesuvian houses, points out that only 35% of the sites surveyed contain a peristyle, and of those that do, the size and style of the peristyles vary greatly, with only 14% having three or more colonnades and the average area in square meters ranging from 231 (no colonnade) to 1970 (8 colonnades). A peristyle is an unroofed space in the interior of the house; often, but not necessarily, the peristyle contained a garden, a fountain or pond, statues, a marble floor with mosaics, or a combination of these elements. A colonnade often surrounded the open space on three sides, with the fourth side usually a kind of portal entry to the peristyle from the entrance to the house and the atrium that greeted all who visited [Figure 45]. The function of the peristyle was to display the capacity of the owner to cultivate beauty and pleasure, although some peristyles apparently assumed the mundane task of growing vegetables. Owners whose villas lacked theaters could organize pantomime performances in the peristyle only if the design of the peristyle provided sufficient opportunities for the performances to reveal the superior luxuriousness the owner could command. In other words, pantomime performers, no matter how gifted at improvisation, would not have infinite capacity to adapt to any and every peristyle design. If an owner decided to acquire a pantomime troupe and did not own a villa with a theater but he did have a peristyle, then the peristyle would have to assume features that assured the owner of an effective merger of performance and peristyle to achieve an expected atmosphere of luxuriousness. A garden dense with plants might provide an elegant setting for the performances as long as the plants remained decorative elements within the organization of the peristyle and not a major opportunity to impress visitors. That is, for the owner of a pantomime ensemble, the design of the peristylewas subordinate to the goals of pantomime performance rather than pantomime performance subordinate to the splendor of the peristyle. For the peristyle to be an effective performance space, it must make the performance visible from viewing points in the corridors of three colonnades or corridors surrounding the performance space. The corridors themselves must be wide enough to accommodate spectators comfortably, even luxuriously. The peristyle does not have to be spacious; it needs only to be large enough to accommodate a handful of performers. The star pantomime does not require a large space in which to execute distinctive movement, and even acrobats who precede the pantomime or collaborate with the pantomime in an ensemble piece can produce remarkable dances or stunts within a fairly small space. Figure 46 depicts in the peristyle for the House of the Vetti in Pompeii with gardening, statuary, and pathway as imagined rather than actually excavated. But in this plausible configuration, the peristyle would provide an excellent performance space for pantomime entertainments, with the pantomime situated at either end of the peristyle or in the middle or at any point along the pathway. Good views of the performance would be available from divans or positions in the wide corridors of the colonnades. The plants do not obscure a view of the action; oil lamps could even support nocturnal performances. This configuration offers an elegant, luxurious, sufficiently spacious, and yet fairly intimate site for accommodating the peculiar attributes of pantomime performance. It is the kind of peristyle configuration that the owner of a pantomime ensemble would find highly useful for displaying the ensemble regularly to guests quite accustomed to privileged, luxurious entertainments.

Figure 45: Peristyle with colonnades in first century CE Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii. Photo: Public domain. 

By contrast, the main peristyle of the Villa Poppaea (62 CE) at Oplantis appears designed to accommodate a larger scale of entertainment, although archeological evidence indicates the presence of a large tree in the space. However, the larger space may merely function to accommodate a larger audience rather than a larger performance ensemble. The Villa Poppaea contains another, smaller peristyle, as well as other spaces that could serve pantomime performance on this huge estate, in which the spectacular wall paintings indicate an intense enthusiasm at least for a theatrical domestic environment. A peristyle with some kind of garden would link theatrical performance to plants, water, sky, sunlight—that is, to a “natural” order of things or perhaps to an aristocratic power to cultivate theatrical identities as luxuriously as plants in a garden. The smaller peristyle at Villa Poppaea has a little wall around it, as does the peristyle at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, and these walls would seem to impede effective viewing of performances within these charming, cozy spaces from the colonnade corridors that surround them. Yet a stage or platform set up within the peristyle could elevate the actors in a way that is preferable to having them perform at ground level. But peristyle pantomime performance in the villa milieu did not depend on an atmosphere of luxurious intimacy or cultivated integration with a garden. For example, the peristyle of Diocletian’s palace at Split (ca. 300 CE) apparently made no concession to a penchant for gardening [Figure 47]. While it is unclear if Diocletian or his entourage indulged any appreciation at all for pantomime performance, the configuration nevertheless evokes a highly theatrical atmosphere, with its steps, imperial archways, sculptured facades, and multiple opportunities for dramatic entrances (Wilkes 1986: 41-46). The much smaller peristyle in the Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite at Herculaneum contains high walls rather than a colonnade, and beautiful mosaics decorate the walls to create a mysterious, cool, submerged atmosphere; indeed, three theatrical masks adorn the top of the shrine-like edifice perpendicular to the famous mosaic of Neptune and Aphrodite. Peristyle performance did not depend on nature, on an elegant garden, to demonstrate the capacity of the pantomime owner to provide his guests with an atmosphere of luxuriousness. Rather, a premium sign of luxuriousness was the ability of a pantomime ensemble to adapt comfortably to different settings. In the villa environment, the pantomime ensemble should impose its glamour on any space assigned to it, just as the organization of pantomime performance, with its discrete mythic scenes, songs, acrobatic interludes, and choral pieces, allowed for the reordering, truncation, expansion, or creation of individual moments to suit the mood, taste, or setting designated by the occasion, the audience, or the villa owner.

Figure 46: First century CE peristyle of the Casa di Vetti, Pompeii, with imagined rather than reconstructed garden. Photo: Sailko. 

But, as Wallace-Hadrill observes, peristyles were only occasionally a feature of villa architecture. It was not necessary for a villa to contain a peristyle for the owner to support pantomime performances. Where else within a villa might a pantomime ensemble perform? The atrium might seem the space that most closely resembles the peristyle in architectural features, and atria were often as large as peristyles; indeed, the large atrium of the Villa Poppaea at Oplantis, with its flamboyant, theatrical wall paintings is certainly inviting as a performance space. But while the atrium, with its pool (impluvium), skylight (ocea), statuary or beautiful wall paintings, may provide a dramatic entrance to a house or villa, it is not an appropriate space for theatrical entertainment. The atrium functions as a transition zone between public and private spheres; it is like a lobby or vestibule. People enter and exit the house through the atrium, and the space must preserve that function during a performance. Not everyone living or working in or even visiting the house would have been a spectator of the performance, and their business on behalf of the house or in relation to other affairs should not disturb the performance. The atrium does not provide the atmosphere of privileged exclusivity that pantomime performance bestows upon its spectators in the villa milieu. Moreover, as Wallace-Hadrill indicates (87), even some large houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum did not contain atria, suggesting that “changing architectural fashions,”  “a shift away from the atrium matrix” in the first century CE accounts in part for the absence of atria from a “group of handsome houses” at those sites. 

Figure 47: Peristyle for Emperor Diocletian’s palace at Split (Croatia), ca. 300 CE. Photo: Public domain.

Another candidate as a performance space in the villa environment is the triclinium or dining room. It is not difficult to imagine that wealthy Romans would combine luxurious eating with luxurious entertainment; indeed, in popular mythology, banquets in the Roman Empire seem to require some sort of erotic performance often involving voluptuous dancing and perhaps epitomized by the Bible’s reference (Mark 6:22) to Salome dancing before Herod at his banquet in Judea. In the film Demetrious and the Gladiators (1954), the Empress Messalina (Susan Hayward) entertains the proto-Christian Demetrious (Victor Mature) in her palace triclinium that opens onto a peristyle garden in which eight or so young women in white chitons perform a chorus line dance that is somewhat closer to a Ziegfeld Follies number than to anything resembling ancient Roman choreography. In conventional Christian morality, the triclinium is a useful signifier of the hedonistic “decadence” of either upper class paganism or imperial appetites. While luxurious dining pleasures are invariably features of upper class living, it is nevertheless important to consider the pleasures of the triclinium in relation to basic realities. 

In many villas, the triclinium was a fairly small room consisting of a round or rectangular table surrounded by three, seven, nine, or eleven couches, with each couch sitting one or two persons, although a few villas contained a triclinium with thirteen or fifteen couches. Seating was hierarchical in relation to the status of the host or the guest, if the guest enjoyed a higher status. Some triclinia contain couches of stone that form walls around a well-like space into which the table bearing food rested. But many villas preferred to use furniture couches of elegant design, which allowed the room to be used for other purposes than dining [Figure 48a]. A conventional size for the room was between 4.5 and 7.0 square meters, but larger spaces were feasible; Dunbabin (1991: 128, 130) mentions a villa in Africa (The House of Neptune in Acholla) that was 11.2 by 9.5 meters and another one in Numidia (Djemila) that is 27 meters long. Usually the door to the triclinium opened onto the peristyle to allow for a refreshing view while dining. The conventional seating of diners was to place them in a U-shape around the table bearing the food and facing the door or view onto the peristyle. Villa owners tended to avoid constructing a large triclinium that would seat more than 20 diners; they favored instead the construction of further triclinia, and some villas contained three or four triclinia (Dunbabin 1991: 130). 

Figure 48: a) Reconstruction of a triclinium featuring a view to the peristyle in the background. Photo: Unidentified Spanish web source; b) Mosaic of a possible pantomime performance from the triclinium of a villa in Zeugma, Turkey. Photo: Zeugma Mosaic Museum.

The triclinium theatricalized the dining experience and thus provided a superb opportunity for the host to display his wealth and taste. Dining integrated eating and entertainment in a distinctive or memorable way that furthered the larger ambitions of the host, and the architecture of the entire villa evolved from the scale of entertainment the host pursued in relation to social and political goals. The room might contain a mosaic floor and wall paintings with themes related to dining, hunting, food, or food production. In 2002, archeologists uncovered a large, evidently second or third century CE mosaic in the triclinium of a villa in Zeugma, Turkey. The mosaic depicts an elegantly dressed woman, labeled Theonoe, attended by three other women and approached by a man (only partially visible due to damage) in a white tunic-robe bearing a laurel branch [Figure 48b]. The dramatic quality of the image has urged Görkay (2006) and Dunbabin (2010) to propose that the mosaic may depict a pantomime of the Theonoe myth, in which case the man in the white robeis actually her sister Leucippe disguised as a priest, who is searching for Theonoe, whom pirates had kidnapped years before. The artist does give Theonoe a distinctly mask-like visage, although it is not at all clear to what extent, if any, the image depicts an actual pantomime performance, as opposed to signifying that the myth of Theonoe was the subject of a pantomime performance. Just as importantly, though, the mosaic implies that the triclinium was the place within the villa where pantomime occurred (Görkay 2006: 28). In the triclinium, it was important to display the food artfully in beautiful bowls and platters, with the food itself often being of an exotic kind. The Apicius cookbook (ca. 370-410 CE) describes manifold recipes for dishes that require exotic ingredients or elaborate preparation. The food itself was a central component of the entertainment, and no competing entertainment should distract the diner from appreciation of the host’s cuisine, except possibly the use of musicians to provide decorative tones for the moment. Figure 49 depicts an exceptionally large, imperial-sized triclinium in which three musicians perform while a party of four dines. Diners evidently did not consume large amounts of food. The standard meal consisted of three courses: appetizers, a main meal, and some kind of dessert or refreshing fruit, with wine as the primary beverage. The spaces for accommodating the tables that bear the food were small, and the tables could not hold more than a couple of large platters. Servants might replace exhausted trays, platters, and bowls, but such disruptive rhythm of service would further inhibit the performance of theatrical scenes while eating. Moreover, conversation and convivial exchange of thoughts, stories, and ideas was essential to achieving the social or political goal of the dinner, with the food itself being an important motive for conversation, and sensible organization of the dinner would avoid entertainment that distracted diners from their own roles in developing an entertaining conversation. Indeed, for hosts who lacked the resources to provide opulent entertainments, the success of the occasion depended above all on the food and the conversation. But this implies that for those hosts who did have the resources to provide the occasion with more than food and conversation, the entertainment had to be of sufficient charm to focus attention and command appreciation for the host’s skill at developing superior performance talent. 

Figure 49: A large, imperial-sized triclinium as imagined in 1823 by Jules (Giulio) Ferrario, Le Costume ancien et moderne; ou, Histoire du gouvernement, de la milice, de la religion, des arts, sciences et usages de tous les peuples anciens et modernes, d’après les monumens de l’antiquité et accompagné de dessins analogues au sujet, Europe, Vol. 1, Part 2, Milan: De l’imprimerie de l’editeur, p. 1047.

It is therefore doubtful that at well-designed dinner parties entertainers performed during the eating of the meal. Rather, they performed either before or, more likely, after the meal, as is indicated in Xenophon’s description of the banquet in The Symposium (9.1) when, “now the tables where removed […] and they had poured out the libation […] there entered now a Syracusan, with a trio of assistants: the first, a flute-girl, perfect in her art; and next, a dancing-girl, skilled to perform all kinds of wonders; lastly, in the bloom of beauty, a boy, who played the harp and danced with infinite grace” (Xenophon 1897: 297). But the inclusion of a performance entails a carefully planned timeline for the entire occasion. If the performance occurred before the meal, then the timing and duration of the performance would effect the preparation of the food, especially if servants involved in food preparation also participated as entertainers. If the performance occurred after the meal, then the meal itself would unfold within a schedule that accommodated the needs of performers to prepare costumes, masks, props, and performance instruments in time for their designated appearance. If dinners occurred in two or more triclinia, the coordination of meal-serving times and performance times entailed a carefully managed schedule that limited the amount of time for each activity, each course, and each act. Certain large households might have enough servants to allow for a division of labor between food staff and entertainment staff, but even so, the success of the host in managing the occasion would depend on organizing the time for dramatic impact and not on getting diners to forget about time. The villa dinner functions differently from the public, festival sort of banquets that the patrician class sponsored within towns and communities, where perhaps a more relaxed attitude toward time prevailed because much more time was available to consume and a great many more people participated in the event. Accommodating the technical requirements of the performers facilitated an optimum performance for the guests and strengthened the aura of privileged exclusivity associated with villa entertainments. Optimal performance also meant controlling the duration of the performance; it meant compressing as much excitement or pleasure into calculated “moments” so that the performance was distinctive and memorable. The evidence for conventional or typical performance duration times is very scanty. It is clear, however, that audiences in the imperial era showed little enthusiasm for detailed or protracted stories; they favored instead the performance of scenes, extracts, highlights, or memorable moments from stories already known to the audience. The narrative logic of performance developed in relation to a succession of scenes, acts, or stunts (“tricks”) that formed their own abstract emotional architecture rather than emerged from the emotional values internal to an imaginary world or story. The interest of performance centered on the metamorphosis of performers, not characters, which means, in a cultural milieu where only “old stories” had value and new stories seemed unnecessary, that stories existed primarily as raw material from which performers only extracted those “moments” that served the demonstration of metamorphosis, that supported whatever change in spectator attitude or disposition was useful in achieving the host’s social or political goals. Time did not increase in value because of a cumulative involvement with an imaginary world; it increased in value because of an intense, powerful collection of discrete “moments” that connected otherwise disparate identities or bodies. This notion of temporal value shaped theatrical performance as much as it did gladiatorial shows. Many and probably most villa entertainments did not includes pantomimes; the host provided entertainments that aligned with his tastes, resources, and ambitions. Pliny obviously would not provide pantomimes at his dinner parties, even if he had the money to maintain them, and most likely he would not appreciate pantomimes as a guest at someone else’s party. Entertainments might include the reciting of poems, singing, dances, acrobatic feats, the execution of stunts, or combinations of these performance categories. Christopher Jones (1991: 191-192) compiles references from Xenophon, Athenaeus, and Plutarch to indicate the nature of “dinner theater” in the imperial era. Girls dancing or somersaulting with or between knives was apparently a recurrent stunt from the time of Xenophon (Symposium 2.1-2) to Plutarch (Questiones OC 7-8, 711). Athenaeus quotes a letter describing a party given by a Macedonian chief that featured an all-girl orchestra of sambuca players and a team of female acrobats somersaulting naked over swords, among other acts (129A, 130A). Xenophon describes a symposium performance (ca. 365 BCE) in which a girl dances with as many as twelve hoops fed to her by a boy while accompanied by a flute (2.8). The same girl also performs somersaults over a ring of knives (2.11), reads a poem while posing on a turning potter’s wheel (7.2), and then dances with the boy a scene from the tale of Dionysos and Ariadne (9.2-7). In the Oneirocritica (1.76 ca. second century CE), Artemidorus mentions similar acts as things people dream about, and he explains the portent of such dreams in relation to the status or identity of the dreamer. But what is significant in Artimedorus is that banquet entertainments that Xenophon described almost four hundred years earlier had maintained their charm not only because of the unique skill required to perform them, but because they possessed some power to portend or intimate fate. 

In a huge section (chapters 28-73) of the Satyricon (ca. 60 CE), Petronius (ca, 27-66 CE) describes an extravagant dinner party in Puteoli given by the stupendously rich freedman real estate tycoon Trimalchio, who provides his several male guests with a seemingly endless series of fantastically exotic meals. Much of the entertainment for the party involves the serving of the meals by a vast number of servants. Indeed, Trimalchio has so many slaves that many do not even know who he is. But they are responsible for entertaining the guests by dancing or singing as they serve the ostentatious meals, by assisting Trimalchio in playing practical jokes on the guests, and by providing opportunities for the guests and Trimalchio to perform humorous scenes of their own improvisation. Much of the entertainment consists of gossip shared amongst the guests, the telling of bizarre stories, and the uninhibited bragging of Trimalchio about his accomplishments, possessions, and erudition. Several times, however, Trimalchio interrupts the conversation to allow his slaves to perform with scenes including a stenographer’s report on properties Trimalchio has acquired in the past year (chap. 53), yet another boy dancing on a ladder assisted by a “very boring fool” (chap. 54), a boy reciting a poem while impersonating Bacchus, another boy distributing lottery tickets whereby guests receive humorous gifts analogous to translating combinations of words into bizarre objects (chap. 56), and a troupe of actors performing a skit about Diomedes, Ganymede, and Helen that becomes integrated with the serving of food as an actor performing the insane Ajax attacks a roast hog and presents the guests with slices of pork skewered onto his sword (chap. 59). Trimalchio himself recites a couple of poems, and the guests entangle themselves more than once in his theatrical game playing by begging him to “pardon” slaves for their “mistakes” in performing or serving. At one point (chap. 53), he says he bought an acting ensemble, but ordered them to perform only Atellane farces, though he says that only rope dancers and horn players give him intense pleasure. In any case, he does not present his guests with an Atellane farce, and perhaps only the Diomedes and Ganymede skit comes closest to anything even remotely resembling a pantomime. The entire dinner is a fantastic theatrical debauch. The main performer, however, is Trimalchio himself, with his guests as subsidiary or supporting performers feeding off of his cartoonishly extravagant generosity; the performances by the slaves are merely incidental to the entertainment generated by the host and his guests. The Satyricon is a kind of satire on the power of unlimited wealth to plunge all expectation of pleasure in life, of “a good time,” into the realm of escalating, monstrous (though not ruinous) excess and hardly represents a typical villa dinner party. But the scene is nevertheless helpful in understanding how the villa entertainment worked: guests contributed significantly to the entertainment value of the occasion; the host played a major role as an entertainer; the occasion accommodated a large measure of improvisation; performances by slaves or professionals should not overshadow or undermine the luster or commanding charm of the host. Trimalchio’s dinner party is a profligate debauch because his only goal in giving it is to overwhelm his low status guests with the enormous magnitude of his wealth and personality. A host with a more ambitious goal would bring a much more disciplined approach to the event (with no doubt far less ribald effect), especially if his guests were of equal or higher status. Pantomimes do not appear at Trimalchio’s party perhaps because these would infuse the occasion with a seriousness or artistry that competes too strongly with the comic vulgarity of the host and his slacker guests. A pantomime troupe theoretically conveyed an aura of glamour and refined, “serious” luxuriousness on any occasion at which it performed. But this aura was acceptable only when it amplified rather than eclipsed the glamour of the troupe’s owner, which meant that the owner had to regulate carefully performances and access to the performers and had to maintain constantly the assumption that enjoying any connection at all with the pantomime ensemble was a major privilege granted exclusively by the owner and a basis on which to negotiate powerful privileges for the owner. Trimalchio wants nothing from his humble guests other than their awe or boundless gratitude, which, however, he does not really win. A host or hostess seeking to build alliances, assert influence, or achieve status elevation in relation to dinner party guests would produce a much more disciplined occasion than Trimalchio’s banquet; the use of pantomime scenes would function to confer glamour not only on the host but on the guests; above all the performance should create an exalted, seductive perception of the host as a gifted manager of life as a performance, as a powerful aesthetic experience, and as a reservoir of mysterious and irresistible manifestations of luxuriousness yet to come. Pantomime thrived in atmosphere of intense competition. Owners competed with each other in presenting their pantomimes, so it was important for an owner to pay serious attention to the quality, duration, and deployment of his pantomime troupe. But the glamour cast by the ensemble or its star could be dangerous when instead of enhancing the glamour of the owner it cast a shadow over him. 

Much of the danger arose from the erotic allure of pantomime performance, especially for female spectators, and the danger could affect even the highest or most powerful levels of the imperial aristocracy. Messalina’s infatuation with her star pantomime Mnester, who earlier had been the lover of Poppaea Sabina, mother of Nero’s wife Poppaea, was part of a larger effort on her part to topple the regime (41-54 CE) of her husband, the Emperor Claudius, in 48 CE, and thus to expand her voracious appetite for power with a new husband and emperor, Gaius Silius, according to the Annales (109 CE) of Tacitus (Book XI). Empress Messalina and most of her huge entourage perished as a result of her libidinous excesses, although Claudius considered, but only briefly, sparing Mnester, because, as the actor pointed out, Claudius himself had said that Mnester should do whatever Messalina wanted after having already spurned her advances. But the freedmen surrounding Claudius persuaded him that sparing Mnester would only outrage those noble families whose members had died because they had belonged to Messalina’s entourage. In his chapter on the Emperor Domitian, Suetonius, in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars (ca. 120 CE), asserts that the Empress Domitia’s love for the imperial pantomime Paris caused the Emperor to banish and divorce her (apparently around 83 CE), although his love for her remained so strong that he recalled her and married her again a year or so later (12.3.1); he then supposedly had executed one of Paris’s students because the boy resembled too much the star pantomime (12.10.1), and he forbade pantomimes to appear on public stages, only in villas (12.7.1); he even expelled a quaester from the Senate for performing like a pantomime (12.8.1). Even if Tacitus and Suetonius merely accepted these stories uncritically in their efforts to discredit the Flavian dynasty, they inserted them with the idea that the reader would grasp the power of alluring pantomimes to destabilize governmental control over Roman society and over the most intimate relations between social classes, and also grasp that this allure was inherently unhealthy and always in tension with the best morality. 

Intimacy of performance was, however, an essential component in establishing the exclusivity—and thus the allure for aristocratic audiences—of pantomime entertainments in the villas. The triclinium compelled a close physical relation between performers and audience. Even with a view onto the peristyle, the triclinium does not offer space for the performance of spectacular or elaborate physical actions by solo performers, let alone ensembles. The space before the diners was for most triclinia quite small. Some triclinia contained a kind of small corridor surrounded by the diners in which a performer might appear, but this feature was by no means pervasive in the design of triclinia. Performance at dinner parties revealed the advantages of building movement around the pyrrhic step, which allowed for complex and exciting movement of the torso, hands, and head without depending on a large stage for violent movement of the legs or any sense of a body rushing, leaping, or sweeping through space. The pyrrhic step provided elegant, dramatic transitions from one pose to the next; what most delighted the audience was the power and beauty of the pose. The “intimate” space of the triclinium was also what encouraged a performance aesthetic that favored soloists rather than groups of performers. The triclinium is an excellent space for displaying the skill of a talented and beautiful pantomime accompanied by no more than three musicians framed by the doorway opening onto the peristyle and assisted by an interpellator in the corner behind the pantomime and perhaps by another slave entering from the peristyle corridor according to cue to help the pantomime change masks or adjust costume. With so much villa entertainment linked to small audiences reposing in the triclinium, it is not surprising that pantomime became so strongly identified with a star soloist. This “intimate” scale of performance allowed owners to manage talent and resources for competitive entertainment without much strain and yet always within a domain of exclusivity advantageous to those who appreciated this art. 

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