Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime and Christianity

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

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Figure 76: Theatrically imagined scene of Jesus carrying the cross, watched by Pilate on the throne behind him and by Peter seated before him; a Roman soldier guides Jesus forward, while a female servant points at Peter (“the Denial of St. Peter”), from an ivory panel of a sarcophagus made in Rome 420-430 CE. Photo: British Museum.

Pantomime and Christianity

The integration of the pantomimes with the hippodrome culture apparently worked well enough for about two centuries, insofar as the imperial government considered it fundamental to its survival and the public as a whole was unable or unwilling to develop alternate systems for integrating the many discrete and competing factions within it. But the entertainment apparatus nevertheless encountered great challenges to its stability and seductive power. The imperial government began the integration sometime in the late third or early fourth centuries. Emperor Constantine had established the Empire as a Christian state by 330, even though most of its citizens were not Christian or “completely” Christian. Throughout most of the fourth century, emperors promoted Christianity while pursuing a policy of toleration toward older religious traditions. The Emperor Julian (reigned 361-363) attempted to restore the authority of the pagan network of gods, but this project died with him, and the policy of toleration resumed as the most effective way to maintain harmony within the Empire. However, the leaders of the Christian Church believed that the policy of toleration prevented Christianity from achieving the full measure of its power to bring salvation to humanity. Toleration allowed competing interpretations of scripture to create uncertainty about the true path to salvation and about who had control over religious doctrine. As long as the Empire pursued the policy of toleration, Christianity would remain as splintered as the manifold forms of pagan worship, and it would never achieve the power to transform the whole of society. It was evident to the clergy leadership that sermons denouncing the sinfulness of the theater and the hippodrome, no matter how scathing or threatening the language, did not keep people from attending these entertainments and thus did not compel them to accept completely the word of the Church. In the second century, Tertullian had condemned the circus and the theater because of their idolatry, their glorification of statues, images, monuments, performances, and myths that polluted the soul and morality of the spectator, for “the demons, predetermining in their own interests from the first, among other evils of idolatry, the pollutions of the public shows, with the object of drawing man away from his Lord and binding him to their own service, carried out their purpose by bestowing on him the artistic gifts which the shows require” (De Spectaculis 10.13). Around the middle of the third century, Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 200-258) condemned the pantomimes because their enactments of perverse erotic behavior gave permission for spectators to emulate these polluting pleasures:

[W]hat a degradation of morals it is, what a stimulus to abominable deeds, what food for vice, to be polluted by histrionic gestures, against the covenant and law of one’s birth, to gaze in detail upon the endurance of incestuous abominations! Men are emasculated, and all the pride and vigour of their sex is effeminated in the disgrace of their enervated body; and he is most pleasing there who has most completely broken down the man into the woman. He grows into praise by virtue of his crime; and the more he is degraded, the more skilful he is considered to be. Such a one is looked upon— oh shame! And looked upon with pleasure. And what cannot such a creature suggest? He inflames the senses, he flatters the affections, he drives out the more vigorous conscience of a virtuous breast; nor is there wanting authority for the enticing abomination, that the mischief may creep upon people with a less perceptible approach. They picture Venus immodest, Mars adulterous; and that Jupiter of theirs not more supreme in dominion than in vice, inflamed with earthly love in the midst of his own thunders, now growing white in the feathers of a swan, now pouring down in a golden shower, now breaking forth by the help of birds to violate the purity of boys. And now put the question, Can he who looks upon such things be healthy-minded or modest? Men imitate the gods whom they adore, and to such miserable beings their crimes become their religion (Ad Donatus1.8; Cyprian 1868: 7).

Perhaps realizing that such arguments had not succeeded in diminishing the appeal of the circus and the theater for so many who professed to be Christian, John Chrysostom (349-407), while acknowledging that the theater is “the Devil’s show,” actually placed the weight of his condemnation on the spectators rather than on the performers, because the spectators went to the theater or the circus to engage in sinful activities and associate with unsavory people rather than to watch enactments or races. He focused particularly on the presence of “harlots” in the theater, where a Christian will encounter “a woman, a prostitute, entering bareheaded and with a complete lack of shame, dressed in golden garments, flirting coquettishly and singing harlots’ songs with seductive tunes, and uttering disgraceful words.” Just seeing this woman will corrupt the Christian, “For even if you did not have intimate relations with the prostitute, in your lust you coupled with her, and you committed the sin in your mind,” and then, “saturated with that woman, you return home as her captive, your wife appears more disagreeable, your children more burdensome, and your servants troublesome, and your house superfluous” (Chrysostom 2012: [274]). But in relation to his prodigious output of sermons, Chrysostom actually made less reference to the “satanic assemblies” that convened in the hippodrome and the theater than one might expect in such a vast compilation of preaching. One reason for this restraint is that he apparently found theater too alluring if described in detail, even if presented completely as the devil’s work. In Homily I in On the Gospel of John, he proposed that God has made “all heaven his stage, his theater, the habitable world; his audience all angels.” In other sermons, Chrysostom developed the idea that the Church should function as a powerful alternative to theater, because it provides a greater spectacle of “truth” than anything conjured up by Satan in the theater, and he employed highly dramatic language to distinguish Christian and Satanic spectacle:

For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence, this man comes forward to us now; not as an actor of a play, not hiding his head with a mask, (for he hath another sort of words to speak,) nor mounting a platform, nor striking the stage with his foot, nor dressed out with apparel of gold, but he enters wearing a robe of inconceivable beauty. For he will appear before us having “put on Christ,” having his beautiful “feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace” (Eph. vi. 15); wearing a girdle not about his waist, but about his loins, not made of scarlet leather nor daubed outside with gold, but woven and composed of truth itself. Now will he appear before us, not acting a part, (for with him there is nothing counterfeit, nor fiction, nor fable,) but with unmasked head he proclaims to us the truth unmasked; not making the audience believe him other than he is by carriage, by look, by voice, needing for the delivery of his message no instruments of music, as harp, lyre, or any other the like, for he effects all with his tongue, uttering a voice which is sweeter and more profitable than that of any harper or any music (Homily I in On the Gospel of John; Chrysostom 1848: 2). 

Chrysostom further deepened the idea of the Church as a placecompeting with the theater for the time and attention of Christians by comparing theaters to synagogues and accusing Jews, around 386, of being in the grip of demons, for “these Jews are gathering choruses of effeminates and a great rubbish heap of harlots; they drag into the synagogue the whole theater, actors and all. For there is no difference between the theater and the synagogue” (Homily I.2.7 Against the Jews). From his perspective, theater, because of its use of masks, possesses exceptionally dark power to threaten the authority of the Church to control sexual identity, gender roles, and sexual behavior. As Blake Leyerle remarks: “Whereas church fathers in the west condemned theater as idolatrous because of its pagan imagery, Chrysostom indicts it because of its satanic excitation of internal urges” (2001: 45). She contends that his thinking about theater is clearest in his sermon  Against Those Men Cohabiting with Virgins (ca. 390), sometimes referred to as  Against Spiritual Marriage. In this homily, he denounced Syneisaktism, yet another issue that threatened the unity of the Church, whereby men, usually priests, and women purportedly lived together chastely and never engaged in any sexual acts, a circumstance that Canon 3, promulgated at the Council of Nicea in 325, had already forbidden. Here Chrysostom focused his condemnation not on theatrical performers or on the satanic assemblies sitting in the theater or on the lurid stories performed in the theater, but on an abstract concept of theater, whose essence, he claimed, is masking, the concealment of “real” identities and feelings behind false or imaginary identities. He doesn’t try to prove that men and women hide behind a mask of chastity while practicing spiritual marriage; instead, he argues that sexual urges can never be suppressed or absent when men and women live together without being married—they can only pretend to be chaste, and their “spiritual marriage” is a theatrical masquerade. By this logic, “lustful” urges require masking, and masking in itself entails the concealment of lustful urges, so that theater and sexual desire construct each other and are mutually dependent phenomena. It is doubtful, though, that Chrysostom’s argument persuaded either theatergoers or church-goers, much less practioners of Syneisaktism; the sermon was designed for the ears of the clergy. In relation to the failure of the Council of Nicea Canon to suppress Syneisaktism, Chrysostom’s homily sixty-five years later functions more seriously as an exhortation to consolidate power and authority within the Church. From his perspective, the survival of the Church (as opposed to Christianity) depended on its authority to control sexuality, and controlling sexuality meant controlling—and, indeed, suppressing—theater and all salient attributes of theater, especially masking. 

            The Church, however, could not consolidate its power or prevent new schisms from further dividing it by building some sort of popular consensus through sermonizing, pastoral activities, doctrinal councils, and impressive charities. These things encouraged more people to become Christian, but they didn’t clarify who was leading a Christian life and who wasn’t. Chrysostom didn’t attack specific pantomimes or charioteers as agents of Satan, because by the time he composed his sermons (ca. 390), probably all pantomimes and charioteers were Christians. After several years (381-388) of Christian persecution of pagans, the co-emperors Theodosius (reigned 379-395) and Valentinian II (reigned 375-392) banned all blood sacrifices and decreed that “no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labor of man,” even though most of the Western Empire still remained pagan, and consequences were severe for those who violated the decrees (Theodosian Code 16.10.10). Schisms, heresies, doctrinal disputes, and competing religious systems strained the ability of the Church to construct a unified identity for itself. From the standpoint of the clergy, it was necessary for the Church to gain decisive influence over “secular” domains of governance and access to resources for enforcing Church laws. To gain this influence, various factions of the Church intimidated the imperial government by inciting their followers in different parts of the Empire to considerable acts of violence and persecution against pagans, Jews, Arians, and other “heretical” branches of Christianity during the 380s, with perhaps the most spectacular act of persecution being the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 391. The success of Saint Ambrose (340-397), Archbishop of Milan, in managing and then suppressing in 385-388 the Arian schism favored by Germanic sectors demonstrated the skill of a charismatic Church leader in solving problems at the behest of emperors (Valentinian and Theodosius). But the violence of the Church-led persecution against pagans, Jews, Manicheans, and schisms like the Arians caused many people to claim they were Christians, even if sermons and biblical references did not directly inspire them. For Chrysostom, such persons concealed themselves behind a “mask” of Christianity, and a very troubling manifestation of this dubious type of Christian identity would be pantomimes claiming to be Christians. It was therefore necessary, from Chrysostom’s perspective, to attack the concept of theater itself, of masking, to establish the authority of the Church to control imperial activities like the theater and the hippodrome. 

            The question then arises: If by 391 it was illegal in the Empire to practice pagan beliefs openly, and if during the previous decade, the imperial government, pressured by myriad outbreaks of Church-led violence, displayed a progressively diminishing inclination to maintain the policy of toleration toward all religious systems other than what it regarded as “the Church,” then what was the impact on pantomime performance in the theater and the hippodrome? It could well be that on occasion pantomimes continued to perform the ancient mythic scenes in the houses and villas of aristocrats, who, as a class, tended to cling more ardently to the pagan belief system than other classes (Cameron 2010: 3). These pantomimes, however, would declare themselves Christians, if they hoped to have careers performing in theaters or hippodromes. In doing so, they perfectly embodied Chrysostom’s idea of wearing a “mask” of Christianity. The Theodosian decree of 391 had loopholes: it forbade sacrifices, the entering of temples, and the worship of “statues”; it did not specifically forbid representations of mythological figures. After all, Procopius, in the Secret History, claims that Theodora performed her Leda and the Swan act in a theater almost 130 years after the decree (9.9).  Nevertheless, in the context of public theaters and hippodromes, it is difficult to believe that as a result of the decree the imperial government continued to subsidize, as an element of its policy of toleration, processions and performances featuring pagan themes, images, and statues, especially since under the Emperor Gratian (reigned 375-383) the government in 382 had already ceased to provide subsidies to any pagan cults and even confiscated property that had no Christian heirs (Symmachus Relationes3). What instead did the government subsidize? 

            In a 1964 article, Ramsay MacMullen ventures a way of approaching this question. He proposes that in the fourth century, life itself became more theatrical and symbolic (452-454). Under the influence of the theater, barbarians, and eastern fashions, the dress of people throughout the Empire became self-consciously ornamental, presumably because more efficient manufacturing and distribution systems, combined with government subsidies, particularly in support of the enormous imperial army, made the new fashions affordable to large sectors of the population (cf. Ammianus Res gestae 22.4; 1986: 237-238). Soldiers, seeking to wear more decorative uniforms, were significant in stimulating public appetite for ornamented dress (MacMullen 1964: 440). Clothing appeared in manifold colors, with elaborately embroidered hems, cuffs, and collars (Norris 1924: 117-118). Fabrics became richer and finer; the use of cosmetics and raiments proliferated. People became less inhibited about wearing jewelry, medallions, “badges,” brooches, and ornate belts, fibulae, cloaks, helmets, and caps. Banners, standards, shields, swords, scabbards, and insignia, like crosses and animal images, became richer in color and detail, to amplify the symbolic values associated with the wearer’s identity. In terms of hippodrome processions, idols, images of gods, and references to mythological themes disappeared, replaced completely, probably by 382, with grandiose and glamorous appreciations of the emperor and the guardians of the Empire, mixed with powerful Christian symbols like the cross. The procession became like a tableau vivant, depicting, in quasi-allegorical style, the achievements and beneficial attributes of the emperor and marvels brought from the provinces (MacMullen 1964: 454). The emphasis was on displaying the splendors of a unified, contemporary social order rather than on celebrating the fusion of diverse and capricious powers defining a pagan cosmos. Processions and interludes became abstract spectacles, focused on achieving emotional excitement through optimum ceremonial design, through stirring colors, shimmering banners, shields and palm leaves, carefully contrived chants and fanfares, parades of synchronized movements and poses, and scenes of acrobatic virtuosity. By the end of the fourth century, performances in the hippodromes probably bore some similarity to fashion shows, with spectators themselves dressing more self-consciously, more “colorfully,” than in previous eras, under the assumption that their “role” in the spectacle had become much more complex and scripted than in the preceding centuries. Spectators and performers alike saw their voices, movements, clothes and the bodies under them as symbolic of a higher and greater organization of power than any mythological iconography could capture, a power symbolized above all, less by the sign of the cross or Christ, than by the remote, resplendent figure of the emperor.      

            In the theaters, mythological themes also disappeared after 382. Pantomimes seemed to have continued the practice of structuring their performances around a sequence of discrete scenes that displayed their skill at embodying different identities and masks. But they replaced mythological figures with archetypal or allegorical figures, and situated these figures within intensely erotic scenes. In his Confessions (III.2), St. Augustine describes the corrupting impact of stage-plays he saw in Carthage, probably in the late 370s, but he makes no reference to pagan themes in the shows. Instead, he explains how the “tragical passages” depicting “feigned and scenical passions” made him “unclean,” inciting lustful feelings and then inciting pity on the characters and on himself for submitting to lustful feelings. At the time he attended the theater, most of the audience, including himself, was Christian, and pantomimes, who were likely also Christians, felt their performances achieved higher entertainment value if they removed all references to either pagan mythology or Christian symbolism, so that the Church would not have reason to castigate spectators for enjoying pagan sinfulness or theatrical desecrations of holy figures. In The City of God, written about 410, Augustine explained why Christianity was not responsible for the decay of the Roman Empire and the invasion of Rome by the Visigoths. He therefore referred to “theatrical exhibitions” and “licentious entertainments” as phenomena belonging to a remote, pre-Christian and sometimes even pre-imperial era in which the gods “extorted from the Romans these solemnities and celebrations in their honor” to obscure from humans the power to recognize the true God; and he dismissed “the [pagan—that is, pre-Christian] dramas which poets write for the stage” as merely literary objects, lacking “the filthiness of language which characterizes many other performances,” and things that “boys are obliged by their seniors to read and learn as a part of what is called a liberal and gentlemanly education” (I.32; II.8). It would not help his argument if he referred to contemporary theatrical spectacles performed by Christians primarily for Christians under a Christian government that failed to protect Christians from pagan invaders. Still, he does insinuate that “some of those who fled from the sack of Rome and found refuge in Carthage” were pagans seized by “the voluptuous madness of stage-plays,” which so infected them that “day after day they seemed to contend with one another who should most madly run after the actors in the theaters” (I.32). Augustine uses this ambiguous language, because the “voluptuous” theater, the “filthy” performances that were “recently” seen in Carthage were neither pagan nor, from his perspective, Christian, even if the performers were Christian. But it is not clear how pantomime retained its reputation for “voluptuousness” shorn of its mythological heritage while being still too seductive for Augustine to describe in any detail. Ismene Lada-Richards (2008: 309-310) tries to bring some clarity to fourth century pantomime performance by referring to Themistius (317-390), a pagan stateman, orator, and philosopher, who, in his Oration 28, written about 388, criticizes sophists in Constantinople who “often bring their eloquence out to theaters and festive assemblies, where it is arrayed in gold and purple, reeking of perfume, painted and smeared with cosmetics, and crowned with garlands of flowers.” In this luxurious environment, “they emit a whole range of sounds and, like Sirens, sing songs full of pleasure” and “their audiences salute and praise them in turn” (Themistius 2000: 175). Lada-Richards contends that fourth century philosophers “dressed luxuriously and ostentatiously, as if measuring themselves up against alluringly attired pantomimes” (2008: 308-309). Their purpose in doing so was to explore the “treacherous notions of sensual over-refinement, androgynous grace and the erotic excitement associated with a doubly gendered performing body” (309). But Lada-Richards’s point in bringing up Themistius and the sophists is to support a perception of pantomime detached from particular historical circumstances: “Pantomime’s roaring success must have made it abundantly clear [to the sophists] that the unsettling of gender-norms through the practice of corporeal dialects of sexual ambiguity as well as the eroticisation of the male body were not so much ‘high risk’ investments for the astute performer as potentially high earners” (311). She follows her reference to Themistius with a reference to Lucian, writing over two centuries earlier, who commented on the habit of rhetoricians to adopt “soft” and “womanish” qualities (311-312). From its beginning, however, pantomime focused on themes of sexual and gender ambiguity. The quotation from Themistius would be more helpful if placed in relation to the disappearance of mythic themes from the public theaters by the time he made his remarks. Lada-Richards implies, without ever referring to the turbulent Chrisitianization of the Empire, that “the practice of corporeal dialectics of sexual ambiguity” in pantomime continued unperturbed in the fourth century, just as it had in Lucian’s time. The implication is true insofar as a phrase like “the practice of corporeal dialectics of sexual ambiguity” is vague enough to cover what pantomime generally was across five centuries. But she can go further: the quotation from Themistius suggests that pantomime continued to dwell intensely on erotic themes, even though pagan mythic themes had disappeared, because the Church had condemned the mythic themes for their corrupting erotic content. By the time Themistius made his remarks, the Church castigated theater as a whole, not because of its pagan content or because it presented Christian imagery in an unacceptable manner, if at all, but because theater presented an idea of human identity as a variety of “masks” or “other selves” that are in tension with the Christian theological doctrine of a single, “true” self in which God resides. Yet the Church, faced with managing the constant threat of schisms, found it more practical to condemn theater abstractly than to seek to suppress it altogether. How, then, did pantomime maintain its focus on “deviant” erotic performance, as Lada-Richards puts it, without a pagan rationale?

Figure 39: Engraving of an enigmatic performance on a silver plate described by Otto Jahn in 1867 displaying masks in uncertain relation to the performers, late fourth century.

               Perhaps pantomimes maintained their repertoires and traditions of voluptuous movements and poses but no longer wore masks that depicted mythic figures; instead, they wore masks that portrayed “neutral” but theatrically engaging identities. In this regard, the drawing of the fourth century plate or lid discussed by Otto Jahn in 1867 is provocative [Figure 39]. Jahn observes that it is difficult to determine which of the thirteen figures depicted are wearing masks, and only the bearded figure in the upper right clearly wears a mask similar to one of the masks depicted in the lower left corner. If, indeed, an aim of the image is to obscure distinctions between masks and faces, then it is possible a feature of late fourth century theatrical performance was the use of highly realistic masks that did not evoke recognizable mythic figures but some kind of mysterious, “other,” contemporary person inhabiting the body of the performer. Jahn says that Luigi Lanzi (1732-1810) was wrong to claim that the disk shows a Bacchic rite (1867: 74). He proposes, rather, that the image depicts three separate “tragic scenes” of a theatrical performance (75). The upper row, like the bottom row, presents four figures, with the leftmost female looking over her shoulder at the scene before or behind her. The middle pair in each row features one female urging another toward the right, apparently toward the rightmost figure, who is male in the top row and female in the bottom. The rightmost female in the bottom row covers her face with her hand, and it may be that, in theatrical performance, the same person played this figure and the rightmost male figure in the top row, and this may also be the case with the other figures in those two rows. Two pairs of masks flank the figures on the bottom, while a strange device flanks the figures on the top. Jahn supposes that this device is a musical instrument, possibly a water organ, although this conjecture requires more argumentation than he provides (76). What is more evident is that the top row echoes the bottom row, although it is not clear if the right pair of masks is male or female. All of the figures wear long-sleeved garments, an attribute associated with eastern (“Palmyrene”) rather than western imperial fashions (cf. Sebesta 1994: 164, 168). In the middle row, four women carrying torches swarm around a woman running or dancing without torches; the leftmost figure brandishes only one torch while the other three women hold a torch in each hand. All of the women have cloth sashes or capes attached to their dresses, and these flutter to create a dancelike movement. Jahn says the torchbearers are “pursuing” the woman without the torches, although the artist dramatically complicates this perception by having the torchless woman extend her arms between the pairs of torches held by the figures on her left and right. In the theater, a dance with torches would be a fascinating acrobatic stunt: for Jahn, the dancers vaguely evoke Errinyes, but he acknowledges that nothing in the imagery connects to any “known mythological scene” (76). The inscrutable symbolism of the picture may remind other viewers of the alluring crypticity of the murals at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, except that the plate projects a more personal than cultic symbolism, as if the viewer witnesses episodes from the life of a unique female character, who perhaps experiences a sacrificial fate. But the drawing provides a glimpse of what a non-pagan, not explicitly Christian tragic theatrical performance might have looked like in the late fourth century, a performance involving highly refined realism of masks, idiosyncratically symbolic poses, pantomiming of “dark” or mysterious movements (such as urging a bound or kneeling person toward someone more powerful), acrobatic stunt dancing, and a fragmented narrative in which scenes “echo” or compare with each other rather than grow out of each other. Even though it depicts no overt sexual actions or nudity, the image nevertheless exudes a powerful, eerie erotic aura in its depiction of so many female figures (possibly played by men in a theatrical performance) implicated in sadomasochistic tensions, magnified further by the contrast between the woman kneeling while raising her torches and the dancers swirling with torches. 

            The image suggests how pantomime could move in a new direction, adapt to the ascending Christian reality, and prosper, after 391, for over a hundred more years. It was necessary for pantomime to move away from the pagan mythology that had sustained it for nearly four centuries and which by the end of the fourth century found its vast decadence best represented, perhaps, by the death-haunted scraps of fussy versification by Ausonius (310-395) and the tedious, extravangantly picturesque inventory of mythic escapades in the now very remote fantasy lands of Nonnos’s never-finished Dionysiaca (ca. 400). The relation between Ausonius and Nonnos is somewhat analogous to the relation between pantomime and its mythic source material. Pantomime presented fragments, scenes, mere moments from an enormous repository of mythic identities, a seemingly endless network of connections between gods and humans that no single, coherent narrative could contain. Or rather: pantomime demonstrated that the only way humans could shape the mythic cosmos into a narrative was through an equally enormous compilation of performance fragments. The mythic cosmos was too big for any performance or performer. The cosmic “story” of human interaction with divine forces unfolded through each pantomime choosing selected scenes from the enormous repository in competition with other pantomimes choosing selected scenes. As more pantomimes appeared, the range of mythic scenes expanded. Over the years, over decades, over centuries, more and more scenes of the cosmic “story” got told through manifold performers throughout the Empire. But no single performer, no single spectator, no single audience, no single generation, no single era, and no single place could ever see or even know the whole story. Christianity, of course, provided a simpler or more compact narrative of God’s relation to humans, but it was a story only the Church allowed to be told. 

            By the end of the fourth century, paganism had sunk into an engulfing decadence from which it could never recover, but it took a long time to die out. In spite of the imperial ban on sponsoring any pagan entertainments after 382, in some more remote regions of the Empire, it seems that pantomime still relied on pagan imagery to attract audiences, even though audiences proclaimed themselves Christians. Over a hundred years later, around 500, the Syrian theologian and bishop Jacob of Serugh (451-521) delivered several homilies condemning pagan themes in the performances of mimes and pantomimes. In Homily 3 of “Against the Spectacles,” he lists the evil attributes of theater: “dancing, amusement and music, the miming of lying takes; Teaching which destroys the mind; responses (or choruses, chants) which are not true; troublesome and confused sounds; melodies which attract children; ordered and cherished songs, skillful chants, lying canticles (composed) according to the folly which the Greeks invented” (Moss 1935: 105). Pantomime, he adds, is the “mother of all lasciviousness,” “a spring of licentiousness,” “a sport which encourages children to forget admonition; a net which ensnares boys in the ways of a vicious life. It is a disordered foster-mother who teaches her sons to commit fornication; a teacher who instructs her pupils in the stories of idols. It is a mimer of wanton sights concerning the bands of the goddesses; the preceptor in whose stories there are many gods” (Moss 1935: 105-106). In Homily 4, in a passage deemed corrupt, he asks, in whom does Truth find its most confident representative, “he who is the preacher in the house of God or he who is the mimer of idols?” (107). He goes on to ask rhetorically of his Christian audience: “Ought we then to believe in female goddesses? Dost thou consent to cherish gods who love adultery? Is thine ear willing that the report of the house of Zeus the adulterer should fall on it? Is it well for thee when thou seeest the depravity of female idols? Canst thou endure, being the servant of Jesus, to take delight in Apollo?” (108). These remarks, among many others like it in the Homilies, might incline one to believe that pagan themes were still very much alive on the stage, at least in Syria, even though the imperial government had ceased to fund public spectacles featuring pagan themes for well over a century. Were there any pagan aristocrats by this time, even in Syria, who cared to spend money sponsoring public performances featuring the adventures of pagan gods? Charlotte Roueché observes that Jacob’s linking of theater to pagan mythology was “a topos of Christian criticisms” of it, and it “would therefore be rash to assume that the stories presented to the people of the towns of Syria—whether by mimes or pantomimes—were limited to the pure canon of Greek mythology” (2009: 178-179). But perhaps the issue is not so much the extent to which pantomime performance was “limited to the pure canon of Greek mythology” but the extent to which pantomime performance even included it. Jacob complains about scenes or characters that the readers might presume he had seen performed on Syrian stages. He condemns Zeus, who “became famous through adultery, and committed fornication with many women,” which then compels the bishop to describe the “various forms” by which Zeus was “seeking a stratagem for his lust” (1935: 110). He uses the phrase “they say” to describe the scenes he blames the pantomimes for performing. “This adulterer, they say, begat all the gods” (110). “Once, they say, he became a bird, and committed fornication with one woman, as he desired” (110). “They say another god made himself like unto a he-goat that he might commit fornication in that very form […].” (110). “And another, they say, had a sweet-toned harp […]” (110). “And the god, they say, was running, but was not overtaking the girl […]” (111). “According to their tale, a damsel was conquering the gods in running […]” (111). “And afterwards, they say, the earth overthrew the god” (111). “Another, they say, the daughter of the gods, on account of lust overflowed in sleep, and she was received in a shell-fish […]” (111). “The father of all the gods, they say, was committing immorality with men and women […]” (112). Does Jacob mean that pantomimes “say” these things or spectators of the shows say these things or that anyone with knowledge of Greek mythology says them? He does make more explicit connections between the mythic stories and pantomime: “For if he, the flute of Satan (sc. the actor) does not take his origin from paganism, why then does he introduce the story of Artemis? If he is not the friend of the idols and the lover of dead images, wherefore by his gestures does he call to mind the goddess of the Ephesians? […] But if he is certain there is only one God, wherefore (does he praise) many gods by means of crowds of spectacles? […] he mimes the stories of the gods, and burns perfumes at the plays, in order that he may do great honour for tales that are true for him” (106). “The mimer of spectacles meditates on the gods” (109). “Shall these things be called virtuous? But if not wherefore are they mimed?” (111). “He who maddens you with dancing makes use of these tales; from here (sc. these tales) are his mimings […].” “These are his plots which, even though he is silent he makes manifest. He is veiled and mimes and ye exult with shouting” (112). Moreover, Jacob does “not circle over all the tales of mimings, so that I might not waste the time with empty and loathsome inventions.” “By means of these outward gestures, these stories are made manifest […]” (112). However, it was necessary for Jacob to connect pantomime with pagan mythology because any attachment to pagan images that his Christian audience pursued was proof that it had failed to achieve a true Christian identity, which would probably not be the case if he connected what the pantomimes performed to life itself, with all of its adulteries and sexual peculiarities. The real reason for his hostility toward theater is not the pagan “stories” but that which he presumes the stories have inspired: adulterous, perverse, or brazen eroticism. Pagan mythology and theater are merely part of a “plot” devised by “Satan” to corrupt human souls, and imperfect Christians fail to see the paganism embedded even in the performance of a pantomime who “is certain there is only one God.” Most likely, though, pantomimes adapted mythic scenes to accommodate audience expectations arising from pantomime’s reputation for producing an intensely erotic atmosphere. Like Theodora performing Leda and the Swan in Constantinople, the pantomimes in Syria performed variants of mythic scenes, not to stimulate belief in a mythic cosmos, but as pretexts for showing what the audience wanted to see—strange, passionate, or glamorous forms of sexual behavior. The sexual spectacle on the stage was the basis for sustaining the auxiliary business of pantomime ensembles: providing sexual favors, access to sexual opportunities, in exchange for money, privileges, or appointments. In Constantinople and other large cities, this auxiliary business operated in conjunction with the factions attached to the pantomimes. But Jacob makes no reference to factions, and it appears from Jacob’s homilies that the “lascivious” shows he complains about were not the result of factional sponsorship. It therefore is likely that Jacob describes shows put on by pantomime ensembles touring Syrian towns like Edessa and Batnae (Serugh), where Jacob became bishop in 519. 

It was evident, however, that denunciations of pantomime by Church leaders like Jacob of Serugh and John Chrysostom did little to undermine the enthusiasm of Christians for pantomime performance. Richard Lim has explained how fifth century imperial managers of public spectacles in Carthage and Milan struggled to recruit actors to sustain a complex and demanding schedule of theatrical entertainments that sometimes consumed over a quarter of the days in the year. Even by the end of the fourth century, “the dearth of actors and actresses was already a problem,” because so many, in converting to Christianity, had abandoned the stage. The shortage of female actors was especially acute. To recruit more actors, the Emperors Honorius and Theodosius in 414 issued a decree to recall female actors and introduced policies to prevent actors from leaving their profession; a tribune, the tribunus voluptatum, oversaw the operation of the shows in a way that would protect the actors from censure or stigmatization from the Church. This strategy was apparently successful. Much later (509), Theodoric appointed a tribunus voluptatum to act as a “guardian” of the actors, “for the exhibition of the ‘pleasures of the people’ must be administered with a certain discipline. […] For the stage actors do not seek their own enjoyment so much as they compel their souls to serve the happiness of others while they surrender the control over their own bodies to a perverted way of life” (Lim 1996: 165, 169, 172). Pantomime challenged the authority of the Church to define a healthy Christian morality and to exert control over the lives of Christians. Any challenge to the authority of the Church contained within it the potential for producing schism within Christianity. Schisms prevented the Church from consolidating power great enough to compel broad social change throughout the Empire, which for Church leaders meant the enactment and enforcement of laws that expanded the resources of the Church and created a “holy” condition of existence for Christians. For the Church patriarchs, it was not enough to have Christians running the imperial government; it was necessary to have a government aligned with the Church’s goals and hierarchy, even if it was, in the fourth century, not yet clear who was in control of the Church or indeed what constituted the “true” Church. As long as the imperial government pursued a policy of religious toleration, it was possible to have a vast empire of Christianity without a Church at all, and then Christianity would become just as diffuse and limited in its power to bring salvation or remptive metamorphosis as the paganism it replaced. In the fourth century, the Church consolidated its power through its efforts to rid the Empire of paganism and other non-Christian doctrines (Manicheanism, Zoroastrism, Judaism), which by the latter half of the century meant ending altogether anything that might resemble a policy of religious toleration. In his Historia Ecclesiastica (ca. 439), Socrates Scolasticus (ca. 380-440) described the strife, after Constantine had died, within the Church, between the Church and non-Christians, between the imperial government and the Church, between Christians and the Church, and between Christians and the government. Violence apparently flared up as much in relation to conflict within the Church over Arianism as in relation to conflict between Christians and pagans, even before most citizens considered themselves Christian. In 341, when Bishop Athanasius returned to Alexandria from a synod in Antioch in which “confederates of Eusebius” had denounced him, “a tumult had been excited on his entrance and many were killed in the riot,” “a tumult raised by partisans of George the Arian” (1886: 83, 90). The same year, in Constantinople, violence erupted when Arian bishops had designated Macedonius I to replace Eusebius, while the orthodox congregations had selected Paul. Holding court in Antioch, the Emperor Constantius sent his genral, Hermogenes, to subdue the tumult and send Paul into exile. Instead, “the people became exasperated as is usual in such cases; and making a desperate attack upon him, they set his house on fire, and after dragging him through the city, they at last put him to death” (88). The Emperor, however, refused to appoint Macedonius as Bishop of the Church, because of the cleric’s involvement in the death of Hermogenes and other violent activities. But the conflict was not over. The following year, in Constantinople, the orthodox congregations again selected Paul to become head of the Church, a decision that enraged the Arian Emperor Constantius, who by this time favored the Arian Macedonius. Constantius sent his Praetorian Prefect Philip to install Macedonius as head of the Church. Philip sent Paul into exile and organized a spectacular procession that brought Macedonius to the church, an event that attracted a huge crowd. But then, “an irrational panic seized the multitude and even the soldiers themselves; for as the assemblage was so numerous and no room to admit the passage of the prefect and Macedonius was found, the soldiers attempted to thrust aside the people by force.” The carnage was monstrous: “about 3150 persons were massacred on this occasion” (91). As Bishop of Constantinople from 342 to 346 and then from 351 to 360, Macedonius was not averse to using violence to suppress his many enemies: “Many were punished with exile; some died under the torture; and others were put to death while they were being led into exile. These atrocities were exercised throughout all the eastern cities, but especially at Constantinople” (110). He initiated vast persecutions against not only Catholics but Novations as well and employed horrifying tortures to compel people to become Arians (130). “Such were the exploits of Macedonius on behalf of Christianity, consisting of murders, battles, incarcerations, and civil wars: proceedings which rendered him odious not only to the objects of his persecution, but even to his own party. He became obnoxious also to the emperor on these accounts [. . .]” (132).   

In 361, Christians retrieved bones excavated from the ruins of a pagan temple and displayed them in “a kind of triumphal procession,” which enraged pagans, who attacked the Christians: “some they killed with the sword, others with clubs and stones; some they strangled with ropes, others they crucified, purposely inflicting this last kind of death in contempt of the cross of Christ.” Then the pagans “dragged George [the Arian] out of the church, fastened him to a camel, and when they had torn him to pieces, they burnt him together with the camel” (151). In 366, following the death of Liberius, Bishop of Rome, violence broke out when supporters of Bishop Damasus clashed with supporters of the Arian Bishop Ursinus over who would become Pope, and “many lives were sacrificed in this contention; and many of the clergy as well as laity were punished on that account by Maximin, the prefect of the city” (211). In 391, Alexandria experienced intense religious violence when Christians destroyed the Serapeum, and “The pagans of Alexandria, and especially the professors of philosophy, were unable to repress their rage at this exposure, and exceeded in revengeful ferocity their outrages on a former occasion: for with one accord, at a preconcerted signal, they rushed impetuously upon the Christians, and murdered every one they could lay hands on” (234). Socrates describes numerous other incidents in the fourth and early fifth centuries of public “tumult” and disorder arising from hostility between religious factions in, among yet other places, Rome (129), Seleucia (135), Constantinople again (194, 231, 265, 277), Milan (211), Ephesus (268), and Alexandria (286), including the murder in 415 of the female philosopher Hypatia by a Christian mob, incited by monks, who accused her of paganism and of conspiring with the city prefect, Orestes, who refused to acknowledge Cyril as the new Patriarchate of Alexandria (292-294) because of the bishop’s efforts to wrest control of secular authority. 

But Alexandria, which “never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed,” experienced even greater religious violence in 415, when Orestes announced, in the theater, new laws regarding “theatrical amusements,” which the Jews opposed, because of their enthusiasm on the Sabbath for indulging that “evil that has become very popular in almost all cities, a fondness for dancing exhibitions.” Although the Jews were, Socrates says, “always hostile toward the Christians they were roused to still greater opposition against them on account of the dancers.” Cyril’s agent in the audience, Hierax, applauded the laws. “When the Jews observed this person in the theater, they immediately cried out that he had come there for no other purpose than to excite sedition among the people.” Orestes seized Hierax and subjected him to torture in the theater, and when “Cyril, on being informed of this, sent for the principal Jews, and threatened them with the utmost severities unless they desisted from their molestation of the Christians. The Jewish populace on hearing these menaces, instead of suppressing their violence, only became more furious, and were led to form conspiracies for the destruction of the Christians.” The Jews “therefore sent persons into the streets to raise an outcry that the church named after Alexander was on fire. Thus many Christians on hearing this ran out, some from one direction and some from another, in great anxiety to save their church. The Jews immediately fell upon and slew them.” The Christians responded the next day when Cyril, “accompanied by an immense crowd of people,” went to the synagogues “and took them away from [the Jews], and drove the Jews out of the city, permitting the multitude to plunder their goods” (291-292). Although Socrates blames pantomime for offending Christian feeling and for inflaming religious hostilities, he does not say that the pantomimes of Alexandria incited either Christians or Jews to violence, nor does he accuse the pantomimes of being non-Christian. 

The reason for recounting all these incidents of religious violence is to clarify the role of the pantomimes and the factions attached to them in the religious issues that shaped Christian identity in the late Empire. Socrates refers to “tumults” and public violence involving crowds, “partisans,” mobs, and “many” who were Christians or pagans or Arians, but he is hardly specific about the demographic composition of these throngs beyond general sectarian affiliations. Cameron contends that the hippodrome factions were not significant in stirring up religious violence: “the factions did not either initiate or even dominate the sort of violent behavior for which they became so conspicuous. They merely indulged in it for its own sake, in pursuance of their own petty and pointless rivalries” (1976: 291). Rather, he says, “it was the monks, not the factions, who elevated urban violence into one of the major problems of the late Roman world. Above all, perhaps, it was the monks who accustomed both the inhabitants and the authorities of late Roman cities almost to expect a certain level of violence during popular disorders” (1976: 291). But Cameron doesn’t actually say that the hippodrome factions were not involved in religious violence. Instead, he argues that 1) the hippodrome factions never espoused or represented a particular religious affiliation, at least throughout the fourth and fifth centuries; 2) the factions did not necessarily share the same religious affiliation as the emperors; 3) the factions never fought with each other over religious issues; and 4) by about 500, the factions were all aligned with the Orthodox doctrine, “since one of the main purposes of the religious side of the hippodrome ceremonial was to serve as an incentive to religious solidarity,” although the Blues displayed a bias toward the Monophysitism favored by Theodora (1976: 140-153). Cameron regards the factions as similar to today’s soccer hooligans, but actually they seem more like quasi-gangster organizations, which doesn’t mean that they weren’t useful to people with political agendas. To reprise: The factions were powerful social networks that provided access to opportunities for members, including some appointments by the emperor, most likely in relation to aspects of the entertainment industry (Malalas 1986: 202). The motives for joining one faction or another depended on the values, friends, and affiliations associated with the faction, which, as a social network, brought members access to sex, rackets, and business enterprises operated by the faction. At best, emperors had an ambivalent attitude toward the factions. On the one hand, factions were useful in generating exciting acclamations and arranging appealing entertainments in the hippodromes and theaters. On the other hand, the Blue and Green factions engaged in criminal activities and public disorders that severely challenged the power of emperors to control them, especially by the beginning of the sixth century. While religious riots, incited largely by fanatical monks and bishops, occurred throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, turbulent activities by the hippodrome factions occurred most evidently toward the end of the fifth century and into the sixth. Cameron rejects the idea of a connection between religious and hippodrome violence. Nevertheless, around 489 in Antioch the Greens, who were “responsible for many riots and murders in the city at that time,” “began a fight with the Blues” in the hippodrome, which escalated to an attack on the governor, who resigned. The Greens then burned down a synagogue, “because the Jews were on the side of the Blues” (Malalas 1986: 218). A monk, who “had shut himself in a tower on the wall” of the city and “spoke through a window to those who came to pay their respects,” urged the Greens to attack the Jews—“they rioted because of the monk.” When the Emperor Zeno heard of these actions, which included digging up corpses in the Jewish cemetery and burning them, he is said to have replied, “They ought to have burned live Jews, too” (Malalas: 1986: 218-219). In 495, again in Antioch, the Greens attacked the governor in the hippodrome: “there were many fatalities and serious fires, and the four dancers were exiled” (Malalas 1986: 220). Meanwhile, in Constantinople, around 505, the Greens appealed to Emperor Anastasius in the hippodrome to release several of their members whom the city prefect had arrested for throwing stones. When one of the Greens threw a stone at the Emperor, the bodyguard hacked him to death, which caused “the crowd” to become violent, setting fires and destroying much property. “After many had been arrested and punished,” the Emperor appointed “a patron of the Greens” to become city prefect (Malalas 1986: 221-222). Then in 507, yet again in Antioch, the Greens plundered and burned down a Jewish synagogue “and massacred many people.” Anastasius sent a high official (comes Orientem) to restore order. One of his deputies attempted to arrest members of the Greens, who started to riot. The rioters fled into a church, but the deputy pursued them there and stabbed and then beheaded the leader of the rioters, “with the result that the holy sanctuary was drenched with blood.” The Greens amassed and attacked both the police and the Blues who were supporting the police. The Greens prevailed and invaded the basilica of Rufinus and the basilica of Zenodotos, which they burned down with other buildings. They murdered the deputy in a gruesome manner and drove the comes Orientem out of Antioch. The Emperor then appointed an Antiochene to deal with the violence, and “this man brought vengeance and fear to the city” (1986: 222-223). In 523, with Justin as emperor, the Blues “rioted in all the cities” of the Empire, committing murders and attacking government officials “in each city,” including the slaying of Hypatius, “a man of no mean station,” “in the sanctuary of Sophia” (Procopius, Secret History IX.35; 1935: 115). Apparently the appointment of special prefects in Constantinople and Antioch restored order “in all the cities” and punished many of the participants. The Constantinople prefect executed the wealthy ringleader of the violence, which displeased Justin, who replaced the prefect. The major consequence of this incident was the prohibition of “spectacles” and the banishment of pantomimes from all areas of the Empire except Alexandria (Malalas 1986: 235). Procopius contends that the Emperor’s nephew, Justinian, had a hand in organizing the violence as part of his plan to intimidate all those who might challenge Justin’s designation of him as heir to the throne, while the Blues assumed that “it was destined that before long they themselves should rise to the control of the affairs of the Romans” (Secret History IX.35-39; 1935: 115-117). Regardless of whether this is true or not, both the Blues and the Greens apparently expected more of Justinian when he became emperor than what he gave them. In January 532, when Justinian refused to release prisoners from the Greens and the Blues who had been condemned in Byzantion for terrible crimes, possibly murder, both factions rioted in Constantinople, “killing indiscriminately” and burning many buildings, including the hippodrome, and attempted to overthrow Justinian and replace him with the reluctant Hypatius. As discussed earlier, the so-called Nika riot was the largest ever public disorder instigated by the factions. Justinian (reigned 527-565) felt that imperial power no longer had any credibility unless he destroyed the Blues and Greens and almost annihilated them altogether in Constantinople; so, with Theodora’s encouragement, he ordered his general, Belsarius, to deal appropriately with the rioters who had gathered in the hippodrome, and perhaps as many as 30,000 people were killed (Malalas 1986: 275-280; Procopius, History of the Wars I.24; 1914: 219-239). But when this event occurred, the pantomimes had already been proscribed throughout the Empire and no longer held appointments to any hippodrome factions. The idea that the pantomimes ever directly incited the factions to violence is at the very least questionable, as is the idea, proposed by Cameron, that a theatrical contingent brought violence into the factions when the imperial government merged the theater factions with the hippodrome factions. That integration took place long before the factional riots of the late fifth century. That is not to say that the pantomimes did not have a connection to factional violence, but rather, that the connection requires a different explanation. 

Thoughout the fourth and into the fifth centuries, religious riots regularly troubled the imperial government. The hippodrome factions were “quiet” during this period—the sources do not identify them as responsible for any major public disorders. During the fourth and into the fifth centuries, the great majority of riots motivated by religious feeling arose out of the conflict between Arianism and Orthodoxy. A doctrine developed by Arius of Alexandria (ca. 256-336), Arianism preached that Jesus, “the Son,” was subordinate and obedient to God the Father, for “there was a time when the Son was not,” (Socrates Scolasticus, Ecclesiastical History, V; 1886: 23). Jesus therefore had a beginning and an end, was not eternal, and therefore was a human messenger of God rather than the embodiment of God. Orthodox theologians denounced this doctrine and declared that the Son was “the same being” or “of the same being” as God and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is an eternal being, who appeared as a human but has always lived without beginning or end. Emperor Constantine (reigned 306-337) initially was hostile to Arianism and ordered the destruction of all Arian’s theological writings and the execution of anyone harboring such writings. But having underestimated the strength of Arian sentiment among Christians, he introduced the policy of toleration. Upon his death, his three sons agreed to divide the Roman Empire between themselves, but they were not able to agree on how to do that nor did they share the same view of Christian doctrine. Constantine II (reigned 337-340), who was the co-emperor of the Western Empire, supported trinitarianism as promulgated by the controversial Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (ca. 296-373), while Constans (reigned 337-350), who was co-emperor over Italy, Dalmatia and North Africa, before also assuming control over the Western Empire upon the death of Constantine II, favored the trinitarian doctrine sanctioned by the Council of Nicea in 325. However, his brother, Constantius (reigned 337-361), co-emperor of the Eastern Empire and then sole emperor of the entire Empire, adopted the doctrine of semi-Arianism, which basically eliminated the concept of the Holy Spirit while admitting the eternal identity of the Son, although this attempt at a compromise position, which he sought to impose upon the Church through councils he convened, actually intensified conflict within the Church. But all three brothers wound up pursuing some variation of the policy of toleration insofar as they did not forbid altogether particular religious creeds. Constantius’s successor, Julian (reigned 361-363), who repudiated his Christian upbringing in favor of restoring paganism, expanded the policy of toleration, but of course he tried to use the imperial government to the advantage of those he assumed shared his complicated, Neo-Platonist paganism. Jovian (reigned 363-364) restored Christianity as the state religion, while his successors, the co-emperors Valentinian (reigned 364-375) and Valens (reigned 364-378) represented contradictory theological perspectives, with Valentinian favoring trinitarianism and Valens a supporter of Arianism. Facing huge, manifold threats to the Empire, the co-emperors indifferently or clumsily maintained some semblance of the eroding policy of toleration, probably because they assumed such a policy would prevent religious conflicts from becoming as much a menace to the Empire as the escalating series of invasions, usurpers, and rebellious tribes they were struggling to subdue. Gratian (reigned 375-383) at first struggled to strengthen the policy of toleration (Socrates Scolasticus, Ecclesiastic History V.2; 1886: 220). But he soon perceived that the policy of toleration exacerbated rather than dissipated conflicts within the Church; he therefore convened a synod of Orthodox bishops who repudiated Arianism and issued decrees that allowed for the confiscation of Arian properties and the expulsion of Arians at least from the East, although at that time (382) a majority of the Eastern population may not even have been Orthodox (Socrates Scolasticus, Ecclesiastic History V.2, V.7; 1886: 220, 224-226). At the same time, Gratian (and Theodoisus) forbade any further expenditure on spectacles or entertainments featuring pagan themes or iconography. The Eastern Empire was now completely under the control of persons professing Orthodoxy, while Arianism migrated westward, reversing the situation that prevailed when the sons of Constantine divided the Empire among themselves forty-five years earlier. 

 During all this time, the Empire, especially in the east, regularly experienced religious riots, as described previously, as well as numerous, sometimes murderous conspiracies by religious factions against each other, while factions pronounced anathemas, excommunications, expulsions, exiles, confiscations, and condemnations upon each other with almost maniacal zealousness. The numerous councils convened by emperors or the clergy to resolve the conflict between Trinitarians and Arians had failed to unify the Church, in large part because neither faction, having no army or police under its control, could not effectively enforce decrees issued at the councils on those who rejected the decrees. Intense, powerful, but contradictory feelings in relation to the nature of God and Christ divided the entire Empire. Assailed by various military threats to the Empire, emperors did not want to send armies away from border regions to quell religious unrest within their own subjects. Emperors favored the policy of toleration insofar as it kept the Church weak, regardless of whether Arians or Trinitarians ran the imperial government. Clergy on either side might incite their followers to violence and shameful acts, but no side could completely destroy the other or defeat a prefect with a well-trained, armed police unit. A divided Church meant that the public saw the imperial government rather than the Church as the primary power shaping the lives and affairs of citizens. The Arians, as the “heretical” sect, displayed less inclination than orthodox Christians to see the necessity of a unified Church. Orthodox clergy realized even before the Council of Nicea that it was not enough to have orthodox believers running the Empire as long those serving the emperor regarded the imperial government as a “higher power” than the Church. From the perspective of the orthodox clergy, a unified Church entailed compulsion, the enactment of imperial laws that regulated and enforced theological doctrines. The unity of the Church was synonymous with the unity of a religious doctrine and imperial power. To achieve this goal within a heterodox Christian environment that was constantly vulnerable to schism, violence was unavoidable—the hyper-intense feeling of belonging to no higher power than the Church must be released and its destructive consequences understood as a sign of God’s profound displeasure with those who failed to embrace the supreme power of the Trinity. Monks and bishops grasped that it was easier to deliver sermons that inflamed their followers to violence against their opponents than it was to deliver sermons that persuaded their opponents to become followers. The monks did not need an alliance with hippodrome factions to launch riots. Indeed, it was not to their advantage to develop any partnership with the hippodrome and pantomime cultures they so fervently denounced in their sermons as the work of Satan. In any case, the sources do not connect the hippodrome factions to a religious element in a riot until the incident of 489, in Antioch, when the Greens, attacking the Jews for their support of the Blues, consulted the monk in the wall. But in this incident, the Greens had already begun their riot, and this visit with the monk merely served to sanction their violence against the Jews. In regard to the incident at the theater in Alexandria in 415, in which a riot broke out in response to the prefect’s edicts about theatrical amusements and pantomimes, hippodrome factions receive no mention at all in Socrates or Malalas. The orthodox clergy measured and amplified its power to pressure the imperial government into unity with Orthodoxy by the extent to which it regularly initated violence against Arians, Jews, pagans, and heretical sects with impunity, with insuperable ferocity, and without the help of morally compromised partners like the hippodrome factions, whom emperors never trusted anyway. Like the martyrs they glorified, orthodox clergy displayed a much greater willingness to die for their Trinitarian beliefs than any other religious group was willing to die for its doctrine. 

In 378, an invading army of Goths destroyed the Roman army at the Battle of Adrianople, about 200 miles from Constantinople. This catastrophe signified that the policy of toleration no longer allowed the imperial government to strengthen its forces against invaders. The very young Emperor Gratian saw total imperial commitment to Orthodoxy as necessary to recovering the confidence and determination to defeat the invaders of the Empire and all those who would undermine faith in the imperial government. He and his successor Theodosius enacted laws in 382 and 391 that persecuted Arians, Jews, pagans, and heretics. Such laws did not end religious rioting incited by monks and controversial bishops, especially in Alexandria, but they did assure that the hippodrome administration, the pantomimes, and most likely also the factions associated with public spectacles adhered to Trinitarianism or at least professed Orthodoxy. For nearly a century, the hippodrome factions focused their energies on expanding their activities in the hippodrome, on building their shadowy business enterprises, and on collecting appointments, opportunities, and favors from the emperors, including protection from the Church, which never ceased to denounce the immorality of pantomime. They do not appear in the chronicles as significant sources of public violence. However, by the 480s, competition between the Blues and the Greens escalated into bitter conflicts beyond the realm of the hippodrome. In 489, the Greens in Antioch, feeling disfavored by the Emperor Zeno or perhaps by the governor, attacked the Blues and then the governor; six months later they “killed many” in the hippodrome before burning down a synagogue (Malalas 1986: 218). This was the beginning of a series of major riots involving hippodrome factions in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and then “all cities,” as have been described already and which culminated in the monster Nika riot of 532 in Constantinople that decimated the Blues and Greens and resulted in the loss of many thousands of others. The Greens seemed to have been the more aggressive faction; they nurtured grievances against the emperor or the emperor’s appointed governor, whom they believed favored the Blues in relation to whatever opportunities they expected from the imperial government, even though Zeno and Anastasius did make gestures of accommodating the Greens in response to violence the Greens had initiated. The imperial bias toward the Blues is perhaps most evident in the fascinating hippodrome dialogue from 531 between the representatives of the Greens and the Blues and Emperor Justinian’s Mandator, a complete translation of which appears in Cameron (1976: 319-322). In this dialogue, the Greens complain that the emperor is shutting them out of imperial appointments, allowing murderous conspiracies against the Greens to go unpunished, and accusing the Greens of having committed murders that are the work of others. But the Greens apparently had similar complaints and resentments well before 531, and they had released their discontent in mob violence and criminal plots that nevertheless had not succeeded in extorting a more profitable relation to the imperial government. The Blues, however, according to Procopius, were no less corrupt. They mostly and constantly engaged in criminal activities, and because “no attention was paid to the offenders by the city Government, the boldness of these men kept steadily rising to a great height” as people outside of the factions paid to avoid being killed by the Blues or bribing the Blues to kill enemies who sometimes did not even have a connection with the Greens. “And these things took place no longer in darkness or concealment, but at all hours of the day and in every part of the city, the crimes being committed, it might well be, before the eyes of the most notable men. For the wrongdoers had no need to conceal their crimes, for no dread of punishment lay upon them, nay, there even grew up a sort of zest for competitions among them, since they got up exhibitions of strength and manliness, in which they shewed that with a single blow they could kill any unarmed man who fell in their way, and no man longer dared to hope that he would survive among the perilous circumstances of daily life” (Secret History, 7.22-28; 1935: 85-87). Procopius describes other criminal schemes perpetrated by the Blues “at this time” (that is, 525-530), but his main point is that under Justinian the Blues enjoyed an expanding sense of impunity which the Greens also expected to enjoy, although he claims that Justinian owed the Blues their impunity because under Justin they intimidated those who might have challenged Justin’s decision to make Justinian (reigned 527-565) his heir to the throne. But this gangster-style mode of civic disorder, though seemingly detached from religious issues that inflamed people to violence, should be seen in the larger framework of Late Empire sectarian power politics that includes other public turbulences in the early sixth century that wereemphatically religious in nature and the two failed rebellions of general Vitalian in 514. A religious motive sparked the rebellions. In 511, Emperor Anastatius announced his intention to add the phrase, “He who was crucified for us,” which was a feature of some “eastern” churches, to the Trisagion prayer that includes the words, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” The new phrase indicated that Christ was mortal and suffered “for us,” which contradicted the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ was eternal and transcended all suffering. The population of Constantinople “rioted violently,” thinking that a Syrian official was responsible for inspiring Anastasius’s announcement, and sought to replace Anastasius with a new emperor of their choosing. The hippodrome factions appear not to have played a role in the violence. In the hippodrome, Anastasius addressed the public with humility and succeeded in pacifying the crowd. But soon after, he ordered the arrest of persons responsible for murders and destruction caused by the riot, “and after countless numbers had been executed, excellent order and no little fear prevailed in every city of the Roman state” (Malalas 1986: 228). Vitalian saw the riot as an opportunity for a more systematic attempt to overthrow Anastasius, and in gathering the support of large military and popular forces, he denounced Anastasius’s failure to uphold the Chalcedonean creed. But Anastasius was always skillful at disarming his opponents with gifts, generous offers, and suave rhetoric, and his deceptions proved disastrous for Vitalian. The religious riots of the fourth and fifth centuries demonstrated that Orthodoxy, even if it was a minority sector of the population in the Eastern Empire, could gain control of the Church and the imperial government if monks and their allies persisted in aligning their uncompromising beliefs with violent public activities that pressured the government to accommodate Orthodoxy and severely compromised the government’s inclination to pursue conciliatory agreements between contentious sectors of the public. Riots were a successful strategy for asserting power, for compelling “unity” within the society and its political, religious, and cultural institutions. But this strategy depended on adherents who believed unto death in the absolute authority of a doctrine. The riots and rebellions that afflicted the Empire in the late fifth century and culminated in the Nika riot were in large part the work of new power-seekers—Vitalian, the Blues and the Greens. They believed that by creating havoc in public on a larger and larger scale, they could extort from the government greater privileges and resources than they would otherwise ever receive from emperors whose preferred ambition was to curtail and indeed reduce the factions to at best an ornamental auxiliary status within the elaborate imperial ceremonial apparatus. The public disturbances of the late fourth and early fifth centuries were a reaction to the advent of a series of emperors—Zeno, Anastasius, Justus, and Justinian—who showed a rising determination to avoid any repetition of the turbulent Church strategy for asserting transforming power without imperial authority or without clear popular consensus. The hippodrome factions did not and could not have “faith” in the Emperor the way the Orthodox monks had faith in the doctrine of the absolute unity of God and Christ. This lack of faith, engineered by the emperors with treacherous cunning, doomed the undisciplined factional grasp for power in 532, even if at the time Justinian was not sure he had enough faith in himself to quell the unrest. In this sense, the sectarian and factional violence that wracked the Late Empire all arose from the schismatic conflict over the nature of Christ’s identity. This conflict structured the organization of power within the society. It was not the factional violence itself that ended the pantomime culture; it was the destructive power of schism within the doctrine of Christ’s identity that put an end to pantomime.    

 Schism, rather than mere sectarianism, is built into the doctrine that the Son is “of the same being” as the Father, because it is language that purposely prevents any unity of meaning, even though it explicitly constructs a unity of identity for the Father and the Son. It is a test of faith to believe in this unique power of God to create a being, Christ, who could assume a human form without being human, who could be “the same as the Father” without being the Father, and who could be the Son without being subordinate to the Father. Arianism taught that the Son is subordinate to the Father, he was a human being who “was begotten,” lived, and then died, and he was a human who embodied God or His divinity rather than signified the eternal being of God, having no beginning or end. It is perhaps difficult nowadays to see how dangerous this doctrine seemed to the Trinitarian branch of Christianity, but in the fourth and fifth centuries Arianism represented an obstacle to the realization of a new concept of worldly power built around the unity of state and Church, which, as a manifestation of God’s power, were, so to speak, “of the same being.” Trinitarianism taught that no human can ever be or become God and that God is beyond any possible “embodiment.” Belief in Trinitarianism or Arianism defined one’s identity and legitimized or sanctified power to control other lives. As long as Arianism in its manifold variations persisted, it was always possible for another human being to become God, for God to “beget” another Son, or indeed for God to construct an “alternative” path to salvation. The pantomimes had a long history of embodying gods and showing how humans carried within themselves the conflicts and passions of deities and external, “cosmic” powers beyond the control of those in whom the gods resided. A pleasure of pagan pantomime was seeing the beautiful metamorphosis of bodies when they “begat” gods and obscured the distinction between gods and humans. By the late fourth century, however, pantomime had adapted to the Christian reality and had abandoned pagan themes in favor of an extravagantly voluptuous eroticism that purported to embody what might now be called the divine mysteries of “nature.” The Church therefore condemned pantomime for the deviant sexuality of its themes and performers, which nevertheless received state sponsorship because of pantomime’s unique power to magnetize public attraction to the emperor and his generosity. With their mysterious, agitating performances of metamorphoses, pantomimes became experts at organizing glamourous imperial acclamations, which entailed attaching the pantomimes to hippodrome factions and mobilizing the factions in relation to the imperial ceremonial agenda. However, as long as the emperor sanctioned and sponsored pantomime performances, the public could still perceive the body as a site of a metamorphosis that enhanced one’s access to imperial power, if not to God Himself. Imperial pantomime carried wthin it a residue of Arianism, a sense that the body contained more power or aspiration to power or connection to some “cosmic” power than the Church deemed healthy for its own good in its perpetual struggle to prevent schisms from fracturing Christianity and turning Christians against each other. Perhaps this idea of the body’s power through theatrical metamorphosis encouraged the hippodrome factions to believe they were stronger than they proved to be. In this way the pantomimes had an oblique relation to the factional violence that supposedly led to the demise of pantomime culture, even though no evidence exists that directly links the pantomimes to the violence and even though factional violence continued after the suppression of pantomime culture. But the Nika riot arose because the factions felt Justinian was stripping away their privileges, appointments, and status, and none of his efforts to placate them included restoring the pantomimes. For pantomime did not belong to the factions, the people, the aristocracy, or the Church; it belonged to the emperor, and the emperor decided the fate of pantomime according to his ambitions, not the Church’s or anyone else’s. This situation intersects with yet another variable: in 525, two years after the Blues rioted “in all the cities,” Justinian, who was by then virtually co-emperor with Justin, married the former pantomime porn queen Theodora, a perfect example of how a humble and even stigmatized body could metamorphose into a figure of immense power. The banishment of the pantomimes coincided with the marriage, not with the riots of 522-523. A special law was necessary to permit the marriage, but more importantly, an imperial decree banning the pantomimes was necessary to foreclose any repetition of Theodora’s metamorphosis, any belief that a person could dance his or her way to imperial power and thus become a threat to the emperor. Justinian could lose the pantomimes if he gained through marriage to one of them a long and successful reign, which indeed he did. This confluence of factors put an end to pantomime that was sudden and even violent to the extent that pantomime performance did operate autonomously within imperial society or outside of the turbulent schismatic struggles to control human identity, the violent relations of the hippodrome factions to the emperor and to the civic populations, and the emperor’s almost absolute power to impose the “death” of a now ancient but now also potentially subversive art at a time when belief in the metamorphosis of the body had given way to a belief in its immutable “authenticity.” Pantomime did not disappear because of Church hostility to it or because audiences no longer appreciated it. Pantomime disappeared because the Emperor decided through his marriage to signify a new kind of imperial authority over sexuality, which perhaps achieved further manifestation through his quite vicious persecution of homosexual clergy in 528 (Malalas 1986: 251), through Theodora’s efforts to release prostitutes from brothels (Procopius, Secret History, 17.5), and through his and his wife’s complex relation to the equally strange and powerful marriage of his great general Belisarius (505-565) and Antonia (484-567?). 

After 525, nothing more is heard about the pantomimes except for a curious and very lonely remark in the Eccelsiastical History (ca. 589) written by John of Ephesus. John claims that in 588, Gregory, the Patriarch of Antioch from 571 to 593, traveled to Constantinople to answer “long deferred” charges concerning his luxurious life, his sexual indiscretions, his supposed pagan inclinations, and his unpopularity with the citizens. Gregory brought with him many expensive gifts for “the whole senate, every man and woman of rank, and all churchmen,” with the result that he was acquitted of all charges and instead treated with “great honour.” “With the view of appeasing and quieting his people,” Gregory asked the Emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602) to build a hippodrome in Antioch, and “he even took with him from the capital a troop of pantomimists,” “wherewith to erect this church of Satan” (John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History, V.17; 1860: 225-227). John, however, was intensely biased against Gregory and perhaps eager to believe much of the scandalous conduct ascribed to Gregory by the many enemies he had gained while making his diocese the largest property owner in Antioch. Evagrius Scolasticus, in his Ecclesiastical History (ca. 593), presents a different version of Gregory’s visit to Constantinople, on which Evagrius accompanied him. He describes Gregory as a man “in intellect and spiritual virtue absolutely supreme among all, most energetic in whatever he embarked on, invulnerable to fear, and most unsusceptible to yielding or cowering before power” (Evagrius 2000: 262). He ascribes the charges against Gregory to the governor, Asterius, who in Antioch gathered supporters among the upper class, “the popular element, and those who practiced trades in the city,” as well as the Blues and the Greens. The Emperor replaced Asterius and summoned Gregory to a synod in Constantinople. Gregory presented his defense before “the patriarchs of each place,” “the sacred senate, and many of the most holy metropolitans.” This tribunal acquitted him “after many conflicts” (Evagrius 2000: 296-297). Evagrius does not mention Gregory receiving any pantomimes, nor does he even refer to Maurice building a hippodrome in Antioch at Gregory’s request. But Evagrius is also intensely biased: he worked for Gregory and he writes panegyrically about him and Maurice. Whether or not Gregory brought pantomimes to Antioch therefore remains maddeningly unverifiable, and the assertion that he did may simply have been a further attempt to impugn a man who seemed exceptionally skillful at outwitting his many resentful adversaries. If it is true that he brought a pantomime troop to Antioch, then somehow vestiges of pantomime culture survived through the decades in Constantinople under the clandestine protection of the emperors and, most ironically, an upper clergy that was somehow immune to any damage from their association with or pleasure in this art. But the pantomimes would have been a gift from the Emperor. 

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