Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime and the Third Century Crisis

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

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Figure 70: Battle between Romans and Goths from the Luodivisi Battle Sarcophagus, 250-260 CE, in the Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale Romano.

Pantomime and the Third Century Crisis

With the murder of Alexander Severus in Germany, the Empire entered a protracted period of deep uncertainty about who should be emperor—the so-called “Crisis of the Third Century.” For the next forty years, numerous men battled to become emperor and the Empire fractured into rival territories engaged in almost perpetual civil and foreign wars. But the pantomime culture adapted well to this dark metamorphosis of the Empire. Although references to it are scant, it is nevertheless evident that pantomime never lost its appeal and apparently, at least in the imperial court, adopted some interesting refinements. The elderly Gordian I ruled, along with his son, Gordian II, for only thirty-six days (238 CE), but when he was, among numerous other appointments, a Consul of Italy, under Alexander Severus, he “gave stage plays and Juvenalia [wild beast hunts] in all the cities of Campania, Etruria, Umbria, Flaminia, and Picenum, for four days at his own expense” (HA, “The Three Gordians,” 4.6; 1924: 388-389). This event recalls the Secular Games sponsored by Septimius Severus in 204 in which public pantomime performances took place in conjunction with wild animal hunts and gladiatorial combats. Gordian’s production, however, if the Historia Augusta is credible here, was on a much larger scale than the Secular Games, and in line with his previous efforts, as an aedile, to impress the Roman public with his generosity in presenting spectacular gladiatorial and wild beast shows involving hundreds of gladiators and exotic animals each month for the entire year he served his term of office (“The Three Gordians,” 3.6; 1924: 385-386). These “surpassed the imperial games themselves” and caused other ambitious politicians to resent him as much as admire him. Thus, when he and his son became co-emperors, they lacked sufficient friends when they needed them. When his grandson, Gordian III, another teenager, became emperor in 238, he amassed a huge army in Rome to march against the usurper, Maximinus, in Aquileia. To celebrate the departure of this army, Gordian hosted “a solemn ritual,” during which “sacred rites were performed, stage-plays [“ludi scenae,” the term used to described the pantomime performances at the 204 Secular Games] and sports in the Circus given, [and] a gladiatorial show was presented” (“Maximus and Balbinus,” 8.5; 1924: 462-463). The Historia Augusta attempts to connect this large-scale public entertainment to a Roman “custom” of preparing the population for war by evoking “the avenging power of Fortune” through spectacles of killing under the assumption that “to behold fighting and wounds and steel and naked men contending among themselves” meant “that in war they might not fear armed enemies or shudder at wounds and blood” (“Maximus and Balbinus,” 8.7; 1924: 464-465). However, the need of the HA to explain this occasion for spectacles actually suggests that the “solemn ritual” was an innovation on the part of Gordian III and his advisors: the shows functioned to awaken a drive to victory in the population rather than to celebrate a triumph over adversaries. As the emperor aligned pantomime with other forms of entertainment in a festival organization modeled after the Secular Games format of performances, the festivals themselves functioned to change public attitudes rather than to simply affirm them. Imperial festivals rallied people to a cause, to some larger, political idea regarding the future of the people themselves rather than merely to a favorable view of the emperor. In this period of perpetual struggle between claimants to the throne, emperors, even if they came from the nobility, could not trust the Senate to support them, nor could they trust the Army to subordinate its ambition to decide who would be emperor. Delivering speeches and harangues to power-anointing constituents was not sufficient to awaken a public feeling of commitment, not so much to the emperor himself, but to a decision made by the emperor, such as to take up arms against Maximinus. Once a man became emperor, it also became incredibly difficult for him to project an aura of triumph over manifold adversaries, foreign and domestic, even if he did defeat rivals and invaders. Emperors therefore depended heavily on the implementation of large-scale public works to demonstrate the legitimacy or strength of imperial power. The integration of entertainments into huge, festival organizations of performances was a category of public works requiring elaborate administrative skill and logistics. These events showed, perhaps more vividly or viscerally than other, less dramatic public works, that the imperial bureaucracy functioned efficiently and steadfastly, no matter how perilous were the internal and external threats to the Empire. Imperial power really lay in the control of a vast, complex bureaucratic system for distributing public benefits and not so much in the distributing of favors to those who were “loyal,” for this was a time in which it was not possible to reward loyalty as generously as in previous generations, even if it was possible to feel, let alone display too quickly or too ardently, loyalty to any of the numerous camps that emerged during the Crisis purporting to resolve it. In 248, Marcus Julius Philippus (“Philip the Arab”) staged even more spectacular Secular Games than Septimius Severus had presented in 204 when, to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome, he arranged for a thousand pairs of gladiators to combat in the Circus along with chariot races; a huge number of wild animals apparently died in the Coliseum as objects of spectacular hunts. But the HA says that before Philip had him murdered, Gordian III planned to use these entertainment resources to celebrate his triumph over the Persians (33.2; 1924: 445), even though he had died four years previously. However, Philip’s effort to use the Secular Games to strengthen his popularity in Rome failed to consolidate his power within the Empire: Gothic invasions and a military revolt in Pannonia brought an end to his regime and life in 249. 

Presumably the Secular Games in 248 followed the model established by Septimius Severus and included pantomime performances, but the HA is silent on this. Nor is it at all clear to what extent, during a year, the imperial government or politicians sponsored integrated or unique public entertainments involving pantomimes. How often in a year could a public spectator in Rome watch a pantomime performance, assuming the government budgeted such entertainment in relation to the calendar? Perhaps the answer to this question is unknowable. In the earlier years of the Empire, when pantomime was mostly a private entertainment of aristocrats, public performances as “gifts” occurred in relation to the diverse political ambitions of individual sponsors and the schedules they developed to pursue their ambitions. In the late second century, as the emperors tightened their grip on the aristocracy, gifts of public performances became increasingly the responsibility of consortiums of sponsors acting through municipal councils and in tandem with imperial construction of theaters throughout the Empire, so that these “gifts” came in part from the emperors, especially if public pantomime performances operated as competitions for prizes. With the Crisis of the Third Century, however, this system may have frayed. The concept of competition is worth pondering. Imperial pantomimes may have set the standard for accomplishment in the art. But from our perspective in the twenty-first century, a peculiar feeling of incongruity emerges at the idea of the non-violent spectacle of pantomime competing for public enthusiasm with intensely violent entertainments like gladiatorial combats, wild beast killings, and chariot races. It may well be that pantomime never really competed directly with these other entertainments, that the scheduling of pantomimes during a year, along with the scheduling of other entertainments, never placed potential spectators in a position of having to choose one entertainment over another, even when the schedule was as complex as was evidently the case in the organization of the Secular Games in 204. Moreover, the Games program indicates that the emperor had at least three pantomimes at his disposal. During the year, did these pantomimes compete with each other for audiences? Or did one perform in Rome for public audiences, while the others performed elsewhere in Italy? Did the imperial cult support three claques, one for each pantomime—or one claque for all three imperial pantomimes? Did the imperial court schedule its public pantomime performances in collaboration with aristocrats who also wanted to sponsor public pantomime performances? Or were aristocrats compelled to schedule their shows around imperial control over the reservation of theaters in Rome? Indeed, with Rome having at least three theaters, was it nevertheless even permissible for the three theaters to offer pantomime entertainments at the same time? If rival or even different pantomimes performed at the same time and day, could each performance be expected to fill theaters accommodating 15,000 spectators? To get even three thousand spectators into a public theater, how much time did one need to promote the event? Even if a claque had five hundred members, could one expect all members of the claque always to attend every performance by the star pantomime? Though pantomime was not a commercial enterprise, how did sponsors of pantomime performances calculate the impact of performances on subsidiary commercial activities, such as taverns, vendors of food and beverages, vendors who sold or rented cushions, and persons hired to serve spectators or protect them? To what extent was a spectator conflicted about which performance to attend or indeed about attending any performance at all? What motivated a spectator to attend a pantomime performance rather than a chariot race, a wild beast hunt, or a gladiatorial combat? Did membership in a pantomime claque preclude membership in a chariot team claque? While it may never be possible to answer such questions accurately, these were nevertheless questions that guided organizers of pantomime performances, including the emperor. The answers, when they became evident to the organizers, bear upon the decision of the emperors in the fourth century to attach the pantomimes and their claques to the chariot racing teams throughout the Empire. But in the turbulent third century, questions about pantomime performance appear to have centered on how to “integrate” it into other forms of performance or at least into a larger idea of metamorphosis than had sustained the art in previous centuries.

In an article on pantomime competitions, Ruth Webb contends, largely on the basis of evidence from epitaphs, that pantomime entered public performance contests occasionally or selectively during the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE), beginning in Naples (Webb 2012: 230). The concern of public officials about the influence of claques probably motivated hesitation about including pantomime in contests, although Webb refers to scholars who speculate that pantomimes nevertheless performed at contests, as they sometimes did at festivals, as paid entertainers and received “special honors” for their performances. Impresarios or magistrates hired these pantomimes, apparently as a way to increase public interest in the contests without generating the controvery that might ensue when a jury named a pantomime the “victor” (cf., Webb 2012: 238). But Webb herself then speculates on how, when pantomime entered official competition, juries or audiences judged the performances. She suggests that pantomimes may have engaged in “danced dialogues” involving improvised “alternating gestures”: “One possibility might be purely technical: a sequence of difficult movements which the other dancer had to surpass” (248). She further proposes that, “on a more general level, competitive performances in both mime and pantomime imply a fixed form with recognised rules and norms. The spectators who judged the dancers were therefore using shared criteria and were not simply expressing personal preferences” (248-249). But this contention assumes that some sort of academy or school established “rules and norms” that performers and even spectators learned systematically. This is how modern ballet dancers think about competitions: as a virtuoso display of techniques learned in school; it is not how acting competition works. As discussed earlier, pantomime academies, such as they were, disappeared from the Empire when the Senate in effect forbade aristocrats from hiring professionally trained pantomimes and motivating them instead to own their own pantomime ensembles. One then did not become a pantomime by going to school but by becoming attached to a pantomime ensemble, by becoming a protégé of a pantomime with an aristocratic sponsor. Pantomimes became competitive, but not because they learned all sorts of “rules and norms” that all other pantomimes learned from some credible, academic authority. Epitaph evidence commemorates pantomimes as young as nine, twelve, and fourteen years old; they practiced their roles guided by mentors, but they did not spend time going to a school. Innovative performance skill was much more important to pantomime competitiveness than virtuoso mastery of a “fixed form with recognised rules and norms.” Pantomimes found favor with audiences or judges by coming up with new movements, new poses, mysterious costumes and masks, introducing less familiar mythic themes, strange erotic moods, and voluptuous glamor. It was this emphasis on innovation in performance as the basis of competitiveness that made pantomime such an “unruly” category for public contests and inflamed the passions of audiences or those assigned to judge the performances. In this respect, pantomimic innovation furthered the goal of the art to embody the ideology of metamorphosis.

Pantomime was always an embodiment of competitiveness; it was always about the competitive power of masks, poses, and movements, so that even individual performers externalized the competition between the masks and identities that resided within themselves. After Verus, public competitions between pantomimes apparently appealed to audiences throughout the Empire. Yet the idea of pantomime competing against other forms of entertainment perhaps did not inspire enthusiasm, at least from an imperial perspective, considering how carefully the Secular Games scheduled pantomime performances in such as way as not to conflict with other entertainments. Indeed, the process of “integrating” pantomime performances in relation to other forms of entertainment, culminating, in the fourth century, with the attachment of pantomimes and their claques to chariot racing factions, suggests that pantomime was too competitive, in the sense that, faced with having to choose entertainments, large sectors of the public preferred pantomime to chariot races, wild beast hunts, and gladiatorial combats. Why, in the fourth century, did the emperors attach the pantomimes and their claques to the chariot factions? If pantomime was not competitive against other forms of entertainment, at least in relation to the general public, why not simply allow aristocrats to sponsor pantomime performances for the villa audiences, with occasional “gifts” to the public, as happened originally? Pantomime shows did not cost nearly as much money to produce as chariot races, wild beast hunts, and gladiatorial contests, all of which required numerous personnel to manage people and animals, facilities, and, as with the gladiators, schools and dormitories. Pantomime shows were bizarrely small in scale compared with other popular entertainments, yet these other entertainments were unable to overshadow pantomime—whereas the appetite for spoken or text-driven drama had largely disappeared altogether even before pantomime came to Rome. In fact, pantomime endured well beyond the end of the chariot races, the wild beast hunts, and the gladiatorial combats. 

One might argue that pantomime prospered so long and so competitively due to the powerful sway of the claques attached to the art. But then the question arises: what made pantomimes so attractive as venerated objects of claques? To answer this question effectively, it is best to acknowledge that the claques operated within a larger system of communication than was embedded within the unique performance aesthetic of a star pantomime. Claques acquired power or “influence” insofar as they expanded the scope of the concept of metamorphosis that pantomimes embodied. Pantomimes died, retired, or lost their appeal, but claques did not disappear because their star pantomimes had disappeared. Claques attached themselves to new pantomimes; people could join a claque or leave it regardless of whether the star pantomime was the “best” representative of the art or the idea of metamorphosis, even if, as the emperors after Verus hoped, pantomime contests could decide the matter “objectively.” Claque members may have moved from one claque to another, although probably not from a pantomime claque to a chariot faction. Cameron (1976: 225-226) asserts that before the “amalgamation” of pantomime and chariot racing claques in the fourth century, chariot racing claques were never as “rowdy” or disruptive as pantomime claques and only became so after the amalgamation, which suggests that before the amalgamation chariot racing claques were more exclusive in their membership and followed some sort of behavior code associated with a more well-mannered, prudent, and stable sector of the public. From the imperial perspective, the primary motive for merging the pantomime and chariot racing claques was not to make pantomime claques more docile, but to consolidate imperial control over the entertainment industry. A more centralized organization of resources for entertainment allowed the imperial government to allocate more revenue for other things than entertainment and to constrain the ability of aristocratic sponsors of claques to invest too strongly in potentially threatening political power bases. Claques outside Rome had to become the responsibility of municipal consortiums rather than individual aristocrats if the aristocrats (town councilors) were to meet the financial obligations of their class. From the standpoint of the pantomime, the merger of the claques opened up opportunities for performance in previously excluded spaces (hippodromes) and perhaps more importantly expanded opportunities for the pantomime to connect with a larger set of sponsors who could facilitate his advancement, through political appointments, beyond and after his career in the theater. From the perspective of a pantomime claque member, the merger presumably implied access to a grander claque hierarchy and thus allowed the claque member to rise higher and faster within the faction hierarchy and within the society. For the member of the chariot-racing claque, the merger probably facilitated greater or happier access to homosexual and heterosexual experiences, insofar as the ambiguous sexual culture of pantomime ensembles and their associates offered off-stage pleasures that were otherwise not so rewarding elsewhere. 

The claques functioned as social networks that provided unique opportunities for members to improve their sexual, economic, and social identities—to achieve some measure of “metamorphosis” or, as might be said nowadays, upward mobility. It is possible that in the early Empire, members of chariot racing claques paid dues, whereas sponsors hired members of pantomime claques. But as the imperial government exerted greater control over the entertainment industry, this distinction may have disappeared, and the pantomime claques, in collaboration with the town council consortiums, may have themselves, with revenues from dues, become sponsors of pantomime performances. If so, then, with the merger of the claques, the cost of producing chariot races, though probably not pantomime shows, was distributed across a larger set of sponsors, easing the financial burdens of aristocratic and imperial sponsors. This view aligns with the recognition that by the middle of the fourth century much of the aristocracy throughout the Empire was retreating from engagement with city building and responsibility for public culture and instead amassing enormous, self-sufficient estates, like Piazza Armerina, where pantomimes might be guest performers but the hosts, lacking the incentives or even the ambitions to pursue imperial political careers propelled by power bases, no longer felt much motivation to provide “gifts” of performances to potential constituents. The aura of sexual ambiguity cast by pantomime culture was central to the art’s power to embody the concept of metamorphosis—or rather, the concept of metamorphosis achieved its most persuasive representation through the pantomimic embodiment of sexual ambiguity. This component of the pantomime culture was the driver of change (and volatility) within the art and in relation to the political-social functions attached to the art. It was, indeed, this component that was an obsessive target of criticism from those seeking to Christianize the ancient world even after the Empire became a Christian state. Nevertheless, despite the practical economic and political reasons for bringing pantomimes into the circus, it remains peculiar that pantomime became part of the overtly “masculine” entertainment of chariot racing. Perhaps the imperial government believed that associating pantomime with chariot racing would make the art more masculine. More likely, though, it was the other way around: the public did not look upon pantomimes as less masculine or “effeminate” because they played female roles or because they accommodated homosexual and heterosexual pleasures. Pantomimes infused the circus with a potent erotic atmosphere that made chariot racing more exciting, more than a competition between teams of horses. It was also a contest between competing modes of desirability within the crowd: pantomimes charged their factions with an intensified sense of sexual vibrancy, of being, not just thrilled, but thrilling, in an ardently visceral way. The pantomimes got their factions to move in highly competitive, choreographed discharges of excitement that did not depend on the success of the faction’s chariot team for their motivation or pleasure in thrilling the crowd. More will be said about the relation of the pantomimes to the circus. The point here is that a peculiar set of historical circumstances arising out of the Crisis of the Third Century allowed the pantomime claques to function differently from the fan clubs attached in modern times to movie stars, rock stars, and sports teams.   

    The Crisis of the Third Century brought about a fundamental metamorphosis of the Empire as a whole, to which pantomime made a peculiar contribution that was more significant than one might assume from reading the Historia Augusta as its authors probably expected it to be read. In the manner of other mandarin ancient histories, the HA,when it bothers to mention it at all, tends to regard pantomime as a distracting pleasure of emperors, as evidence of a luxurious taste that interferes with wise imperial governance, rather than as the instrument of larger ideas of imperial cultural policy. The HA treats pantomime as something that reveals the “character” of emperors in a generally unflattering way, but in doing so it inadvertently implies that emperors revealed and even helped shape the “character” of pantomime as a phenomenon that survived numerous regimes and calamities far more successfully than other arts or entertainments with which it co-existed throughout its long life in the ancient world. Pantomime adapted well to complicated and stressful historical realities, because of the flexibility of its performance conditions and because of its focus on metamorphosis as the motivation for performance: adaptation was above all a matter of skill at releasing and manipulating multiple identities within a body, at devising masks and presenting movements, poses, and bodies themselves as masks. This durable ideology was evidently of great value in organizing and sustaining the imperial state apparatus, even if it contradicted the Christian ideology that there is only one true God in the universe and every human being can only have one “true” body or identity. 

The Historia Augusta, however, sees the affection of the emperor for pantomime as an affliction or vice that undermined his ability to lead the Empire out of the Crisis. During the almost fantastically turbulent reign of Gallienus (253-268), when the Empire suffered from manifold invasions, insurrections, and secessions in Egypt, Pannonia, Gaul, Bithynia, Italy, Sicily, Anatolia, Illyricum, Mesopotamia, and Macedonia, the Emperor apparently maintained a keen enthusiasm for pantomimes. Upon the death of Macrianus and his son, who attempted a coup in 261, Gallienus “gave spectacles in the circus, spectacles in the theater, gymnastic spectacles, hunting spectacles, and gladiatorial spectacles” and “surrendered himself to lust and pleasure” (HA, “The Two Gallieni,” 3.6-7). After suppressing a revolt of Byzantine troops, in 262, the Emperor “celebrated a decennial festival with new kinds of spectacles, new varieties of parades, and the most elaborate sort of amusements,” including “wagons bearing pantomimists and actors of all sorts,” among numerous other “marvelous and astonishing” performances (HA, “The Two Gallieni,” 7.4-8.7). Moreover, “concubines frequently reclined in his dining-halls, and he always had near at hand a second table for the jesters and actors” (HA, “The Two Gallieni,” 17.7), further evidence of how Gallienus had “wasted his days and nights in wine and debauchery and caused the world to be laid waste” (HA, “The Two Gallieni,” 16.1). The HA includes several passages that describe in detail Gallienus’s pleasure in luxurious clothing, his appetite for sexual orgies, his devotion to fastidious grooming and bathing, his culinary extravagances, his love of poetry and scholarship, and his inclination to go “forth to the sound of the pipes and [return] to the sound of the organ” (HA, “The Two Gallieni,” 11, 16, 17), all of which lead to the final summation: he “spent his life with pimps and actors and jesters” (HA, “The Two Gallieni,” 21.6).  Obviously the HA presents these salacious details to discredit Gallienus, presumably in an effort to demonstrate the salvational identity of the emperor who succeeded him, Claudius, who may have borne some responsibility for the murder of Gallienus but was also an ancestor of Emperor Constantius II, for whom the author possibly wrote the history, although it may well be the case that for the author a more positive evaluation of Gallienus’s complicated leadership style was not acceptable to a somewhat later imperial audience.

Twentieth century historians are much more respectful of Gallienus’s exceptional accomplishments during a time of continuous catastrophe; indeed, the Emperor’s amazing skill in holding the Empire together for nine years is even discernable through the grotesquely hostile filter of the language the HA uses to describe his regime. But historians of the modern era tend to detach a revised and more positive assessment of Gallienus from almost every reference to the salacious details of his personality and enthusiasm for theater in the HA, as if these were either irrelevant to a discussion of Gallienus’s political and military achievements or exaggerations and fabrications so extreme as to be useless as “evidence” of serious imperial leadership. Lukas De Blois (1976) is perhaps the most glaring example of this dismissal of the salacious details in the HA, but others have followed his path: Mennen (2011: 31-45), and Geiger (2013), although even other ancient historians of Gallienus’s reign—Zosimus, Zonaras, Aurelius Victor—avoid affirming the voluptuous qualities ascribed to Gallienus by the HA. Perhaps, for these historians, a more “impartial” history emerges without such details of “private” life under the assumption that these details are complete fabrications, whereas other details of Gallienus’s career are verifiable insofar as they appear in other texts or are at least “believable.” The interminable and labyrinthine scholarly debates about the authorship, accuracy, date, language, and motive for writing the HAmake it difficult indeed to know what to do with any references in the text related to pantomime and theater. But the chapter on Gallienus is an especially grandiose mess, because it contains so many vivid details purporting to describe the Emperor’s love of spectacle, particularly regarding the processions he staged following the death of Macrianus and then following the suppression of the Byzantine revolt (HA 3.6; 8-9), as well as his enthusiasm for theatrical effects in his personal life. Are the details fabrications because the author presents them in a severely disapproving tone? If the point of the chapter is a satire or even a parody of historical writing, as Syme (1968) argued, then the writing should be much more exaggerated and extravagantly fabricated, for as it is the language creates such deep uncertainty about what is true, what could be true, and what is not true is so convoluted that it is very hard to discern where the humor lies, even for an erudite imperial or senatorial audience, in details that supposedly took place long before the composition of the text. At any rate, the text presents such an unstable image of Gallienus’s identity (as well as that of other emperors) that it is as if the author has inscribed a kind of pantomimic impersonation of him, has fashioned, not only the emperor’s, but his own identity out of various masks that completely obscure the distinction between the emperor himself and the man performing him, a phenomenon that the author’s audience might have appreciated more than a historiographical satire or a propagandistic agenda. TheHAin this sense presents a “truth” about the lives of the emperors that bears some similarity to the “truth” that pantomime embodies in the presentation of mythic figures and their performers. 

In his 1997 biography of Gallienus, John Bray attempted to excavate some of this “truth” in the HA by looking beyond the author’s motive in writing the text and seeing under the masking language a more enigmatic man than the HA cared to acknowledge. For Bray, Gallienus, aside from his innovative reforms of the military and the imperial administration, introduced a remarkably liberal “sexual politics” into the ancient world. The Emperor consulted with a “council of matrons”; he was deeply devoted to his wife, who accompanied him on campaigns, and they shared an enthusiasm for Greek philosophy; he nevertheless also loved at the same time a German (Marcomanni) princess, Pippara, whose integration into the imperial court enabled him to recruit the Marcomanni tribe to assist the Romans against the barbarian invasions; he allowed non-aristocratic women to socialize with persons of his own class at state banquets; he treated Queen Zenobia’s attempt in 267 to secede from the Empire to create her own Palmyrene Empire as a lesser priority than repulsing German invaders from Northern Italy (Bray 1997: 171-230). Bray asserts that Gallienus’s approach to sexuality stemmed directly from his acutely theatrical sensibility, which in the distorted idiom of the HA translates as a “life spent with pimps and actors and jesters,” even though he actually spent most of his life surrounded by military men (21.5). Then there is the curious matter of the coin issued (ca. 265-266) under Gallienus, which depicts his head in profile with his name inscribed in the feminine gender, “Galliena Augusta.” MacCoull (1999) contends that the coin, which he says depicts the bearded Gallienus in a “feminine” manner (because of the hairstyle), inscribes a “bisexual” identity for the Emperor in that the purpose of the coin was to commemorate the victories of Odaenathus over the Persians by “visually representing” Gallienus as becoming “assimilated” to the sexually ambiguous Palmyrene goddess Allat, who was similar to the Roman goddess Minerva. According to Van den Hengel (2005) the emperor sought to reduce sexual difference to a single “masculine power” to absorb feminine otherness, and he rejects MacCoull’s interpretation, arguing that the coin instead depicts the patriarchal authority of the Emperor to conquer sexual otherness, although if this was the point the coin was supposed to make it is hard to see why the government bothered to assign a feminine name to the emperor. Neither interpretation is satisfying, but it is quite a challenge to come up with better explanations. What is nevertheless evident from the coin is that the Emperor saw a political advantage in attaching a feminization of his name to his image, and this advantage intersects with the advantage of pantomime in representing imperial power: It is not so much that imperial power resides in the capacity of the emperor to reduce all sexual otherness to a single “masculine power.” Rather, imperial power resides in the ideology of metamorphosis, which manifests itself most clearly in the ability of a body to change its sex and, from Gallienus’s perspective, in the emperor’s capacity to make what is feminine masculine and what is masculine feminine, like a pantomime.

The Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275) receives credit, as “Restitutor Orbis,” for ending the Crisis and restoring the Empire to its pre-Crisis borders. He was a severe military man who spent most of his career leading campaigns against Rome’s many enemies, but, like Gallienus, he understood the supreme value of spectacle as an emblem of imperial power. According to the HA, when Aurelian celebrated in a single triumph in Rome in 273 his victories over Zenobia and the barbarian invaders, he introduced some astonishing theatrical effects: in addition to “two hundred tamed beasts of divers kinds from Libya and Palestine, the procession featured eight hundred pairs of gladiators, and the captives from the barbarian tribes,” including Blemmyes, Axomitae, Arabs, Indians, Bactrians, Hiberians, Saracens, Persians, Egyptians, Goths, Alans, Roxolani, Sarmatians, Franks, Suebians, Franks, Germans, and Vandals, “all captive with their hands bound fast,” and ten women, dressed as warriors, who “had been captured among the Goths after many others had fallen”; four opulent chariots, “adorned with gold and silver and jewels,” led the procession, one of which displayed the captive Zenobia in “golden chains, the weight of which was borne by others,” and this chariot she designed herself when she imagined herself entering Rome in triumph; Aurelian appeared in a chariot, pulled by four stags, that “once belonged to the King of the Goths”; “[t]hen came the Roman people itself, the flags of the guilds, the mailed cuirassiers, the wealth of the kings, the entire army, and, lastly, the senate” (HA, “The Deified Aurelian,” 33-34; 1932: 258-262).  Following this enormous triumph, Aurelian hosted several days of chariot races, plays, wild beasts hunts, and gladiatorial contests, as well as a naval battle (HA, “The Deified Aurelian,” 34.3; 1932: 261-262). Aurelian was a man of austere tastes, who imposed regulations on the extent to which citizens could display wealth through their dress or gold or silver ornamentation, “but he took marvelous pleasure in actors [mimis]” (HA, “The Deified Aurelian,” L.4; 1932: 292-293), which Crevier/Mill (1814: 175 [Crevier 1754: 108]) understood to mean as “Pantomimes were what pleased him most,” which seems correct. Though he is most famous for his huge military and diplomatic victories, a curious feature of Aurelian’s reign was his attention to dress codes and his willingness to incorporate innovations in attire:

He furthermore granted permission to commoners to have coaches adorned with silver, whereas they had previously had only carriages ornamented with bronze or ivory. He also allowed matrons to have tunics and other garments of purple, whereas they had had before only fabrics of changeable colours, or, as frequently, of a bright pink. He also was the first to allow private soldiers to have clasps of gold, whereas formerly they had had them of silver. He, too, was the first to give tunics having bands of embroidery to his troops, whereas previously they had received only straight-woven tunics of purple, and to some he presented tunics with one band, to others those having two bands or three bands and even up to five bands, like the tunics to‑day made of linen (HA, “The Deified Aurelian,” 46.5-6; 1932: 285-287).

The evidence does not exist to connect these fashion details directly to Aurelian’s enthusiasm for pantomime. What is nevertheless evident is that these innovations in fashion design indicate a desire on the part of citizens and soldiers to theatricalize and dramatize their appearances in public spaces, and such innovations arise from and lead to a more self-conscious way of moving and positioning one’s self in relation to others within public spaces, a kind of imperial mode of movement, modeled ostensibly by the emperor himself. It is doubtful, however, that this self-consciousness could have emerged without guidance from the pantomime culture and from the influence of fashion-minded pantomime claques, because so many citizens and soldiers might never see the emperor and his circle very closely or often to gain sufficient knowledge of an imperial mode of movement that escaped representation in statues, mosaics, or coins, but they would see pantomimes project the mythic imperial image and movement as these gave “marvelous pleasure” to the emperor. 

            The salient point here is that pantomime stimulated innovations in public life, and, from the imperial perspective, achieved these innovations with the “permission” of the emperor. While triumphs were a feature of Roman culture long before the founding of the Empire, what made them exciting was not so much their power to connect audiences to a mighty sense of tradition and heritage but their power to immerse audiences in a monumental feeling of confidence about a new direction for Roman society. A triumph was a kind of augury of a great future, a prophetic message of great, liberating opportunities to come. But spectacles most persuasively proclaimed the advent of a new era when they themselves introduced memorable performance innovations. Thus, among other sensations, the Aurelian triumph featured four highly unusual chariots and a group of captive German women displayed as Amazons. When the Emperor Probus (276-282) celebrated his own victories over the Germans and the Blemmyae, he hosted, besides three hundred pairs of gladiators in the Coliseum, a wild beast hunt in the Circus in which he planted a forest of “great trees” uprooted from elsewhere; wild animals—“one thousand ostriches, one thousand stags and one thousand wild-boars, then deer, ibexes, wild sheep, and other grass-eating beasts”—were supposed to roam through the forest while the “populace was then let in, and each man seized what he wished.” Then Probus “brought out one hundred leopards from Libya, then one hundred from Syria, then one hundred lionesses and at the same time three hundred bears; all of which beasts, it is clear, made a spectacle more vast than enjoyable” (HA, “Probus,” 19. 4-7; 1932: 376-378). The HA also remarks on the “novel spectacles” that the emperors Carus, Numerius, and Carinus introduced through the “series of games” that was “the most noteworthy event of [their] rule” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 19.1; 1932: 448-449). At these games was “exhibited a rope-walker, who in his buskins seemed to be walking on the winds, also a wall-climber, who, eluding a bear, ran up a wall, also some bears which acted a farce, and, besides, one hundred trumpeters who blew one single blast together, one hundred horn-blowers, one hundred flute-players, also one hundred flute-players who accompanied songs, one thousand pantomimists and gymnasts, moreover, a mechanical scaffold, which, however, burst into flames and burned up the stage — though this Diocletian later restored on a more magnificent scale” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 19.2; 1932: 448-449), although probably most of this description is a fantasia of exaggeration. One thousand “pantomimists and gymnasts”? It is hard to imagine how such a huge ensemble could perform other than as mass choreography involving elaborate coordination of manifold stunts and dance movements. But such coordination would also entail considerable planning and rehearsal, as well as recruitment of performers; the term “pantomimists” must refer to persons attached to pantomime ensembles or to acrobatically talented amateurs invited to participate in the games, for even New York City today, with its immense, year long performing arts schedule, probably does not provide enough performance opportunities to sustain five hundred professional dancers. Nevertheless, what the HAstrives to emphasize is that the future of Rome is bigger and stranger spectacles, that managers and performers of shows exert inordinate influence over the public and emperors, and that “future givers of spectacles may be touched by a sense of shame and so be deterred from cutting off their lawful heirs and squandering their inheritances on actors and mountebanks” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 21.1; 1932: 450-451). The emperors awarded “Greek artists and gymnasts and actors and musicians both gold and silver and they bestowed on them also garments of silk” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 21.1; 1932: 450-451); Carinus “filled the Palace with actors and harlots, pantomimists, singers and pimps” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 21.1; 1932: 450-451); the aristocrat Junius Messalla provokes contempt because he “cut off his natural heirs and bestowed his ancestral fortune on players, giving a tunic of his mother’s to an actress and a cloak of his father’s to an actor,” and he obtained luxurious costumes of “such splendour as never before was seen on the stage” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 20.4-6; 1932: 450-451). The reign (282-285) of the Emperor Carinus, despite success against another wave of German invaders, was especially odious because his enthusiasm for theater people and luxurious garments somehow grossly strengthened his appetite for homosexual pleasures, “unwonted vices and inordinate depravity” (HA, “Carus, Carinus and Numerian,” 16.2; 1932: 440-441). Zonastras, Eutropius, and Victor do not bother to mention such details related to imperial governance. But even if the HA exaggerates or fabricates the details, it is evident that the author, ending his account of the emperors from what feels like a senatorial perspective, sees spectacles as doing more than proclaiming or symbolizing a new direction for the Empire: they are, for the emperors and the public, the most powerful fulfillment of any vision of the future. 

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