Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime in Gothic Italy

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

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Romulus Augustus (465-511 CE), the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, submits to Odoacer (431-493 CE) in Ravenna, Italy, 476 CE, thereby ceding control over Italy to the federation of Germanic tribes led by Odoacer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Pantomime in Gothic Italy

In the Western Empire, a murkier fate befell pantomime culture, which seemed to thrive at least in Italy as long as the Goths controlled the region from their capital in Ravenna. According to the historian Cassiodorus (ca. 485-585), Theodoric, King of the Goths in Italy from 493 to 526, in a letter to his minister Speciosus in 509, remarks that senators should not bother to respond to insults heaped upon them by raucous circus spectators: “For where shall we look for moderation, if violence stains the Patricians? […] [Y]ou must distinguish between deliberate insolence and the licence of the theater. Who expects seriousness of character at the spectacles? It is not exactly a congregation of Catos that comes together at the spectacles. The place excuses some excesses. And besides it is the beaten party that vents its rage in insulting cries. Do not let the Patricians clamour what is really the result of a victory for their own side, which they greatly desired” (Variae I.27; Cassiodorus 1894: 29; Cassiodorus 1886: 159-160). In the same year, Theodoric addressed his officers Albinus and Albienus, as well as “illustrious men and patricians,” regarding a “Petition of the Green party [informing] us that they are oppressed and that the factions of the circus are fatal to public tranquility” (Cassiodorus, Variae, I.20; Cassiodorus 1894: 25). He therefore instructs his audience “to assume patronage of the Green party, which our father of glorious memory paid for.” (Hodgkin, in Cassiodorus 1886: 155, thinks Theodoric “alludes to Theodoric’s adoption by Zeno.”) Theodoric then instructs: “So let the spectators be assembled, and let them choose between Helladius and Theodorus which is fittest to be Pantomimist of the Greens, whose salary we will pay” (Cassiodorus 1886: 155-156). Then the Emperor makes a very mysterious remark that Hodgkin does not include in his translation of the address: “For this is what I would call the higher level of music, namely the hands speak for the closed mouth, making something understood by gestures that are scarcely recognizable in texts or scriptures.” (“Hanc partem musicae disciplinae mutam nominavere maiores, scilicet quae ore clauso manibus loquitur et quibusdam gesticulationibus facit intellegi, quod vix narrante lingua aut scripturae textu possit agnosci.”) Theodoric’s enthusiasm for pantomimes may have resulted from his lack of confidence in using Latin; Hodgkin says he was illiterate or at least “unable to speak or write Latin with fluency” (Cassiodorus 1886, 15; Hodgkin 1891: 145). As the chief legal counsel for the Emperor, Cassiodorus actually wrote the memos, letters, and addresses ascribed to Theodoric, which probably explains why Cassiodorus felt it was important to include Theodoric’s cryptic but otherwise irrelevant (or “digressive,” as Hodgkin puts it) remark about the skill of pantomimes to make clear what texts make “scarcely recognizable.” Indeed, in a letter to a patrician, Symmachus, from around 511, Theodoric praises the grandeur of theater in ancient times and Symmachus for his efforts to restore glory to theaters near Rome. While the Emperor remarks that the “respectable arts” of ancient Greece “gradually withdrew their association with modesty,” the panegyric contains a large paragraph on pantomime, which has superseded the Tragedy and Comedy of Greek invention:  

To these were added the speaking hands of dancers, their fingers, their clamorous silence, their silent exposition. The Muse Polymnia is this, showing that humans could declare their meaning even without speech. Human Muses, according to the Greeks, are virtues to each other. Light and pointed feathers are on the foreheads [of pantomimes]since their perceptions are swift thoughts of the loftiest matters. The pantomime actor, who derives his name from manifold imitations as soon as he comes on stage, is lured by the ensemble of musicians, skilled in various instruments. Then the hand of meaning expounds the song, and, by the eyes of melody, as if by letters, it instructs the spectator’s sight, in the essence of things, declaring not by writing what is written. The same body portrays Hercules and Venus, of a woman in the sea, the king and a soldier; it renders an old man and a young, imagines that in one there are many in such a variety of impersonations (Variae IV.51; Cassiodorus 1894: 138).

The attitude toward spectacles and pantomime disclosed in these documents of the Variae are clearly different from the darkening mood of suspicion and suppression toward factions and theater in the imperial court of Constantinople, where the struggle for control over Christian religious dogma and instituions was perhaps more intense than in Ravenna. Theodoric, like most Goths, was an Arian who nevertheless pursued a policy of toleration toward his largely non-Gothic, Nicene/Catholic subjects in Italy. It seems that in regions of the Western Empire controlled by Germanic kings adhering to Arianism pantomime was able to thrive. Arianism, which postulated that Jesus was a human subordinate to God rather than equal to God in the Trinity, appealed to the Germans because they converted to Christianity through the teachings of the Cappodocian Greek bishop Ulfilas (311-383), who translated the Bible into Gothic and was an adherent of the Arian creed; in his youth he had been a prisoner of the Goths (Hodgkin 1891: 179). A further feature of Arianism that made it controversial was that it did not stigmatize its followers if they referred in a positive manner to pagan gods and goddesses. In his letter to Symmachus, Theodoric invokes Polymnia, the goddess of sacred music and dance, who assumes some responsibility for the “virtue” of “showing that humans could declare their meaning even without speech,” and he indicates delight that in pantomime performance the “same body performs Hercules and Venus.” However, in the same letter, he also observes that “the succeeding age” (presumably the period when the theaters Symmachus repaired fell into decay—that is, the fourth century) “corrupted the inventions of the ancients by mingling obscenties, so that pleasure was found by driving minds recklessly toward bodily lusts,” a phenomenon that “the Romans uselessly imported.” The passage vaguely insinuates that the era of intense eroticism in pantomime is over now that distinguished patricians like Symmachus are restoring glory to theaters, or it may be that Theodoric is implying that pantomime in the Gothic Kingdom no longer embodies the hyper-eroticism of pantomime in the Eastern Empire and therefore does not deserve the fanatical denunciation of it that it receives from the clergy in the East. Theodoric always sought to maintain harmonious relations between Arians and Catholics, and in his rhetoric and policies, abundantly documented in the Variae, he actively and sometimes forcefully discouraged fanatical clergy from exercising influence he regarded as excessive or subversive.

When he died in 526, the Gothic Kingdom began to disintegrate. His grandson, Athalaric (516-534), succeeded him, but because he was only ten years old, his mother, Amalasuntha (495-535), became queen regent. Under her, Ravenna remained the capital of the Gothic kingdom. Like her father, Amalasuntha sought to create a synthesis of Gothic and Roman culture that would provide a powerful alternative to the elaborately mysterious, Greek-dominated bureaucracy of the Eastern Empire. Amalasuntha tried to educate her son to embody refined Roman qualities, but the Gothic nobility were deeply suspicious of a woman as their leader, and she was unable to prevent Athalaric from capitulating, fatally, to the violent excesses of the Gothic warrior elite. As regent, she was the author of many, perhaps most, letters ostensibly signed by Athalaric. In a letter to the Senate in Rome, written around 533, Athalaric complained that teachers of grammar and rhetoric in Rome had not received sufficient or even any compensation for their work, and he commanded the Senate to correct the injustice: “For, if I bestow my wealth on actors for the pleasure of the people, and men who are not thought so essential are meticulously paid, how much more should payment be made without delay to those through whom good morals are advanced, and the talent of eloquence is nurtured to serve my palace!” (Cassiodorus IX, 21; Vitiello 2017: 52). Even if she did not have a high regard for the pantomimes, Amalasuntha nevertheless saw them as worthy of subsidy and an important element in her ambition to assimilate the Goths into Roman culture. With the death of Athalaric, however, she found herself surrounded by enemies in the Gothic aristocracy. She consequently planned to move to Constantinople with the Gothic treasury, but Gothic nobles intercepted her, imprisoned her at Lake Bolseno, then assassinated her in her bath (Jordanes, Gothic War LIX; Procopius, Secret History 16; Cassiodorus, Variae, X; Bury 1958 [1889]: 159-166). In her murder, Justinian had an excellent justification for launching the Gothic War that decimated the Gothic Kingdom and restored Italy to Byzantine rule. The end of Gothic rule meant the end of Arianism in Italy and the complete triumph of the Nicene doctrine that dominated the imperial court in Constantinople and the Eastern Empire. The spectacular mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, completed in 547 in the Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna, dramatically symbolize the triumph of the Byzantine Christian world view in Italy, which spelled the end of pantomime culture in Italy and probably elsewhere in the West, as it was now evident that Arianism had weakened its followers. In any case, after Cassiodorus, references to pantomime cease to appear in the historical record. Even the clergy falls silent in regard to a dangerous art that has now vanished. But it is also clear that pantomime did not vanish in the West because it had lost its audience or lacked relevance in a new political environment. It vanished because, unlike Amalasuntha, neither the Gothic aristocracy in Italy nor the Imperial Byzantine government saw pantomime as useful in reconciling their differences.

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