Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Pantomime in the Hippodrome

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Pantomime in the Hippodrome

Figure 73: Nineteenth century engraving of the Hippodrome, Rome, with pulvinar (kathisma) on the left. 

Chariot racing and its factions continued in Constantinople and possibly a few other cities in the East until the early eleventh century, immune, apparently to the Church’s condemnation of all pagan entertainments (Cameron 1976: 297-308). However, without the pantomimes attached to it, chariot racing never recovered the cultural-political importance it enjoyed in the Roman Empire even before the integration with the pantomimes. Indeed, after the fall of the Gothic Kingdom, chariot racing seems to have disappeared altogether from Italy and probably from the regions in the West as well as North Africa. What made the performances of the pantomimes in the hippodromes so exciting and so capable of stirring up disruptive emotions in audiences? One cannot answer this question without becoming entangled in a great deal of speculation, because of the paucity of evidence regarding pantomime performance in the hippodrome. It is necessary to examine the structure of hippodrome races to identify the opportunities for pantomime activities. An afternoon in the hippodrome involved 12 to 24 races. Each race involved seven laps. Each lap in the Circus Maximus in Rome was about a mile altogether, so each race probably lasted about 11 minutes, if chariots averaged about 40 miles per hour, and although this circus served as model for circuses elsewhere in the Empire, many circuses outside Rome were smaller. Prior to the first race, a great procession entered the circus through the carcares (starting gates) and proceeded counter clockwise once around the spina, returning to the starting gates. The procession probably usually included the following: a set of female dancers, a set of musicians (trumpeters and aulos players), a group of officials responsible for organizing the circus, sponsoring the factions, and managing the chariot teams, and the teams themselves. The teams would at best only number as many as the number of drivers available to drive them, for in an afternoon at the circus, there would be more teams than drivers, who participated in more than one race and drove more than one team. It is not clear where or if the pantomimes appeared in the procession. If they did participate in the procession, they probably marched with the colors and banners representing each team and faction. It is more likely that the factions themselves did not participate in the procession but merely sat in their designated sections of the stadium, from where they could cheer the passage of their teams and faction standards. Madigan’s discussion (2012: 42-43) of processions related to ludi Romani suggests that in the circus the procession paused at the shrine or shrines on the spina to make ritual gestures of “thanksgiving for victory”: “Statues of the gods and exuviae—their robes, attributes and perhaps masks—were brought into the Circus on fercula (stretchers) and tensae (carriages) respectively” (Humphrey 1986: 78; Brown 1915: 17). The procession on occasion could be even more spectacular with the display of silver statues, festooned elephants, and luxurious litters and carriages carrying senatorial figures. The order in which procession participants appeared does not seem to have followed any rule or convention, and the evidence suggests that procession organizers enjoyed some freedom to improvise in relation to the resources available to them. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ca. 60 BCE-7 BCE), writing in the early years of the Empire, describes a procession from the Forum into the Circus Maximus in ancient times: “Those who led the procession were, first, the Romans’ sons who were nearing manhood and were of an age to bear a part in this ceremony, who rode on horseback if their fathers were entitled by their fortunes to be knights, while the others, who were destined to serve in the infantry, went on foot, the former in squadrons and troops, and the latter in divisions and companies, as if they were going to school; this was done in order that strangers might see the number and beauty of the youths of the commonwealth who were approaching manhood” (Roman Antiquities VII, 72; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1940: 361-363). But this level of participation by the aristocracy in the procession occurred only rarely and only in relation to momentous occasions in which the emperor was in attendance to commemorate a major victory. In Rome and Constantinople, a shrine stood on the spinadirectly before the emperor’s box, the pulvinar (kathisma in the East), so the appropriate officials would make gestures of thanksgiving to both the god and the emperor [Figure 55]. The emperor was not in the procession; he reached the pulvinar through a special route that directly linked the stadium with the imperial palace. The exact location of the pulvinar is not certain, although it is possible that when Trajan renovated the Circus Maximus built by Augustus he moved the pulvinar from a high elevation in the stadium to a position nearer the track itself so that it was easier for the audience to see the emperor (Humphrey 1986: 80-81). In Rome, chariot racing could occur up to 66 days in a year (Kyle 2007: 304). It is very doubtful that the emperor would or even could attend every day races were given; it is also doubtful that the procession for each racing day, even in Rome or Constantinople, involved as much display of grandeur or luxury as appears from historical accounts. To produce a distinctive, grandiose procession every week for a year is a logistical nightmare. Most processions, especially away from the imperial capitals, were probably exciting without relying on spectacular emblems of luxury and splendor. A papyrus from Egypt, dated about 552, lists a circus program, presumably for a racing day in Oxyrhynchus,in which the procession followsthe first race (Oxyrhynchus 2707). The procession was perhaps exciting to the extent that dancers moved in different, intriguing ways each day they participated. Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the movements of dancers in a monumental procession:

The contestants were followed by numerous bands of dancers arranged in three divisions, the first consisting of men, the second of youths, and the third of boys. These were accompanied by flute-players, who used ancient flutes that were small and short, as is done even to this day, and by lyre-players, who plucked ivory lyres of seven strings and the instruments called barbita. The use of these has ceased in my time among the Greeks, though traditional with them, but is preserved by the Romans in all their ancient sacrificial ceremonies. The dancers were dressed in scarlet tunics girded with bronze cinctures, wore swords suspended at their sides, and carried spears of shorter than average length; the men also had bronze helmets adorned with conspicuous crests and plumes. Each group was led by one man who gave the figures of the dance to the rest, taking the lead in representing their warlike and rapid movements, usually in the proceleusmatic rhythms (Roman Antiquities VII, 72; 1940: 365-367).

The author, himself a Greek, then explains that these “proceleusmatic rhythms” invoke “the armed dance called the Pyrrhic,” which arises from  “a very ancient Greek institution,” and he quotes passages from Homer about dance that he associates with the heroic Roman motivation to appropriate Greek mythology into the processional ritual of pleasing the gods. Following the dancers were bands of men “impersonating satyrs and portraying the Greek dance called sicinnis [Sileni],” which “mocked and mimicked the serious movements of the others, turning them into laughter-provoking performances,” which Dionysius claims is “an ancient practice native to the Romans.” Then:

After these bands of dancers came a throng of lyre-players and many flute-players, and after them the persons who carried the censers in which perfumes and frankincense were burned along the whole route of the procession, also the men who bore the show-vessels made of silver and gold, both those that were sacred owing to the gods and those that belonged to the state. Last of all in the procession came the images of the gods, borne on men’s shoulders, showing the same likenesses as those made by the Greeks and having the same dress, the same symbols, and the same gifts which tradition says each of them invented and bestowed on mankind. These were the images not only of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Neptune, and of the rest whom the Greeks reckon among the twelve gods, but also of the son of still more ancient from whom legend says the twelve were sprung, namely, Saturn, Ops, Themis, Latona, the Parcae, Mnemosynê, and all the rest to whom temples and holy places are dedicated among the Greeks; and also of those whom legend represents as living later, after Jupiter took over the sovereignty, such as Proserpina, Lucina, the Nymphs, the Muses, the Seasons, the Graces, Liber, and the demigods whose souls after they had left their mortal bodies are said to have ascended to Heaven and to have obtained the same honours as the gods, such as Hercules, Aesculapius, Castor and Pollux, Helen, Pan, and countless others (Roman Antiquities VII, 73; 1940: 368-373). 

But the author describes a procession that he himself never saw, for the votive games that the procession inaugurated took place hundreds of years earlier, under the dictator Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis (ca. 497 BCE). Nevertheless, the description is useful in showing how the procession into the Circus Maximus functioned in the mythic-historical imagination of audiences over the centuries as a visceral embodiment of a large-scale communal connection to a cosmic power of victory that builds a superior civilization. In reality, processions into the Circus Maximus or into any other hippodrome during the imperial era were never so monumental as the one Dionysius describes, nor did they have to be in a society that was able to provide exciting chariot races, among other entertainments, almost every week rather than once in a long lifetime. In the imperial era, it was absurd to honor as many gods as consumed the procession for the votive games under Aulus Postumius: the main thing was to honor the emperor who provided the games and presided over a vast civilization that was the consequence of great victories bestowed upon and by emperors, and emperors streamlined the procession to reinforce this point. The Emperor Constantine established in Constantinople an annual, May 11th ceremony in the hippodrome he constructed: he had a “statute made of himself made of gilded wood, bearing in its right hand the tyche of the city, itself gilded, which he called Anthousa. He ordered that on the same day as the Anniversary race meeting this statue should be brought in, escorted by soldiers wearing cloaks and boots, all holding candles; the carriage should march around the turning post and reach the pit opposite the imperial kathisma, and the emperor of the time should rise and make obeisance as he gazed at this statue of Constantine and the tyche” (Malalas 1986: 175). From week to week, the procession should be dramatic without being costly; it should honor the emperor without the distractions of honoring many other persons or gods. From week to week, the procession could differ by honoring different gods or persons without honoring everybody all at once. On some occasions, the procession (or an interlude) might even include scenes that nowadays seem fantastically grotesque. In 271, the Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275) supposedly paraded the captured Queen Zenobia on a camel in the Antioch hippodrome, while the Emperor Zeno (reigned 474-491) in 490 is said to have paraded on poles the heads of the conspirators Leontius and Illus in the Constantinople hippodrome when those heads were brought to him from Antioch (Malalas 1986: 164, 218). Moreover, under the emperors, the great majority of the participants in the procession were slaves and freedmen, not the aristocratic “youths of the commonwealth who were approaching manhood” that Dionysius imagined, which from the imperial audience perspective was probably much more interesting than a parade of members of a privileged boys club. 

With the introduction of female pantomimes in the late second century, and with the integration of pantomimes into the circus during the Crisis of the Third Century, an even more dramatic change in the procession could occur: by the early fourth century at the latest, female dancers replaced male dancers, and apparently the female dancers led the procession. This is the implication of iconography on the base of the Theodosian obelisk placed on the spina in the hippodrome in Constantinople, where it may have functioned as a sun dial and cast its shadow over the kathisma (Safran 1993: 427). Theodosius had the obelisk, built by the pharaoh Thutmose III for the temple at Karnak around 1450 BCE, transported from Alexandria to Constantinople in 390. The pedestal built to support the obelisk depicts the Emperor watching the spectacle unfold before him in the hippodrome on all four sides of the monumental block [Figure 73]. The southeast side of the block, which “has both the greatest number and the highest degree of individualized figures and faces,” shows Theodosius, standing in the kathisma, holding a laurel wreath and flanked by members of his administration (Safran 1993: 422). (In the other three panels, Theodosius sits in the kathisma.) Below Theodosius appear the heads of 42 men, in two rows, who presumably represent either spectators (factions?) or the men responsible for organizing the races and driving the teams. Under these two rows, at the bottom of the panel, is a row of eleven dancers and musicians. All the dancers are female; the musicians are male: one holds a Pan flute, one holds an aulos, another holds either an aulos or a horn, and the fourth operates a water organ. The three dancers to the left of the flute player adopt a different movement configuration from the four dancers to the right. 

Figure 74: The base of obelisk in the Hippodrome at Constantinople, ca. 390, showing the Emperor Theodosian in the kathisma surrounded by high officials, below him the faces of chariot sponsors or faction leaders, and below them dancers and musicians associated with the Hippodrome entertainments supervised by pantomimes. Photo: Public domain. 

The dancers to the left undulated with their arms splayed, while three of the dancers to the right move in unison holding hands; the fourth dancer performs a variation of the pose assumed by the three dancers to the left of the flute player. The sculpture has suffered considerable damage, but it appears that the women wear extravagant headgear or hairstyles with their flowing chitons. The whole panel constructs a complex image of the Emperor in the stadium, but probably it does not represent a particular scene or moment in the circus protocol; rather, the image is a composite of the Emperor reviewing the procession, awarding the laurel leaf, and acknowledging an honor. The image conveys the impression of the dancers “in front” of everyone else or leading the procession to the Emperor. But why are three of the dancers moving differently from the other four? It may be that the artist wants to develop the idea of movement by altering the poses, but it may also be that the artist intends to show that the dancers perform different dances at different moments in the circus schedule. In any case, the artist associates the dancers with the Emperor and the kathisma, even if it is not clear if he also associates the dancers with the factions, if indeed the two rows of male heads represent factions. It is not evident that pantomimes appear anywhere on the panels of the pedestal, so presumably pantomimes were never in the vicinity of the kathisma, but stationed with the factions they represented. Safran (1993: 416-417) contends that the factions sat opposite the kathisma on the other side of the spina and that they sat next to each other, which however, is difficult to believe. If they sat next to each other, their chanting, during interludes between races and as chariots passed them during races, would drown out each other unless they reached some kind of agreement to “take turns” chanting at specific moments. But the factions agreed about almost nothing related to anything in the hippodrome. The excitement of factional activity would be greater if the factions sat in different sections of the stadium, where it was possible for the audience as a whole to differentiate the chants and movements of the factions and to experience the factions in a sort of dialogue with each other. It could be that hippodrome administrators rotated different sections of the stadium among the factions, which would allow the audience as a whole to be closer to a different faction on different racing days. If factions sat in different sections of the stadium, their commotions would have greater impact when separated according to the moments when the procession passed by them or when the chariots rushed passed them. Moreover, by placing the factions in different sections of the stadium, it was possible for pantomimes and other circus artists to perform simultaneously during intervals between races. If all the factions sat in the same section of the huge stadium, it would have been very difficult for the majority of spectators to see the interlude performances sponsored by each faction, even if these performances occurred simultaneously, although it is possible that if the factions did sit together, they somehow agreed to alternate responsibility for presenting performances during the interludes. If the factions sat separately, of course, they would have to produce more interlude performances than if they agreed to share the responsibility, but if they rotated their positions in the stadium from week to week, they could present the same interlude performances from week to week under the assumption that different sectors of the audience would be closer to them from week to week. Malalas observes that the Emperor Theodosius (401-450), who openly favored the Greens, made this faction sit opposite him, for “Those whom I support I wish to watch opposite me,” and “he transferred the garrison troops who used to watch from opposite the kathisma to the Blue section,” which apparently was on the same side as the kathisma, which itself was a pretty large section, although the distinction between “to the left” of the emperor and “opposite” the emperor is hard to decipher. He also instructed the Greens to sit “to the left” of governors in all other hippodromes in the Empire (Malalas 1986: 191). Nevertheless, it is evident that moving the factional sections from one place to another in the hippodrome was something the emperor could do easily, though not every week, and that in any case the factional sections were not next to each other. 

It is also difficult to believe that the big hippodromes in Rome and Constantinople reached their capacity of 150,000 or more spectators week after week. But even if audiences were at 50% of capacity, it is still a very large audience, and it would be to the benefit of factions to remain separated from each other so that the many spectators near them could at least differentiate their chants from the roars emanating from elsewhere in the stadium. Moreover, the dancers on the obelisk panel belonged to the emperor, not to the factions, and so, presumably, they took seats in a lower section under the kathisma. Perhaps they performed a brief dance when the emperor awarded the laurel wreath to the victor. Perhaps their dance after each victory award was part of the interlude entertainment. Perhaps the different movement configurations of the dancers on the obelisk panel indicate that two sets of dancers performed different dances during the interlude on each side of the spina. Whatever the interpretation, the dancers assume an importance in the pedestal commemoration of the emperor that was not granted the pantomimes or possibly even the factions. The dancers in the panel bestow an erotic aura on the Emperor and remind the viewer that he provided not only the chariot races but entertainments in the hippodrome that were just as exciting as the chariots races—not that anyone sitting in the hippodrome could see the figures carved onto the pedestal placed on the spina. (The inscriptions in Latin and Greek on the pedestal refer only to the emperors Theodosius and Proclus, not to any gods, and commemorate them for raising the obelisk.) But audiences saw the procession, and the procession was worth watching from week to week because of the dancers, whose choreographies could vary from performance to performance, guided, probably, by a pantomime. Though it was a routine ritual, the procession would be consistently dramatic, even when the emperor was not in attendance, because it showed the authority of the emperor to make everything move about the great track with power, efficiency, and glamor.  

During the races themselves, the factions chanted encouraging phrases to spur their chariot teams to victory, and these chants resounded with, according to Dio Cassius, writing about events surrounding the downfall of the Emperor Pertinax in 193, “a rhythmic swing” (Roman History 74.2.3; 1927: 126-127). Dio may have been referring to the chants of theater claques, but the chanting techniques developed in the theaters were probably the basis for chanting in the hippodrome when the pantomimes became integrated with the hippodrome factions. In the theaters, the factions probably chanted in response to the poses of their pantomime, and these chants—such as Dio’s quote, “Huzza! Huzza! You are saved! You have won!”—were significant mostly, if not entirely, in relation to public contests between pantomimes at occasional festivals starting in the latter half of the second century (Cameron 1976: 236 makes a more hesitant reference to theater). The idea is that the chant is about ten or twelve syllables long and delivered with a distinct rhythm that differentiates the exhortation from that of other factions. In the hippodrome, the faction as a whole would deliver the chant with choreographed bodily movements somewhat similar to cheerleading sections of American college football games. The faction’s pantomime would lead the faction and train it, guided by the assumption that the faction’s performance in the hippodrome had to be competitive with that of other factions. This can be an exhausting performance for the faction if the faction performs a chant every time a chariot passes by: in a day at the hippodrome, the faction would chant seven times in each of 24 races, for a total of 168 times. This tally excludes chants in response to the procession, to the awarding of victory wreaths to factional teams, and to interlude entertainments. No doubt the chants varied from race to race by calling the names of different charioteers or different slogans, but even so, the faction would have to sustain an exceptional amount of energy. Nevertheless, such a grandiose scale of commotion was probably necessary for the factions to achieve the power to “intimidate” audiences, as Cameron supposes the factions exerted, especially after the pantomime claques became integrated with the circus claques (1976: 236-237). However, the failure of factions to intimidate audiences in the hippodromes, particularly in relation to issues outside of the hippodromes, was a major reason why the factions resorted to violence inside and outside of the hippodromes. It may well be that the entertainments provided by the state were much more engaging for hippodrome audiences than the commotions of the factions and perhaps even the races themselves, and these entertainments included the pantomimes, who, unlike the factions, were on the imperial payroll.

Entertainments occurred in the intervals between races. These intervals lasted several minutes. The emperor awarded a victory wreath to the winning charioteer, accompanied by fanfares or chords on the water organ and movements of dancers. Following the awarding of the wreath, spectators might witness any of a range of performing artists, including pantomimes, dancers, acrobats, tightrope artists, singers, or trained animals. The circus program included in the Oxyrhynchus papyrus 2027, which dates from around 552, lists performances between each of the six races presented. The procession and a performance by “the singing rope dancers” followed the first race; the rope dancers appeared again after the second race. Following the third race appeared a “gazelle and hounds”; mimes appeared after the fourth race and a “troupe of athletes” after the fifth. A “Farewell” took place after the sixth and final race. The program obviously documents a very provincial event with only six races in what was probably the small hippodrome located near Oxyrhynchus, about a hundred miles south of Cairo on a tributary of the Nile. The papyrus was apparently submitted to officials for approval. Other, less detailed papyrus circus programs from Oxyrhynchus (six altogether) list mimes, “hoop artists,” “vocalists,” or gymnasts as interlude entertainers (Mountford 2012: 128-140). Mimes performed instead of pantomimes because by this time, pantomimes were banned throughout the Byzantine Empire. In the Secret History (9.2), Procopius mentions that Acacius, the father of Theodora, was “Master of the Bears” for the Green faction in Constantinople, and then when Acacius died, Theodora’s mother, in the hippodrome, petitioned the Greens to make her new husband Master of the Bears; when the Greens refused the petition, the Blues made her new husband their Master of Bears. Presumably the title “Master of the Bears” was generic and referred to the manager of a menagerie that supported entertainments attached to the factions, and presumably the new husband was qualified to assume the title because he had worked with Acacius. Procopius makes clear that pantomimes supervised this position, which means, in effect, that the emperor (Justin) accepted the appointment, even if Procopius implies that it was the Blues (supposedly the faction favored by the emperor according to the Greens and others, including Procopius, hostile to Theodora) who welcomed the petition from Theodora’s mother. Pantomimes supervised all of the entertainments in the hippodrome, which is why, when factional riots broke out, emperors banned or exiled the pantomimes. It was not that pantomimes instigated or incited the factions; it was that without the pantomimes, the factions lost considerable entertainment value in the hippodrome, and without the interlude entertainments organized by the pantomimes, large sections of the hippodrome audience disappeared, and with them disappeared also the ability of the factions to rally popular support for their petitions or efforts to “intimidate” the emperor. 

The evidence of the Oxyrhynchus papyri suggests that each interlude contained a different type of entertainment. However, in an afternoon offering up to 24 races, it would have been a very challenging task to present 24 distinct entertainments in one day, let alone from week to week and in competition with the entertainments presented by other factions. It could be that interlude entertainments rotated from one faction (pantomime) to another, which means that the whole circus program was under the control of hippodrome administrators rather than under the factions. Some kinds of interlude entertainments were easier for the audience to see in a large hippodrome than others, such as gazelle hunts and tightrope dancers, or the African funambulist from around 533 celebrated in item 101 of the Anthologia Latina (Kay 2008: 141-145). But even these acts are difficult to place in their hippodrome context. Gazelles chased by dogs around the track don’t seem particularly difficult for spectators throughout the stadium to enjoy, but what kinds of things could bears perform that most of the audience could see in the vast stadium? Perhaps they simply paraded around the track accompanied by dancers. Elephants appeared only occasionally: after the third century, when the elephant population of North Africa declined precipitously, the cost of securing and maintaining these creatures was too high for the state to provide a menagerie containing them. More likely was the use of equestrian acts to entertain hippodrome audiences, although the nature of these acts remains very obscure because the evidence of them is so frail. In mosaics of the third and fourth centuries, horses, horses and their riders, and riders on horses are recurrent themes, but the representation of equestrian stunts is extremely rare and mostly focused on the theme of nereids riding creatures that are half-horse and half-dolphin. It’s possible that in the third century and the first half of the fourth century pantomimes staged stunts like a parade of Amazons on horseback or Bellerophon riding a winged horse or invited the imperial cavalry to circle the track [Figure 75].

Figure 75: Fourth century mosaic from Rhodes of Bellerophon killing the chimera, possible stunt for pantomimes in the Hippodrome. Photo: Archeological Museum of Rhodes. 

But when the Empire became pervasively Christian, mythological themes probably gave way to more abstract, acrobatic equestrian stunts. Other animals such as giraffes, bulls, lions, tigers, panthers, and camels probably made an appearance when they had been imported for use in venationes held in amphitheaters; Bomgartner (2002: 219) asserts that the circus factions managed the animals assigned to venationes in the amphitheater, although by the end of the fourth century it is evident that the cost of securing, maintaining, and presenting such animals made the provision of venationes an infrequent rather than regular event until they finally disappeared in both eastern and western parts of the Empire in the early sixth century. It is possible that pantomimes and hippodrome administrators attempted to stage mythical scenes involving wild animals and bring to life spectacular images like the “Triumph of Bacchus,” with the god in a chariot pulled by four tigers, as in the famous third century mosaic in the Sousse Museum in Tunisia [Figure 65]. Such a stunt would require considerable expertise on the part of the “Master of the Bears” and his assistants. No modern circus has presented such a stunt, although the Soviet lion tamer Irina Bugrimova (1910-2001) trained her beasts to walk a tight rope in the 1950s. In 1897, according to an article in the New York Evening World (February 7), the Barnum and Bailey circus planned to present in Madison Square Garden a race between a chariot led by lions and one led by tigers, with the lion chariot driven by a female chimpanzee. The article describes the training and difficulties involved in producing the stunt, but it is not clear if the circus ever presented it. The lion tamer Joe Arcaris (1909-2002) in the 1940s at the Benson Animal Park in New Hampshire managed to get a pair of lions to pull a wagon driven by a human (Burck 2012). But the main point is that, as organizers of hippodrome interlude entertainments, pantomimes had to exercise considerable imagination in creating engaging spectacles week after week in the vast stadium, which means that the skill of the artists who produced these entertainments probably greatly exceeded the capacity of modern circus artists (and scholars) to replicate such spectacles or even imagine them. Over many decades, the pantomimes, in competition with each other, must have built a very large repertoire of stunts and spectacular scenes that could bear repetition every once in a while, but which also had constantly to expand to sustain the appeal of hippodrome entertainments as manifestations of imperial power. It was when these interludes became stagnant or ritualized and lacking in sufficient “entertainment value” that in the early sixth century emperors began to see that effective representations of imperial power no longer depended on the popular appeal of any public entertainments or on the clamor or acclaim of any faction. They now could do without the pantomimes and so could the public.

Tightrope walkers or “singing rope dancers” also appeared during hippodrome interludes. But how did these stunts take place? Was a rope or ropes stretched from a pillar on the spina to a distant point in the stadium above the audience? Or was the rope stretched between two pillars on the spina? The poem “De funambulo” in the Anthologia Latina conveys the impression of a rope rising toward a point higher than the position from which the dancer began to “ascend […] along a path scarcely easy for birds” (Kay 2008: 141); in the hippodrome setting, this scene would imply a rope stretched from a pillar or pole on the spinato a pole somewhere in the upper sections of the audience, which would indeed be quite a difficult and spectacular feat. But perhaps it was more practical to stretch a rope between two poles on the spina. In either case, it was a performance that could be seen by everyone in the audience. The Oxyrhynchus 2027 circus program refers to the appearance during interludes of “singing rope dancers.” This little phrase implies a group of performers who during interludes a) sang songs or choruses; b) performed dances; c) walked a tightrope or perhaps more than one tightrope; d) sang and/or danced while walking on a tightrope. It is therefore possible that the same group of performers was responsible for four different types of interlude performances and maybe more if different acts featured different individual members within the group of singing rope dancers. As for the interlude dances, these might include a pyrrhic dance, perhaps with shields and javelins, as indicated by the “De pyrrhica” item (No. 104 [No. 115R]) in the Anthologia Latina, in which: 

[…] the battles of Mars are simulated when the two sexes move against each other. For the war dance pitches the female group against the males and makes weapons move as in military fashion, though the weapons are not tipped with any hard steel, but, being made of boxwood, only give off sound. Thus do they aim their javelins, turn and turn about and protect themselves with their shields, nor is man or woman hurt in coming together. The display has fighting, but the contests bring peace, for the pleasant sounds of the organ command them back to their places on equal terms (Kay 2008: 151-155).

The pyrrhic or corybantic dance might in another interlude be contrasted with a maenadic dance. A satyr dance might appear in conjunction with a parade of animals or with the maenads. Other interlude dances might feature acrobatic use of cymbals, balls, hoops, swords or wreathes. Or dances might include movements in which dancers linked arms or held hands to create swirling effects. Oxyrhynchus circus programs refer to “gymnasts” or “athletes” performing interlude stunts. What sort of singing took place during the interludes is more difficult to imagine. Presumably, for acoustic reasons, the singing was choral, and we may recall the appearance of a large female chorus at the Secular Games of 204. Most likely, though, choruses in the hippodrome were much smaller and consisted of persons who also danced (“singing rope dancers”) or performed musical instruments, as was the case in the organization of pantomime ensembles. These choirs perhaps sang songs praising the emperor, chariot teams, the seasons, or the virtues of different arts and pleasures. It is, however, difficult to believe that anything they sang could be heard without a great hush filling the hippodrome, which implies that the pantomimes gave some sort of visual cue for spectators to be silent—surely a startling contrast to the roar of the factions elsewhere during the program. Perhaps on some occasions, a chorus sang a song of sufficient familiarity that allowed the audience to sing along, although it is not clear that ancient songs, with their tendency toward elaborate flexibility of rhythm and pitch and melismatic improvisation, ever achieved the standardization necessary for a song to become “popular” enough for audiences to know it well enough to sing it. 

            Pantomimes themselves performed during the interludes, if we assume, on the basis of the Oxyrhyncus circus programs, that mimes replaced pantomimes after pantomimes had been banned throughout the eastern Empire in the early sixth century. Pantomimes performed, not so much because the tragic, mythic themes that defined the pantomime repertoire resonated so well in the circus atmosphere. More likely what captivated audiences was the theme of metamorphosis, the deployment of masks, the transition from movement to pose, the transformation from one identity to another, from one sex to another, as indicated in Item 100 (111R), “De pantomimo” of the Anthologia Latina: “Declining a male physique with a feminine inflection and adapting his subtle frame to both sexes […]” (Kay 2008: 136). Pantomimes could adapt easily to the interlude situation, for the performance of a couple of transformations could occur within a few minutes, and pantomimes would have “character” repertoires large enough to generate a sense of variety or surprise from week to week. But it is difficult to see how any pantomime performance in the hippodrome could be seen by most of the audience. Even in the largest theaters, pantomime performance entailed a very compact use of space. In the hippodromes, pantomimes could not achieve the concentrated tension between movement and pose, face and mask, if they had to spread their performances across the length of the track. The interlude would never be long enough for a pantomime to perform a sequence of scenes or transformations around the track, although it is possible that at different interludes, the pantomime moved along the track to perform a different set of transformations. But the question remains: how were those sections of the audience that could not see well the performance entertained? A possible solution to the perceptual problem is that during interludes featuring pantomime performance, the pantomimes for each of the factions performed before the section in which each faction sat. If factions were distributed in different areas of the hippodrome, then spectators in those different areas would be able to view at least one pantomime performance (along with the accompanying musicians and singer) with greater clarity than a single pantomime performance in only one section of the stadium. If factions rotated their section in the stadium from week to week, then audiences were likely to see a wider range of pantomime performances. Otherwise, for any individual pantomime performance to be seen within the interlude on all sides of the hippodrome would require some sort of deus ex machinaapparatus that suspended the performer above the crowd and perhaps moved the hoisted performance platform from one side of the stadium to the other, although such a technology, while hardly beyond the engineering skills of the Romans or Greeks, probably would have somehow received mention in surviving sources if it had actually existed.

Another interlude activity appears to have been petitions or addresses by spectators to factions, to the emperor or his deputy, or to imperial administrators like governors. In the Secret History (9.6), Procopius describes how the mother of Theodora, when (ca. 507) she “saw the whole populace gathered in the Circus, she put garlands on the heads and in both hands of the three girls and caused them to sit as suppliants. And though the Greens were by no means favourable to receiving the supplication, the Blues conferred this position of honour upon them, since their Master of the Bears also had recently died” (1935: 104-105). The idea that spectators could “sit as suppliants” suggests that particular sections of the hippodrome or particularly identified spectators enjoyed a designated opportunity to address a mediating representative of the imperial government. This scene seems related to the theme of public “acclamations,” which, after 330, coincided with the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire and with the consolidation of imperial power at the expense of local councils and curiae. Most public acclamations, which usually took place in theaters, primarily consisted of praise for emperors or governors, appeals to the emperor to resolve disputes concerning religious doctrine (which had the potential to incite violence), or petitions to address grievances (Liebeschuetz 2001: 209ff; Maxwell 2006: 58-64; Karantabias 2015: 129-131). However, the inclusion of acclamations added another layer to the administration of the circus programs. Not every petition to present a panegyric, to seek clarification on a matter of religious doctrine, or to pursue a grievance could find a place in the hippodrome schedule. So a petition had to undergo a vetting process before it could be fitted, if at all, into the interlude schedule for a particular circus program. Most likely, acclamations in the hippodrome focused on matters related to the factions, to the races, to hippodrome behaviors and practices, and to opportunities to participate in processions or interludes. Yet the acclamations were not entirely formal events that closely followed a script. They provided an opportunity for the emperor, the emperor’s deputy, or a governor to hear directly from spectators, factions, or other persons with interests in the circus, so that the event was a public dialogue in which the imperial government could, after open discourse, respond to appeals for its help. It is likely, though, that hippodrome administrators were wary of petitions that in such a public context might embarrass the imperial government. The emperor (or governor) and his advisers had to calculate the political consequences of a decision that did not favor the petitioner, the factions or a particular faction, or a particular constituency within or without the hippodrome. On the other hand, the credibility of the petition process sank if the government’s response was overly predictable. Yet the evidence for public displeasure toward imperial responses to acclamations in the hippodrome is actually quite scant across two hundred years. 

Even so, as Christianity strengthened and doctrinal conflicts intensified, the hippodrome became an increasingly dangerous place until the aftermath of the 532 Nika riot. Malalas reports that in 370, the Emperor Valentinian, having learned that a tribunal had found his palace administrator, the eunuch Rhodanos, guilty of confiscating the property of a widow by filing fraudulent charges against her, became angry when Rhodanos refused to make restitution. Valentinian instructed the widow “to approach him while he was watching the races, and the woman went up to him at the time of the fifth race in the morning. While the praepositus Rhodanos was standing next to him on his right, the emperor gave the order and he was dragged from the kathisma before the whole city, and was taken to the curved end of the hippodrome and burned.” The Emperor gave the widow all of Rhodanos’s property, for which “he was acclaimed by the whole people” (Malalas 1986: 185). In 378, the eastern Emperor Valens (reigned 364-378), facing public discontent for his failure to suppress barbarian tribes invading Thrace, ran into difficulties “at the exhibition of the sports of the Hippodrome,” where the spectators “all with one voice clamored against the emperor’s negligence of the public affairs, crying out with great earnestness, ‘Give us arms, and we ourselves will fight.’ The emperor provoked at these seditious clamors, marched out of the city, on the 11th of June; threatening that if he returned, he would punish the citizens not only for their insolent reproaches, but for having previously favored the pretensions of the usurper Procopius; declaring also that he would utterly demolish their city, and cause the plough to pass over its ruins, he advanced against the barbarians, whom he routed with great slaughter” (Socrates 1890: 117). It is reported that in 383, the Emperor Theodosius, while on his way from Constantinople to Rome, visited Thessalonika, where the public “rioted and insulted” him about the billeting of his soldiers. “While watching the races in the city with the hippodrome full, he ordered his archers to shoot at the crowd and as many as 15,000 were killed” (Malalas 1986: 188). A less adversarial interaction between emperor and hippodrome audience apparently took place during the reign of Theodosius II, “when the circus was filled with spectators” during a storm, the violence of which “increased and there was heavy fall of snow. Then the emperor made it very evident how his mind was affected towards God; for he caused the herald to make a proclamation to the people to this effect: ‘It is far better and fitter to desist from the show, and unite in common prayer to God, that we may be preserved unhurt from the impending storm.’ Scarcely had the herald executed his commission, when all the people, with the greatest joy, began with one accord to offer supplication and sing praises to God, so that the whole city became one vast congregation; and the emperor himself in official garments, went into the midst of the multitude and commenced the hymns” (Socrates 1890: 165). Opportunities to see the emperor interact with the public during the acclamations interludes provided a powerful motivation to attend the hippodrome spectacles, at least in Constantinople. In the late Roman Empire, acclamation interludes constituted the most dynamic and engaging interface between imperial power and public sentiment. In these interludes imperial power manifested itself most vividly as a highly volatile “performance” and not as a highly stabilizing ritual. I have tried to show here that the hippodrome shows formed a monumentally complex entertainment apparatus, and the faction pantomimes assumed major responsibilities in the operation of the apparatus. But the acclamations interludes were at the heart of the apparatus, sometimes the most exciting feature of it. The idea that the shows functioned as escapism, as a “distraction” from the problems of living, is misleading. For hippodrome audiences, entertainment was an intensely political experience, a way of becoming activated or awakened by imperial power. The relation between the emperor and the audience (especially the factions) was always ambiguous, and thus open to surprise, to startling and sometimes fantastic gestures, and to violent surges of excitement. Even when only the emperor’s deputy (the so-called “Mandator” in later times) or a governor presided in the kathisma, the spectator could go to the hippodrome with the expectation that the representatives of imperial power would make some unforeseen or unanticipated gesture, statement, decision, or stillness that ignited the spectator’s feelings about his or her relation to the imperial government. This was the basis for “excitement” about being in the hippodrome from week to week, even if the races disappointed or the interludes were not sufficiently innovative. The entertainment apparatus did not anesthetize the spectator’s political sensibility; it amplified it and compelled it to reveal itself as yet another aspect of performance in the hippodrome. Spectator excitement in this context implied physical agitation, and agitation probably achieved its most intense political expression during the acclamations interludes, as an index, so to speak, of favor bestowed upon the imperial government. This favor was volatile and not always or even mostly aligned with any faction. It was aligned with the imperial ideology of metamorphosis, with movement toward a condition of being, more or less, stronger, happier, richer, or freer, from race to race, interlude to interlude, week to week, month to month. By integrating the pantomime and hippodrome cultures, the imperial government greatly magnified the performance of the metamorphosis ideology. The circus program was a monumental transformation of the pantomime aesthetic structure. Pantomime performance structured the idea of metamorphosis through a sequence of abrupt shifts from movement to pose, from character to character, from mask to mask, from one sex to the other, to show how the body of the performer contained multiple identities who incarnated dynamic, living mythic figures. Hippodrome performance structured the idea of metamorphosis through a sequence of abrupt shifts from race to race and interlude to interlude, to accommodate the belief that “the crowd,” the populi, contained within it multiple moods or sentiments as well as multiple identities (Romans, Greeks, Jews, pagans, barbarians, Syrians, Egyptians, and so forth) whose emotional responses to powers governing their lives shifted from moment to moment, from race to race, from interlude to interlude, from acclamation to acclamation, and from one political issue to another, such as taxes, the fate of prisoners, the appointment or corruption of officials, the price of food, the protection of the poor, the management of public works, or interpretations of religious doctrine. The imperial elite did not see the crowd or the public as embodying a unified identity that evolved in relation to a single, unified narrative of its destiny, as national societies tend to do. They saw the crowd as a conglomeration of competing and shifting identities and sentiments that could be best served through a complex, centralized program of diverse and often competing narratives of metamorphosis. The hippodrome provided a single vast space in which the public could gather, but the circus program, the entertainment apparatus, fragmented public sentiments across a huge series of discrete scenes, all capable of agitating and thus transforming the spectator’s relation to external powers, not just from one race or interlude to the next, but from week to week, month after month, year after year, in an almost cosmic sense of rhythm toward an evermore “exciting” state of being. If you disliked the emperor’s decision to increase, for example, the tax on olive oil, then you might feel better if, in the seventh race, you won your bet on the Green team in a race after all that the emperor provided. Something new or at least different would happen “next,” and your mood would change, you would see that the general situation in which “everyone” finds themselves will change abruptly, because you are not part of one big, shared story; rather, to get at the symbolic significance of the hippodrome experience, you constructed your life from fragments of an imperial narrative or program consisting of discrete competitions, of which the outcome was never certain, and of equally discrete, but “agitating” interludes. This was the public structure of the pantomime aesthetic, in which the “story” is not of a controlling myth wherein one finds oneself but of the transition from one identity to another, from one state of being to another. 

Previous Section

Next Section


Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s