Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: The Expansion of Imperial Control over Pantomime Performance

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 70: The Emperor Elagabalus, who supposedly appointed a pantomime as Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, as imagined in 1866 by the British artist Simeon Solomon (1840-1905); private collection. Photo: Public Domain.

The Expansion of Imperial Control over Pantomime Performance

When Verus visited Greece and Antioch in 162 CE, his aristocratic hosts made him aware of their innovations in pantomime culture, and, impressed, he bought up many pantomimes and auxiliary performers and brought them back to Rome. But his purpose was not merely to give Italy more exciting entertainments. He wanted the imperial government to shape the destiny of pantomime and not simply regulate it when its enthusiasts got out of hand or performers misbehaved. Under Verus and Aurelian, Rome would centralize the pantomime culture of the entire empire: the emperor’s pantomimes would represent the greatest and most innovative talents in the art and drive the competitive framework that would make pantomime function, basically, as an industry within the Empire. The guiding assumption for centralizing the art was that the most accurate measure of the power and health of the Empire was the scope and depth of the entertainments enjoyed by imperial citizens, for these could be enjoyed only to the extent that citizens were free of worry about dark intrusions into their lives, such as famine, disease, invasions, civil conflicts, and economic catastrophes. This philosophy embraced other entertainments besides the pantomime, but with pantomime the imperial government could maintain a decisive role in nourishing and propagandizing the concept of metamorphosis, which was fundamental to the “message” of pantomime and to the idea of “freedom” as most inhabitants of the Roman Empire understood the term. Verus died in 169 CE, but his importation of pantomimes from the east was only the initial phase in the process of centralizing the pantomime culture. Subsequent emperors developed an industrialization program through the establishment of pantomime contests and subsidies to local communities for the construction of theaters, the formation of festivals, connected primarily with the imperial cult, featuring pantomimes, and the provision of “gift” performances by stars or contest winners. On the basis of the Apolaustus inscription (CIL VI 10117) and the “Inschrift von Magnesia” (FdD I1L1 551), Slater (1995: 289-290; 1996: 203-204) thinks that Greek pantomime contests under imperial auspices began somewhere between 175 and 180 CE, although possibly as early as 166 CE, at Thyateira, when a pantomime, Ulpius Augustianus (Paris), performed to celebrate the “undefeated emperors” (TAM V. 2 1016; Slater 1996: 204). For emperors, properly adjudicated (official) contests were a better and more accurate way to create pantomime stars than the aggressive promotional activities of claques, although even after 180 they remained infrequent. A pantomime would rise to glory through a hierarchy of contests in the east before receiving an invitation from the emperor to perform in Rome, and, having achieved this distinction, could return to the east as a revered star. Slater (1995: 286-288) published a list of fragmentary inscriptions attached to statues in Greece erected to honor the pantomime Apolaustus and others for victories in contests, and these inscriptions indicate a hierarchy of places and their prizes—Delphi, Pergamum, Athens, Nicomedia, Ephesus, Nicaea, Miletus, Corinth, among many others. To facilitate the industrialization of pantomime culture, emperors did not set up a special ministry of pantomime or even of public entertainments; rather, they appointed pantomimes to official positions or set up the assignment of official positions to pantomimes who performed well on behalf of the emperor or his deputies. According to an inscription from Ephesus, Apolaustus received a “councillorship” at Delphi sometime around 180 CE (Slater 1995: 265-266). Statuary inscription ILS 5186 announces that an imperial freedman, L. Aurelius Pylades, “the leading pantomime of his time,” received appointment, in Puteoli, as a local decurion and priest between 185 and 192 CE. Another statuary inscription, from Lepcis Magna (IRT 606), dated between 211 and 217 CE, honors M. Septimius Aurelius Agrippa, a freedman of Emperor Commodus, and also “the leading pantomime of his time,” and lists his appointments as a town councilor for Verona, Vicetia, and Lepcis Magna; a wealthy friend from Mediolanum, Italy received the approval of the town council of Lepcis Magna to erect the monument. According to Dio Cassius (78.21), a freedman of Caracalla, Theocritus, taught the Emperor dancing, as a result of his friendship with the Emperor’s freedman chamberlain, Saoterus; but Theocritus was not successful as a performer with Roman audiences. He gained greater favor with “rather countrified” audiences in Lugdunam (Lyon). But he soon “advanced to such power under Antoninus that both the prefects were as nothing compared to him.” Commodus made him commander of an army against the Armenians, who defeated him. Nevertheless, he “kept travelling to and fro for the purpose of securing provisions and then hawking them at retail, and he put many people to death in connexion with this business as well as for other reasons. One of his victims was Flavius Titianus. This man, while procurator at Alexandria, offended him in some manner, whereupon Theocritus, leaping from his seat, drew his sword; and at that Titianus remarked: ‘That, too, you did like a dancer.’ This angered Theocritus extremely, and he ordered Flavius to be slain” (1927: 333). 

            In 204, according to a lengthy inscription excavated in Rome, the Emperor Septimius Severus, following the example set by Augustus in 17 BCE, sponsored a revival of the ancient Secular Games in which three different imperial pantomimes (Pylades, Marcus, and Apolaustus) performed each day for three consecutive days (June 4-6) in three different theaters, each pantomime performing each day in a different theater. The inscription does not indicate if the pantomimes performed the same or different scenes for each performance or if the different theaters and performance schedules entailed separate audiences for each theater or separate audiences for each performer or simply different performance times for any audience. Whatever the case, the pantomime performances appeared within a vast, imperially-managed spectacle that placed great weight on nocturnal sacrifices to Jupiter and the Terra Materna and featured, among other ritual ceremonies, a concert by a chorus of 109 aristocratic women, led by the Empress Julia Domna, and all listed in the inscription, while the Emperor himself and his sons, Caracalla and Geta, performed at least in the ritual sacrifice to Terra Materna. On the days when the pantomimes performed, spectators could also attend wild animal hunts (ludi venationes) and chariot races (ludi circenses); so it may be that the scheduling of the pantomime performances over three days allowed spectators to see all of them as well as the races and the hunts (Hülsen 1932: 374; Cumont 1932: 121-122; Romanelli 1931; Rantala 2013), although this does not explain altogether why the performances took place in three separate theaters close to each other, including one built of wood especially for the Games. Probably no one theater or even two could accommodate all the spectators for any one performance of a pantomime. It is clear, however, that in the Severan Secular Games pantomimes provided the only theatrical entertainments; the huge program contained no enactment of stage plays. The Emperor apparently had at least three star pantomimes who could command large audiences in competition with other, more grandiose entertainments. But what is especially engaging about this spectacular event is the scale on which the imperial political imagination envisioned the integration of diverse entertainments and religious rituals into a single, enormous, mysterious festival that defines the greatness of the Empire. Severus aligned his vision with that of Augustus by following the program of the Secular Games in 17 BCE, except that pantomimes completely replaced literary dramas and eliminated any idea of spoken “dialogue” as a necessary component of scenic presentations. But the Secular Games also integrated the sexes into public performance milieu with the large female chorus, and it integrated aristocratic performers, such as the female chorus and the performers of the nocturnal rituals, with freedman performers in the arenas, hippodrome, and theaters. With this integration, pantomime was no longer largely an emblem of aristocratic privilege, autonomy, and power; it was a key component of the imperial propaganda apparatus for controlling public perception of the consolidation of mythic and human power within the emperor. The extensive inscription functioned to remind subsequent generations of a performance whose impact resonated long after all those who witnessed it were gone. Eventually the integrated vision of public performance developed in the Secular Games of 204 provided a basis for the imperial attachment of pantomimes to the chariot racing teams, but the more immediate result was to consecrate, so to speak, the authority of imperial pantomimes within not only the hierarchy of entertainment culture throughout the Empire, but within the mythic-religious framework that justified the Empire.

            Successive emperors further consolidated imperial control of pantomime culture. During the dark reign of Caracalla (211-217), the Emperor extended citizenship to all free persons outside of Italy, so that, according to Dio Cassius (Caracalla 9), he could greatly expand the tax base and thus provide abundant compensation to the Army for its loyalty. But a lot of money went into the construction of entertainment facilities outside of Rome and in municipalities across the Empire, including several theaters in North Africa. Always suspicious of conspiracies against him, he subordinated the aristocracy by compelling wealthy families to construct at their own expense many pleasure buildings outside of Rome, even if he never visited the sites while spending so much of his reign away from Italy (Dio Cassius 1927: 298-299). These claims are helpful in reading the inscription (IRT 606), from the time of Caracalla (211-217), found at Lepcis Magna honoring the pantomime Marcus Septimius Aurelius Agrippa, “the foremost pantomime of his time.” Agrippa received honors from the city councils in Verona and Vicetia (Vicenza), and then received appointment from the Emperor as a councilor in Lepcis Magna.[1]Carolynn Roncaglia (2015: 206-208) contends that the inscription indicates how, in addition to imperial patronage, “local regional networks” aided in the development of a career worthy of the inscription, and she speculates that the Milanese sponsor of the inscription, Publius Albucius Apollonius, facilitated Agrippa’s connection to Verona and Vicetia through the “network” of “connections” to which he belonged. But the network must have functioned in a particular way, if one follows Roncaglia’s reasoning, insofar as the Emperor (which one is not clear), having “educated” one of his own pantomimes in Rome, sent him to Apollonius in Milan. Why? The inscription says that Agrippa was a “friend of a rare kind” to Apollonius, which presumably means that Agrippa was intensely loyal to Apollonius and helped his patron significantly to advance his own political ambitions. Agrippa was more than an entertainer; he was an agent of the Emperor. Apollonius needed a star pantomime to develop a power base in Milan; the Emperor needed a star pantomime to strengthen the imperial cult and its claque in Northern Italy. Agrippa was the “rare kind of friend” in whom Apollonius could share ideas and aspirations that went beyond the details of the pantomime’s performances for the public. It could even be that Agrippa went to Verona and Vicetia before he went to Milan, and that in each of these places, his star performances enabled councilors to meet their responsibilities to the public and to the Empire. The concept of the “local regional network” of “connections” should be considered in relation to an imperial network of connections. Apollonius’s family, the Albucii, lived in Liguria and Piedmont (Roncaglia 2014: 207), and it is by no means obvious that the family’s influence extended beyond these regions. Rather, through his performances in Verona and Vicetia, Agrippa strengthened councilors and their claques in those communities, and he was able to do the same for Apollonius in Milan. Agrippa, rather than Apollonius, facilitated the “connections” between Milan, Verona, and Vicetia, because his task was to strengthen the Emperor’s political base or “network” in Northern Italy. The inscription reinforces this point by observing that the Emperor (Severus?) appointed Agrippa as a councilor for Lepcis Magna.* Moreover, in Milan, Agrippa apparently received no honors but was only “accepted as a member of the youth organization,” which is a curious way of saying he was involved with a claque but perhaps a discreet way of implying that in Milan Apollonius faced serious political difficulties that the pantomime, a “rare kind of friend,” helped him to overcome to a degree that was worth commemorating forever in the inscription. From the time of Severus onward, a goal of emperors was to extract more resources from local communities, which meant that the emperors intensified pressure on town councilors to provide more public services and dissolved distinctions between classes of citizens, so that more persons became responsible for collecting and paying taxes (Jones 1964: 20-21). The inscription indicates the major significance of at least freedmen pantomimes of the Emperor in consolidating imperial power: through the guiding, theatrical-ideological concept of metamorphosis, pantomimes incarnated not only the enduring power of archaic myths; with the reign of Severus, they incarnated the immediate but possibly even more abstract power of the Empire. 

            During his rather short reign (218-222), the teenage Emperor Elagabalus apparently appointed pantomimes to positions more important than town councilor. Herodian (Historia Augustus, “Elagabalus,” Part I, 6) claims that Elagabalus “took from the stage” as “associates” or advisors “many whose personal appearance pleased him” (HA 1924: 117); he appointed a pantomime as prefect of the guards (HA, “Elagabalus,” I, 12.1; HA 1924: 132). But this pantomime, Comazon, gained the favor of the Emperor because he commanded a legion in Syria that supported Elagabalus’s claim to the throne after Macrinus had plotted the assassination of Caracalla, although before he received his Syrian command, Comazon had been “sent to the galleys” for some sort of misbehavior (Dio Cassius, Elagabalus, 3; Dio Cassius 1927: 445). Elagabalus further appointed Comazon the city prefect for three consecutive years, and apparently he even survived the downfall of his master. If these assertions are true, then one can also assert that pantomimes were distinctive figures in the ancient world because of their skill in assuming different roles off stage as well as on stage. Indeed, it is doubtful that a person could even become a pantomime without successfully metamorphosing his identity in real life, for it was no longer the case since at least the pantomime riots of 15 CE that one became a pantomime by going to a school and absorbing a formal, institutionalized curriculum that provided a credential, so to speak, for entering this profession. In this respect, pantomimes strengthened the ideological concept of metamorphosis by dissolving clear distinctions between life and theater in the fluid construction of identity that was a fundamental goal within the Empire. 

            Elagabalus himself cultivated a flamboyantly theatrical personality and vividly embodied the gender ambiguity identified with pantomime performance. The historical sources write disdainfully of his extravagance and fantastic appetite for luxury. Among manifold actions described by the historical sources as depraved and monstrous, Elagabalus sometimes dressed as a woman and “sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman” (Dio Cassius, Elagabalus, 13. 3; 1927: 467); “and whereas he had appeared before the harlots in a woman’s costume and with protruding bosom, he met the catamites in the garb of a boy who is exposed for prostitution” (HA, “Elagabalus” II, 26.3); he dressed “himself up as a confectioner, a perfumer, a cook, a shop-keeper, or a procurer, and he even practised all these occupations in his own house continually” (HA, “Elagabalus” II, 30.1); “he would go to the taverns by night, wearing a wig, and there ply the trade of a female huckster. He frequented the notorious brothels, drove out the prostitutes, and played the prostitute himself” (Dio Cassius, Elagabalus, 13.3; 1927: 463); “When adultery was represented on the stage, he would order what was usually done in pretence to be carried out in fact” (HA, “Elagabalus,” 25.4); “moreover, he used to have the story of Paris played in his house, and he himself would take the rôle of Venus, and suddenly drop his clothing to the ground and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the other before his private parts, his buttocks projecting meanwhile and thrust back in front of his partner in depravity” (Herodian, Elagabalus, 5.5; HA 1924: 117); “he would often appear in public after dinner dressed in a Dalmatian tunic, and then he would call himself Fabius Gurges or Scipio, because he was wearing the same kind of clothing which Fabius and Cornelius wore when in their youth they were brought out in public by their parents in order to improve their manners” (HA, “Elagabalus,” 26.2); in addition to having himself circumcised, “he carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so” (Dio Cassius, Elagabalus, 16.7; 1927: 471); “when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, ‘My Lord Emperor, Hail!’ [Elagabalus] bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: ‘Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.’” (Dio Cassius, Elagabalus, 16.5; 1927: 471). Even if the accuracy of the sources is questionable, in their cumulative effect, these citations serve to demonstrate the determination of the Emperor to treat his identity as malleable thing that he could fashion according to an idea of metamorphosis that the historical and even contemporary sources ascribe to his Syrian origin and worship of the Asian sun god Elagabal. But his enthusiasm for incredibly luxurious banquets, elaborately staged orgies, and spectacular stunts, such as a naval battle in a lake of wine, indicate a boy supremely privileged to indulge his exceptional capacity to treat his own life as well as the lives of others as components of an ostentatiously unrestrained theatrical activity of his own design. Considering how hostile the historical sources are toward what they regard as the Emperor’s almost limitless depravity, it is rather surprising that his reign lasted as long as it did. But it may be that the Emperor’s spectacular strangeness captivated the Roman public more that it or the historical sources cared to acknowledge. It was like witnessing an astonishing experiment in the exercise of power. Modernist writing about the Emperor such as Louis Esteve’s Elagabalou un Lénine de l’androgynat (1933) and Antonin Artaud’s Heliogabale ou l’anarchiste couronne (1934) tends to treat him as a mysterious foreign creature whose subversion of gender norms was the basis for an anarchistic upheaval within Roman society. As Martijn Icks (2011: 200) says of Artaud’s analysis of Elagabalus’s motives: “All his acts are deliberate attempts to break through the superficial order of Roman society and reveal the opposing principles that lie beneath it.” The Emperor was the first to allow a woman, his mother, to enter and address the Senate; he then created an all female senate that passed numerous “absurd” rules regarding the dress and behavior of women (Herodian, Elagabalus, 4.1-3); he married several women, including a Vestal Virgin; he married a man and openly became his wife; he engaged openly in sexual relations with numerous persons of both sexes and of different classes; and “he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech” (Dio Cassius, Elagabalus, 13.3; 1927: 467). But these actions do not really suggest an anarchist philosophy of social organization; rather, they intimate that Elagabalus introduced an “effeminate,” feminized, and to some extent feminine approach to imperial power insofar as he sometimes (and perhaps not often enough) deferred to his mother and grandmother on matters of governance in addition to following his own transsexual ideas about his role as Emperor. In effect, he embodied at the summit of imperial power the image of mythic sexual ambiguity that was the central feature of pantomime performance. For him, the manifestation of imperial power reached its apex to the extent that he could dissolve all distinction between life and theater, between male and female, so that only death marked the difference between fantasy and reality. He died young and violently, but even the motive for his death at the hands of soldiers remains ambiguous or at least muddled in the accounts of it in the historical sources—it may even be that his own grandmother, Julia Maesa, paid to have him assassinated.

            His successor was his cousin and another teenager, Alexander Severus (208-235), whom Julia Maesa had persuaded Elagabalus to make as his heir. Under the guidance of his mother, Julia Mammaea, Alexander Severus projected an image of imperial identity that strongly contrasted with that of his cousin. He was a figure of modesty, prudence, judiciousness, generosity, affability, refinement, and cowardice, and these qualities eventually destroyed him and his mother. When he ascended the throne, he dismissed from office all those whom Elagabalus had appointed “from the lowest class” (HA, “Alexander Severus,” 15.1), but although “he never had dramatic entertainments at his banquets” (41.5), because he believed “actors… should be treated as slaves… ministers of our pleasures” (37.1), he was enthusiastic about sponsoring entertainments for the public (24.3; 43.4; 44.7). Also: “All the dwarfs, both male and female, fools, catamites who had good voices, all kinds of entertainers at table, and actors of pantomimes he made public property; those, however, who were not of any use were assigned, each to a different town, for support, in order that no one town might be burdened by a new kind of beggars” (33.2). What does it mean that pantomimes were made public property? Presumably the statement means that pantomimes who once performed exclusively for the Emperor now performed exclusively for the public either in shows sponsored by the Emperor or in shows sponsored by citizens who leased or rented the pantomimes from the imperial government; Severus showed a penchant for imposing taxes on all kinds of entertainments, and his mother had a reputation for avarice (Herodian, Alexander Severus, 6.1.8). Perhaps, then, the Emperor converted the imperial pantomimes from an expense to a revenue stream. Most likely, though, the Emperor integrated pantomime entertainers into the imperial administrative apparatus. They were no longer the private property of the Emperor; they were an item in the vast inventory of state-owned properties, like land, buildings, offices, archives, animals, accounts, warehouses, ships, archives, training facilities, and mines, although of course the Emperor retained enormous discretionary power to employ these resources. As pantomime culture became integrated into the imperial bureaucracy, its future depended less on the whims, tastes, and fortunes of emperors and aristocratic sponsors and more on the fate and health of the Empire.

[*]A councilor’s job was to collect taxes for the city and the emperor, to contribute to the maintenance and construction of public buildings such as baths, theaters, libraries, wells, bridges, and docks, to contribute to the sponsoring of entertainments and festivals, and to represent the city in relation to imperial ceremonies and imperial requests for data about the region and its resources. Depending on the size of the municipality, a council could have from a dozen to as many as six hundred members. Originally only aristocrats could serve as councilors, but during the Empire, qualifications for the job broadened: members of the council had to be landowners of a sufficient but never precisely determined magnitude, because one of the tasks of the councilor was to help pay for public services. Usually it was the council that elected persons whom members of the council had nominated. Members served for one year, but many who were qualified to serve because of the amount of land they owned sought to evade the responsibility ofserving by joining the Army or by securing positions within the imperial bureaucracy (Lewin 1999: 397-398). 

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