Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: The Merging of the Pantomime and Chariot Racing Factions

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

Empress Theodora (500-548) depicted in a mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, 547 CE. The Empress was a pantomime in her youth. Photo: Art Resource.

The Merging of the Pantomime and Chariot Racing Factions

Most of Alan Cameron’s 1976 book about the circus factions deals with the fifth and sixth centuries. He does not assign a specific date for the merger of the pantomime and circus factions, but he does suggest that a prefect or general superintendent for “actors and charioteers” existed “as early as 362,” under Emperor Julian (1976: 220), which the Theodosian Code (6.4.13) apparently affirms from a cryptic decree of 361: “Out of the three praetors who, being formally designated, are wont to produce a show, three are to devote themselves to the needs of the show and the pleasures of the people, while two are to provide the funds to be available in sufficient amount for the workshops of the said city” (Csapo 1995: 330). I have presented evidence to propose that imperial consolidation of pantomime and hippodrome entertainments took place much earlier, during the Crisis, although the path toward consolidation had begun even earlier, with Verus, and assumed some kind of enlarged administrative status with the Secular Games of 204, which entailed a complex coordination and scheduling of entertainments sponsored by the emperor. Charlotte Roueché doubts that the emperors ever achieved total control over the public entertainment apparatus, which she contends received “provision from other sources even into the sixth century” (Roueché 1993: 46, also 49-60). 

 But while the emperors began coordinating the scheduling of pantomime entertainments with other forms of imperially sponsored spectacles in the third century, the attachment of pantomimes to circus entertainments probably did not occur until well into the fourth century, and probably also occurred only in particular areas of the Empire. Chariot racing and its basic “rules” have their origins of course in ancient Greek and Etruscan cultures, but it was the emperors, starting with Julius Caesar, who saw in the sport an effective instrument for dramatizing the emperor’s relation to his subjects and for institutionalizing the idea (or myth, perhaps) of Victory achieved through intense competition between talented contestants as the dominant sign of a powerful civilization and its people. Innovations in hippodrome entertainments came almost entirely from emperors, as Humphrey has explained (1986: 73-82, 102-106, 126-131, 635-638). Emperors transformed an informal sport into a grandiose emblem of imperial power; they introduced the monumental architecture of the Circus Maximus, which became the model for subsequent large-scale hippodromes throughout the Empire; and they shaped the concept of the Circus as a vast monument to imperial power. Under imperial initiative, hippodrome construction expanded, especially after the beginning of the third century in North Africa, the Eastern Empire, and Spain; Gaul and Britain show far less development of the sport, at least based on archeological evidence, although a sophisticated hippodrome operated near Trier (Humphrey 1986: 295ff.). Hippodromes developed in relation to imperial residences in various cities and in relation to the residences of high officials in the government. As with the Circus Maximus, hippodromes appeared in close proximity to the emperor’s residence to show that the stadium functioned as an extension of the emperor’s personal living space. Trajan introduced around 103 the idea of putting the pulvinar or imperial box “at the same absolute elevation as the people, so that they could see him as well as he could see them” (Humphrey 1986: 80), whereas previously the emperor viewed the race from a highly elevated pulvinar or even more remote distance, although it is not clear if subsequent emperors followed Trajan’s example. The organization of races and teams was the work of men, investors, closely affiliated with the upper levels of the imperial government and its offices. Men invested in chariot teams as a measure of their status and access to power rather than as the basis for developing a constituency or political power base. Winning chariot races could secure very lucrative prizes for drivers and teams, but so many variables shaped the winning of a race that it was not easy to predict the winner of a race on the basis of the horses or the driver. 

The Libyan-born charioteer Porphyrius (480-ca. 540) achieved huge fame for winning so many races, even winning races for opposing factions on the same day, which at least demonstrated that the race was not about which horses were superior to their competitors. But Porphyrius was able to win for two opposing teams (factions) on the same day (diversium) only twice in his career, and was the only charioteer to achieve this peculiar feat, which suggests that no matter how skillful the driver, the outcome of a race was far from predictable. Possibly the noise of the factions could contribute to the winning of a race. However, only a few major cities—Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Carthage, perhaps Milan—maintained circus factions; none operated in the hippodromes of Greece, according to Humphrey (1986: 441), and he further contends that the construction of hippodromes in the East preceded the introduction of factions (1986: 439). The monumental circuses of Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch could accommodate, respectively, 150,000, 100,000, and 80,000 spectators, while Cameron (1976: 311) observes that a faction contained “at best a thousand or two.” With each racing day containing from 12 to 25 races and with each race involving seven long laps, it is difficult to believe that any faction in itself could maintain the vocal energy to spur their horses and drivers to victory throughout the long day, especially if the factions had to compete with each other to achieve that goal. Moreover, Pliny the Younger contended (ca. 80 CE) that members of factions did not care so much about horses and drivers as they cared about the color of their faction, for horses and drivers could switch colors even on the same day: “If, indeed, they were attracted by the swiftness of the horses or the skill of the men, one could account for this enthusiasm. But in fact it is a bit of cloth they favour, a bit of cloth that captivates them. And if during the running the racers were to exchange colours, their partisans would change sides, and instantly forsake the very drivers and horses whom they were just before recognizing from afar, and clamorously saluting by name” (Letters 9.6; 1915: 185). Cameron argues that the factions did not represent the “voice of the crowd” or any popular constituency (1976: 293), although that does not mean that they lacked considerable political significance. Indeed, as Cameron has explained, the hippodrome factions were fairly tame and inauspicious until, in the fourth century, the emperors began to assign pantomimes to circus factions and merged the pantomime factions with the circus factions. It is therefore not altogether clear what the function of the hippodrome factions was other than to serve as social clubs, and this uncertainty probably contributed to the decision of the emperors to assign pantomimes and their more volatile factions to the hippodrome factions, in the belief that pantomimes could engage audiences more emotionally in the total hippodrome experience, especially when it was so difficult to predict the outcome of races and determine betting odds. Pantomimes constructed the impression that “the total hippodrome experience” was much larger than a contest between teams of horses. It was about how the competitive conditions of Victory or Fortune depended as much on the excitement of spectators, the public as a whole, as on the favor of the gods, as symbolized by statues of the son-god (Apollo) or obelisks on the spina,or on the strength of horses or the unique skills of drivers. The outcome of “the total hippodrome experience” had to be of direct benefit to the spectator, regardless of who won the races, and one benefit was to movewith excitement in response to urgings from pantomimes to compete with other sections of the audience as a whole to claim the attention of the entire crowd and the emperor. At the same time, the emperor presided over this vast spectacle as a detached, god-like figure whose attachment to any faction was variable, never fixed, so that he could intervene “fairly” in resolving the disputes, sometimes quite violent, that arose between factions when the pantomimes became fixtures of hippodrome entertainment. In a sense, pantomimes made the movements or noise of sections of the crowd, not just a faction, surge with intimations of victory or good fortune that, through imperial favor or mediation, could befall those so deeply stirred, inspired, or awakened by the spectacle of imperial generosity. 

            The circus never had more than four factions—only the Blues, the Greens, the Reds, and the Whites—and these names for the factions long preceded the establishment of the Empire; John Malalas (ca. 491-578), writing around 535, even claimed that the four factions date from the time of Romulus (Malalas 1831: 176). When the emperors assigned pantomimes and their factions to the circus, they did not create new factions. The old factions remained, with the pantomime factions absorbed or subsumed under the circus factions. The Reds and the Whites never appear to have been as strong, at least in the major cities, as the Blues and the Greens, in terms of numbers and involvement in often violent activities beyond the hippodrome, and Cameron suggests that the Reds and the Whites functioned, in the major cities, as shifting subsidiaries or adjuncts of the Blues and Greens (1976: 61-68), presumably to create greater competition between teams and greater uncertainty about the outcome of races. He further contends that the factions did not represent larger political aspirations or sentiments circulating within sectors of the population as a whole: “The circus factions deserve no prominent mention in any history of popular expression” (1976: 311). Some scholars challenge Cameron’s position. Michael Whitby (1999) has argued that the factions were fronts designed to protect the elite aristocrats who subsidized them: the factions functioned somewhat like organized crime syndicates that, at the behest of elites, engaged in clandestine illegal activities profitable to their sponsors in return for some measure of immunity from prosecution achieved through the influence of the elites. However, it is not clear what sort of illegal activities necessitated over many decades the sponsorship of publically flamboyant hippodrome clubs as disguises for corruption or why elites would “tolerate” the rioting of factions as a way to intimidate emperors in relation to a policy or action over which they otherwise had no “influence” or why it was necessary to have at least two factions, so often hostile to each other, to achieve this goal. Liebeschuetz (2001: 251ff.) proposes that the factions operated as lobbies for public political sentiments as the imperial government centralized bureaucracy and limited local access to levers of power; the hippodrome was the primary and possibly even exclusive public zone in which the emperor interfaced with the public. But the issues that require such lobbying remain obscure as do the differences between the factions in determining which public sentiments they would “represent” in lieu of official representation. Citing religious sources, Bryk (2012) suggests that the factions may have represented religious affiliations (Greens: Monophysites; Blues: Chalcedonians), while Parnell (2013) proposes that the factions functioned somewhat like political parties that voiced popular discontent with imperial decisions or social decay. Roberto (2010) contends that the factions were imperial auxiliaries that served to keep social discontent distracted or stifled (although it is not clear, then, why the emperor would need more than one faction); they were powerful enough to make or break emperors, as supposedly demonstrated by the role of the Greens and Blues in unmaking and making the emperors Phocas (602-610) and Heraclius (610-641) or threatening the emperors Anastasius and Justinian (in relation to the Nika riot of 532). The evidence for these theories of faction function comes largely from the sixth and seventh centuries. In 502, however, Emperor Anastasius (491-518) banned pantomimes from the hippodrome in Constantinople and possibly from hippodromes elsewhere in the Empire, as a result of factional rioting in 501 connected to the Brytae festivals, in which 3000 people died (John of Antioch, frag. 309; Malalas 1986: 222 [Excerpta de insidiis 39]; Joshua the Stylite, 46.1; Marcellinus Comes (501) VIIII). The scope of Anastasius’s ban is unclear. Joshua the Stylite says the Emperor decreed that, “the dancers should not dance any more, not even in a single city throughout his empire.” But the Malalas Chronicle says that the Emperor exiled the four dancers attached to the four factions. Brooks (1911: 484) contended that the Emperor banned the dancers as a result of Green-instigated disturbances provoked by the Brytae festival. Nicks (1998: 247-256) contends that Anastasius banned the pantomimes in an effort to drain the power of factions to cause social disorder, with the Green faction, a strong supporter of the Brytae festival, the chief culprit in the instigation of public violence. Greatrex and Watt (1999: 3) assert that the Brytae riot led to the “wholesale abolition of pantomime dancing.” Anastasius had banned venationes in 498, presumably as part of his vigorous effort to reduce state expenditures and taxes (Bomgardner 2002: 219; Meier 2009: 225-229), so perhaps the 501 riot was an excuse to reduce state expenses in regard to theatrical entertainments, which can hardly have pleased the factions, even if Anastasius’s tax reduction schemes were popular with the public as a whole. But Greatrex and Watt contend that Christian morality shaped the suppression of the orgiastic Brytae festival, which involved nude and apparently nocturnal swimming by the dancers in the pool provided by the theater orchestra, especially when this festival is linked elsewhere in the Empire to the Maiuma festival, which also experienced periodic suppression since the late fourth century (1999: 17-19). 

In any case, Procopius describes the lascivious theatrical performances of the Empress Theodora in her youth, and these occurred after the ban on pantomimes or Brytae dancers, when Theodora was only about one year old. Her father, Acacius, was the “keeper of wild beasts” for the Greens, but Procopius says the beasts “were used in the amphitheater in Constantinople,” not the hippodrome, so it seems that the Greens maintained a kind of circus that put on performances in the amphitheater without killing the animals as in the venationes (see Meier 2009: 228). Furthermore, Procopius says that when Acacius died, his wife requested that the pantomime for the Greens, Asterius, make her new husband the keeper of wild beasts, because “the dancing masters had the power of distributing such positions as they wished.” But Asterius had accepted a bribe to hire another man for the job. Theodora’s mother then presented her daughters in the amphitheater “in the attitude of suppliants.” The Greens remained unmoved, but the Blues decided to “bestow on the children an equal office, since their own animal-keeper had just died” (9.2-7; 1927: 98-99). This passage makes clear that after Anastasius’s ban of 501, pantomimes continued, during Anastasius’s reign, to have close connections with the factions, but not apparently in the hippodromes, and to hold important offices, now paid probably by the factions instead of the state. Procopius designates Theodora as a mime, a comedienne, a performer of pornographic skits, “for she was not a flute or harp player, nor was she even trained to dance” (1927: 100). But then he describes her apparently public performance (“in sight of all the people”) of Leda and the Swan, which with its mythological theme and pornographic choreography, aligns with the pantomime aesthetic. Procopius constructs a rather blurry image of Byzantine theater when Theodora performed: theater people seem integrated with amphitheater circus spectacles involving animals; actors project hybrid identities, neither mimes nor pantomimes but perhaps something like revue performers; the pantomimes, “the dancing masters,” exert power in the amphitheater but no longer have any relation to the hippodrome; both the animal circus and the theater apparently operate through the factions and the state is no longer the controlling sponsor of these entertainments. The blurry image of theater was the result of factions and performers attempting to comply with Anastasius’s ban while maintaining, within their talents and resources, opportunities to entertain large audiences and uphold the complex social network provided by the factions. After 501, pantomimes ceased to have any connection with the hippodromes in the East; nevertheless, the factions continued to engage in violent activities; in 507, when in Antioch, the Green faction, incited by the champion charioteer Porphyrios, attacked a synagogue and killed many Jews, because the Jews tended to favor the Blues (Malalas 1986: 222-223; Van der Horst 2006: 55-57); in 512 in Constantinople, the factions again rioted, possibly in relation to conflicts between Blue and Green partisans of the Nestorian and Monophysite doctrines (Malalas 1986: 225), and then again in 514 when Anastasius closed the hippodrome while dealing with the insurrection of Vitalian. 

Then in 520, early in the reign of Emperor Justin (518-527), the hippodrome in Constantinople was again the site of factional violence: “When the chariot races had been held, the faction members created a disturbance in the afternoon. The soldiers came out and killed many of them,” after which, amazingly, “the factions were reconciled, while the prefect Theodoros was watching the afternoon session, and both left the hippodrome, joining in revelry. The next day they assembled in the hippodrome and asked the emperor to watch the races, and the factions chanted requests for dancers. The Greens called for Karamallos, the Blues for a certain Porphyrios from Alexandria, the Reds and Whites for their favourites. The emperor granted each faction what it asked for. After this they rushed with their cloaks through the city and the hippodrome, and paraded in celebration over nearly all the city. Members of the factions joined together and dragged around some of the riff-raff […] and threw them into the sea” (Malalas 1986: 232-233 [Excerpta de insidiis 43]). However, it is not clear if Justin restored the pantomimes to the hippodrome or if he restored the pantomimes to the factions for use in the amphitheater and in theater ensembles operated by the factions, if, under Anastasius, the factions had lost their pantomimes because of earlier disturbances. Though the request for the pantomimes came in the hippodrome, an imperial institution, it occurred the day after the races, so it is likely that the Emperor and the factions treated the occasion as a matter of a general petition rather than as a hippodrome-specific agenda. After 501, pantomimes receive no mention from historical sources in connection with violence perpetrated by the factions or in relation to the hippodrome. Marcellinus Comes mentions that in 521, Justinian, then Consul for the East, “published his generosity” by sponsoring lavish “spectacles” and “machine shows” involving numerous wild beasts and decorated horses, but he makes no reference to pantomimes or actors or dancers (Chronicon 521, XIIII. Justiniani et Valerii). Further violence by the factions occurred in 522-525, instigated by the Blues, who “rioted in all the cities of the east, attacking officials in every city,” although the motive for the disturbancs remains obscure (Malalas, 17.12. 27-30; cf. Main 2013: 15-20). In 525, Justin enacted a law that allowed a man of senatorial rank to marry a courtesan who had repudiated her morally dubious way of life. The law enabled Justinian to marry Theodora (Procopius 1927: 110), but it is not clear if the law had any application beyond this one instance, and it may have been enacted in conjunction with another decree issued the same year, ostensibly in response to disturbances caused by the Blues in Antioch, that “prohibited spectacles” and banished “all dancers throughout the East,” except Alexandria (Malalas 1986: 236). It may be that, as a condition for passing the marriage law, Justinian and Theodora agreed to eliminate any further possibility of women from theatrical backgrounds becoming members of the senatorial class, which meant eliminating from existence an entire category of professionals, although why Alexandria should remain exempt from the decree is somewhat obscure: it was probably the place to which “all the dancers” were banished; it was also where Theodora embraced the Monophysite doctrines that released her from the world of theater and prostitution. 

On January 13, 532, the infamous Nika riot took place in Constantinople, the most destructive event in the history of factional violence. The rioting began in the hippodrome, during races, when both Blues and Greens pleaded with Justinian to “show mercy” regarding members of their factions whom the city prefect had condemned for crimes. When the races concluded without any response from the Emperor, the factions united and began rampaging throughout the city, setting fires and attacking the prefect’s office. Rioting continued for five days as the factions collaborated to overthrow Justinian and install a new emperor. The insurrection came to an end when Belisarius, with a force of Heruli soldiers at his command, laid siege to the rioters gathered in the hippodrome and slaughtered them all, perhaps as many as 30,000 (Malalas 1986: 275-281; Procopius 1914: 219-230). No account of the event mentions the involvement of pantomimes or dancers, nearly all of whom, presumably, worked then in Alexandria. However, as a former pantomime, the Empress Theodora’s motive for urging Justinian to crush the rebellion rather than flee is fundamental in understanding the destruction of pantomime culture in the East. She was probably instrumental in getting Narses to bribe some members of the Blues to turn against the Greens. Theodora realized that her own ambitions as well as her husband’s remained stunted as long as the factions resisted imperial efforts to control them and their sense of impunity before the law. She also understood that the power of the factions depended in large measure on their provision of hybrid spectacles and “dancers” in the factional networks of theaters and amphitheaters throughout the Empire—that is, on the sex industry that operated in conjunction with the entertainments and from which Theodora herself came. In spite of the 501 and 525 bans on dancers and spectacles, the factions managed to perpetuate their unsavory and often criminal enterprises; Procopius devotes an entire chapter (VII) to chronicling the criminal activities of the factions with special attention to the “outrages” of the Blues, supposedly favored by the detested Theodora. The factions by 532 were looking for an emperor who “owed” them more than Theodora or Justinian cared to acknowledge. Theodora’s power depended on acknowledging what she “owed” to a larger public constituency than whatever small sector of the public the factions purported to represent. Her credibility as an empress rested on her ability to embody the power of Christianity to bring about her “metamorphosis” from courtesan-actress to imperial wife, especially if she was to act as protector of the controversial Monophysites, whom she credited for her salvation and repudiation of her immoral life. At the time of the Nika riot, it was necessary, from the imperial perspective, to show the complete triumph of the Christian idea of metamorphosis over the old, orgiastic, libidinous idea of metamorphosis attached to the seductive movement of bodies. That triumph entailed the destruction of the factions. Justinian immediately set about rebuilding the city destroyed in the rioting, but it took a number of years to rebuild the factions and even to restore the chariot races. In the East, however, pantomime was extinct. It had largely disappeared before the Nika riot, not because it had lost its audience, but because it was too costly, financially, politically, and morally, to sustain. After the riot, no one thought it was even possible for it to come back. In her personality and life story, Theodora most dramatically incarnated or “performed” this ideological shift in the way people in a now less ancient world thought about the transformation of their identities. It was not an irony that a former pantomime incarnated this shift; rather, her incarnation of “metamorphosis” was so powerful, so capable of shaping reality, that theatrical representations of it were no longer necessary. 

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