Roman Politics and Pantomime Evolution: Summary of Pantomime’s Evolution in the Roman Empire

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

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Figure 77: Reconstruction of “luxurious ambience” in the First Century CE at the Villa San Marco in Stablae, an ambience most congenial to the performance of pantomime in the Roman Empire. Photo: Rudolf Asskamp, Marijke Bouwer, Jörn Christiansen, Herwig Kenzler and Ludwig Wamser, “Luxus und Dekadenz. Römisches Leben am Golf von Neapel,” Mainz: Zabern, 2007, page 2.

Summary of Pantomime’s Evolution in the Roman Empire

An emperor facilitated the introduction of pantomime into the Roman Empire and an emperor ended pantomime in the Empire. Pantomime was an art that prospered in an imperial world. It was a dynamic art that evolved primarily in relation to competitive pressures exerted by pantomimes themselves. In Alexandria and in the Hellenistic period, before pantomime came to Rome, the pantomime performer probably sang and danced the mythic roles. In Rome, however, this unity of voice and movement appeared constraining and limited both the expressive power of song and the signifying power of the body. Bathyllus and Pylades built their unique and popular performance personas around the concept of the voice coming from other bodies than the pantomime’s. With them, pantomime was an exclusively solo performance. When these two achieved fame, pantomime was the work of professionals who established their credentials to perform by graduating from schools and affiliating with a network or guild of appropriately educated performers, mentors, and teachers. These professionals performed for money and developed their repertoires in relation to an academic curriculum that presumed to define the scope and limits of the art. The rivalry between Bathyllus and Pylades further consolidated pantomime as an intensely competitive cultural activity, in which audiences constantly compared one pantomime with another in relation to the same set of mythic themes or scenes. The narrative organization of pantomime performance arose out of a comparative appreciation of the pantomime’s performance of different “characters” inhabiting his body, so that the performance narrative was not about the mythic figures but about the performer’s “metamorphosis” from one identity to another. However, neither the emperor nor the public ever showed any inclination to endorse a “standard” for evaluating pantomime performance as fostered by the curricula of performing arts academies. The hierarchy of value in pantomime performance thus developed through the auras of star pantomimes, whose seductive performative qualities extended well beyond performance spaces and were uniquely capable of captivating aristocrats. Pantomimes became useful in advancing the political ambitions of aristocrats, who strengthened the star status of pantomimes by sponsoring claques attached to the stars, so that competition between pantomimes entailed competition between claques and their aristocratic sponsors. But the public disturbances resulting from conflicts between claques over pantomime fees in 15 CE led to a profound change in pantomime culture. The legislation of 15 CE, led by Tiberius, basically put an end to a professionalized class of pantomime performers. Pantomime became the work of slaves and freedmen whose education in the art was more informal and idiosyncratic than was the case with pantomimes trained in the Alexandrian academic tradition. Pantomimes became part of ensembles owned or contracted by aristocratic families. Most performances took place in villas, with occasional performances in theaters presented by aristocratic sponsors as “gifts” to potential constituencies. The fortunes of pantomime in Rome depended on the favor of the emperor, but the art spread rapidly throughout the Empire, as aristocratic families nurtured an entertainment that provided a powerful erotic ambiance, emphasized the theatricality of the body over the obfuscating sonorities of speech, and competed strongly and economically with other entertainments like gladiatorial combats, venationes, and chariot races. The spread of pantomime entailed a proliferation of pantomimes and an intensification of competitive drive for unique star qualities or performance styles. Innovations were inevitable. By the middle of the second century CE, pantomime was no longer always or only a solo performance, the range of mythic themes expanded almost extravagantly, and performances involved the introduction of novel scenic devices, acrobatic stunts, and glamorous costume accessories, as indicated especially by the pantomime scene described in The Golden Ass. Female pantomimes apparently made their earliest appearances sometime in the latter half of the second century. The Crisis of the Third Century precipitated further changes. The sponsorship of public entertainments throughout the Empire became increasingly centralized and under imperial control, as aristocratic families and municipal councils lacked the resources to provide “spectacles” on the scale expected by the public. As the imperial government consolidated its control over the entertainment industry, the “center” of pantomime culture shifted from Rome to the east and to Greek leadership in the art. In the fourth century, the consolidation involved the integration of pantomimes into the hippodrome culture and the merging of theatrical and hippodrome factions. Pantomime culture remained impervious to condemnation of it by Christian patriarchs, but by the 380s, in accordance with imperial imperatives, pantomimes had themselves become Christians and developed a “non-pagan” approach to the dominant performance theme of “metamorphoses” that nevertheless stressed voluptuous eroticism. Within the hippodrome culture, pantomimes received imperial appointment to represent chariot-racing factions and to supervise interlude entertainments and ceremonial performances. Beyond the hippodrome, pantomimes signified a sexual ambiguity or libidinousness that the factions, especially the Blues and Greens, found very helpful in recruiting members and partners in their shadowy and even underworld business enterprises. The conflict within Christianity between Orthodoxy and Arianism, which inspired so much public disorder throughout the Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, did little, if any, damage to pantomime culture, as long as the pantomimes and factions received protection and privileges from the emperor. In the late fifth and early sixth centuries, however, the factions (Blues and Greens) instigated a series of riots in response to efforts of emperors to curtail their privileges and compel them to conform more severely to the increasingly elaborate imperial ceremonial protocol, which by then entailed the complete unity of the imperial government with Orthodoxy. Because of his passion for the former pantomime Theodora, Justinian’s ability to secure and sustain imperial power depended in no small part on his determination to inaugurate a new era of sexual morality. His marriage to Theodora occurred, it would seem, at the expense of pantomime culture. The pantomimes were banished throughout the Empire about the same time. In an Empire dominated by Orthodoxy and guided by a man whose love for Theodora might well represent the ultimate triumph of seductive theatricality over sacred authenticity, there was suddenly no longer any tolerance for the notion that sexuality and “metamorphosis” were fundamentally theatrical phenomena. As long as pantomime culture thrived, it carried within it remnants of Arianism, a potential for sparking schism, violent division within Christianity and within the Empire.  

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