The Disappearance of Pantomime in the West

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 77: Section of a sixth century ivory consular diptych depicting Amalasuntha, Queen of the Ostrogoths, who paid for pantomime performances in Italy after the art had disappeared in the Eastern Empire. Photo from Anna Maria Elizabeth Cust, “The Ivory Workers of the Middle Ages,” London: Bell, 1906, 30.

The Disappearance of Pantomime in the West

The end of the pantomimes was almost congruent with the end of theater altogether in the Byzantine Empire. Mimes continued to linger for a few decades, at least in some remote regions of the Empire, according to a few Oxyrhyncus papyri. But theater was probably extinct well before the end of the sixth century, or at best we have no evidence for its existence in the Empire until the appearance of a few forlorn and hardly exciting examples of Christian drama in the tenth century, with even the anonymous though ambitious eleventh century Christos Paschon apparently composed only out of an entirely literary impulse, with no life in the theater (White 2010: 385; Puchner 2002: 314-317). In what had once been the Western Empire, the fate of pantomime culture is less clear. There, too, pantomime seems to have disappeared by the middle of the sixth century insofar as no evidence for it exists after that point. When the Byzantines reclaimed Italy from the Goths in 535-537, the imperial ban of pantomimes prevailed at least in those regions of the country, like Ravenna, firmly under Byzantine control. But elsewhere in the west, pantomime most likely disappeared because no imperial power existed to support it and because either the Goths lacked appreciation of the art to invest in it or communities and aristocratic families lacked resources to sustain it. Yet unlike in the east, in the west the political and religious conditions did not entirely preclude the survival of the art. Catholicism was dominant in Italy and throughout the west, but Arianism remained strong there, especially among the Goths, whose introduction to Christianity had mostly come through the teachings of the Arian, Gothic-Greek Bishop Ulfilas (311-383). Catholics favored a policy of co-existence with Arianism in the belief that Arians would inevitably convert to Catholicism the more they were exposed to the doctrines and lithurgical practices of Catholicism (Amory 1997: 256-263). But while the Catholics adopted a less dogmatic approach to the Arian heresy than the Orthodox Church, they apparently did not believe that pantomime was helpful in undermining the appeal of heretical doctrines or in attracting new converts. Sixth and seventh century texts from the Catholic realm make no reference to pantomime or theater, not even to denounce it. 

The Goths, however, had their own performance tradition, although it is unclear if their predilection for Arianism sustained it or if their immersion in Roman culture undermined the functions it served in the forests of the north. Around 100 CE, Tacitus described “German” tribes who performed “ancient hymns—the only style of record or history which they possess”—that celebrated “a god Tuisto, a scion of the soil, and his son Mannus as the beginning and the founders of their race.” The Germans sang to awaken courage for battle within themselves, and one of their hymns invoked “Hercules, the first of brave men” (1914: 266-267). “Their shows are all of one kind,” he writes, regardless apparently of whatever differences pertained otherwise to the multitude of Germanic tribes inhabiting Germania, “naked youths, for whom this is a form of professional acting, jump and bound between swords and upturned spears” (1914: 296-297). Tacitus also mentions an eastern German tribe, the Nahanarvali, who performed some sort of “prehistoric ritual” in a grove presided over by a “priest in female dress” (1914: 324-325). The extent to which any of these practices remained within the performance aesthetic of “barbarian” cultures in the sixth century is unknown and probably quite remote. In his sixth century history of the Goths, Jordanes, himself descended from Goths, chronicles two thousand years of purported Gothic history without reference to a single instance or aspect of a performance culture among the tribe, for Jordanes contains nothing of the anthropological focus in Tacitus. Nevertheless, though Jordanes’s history derives from a much larger, lost history of the Goths by Cassiodorus, virtually the entire history of the Goths up to the fourth century, much of which is mythic or simply fictional, resided in the memory of Gothic societies over the centuries as conveyed through the voices of the tribal archivists, skaldic figures, for the Goths had no written language until Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic around 360 (Heather 1991: 61-67). As the term is used conventionally, skaldic poetry refers to a literary art, the earliest evidence for which comes from the ninth century. But in pre-literate Teutonic societies, someone like a skald must have functioned to tell the stories that skalds later sang from texts they composed in Old Norse—this person perhaps mostly recited genealogies of kings and the battles they fought, with the idea that these “histories” inspired in their listeners the courage to engage in battle, for “the barbarians lived the pathos of heroism to the fullest” (Wolfram 1988: 7). Runic inscriptions from Germany and Scandinavia, the earliest of which date from around 160 CE in Denmark, link to a skaldic or archival performance function insofar as they relate to heroic commemoration or magical invocation, although the Goths apparently had only a faint connection to runic culture (Looijenga 1997: 24). According to Bertha Phillpotts, “Runic verse is closely akin to skaldic verse” (1920: 29). But the key point here is that the runic culture developed as a result of Germanic tribes interacting with Romans to produce what the barbarians regarded as their own “secret” writing, “something hidden from outsiders” (Looijenga 1997: 17-18, 61). The great majority of runic artefacts date from the sixth and seventh centuries, although numerous artefacts from earlier times have been discovered over a vast area from Scandinavia to Germany and Eastern Europe (Looijenga 1997: 10). In the barbarian cultures, the oral, archival performance of tribal history evolved in relation to this idea of a secret, exclusive, aristocratic, warrior ethos. It is possible that the preponderance of runic artefacts from the sixth and seventh centuries is the result of the intensification and expansion of runic inscription within barbarian culture and an intimation of the rise of Teutonic cultures across Europe in later centuries. But if so, the Goths were only indirectly responsible, insofar as by the fifth century their connection to runic culture was nil, for they had their own written language, used exclusively by themselves, and a proliferation of runic culture in Germania at that time and into the seventh century was probably due in no small measure to an awareness among Teutonic peoples of the rise and fall of the Goths in Italy and Western Europe, an awareness or gathering self-consciousness that resonated for centuries through the oral performance aesthetic. The longest rune yet discovered, the Rök stone in south central Sweden, carved around 800, makes exalted reference to Theodoric in its commemoration of a dead son. But this runic inscription seems merely to foretell an impending tide of Germanic literary activity, derived from oral models of storytelling, that first, in the ninth and tenth centuries, simply invoked the misty but glorious memory of Theodoric, such as in the Deor, Waldere, and Widsith poems, and then, in the eleventh century, culminated in the various epic refashionings of Theodoric’s spectacular life as the mythical Dietrich of Bern (Verona), most memorably, perhaps, in the monumental Nibelunglied (ca. 1200).   

 The question therefore arises: did the proto-skaldic performance aesthetic of the Goths, however it may have been perpetuated through the Gothic language, inhibit or encourage the Roman pantomime culture? While no documentation on pantomime in the Western Empire exists after the death of Theodoric in 526, neither does any documentation on the proto-skaldic performance aesthetic of either the Ostrogoths or the Visigoths. The philosophy of co-existence between Goths and Romans that prevailed in Italy and the west was not especially congenial to the preservation of pantomime culture, but neither was it a major barrier, for the Goths showed a willingness and sometimes a great eagerness to adopt some Roman customs, especially in the realms of law, commerce, and governance (Wolfram 1988: 194-197, 288-290). But Goths and Romans tended to live separately from each other, with only the upper levels of Gothic and Roman societies developing any inclination toward an idea of “integrating” the two cultures. The Gothic rulers in Italy and the western regions often granted a considerable measure of autonomy to local communities, which precipitated an intensification of regional affiliations. After the death of Theodoric and even well before then in Gaul and Hispania, this autonomy became increasingly aligned with declining investment in urban society, as territorial governance shifted toward kings, whose chief priority was to “settle” their peoples on country estates and allotments, which often entailed exempting Gothic settlers from taxation or reducing taxes to Roman estate holders whose lands had generated allotments (Innes 2006: 56-60). Some Roman aristocrats owned vast estates in Gaul and Hispania, but it was no longer to their advantage to sponsor urban entertainments or to procure advancement within the Empire or even to preserve the Empire in the west. Indeed, many wealthy Romans saw a more powerful life for themselves by ascending the hierarchy of the Catholic Church than by serving any secular bureaucracy. This attitude is already evident in the letters of the Gallo-Roman aristocrat, Ruricius, Bishop of Limoge (485-510), who wrote to his aristocratic friends, mostly other Church officials, in a highly refined, even flamboyantly suave, style in which the continual references to, discourses on, and expressions of kindness, generosity, humility, affection, grace, and exaggerated self-deprecation function as a coded rhetoric for the signification and exchange of wealth and power, especially since Ruricius and his friends always seem to write from some mighty country estate where they are able to write elegantly, using metaphors and examples derived almost entirely from the beauties of nature around them and free of any need to refer to anything in any city or even to any community outside of themselves, let alone to any of the violence caused by the invading Franks (Ruricious 1999: esp. 105-106). In this villa-oriented centering of civic and religious power, one could hardly expect the Catholic leadership to show an abiding concern for the decline in urban investment if the strengthening of cities entailed the sponsoring of entertainments, like pantomime, that glorified the body and provided opportunities for factionalism, schism, and an expansive assertion of secular authority. It was therefore up to the Gothic rulers to decide the fate of pantomime in the west. Their Arianism was not a problem for pantomime and might even have been helpful in sustaining the art. The Arian creed was always subordinate to the tribal king, and it had no hierarchical structure within itself to precipitate the kind of ferocious power struggles that plagued the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. 

But outside of Theodoric, no Gothic kings anywhere in the west seem to have betrayed the slightest appreciation of pantomime, and even Theodoric presented games and pantomime entertainments as gifts to his Roman rather than Gothic subjects, not as an art that could achieve integration with a Gothic proto-skaldic performance aesthetic. The Goths believed that they were separate from the Romans, and that this separateness gave them the power to rule. They grasped that their own culture was replacing the Roman culture, but they did not really see each culture transforming the other to produce a new kind of imperial world. In a letter to his brother-in-law, the poet-bishop Sidonius Apollonaris (430-489) described his encounter, around 454, with Theodoric II, King of the Visigoths from 453 to 466. The King, he writes, is robust, good-natured, lacking in pretention, disciplined, diligent and sensible rather than zealous about performing his duties. He gives a banquet for his guests that is remarkable for its lack of ostentation, formality, or trivial talk. “At the supper sometimes, though rarely, comic actors are introduced who utter their satiric pleasantries: in such fashion, however, that none of the guests shall be wounded by their biting tongues. At these repasts no hydraulic organs blow, no band of vocalists under the guidance of a singing-master intone together their premeditated harmony. No harpist, no flute-player, no choir-master, no female player on the tambourine or the cithara, makes melody. The king is charmed only by those instruments under whose influence virtue soothes the soul as much as sweet sounds soothe the ear” (Sidonius Apollonaris, Letters, 1.2; Sidonius Apollonaris 1892: 358). After Theodoric II, it is very hard to locate any evidence for a greater or even equivalent interest in any performing art on the part of Gothic kings. Nevertheless, the Goths must have maintained some kind of performance aesthetic in relation to their proto-skaldic culture, although they might not have relied on the Gothic language to construct it. Wherever they ruled in the former Empire, it is remarkable how the Gothic language failed to take hold. Indeed, the languages that became French, Spanish, and Italian, even in their most archaic forms, contained almost no words borrowed from the Gothic language, and thus it seems that the Goths in the west adopted Latin as their primary medium of communication, even in relation to their own cultural history. As the Gothic foederati became increasingly autonomous, Latin metamorphosed into regional dialects that eventually became separate languages without becoming at all “Gothicized” by the original language spoken by the ruling culture. The performance aesthetic may even have moved away from the proto-skaldic tradition to a hybrid format that incorporated Roman elements derived from the pantomime. 

Around 950, Emperor Constantine VII (905-959) compiled De ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae, which describes the various ceremonies performed by the imperial court in Constantinople. Some of the ceremonies date back to the sixth century, but it is not clear if the descriptions of these older ceremonies means that such ceremonies continued to be performed at the time of the compilation or if Constantine included them for a historical purpose, as a kind of repository of imperial performance strategies. One section of the book (I: 83; Reiske 1829: 381-386) describes a dance performed on the ninth day of Christmas by members of two Gothic “factions.” The performance takes place in one of the dining halls of the palace, where the Goths have nineteen seats at the entrance and eat with the imperial retinue. Each faction of Goths has a “master” or “commander” (drungarius): Greens, on the right, and on the left, “Venetians.” The Goths of both factions wear leather cloaks, “shaggy” hair, and “different kinds of masks.” The Officer of Theatrical Scenes and Games summons the factions, and the factions approach the Emperor’s table bearing shields, which they strike with swords or “rods,” making a “great noise,” while one of them cries out “Tul, Tul.” When they reach the Emperor’s table, the factions encircle it, with one faction inside the circle of the other faction, and with one faction apparently moving clockwise and the other counter clockwise. They do this three times. Then they are “quiet,” with the Venetians on the left of the table while the Greens are on the right. Representatives from each of the factions sing to the “masters” a “so-called Gothic chant” or hymn built around “the number of the letter of the Greek alphabet.” The song praises God for those “crowned with victory.”  Following this is a recitation of poems consisting of “edicts against the enemy” and praise of the Romans and the Emperor, to which the master of the Goths cries “Ampaato,” “giving at the same time a sign of the favor with a high hand.” The Goths then beat their shields and cry, “Tul, Tul.” The singers continue, completing four quatrains of verse based on the obscure alphabetical principle, which conclude with a blessing: “may the powers of your mind be as the sun. Christ is present to each of you, healing and nourishing each of your minds. Accept, O Lord, will of dominion over me and the judges of the ends of the empire.” The Goths cry out: “Tul, Tul,” and then run out as they ran in, beating their shields, Venetians on the left and Greens on the right (Reiske 1829: 381-384).     

The Gothic performance has provoked much scholarly confusion. It is not clear if the performance is something that happened long before the compilation and was a unique event worth remembering or if the performance occurred with some regularity at Christmas time and appeared in the book as a piece within a vast repertoire of imperial ceremonies for different occasions, although Goths are not mentioned anywhere else in the book. The “so-called Gothic chant” is quite difficult to decipher in relation to some sort of numerical-alphabetical principle based upon the Greek or Latin rather than Gothic language, so perhaps the Goths sang the chants translated from the Gothic (Kraus 1895: 254). But the few words that are in Gothic–“Tul,” “Ampaato,” and “Iber,”–have a meaning that no one can identify. Weiner (1921: 329-330) proposed that “the language used by [the Goths] is that of the Spanish Mozarabs, that is, Catalan, with an admixture of Arabic words,” for he assumed “the Goths who were present at the Byzantine court in the tenth century can have been only Spanish Goths,” even though by that time the Visigoths had virtually disappeared from Spain. Moreover, the text itself says the Goths belong to two factions, the Greens, presumably attached to the imperial court apparatus in Constantinople, and the “Venetians,” perhaps Ostrogoths settled in the Veneto region of Italy. A later entry in The Book of Ceremonies (II, 35) mentions five dances performed for a birthday celebration by the Venetian and Green factions, but makes no reference to Goths (Reiske 1829: 633). Because of this anomaly, both entries suggest that these performances occurred before the time of the book’s compilation and that they were not a regular feature of the imperial ceremonial calendar. Westbrook (2013: 14) suggests that the Gothic dance dates from “the late fourth century” and somehow “survived into the tenth century,” which seems highly unlikely because, again, of the lack of reference to Goths anywhere else in the book and because of details in the description of the performance, such as the obscure or mangled account of the Gothic chant. Philpotts (1920: 186) considers it possible that the Goths might be Varangians or “members of an East Germanic tribe” without explaining why the text refers to a faction from Venice, which she calls “the Blues,” even though elsewhere the book (I: 69) makes specific mention of a “Green Russian faction” (Prasini russae factionis) involved in the performance of an acclamatory hymn (Reiske 1829: 311). Kraus contends that the dance dates from a time “in which the Goths were still providing imperial military service, which from Justinian onward was not the case,” although he acknowledges that even in medieval times, Germans sometimes dressed in animal costumes and wildly brandished weapons during the twelve days of Christmas (1895: 231). However, the dances described in both I: 83 and II: 35 project a disciplined, military precision rather than folkloric exuberance. Westbrook (2013: 252) says that iron masks excavated in the 1930s from the ruins of the palace in Constantinople were “probably used for the Gothic dances,” although these have been dated from the end of the twelfth century (Bolognesi Recchi-Franceschini 1995: 132). Finally, Cottas (1931: 6) explicitly links the Gothic shield dance to the pyrrhic movement associated with pantomime. She then links the Gothic dance to a pyrrhic dance, L’Arnaoute, performed in the eighteenth century in the hippodrome of Constantinople by Macedonian butchers in which two teams of fifteen dancers encircle each other “in a sort of agitation” to reenact Alexander’s battles against Darius in front of their commanding general—one group armed with knives and the other with spears. The detailed description of this performance appears in Madame Chenier’s Lettres grecque, evidently written before she moved from Constantinople to Paris in 1762 (1879: 132-134, 143-147). But Chenier herself (1729-1808) made no connection between l’Arnaoute and the Gothic dance; for her, l’Arnaoute is the vestige of an archaic, classically Greek dance tradition, including the Pyrrhic step, dating back to the time of Athenian tragedy (the beginning of the Choro) and preserved over the centuries through Greek communities (“villages Grecs”) in Dacia, Bulgaria, and Wallachia, where Chenier’s family had business connections with governing lords (“hospodars”) (Chenier 1879: 149-152; Faguet 1902: 6). It’s possible, though, that descendants of Goths, settled in these communities, perpetuated a kind of military dance that combined elements of the Gothic dance described in The Book of Ceremonies with some “archival” remnant of the Teutonic sword dance described by Tacitus. But the main point is that the Byzantine Gothic dance indicates how feeble was the capacity of the Goths to provide any kind of alternative to pantomime performance in fulfilling their role as providers of acclamatory entertainment for the Emperor. 

As previously implied, however, the limitations of the Goths in absorbing the pantomime aesthetic were due to pressures internal to Gothic culture rather than to constraints imposed by Byzantine culture. These pressures were perhaps most evident in the circumstances that determined the tragic fate of Amalasuntha, Queen of the Ostrogoths (495-535; reigned 526-535), briefly discussed already. She was the daughter of Theodoric the Great and the widow of a man, Eutharic, descended from the highest level of Gothic nobility. When her father died in 526, her son, Athalaric (516-534), became king and she became the queen regent. Her ambition was to align the Gothic culture more closely with Roman culture and thus to build a more integrated society within Italy. She sought to achieve this goal by educating her son in the refined values of the Roman aristocracy. But Athalaric experienced intense pressure from the Gothic nobility to resist this education. Gothic nobles approached the Queen and urged her to release her son from the book learning he received from three Gothic elders, “For letters, they said, are far removed from manliness, and the teaching of old men results for the most part in a cowardly and submissive spirit.” Fearing that the nobles were plotting against her, Amalasuntha relented, but under the tutelage of the nobles, Athalaric fell in with some licentious boys, who, “by enticing him to drunkenness and to intercourse with women, made him an exceptionally depraved youth.” He died suddenly, and Amalasuntha found herself running a kingdom in which a sector of the Gothic nobility, unwilling to accept orders from a woman, conspired against her. She cultivated a close relation with Justinian and Constantinople, hoping either for resources to develop her vision of a new, integrated Italian society or for an escape to Constantinople. She arranged for the assassination of three Gothic nobles and their relatives who were plotting against her, and she unwisely entered into a pact with the learned but unscrupulous Gothic prince Theodahad (480-536), whom she had prosecuted for his fraudulent seizure of Tuscan lands. She believed she could placate the Gothic nobility by creating the illusion that she governed the Gothic kingdom in partnership with Theodahad, a nephew of Theodoric the Great. The illusion, however, was hers. Theodahad’s treachery was spectacular. Unforgiving of Amalasuntha’s punishment of his real estate frauds, he conspired with the relatives of the nobles Amalasuntha had executed, arrested the Queen, and attempted to deceive Justinian about the arrest. He imprisoned Amalasuntha in a villa on Lake Bolseno, then, fearing the wrath of relatives linked to the assassinated nobles, he ordered the murder of the Queen in her bath (Procopius 1919: 15-39). This murder enraged Justinian and precipitated the long imperial war that devastated the Gothic kingdom and which by 552 put an end to Gothic rule in Italy and indeed even to any idea of Gothic “influence” upon Roman culture. The husband of Amalasuntha’s daughter, Matasuntha, Vittigis, quickly succeeded Theodahad as King of the Goths, when Theodahad, who was apparently incapable of acting without treachery, even toward his own people, failed to protect the Goths in Naples against the invasion by Belisarius’s army. Vittigis arranged for the assassination of Theodahad, but it was too late for him to turn the tide against the Goths. When Totila succeeded him, the Goths thought they had a savior. He showed considerable skill in adopting Roman techniques for gathering supporters, even among the Romans, and for waging war against the imperial forces. But he lacked the vision of a new, integrated, imperial civilization that motivated Amalasuntha, and eventually a huge imperial army led by Narses destroyed him, his army, and most of what remained of Gothic Italy. By this time, the integration of Gothic and Roman culture was irrelevant to the imperial government—without victorious warriors, “Gothic culture,” as such, ceased to exist. 

Amalasuntha believed that the warrior ethos of the Goths would keep the Goths separate from the Romans and eventually destroy the Gothic kingdom. An implication of this belief is perhaps evident in a letter that Cassiodorus, her secretary and an erudite scholar of Greek and Roman literature, wrote on behalf of Athalaric to a Governor Severus conveying the Queen Regent’s desire (order, actually) that nobles should spend more time in cities, for while the countryside offers many pleasures, “’Why should so many men refined by literature skulk in obscurity?” “Let the cities then return to their old splendour; let none prefer the charms of the country to the walls reared by the men of old. Why should not everyone be attracted by the concourse of noble persons, by the pleasures of converse with his equals? To stroll through the Forum, to look in at some skilful craftsman at his work, to push one’s own cause through the law courts, then between whiles to play with the counters of Palamedes (draughts), to go to the baths with one’s acquaintances, to indulge in the friendly emulation of the banquet—these are the proper employments of a Roman noble; yet not one of them is tasted by the man who chooses to live always in the country with his farm-servants” (Cassiodorus Variae 7.31; 1886: 561-566). With Amalasuntha as their sovereign, the Gothic nobility saw the difference between Gothic and Roman culture as a matter of conflict between “masculine” and “feminine” constructions of cultural identity, with the refinements of urban life, including the enjoyment of “spectacles,” implicated in the insidious “feminization” of Gothic manliness. But by the time Amalasuntha came to power, pantomime had virtually disappeared from Roman culture in the east and was now something Theodoric had supported as a gift to the Romans in the Gothic kingdom. The problem for the Gothic nobility was that his daughter seemed to regard Roman cultural productions, like pantomime, as gifts to the Gothic people. Pantomime projected an ambivalent or enigmatic cultural identity insofar as it was no longer officially Roman, not sufficiently Christian in its semiotics, and by no means inclined to abandon its body-centric aesthetic for the voice-oriented, magic-word addicted proto-skaldic culture of the Goths. Yet within this ambiguity lay the power of pantomime as an artistic medium. It was this ambiguity that allowed the Goths in Constantinople to “borrow” the martial, pyrrhic movement and masking from pantomime to construct their own Christmas dance for the Emperor without being identified as “feminized” Romans or anyone but Goths.

In the Vandal kingdom in North Africa, governed entirely by men, pantomime could prosper in an environment whose citizens, Roman, Punic, and barbarian, largely believed the Vandals had freed them from onerous imperial taxes, oppressive landowners, Orthodox strictures, and corrupt imperial officials. North Africa was a stronghold of Arianism to the point of making life quite difficult for Catholics. But the Vandals could not build their economy without resorting to piracy, raiding, and plunder, which meant that they relied on the sea rather than on the land to secure their future, unlike the Goths, who were never confident of their ability to achieve power through the sea. In their mode of governing, the Vandals were flexible, opportunistic, and even improvisatory. However, they underestimated the magnitude of land-based resources they needed to sustain a fleet capable of dominating the Mediterranean, and they underestimated the role of seemingly remote geopolitical conditions in determining their success at raiding without assuming the need for reliable allies, even among the Goths, with whom they were in almost constant conflict. As long as the Byzantines were preoccupied with huge European threats to the Empire, North Africa remained a peripheral concern, for the Vandals, having grown accustomed to the pleasant life afforded them by their possession of North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands, showed no enthusiasm for large, imperial ambitions that would require their rather small but affluent population to become much more disciplined and much less “separate” from the different peoples they ruled. In 534, Belisarius invaded the kingdom with a rather small fleet and army, and restored the lands to the Empire, although Justinian’s motive in sending Belisarius may have been primarily to end piracy. In any case, the Vandal kingdom came to an abrupt end before the death of Amalsuntha, before Justinian and Belisarius embarked on the invasion of the Gothic kingdom in Italy. The imperial government completely dispersed the Vandal population into different sections of the Empire, so that it virtually disappeared as a distinct ethnic identity. 

Nevertheless, for about a hundred years, the Vandals operated a kingdom in which a substantial portion of the population enjoyed a leisurely existence. The poems of the North African Luxorius suggest that he lived in an indulgent society, even though he wrote at the very end of the Vandal kingdom. His fleeting verses evoke an atmosphere of refined aestheticism, utterly devoid of Christian sentiment. He marvels, for example, at pleasure gardens, an exotic fountain, mysterious statues, the beauty of allegorical paintings, the beauty of a black Egyptian animal fighter, a pornographic sarcophagus, the gentle qualities of otherwise wild animals, and a blind man who by touch can discern the whiteness of a woman’s skin. He makes fun of the sexual peculiarties of both men and women, he makes fun of homosexuals, dwarves, hunchbacks, a hermaphrodite, and the vanities and delusions of various egocentric persons he knows, such as (No. 24) the female pantomime, Macedonia, a dwarf, who performs the roles of great women like Andromache and Helen to make herself grow taller (Rosenbaum 1961: 150-151). In a couple of poems (75 and 76), Luxorius writes scornfully of a cymbal dancer, Gattula, whose ugliness completely undermines her skill in dancing with cymbals; she furthermore degrades herself by squandering her bonuses on gifts for men in the vain hope of awakening their affection (Rosenbaum 1961: 156-157). Several poems deal with charioteers and the delights of the hippodrome. But in the context of all these poems, the reader gets the impression that pantomime in Arian North Africa remained insulated from the Christianization of it in the east, still devoted to themes from pagan mythology, still immersed in hyper-voluptuousness, if given also to freakish sensations and pleasures. When Belisarius reclaimed the Vandal territories for the Empire, Arianism vanished, and with it the pantomime, for one reason that Justinian launched the war against the Vandals, which was not altogether popular in the east, particularly with the clergy and the land owning class, was to rid the world of the Arian heresy, which was fundamental in maintaining the “separation” between Goths and Romans. It is evident that the Vandals tolerated pantomime and probably even created conditions under which the art thrived. Pantomime might have continued to thrive, if the Vandal elite had been wise enough to build alliances with either Justinian or, even better, with Amalasuntha, who sought to strengthen her precarious position in Ravenna by cultivating a partnership with the Vandals. But under King Hilderic, the Vandals in 526 had murdered Amalfrida, Theodoric’s sister, the mother of Theodahad, and widow of the Vandal King Thrasamund, ostensibly because of her conspiracy in 523 to overthrow Hilderic after he recalled from exile Catholic and Orthodox bishops in an effort to improve his relations with the Byzantines (Cassiodorus Variae 9.1; 1886: 574). The point, however, of killing Amalfrida when both Amalasuntha and Justinian had ascended to their respective thrones was to signfy that the Vandals were separate from both the Gothic Kingdom and the Empire and that any idea of alliance between the Goths and the Vandals was doomed. This decision eventually proved as fatal to the Vandal Kingdom as to the Gothic Kingdom, for it showed Justinian that the Vandals were unprepared and unwilling to wage war, incapable of rising above piracy, and that Amalasuntha, if not the Goths, would find her greatest ally in Constantinople. To a large degree, then, the end of pantomime was a collateral result of the disparate political ambitions of two women, Amalasuntha and Theodora. 

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s