William J. Slater
Department of Classics
McMaster University
Ontario, L8S 4M2

If we exclude Seneca, we have no surviving drama from Roman imperial times. This contrasts with the vast number of surviving theatres from the same period, and the increasing number of days devoted to drama in Rome itself, not to mention the escalation of theatrical festivals attested throughout the east. The archaeological data prove that there was an extraordinary and perhaps unparalleled investment in theatrical ventures. It is paradoxical that we are so ill informed about this enormous industry. In Rome itself the priority accorded the gladiators and venationes is proven by the four schools in the neighbourhood of the Flavian amphitheatre. The theatre itself was dominated by mime/ Atellan in farce, comedy, a musical form of tragedy which was more like our high opera, choral singing, and pantomime.

Immediately however we must distinguish between the Greek and Roman theatre. The Greek festival tradition was strictly regimented, and almost none of these Roman genres was acceptable as competitive categories. This is particularly a problem with pantomime, which was accepted as a competitive event in the Greek festivals of Campania from ca. 100 A.D. But there is epigraphic and literary evidence that there were 'certamina' of pantomimes at Rome even in Augustan times, whereas there is no evidence for a true pantomime competition as part of a Greek festival in the east until the time of Commodus. But, like gladiators, pantomimes were as popular in the east and in the west, and indeed many of the most famous came from the east, especially Syria. We must accept that they were able to perform outside the festival categories and circuits as special attractions, i.e. as philotimiai = Lat. munera, or as akroamata or theamata in their own right.

This is illustrated by the history of the terminology for these artists. The word "pantomime" is Greek but is used only by "Italians" says Lucian, by which he means primarily the Greeks of Campania, whence it becomes latin usage and supplements the word 'histrio' a general word for dancer. Its two uses in Greek are for performers of the 1st C. B.C. who we may suppose are minor actors, equivalent perhaps to the "comic and dancer" we find at Delphi. The Greek pantomime called himself either generally a "dancer" or more grandly, "actor of tragic rhythmic dancing". The Greek performer, who was we need to remember nearly always a free man, at any rate distanced himself from the mime, and sought to convey his adherence to the tradition of Greek tragedy on one hand, and on the other the gymnasium tradition of calisthenic rhythmic dancing. The Roman pantomime was almost always a freedman, and this may account for the fact that the best known of all eastern pantomimes deliberately refrained from competition in Italy, despite the privileges to be won there. Of course there were famous women dancers, but they achieved prominence as pantomimes only in byzantine times.

It is much more difficult than has been realized to delimit pantomime from other theatrical spectacles, precisely because of the long history of different forms of dance, which continued even after the development of the Roman spectacular form. These include cult dancing, sometimes connected with Dionysus, the theatrical pyrriche or war-dance of the young men, the native Italian ludus talarius and the many genres of choral dancing. The most popular and probably most expensive form of pantomime was that developed by the pantomime Pylades, a freedman of Augustus. The myths of Greek tragedy were illustrated by a masked and usually solo dancer, to the accompaniment of a libretto sung by a singer or a chorus to the sound of the flute or a larger orchestra. A major role was taken by the percussion, supplied by a wooden clapper (scabellum, Gk. kroupeza) attached to the foot of the musician. The performance could take some time, requiring changes of masks and clothing. The clothing especially could be grandiose. Though mimes could wear masks and dance also, and solo performances of female dancers with masks are known later, a determining criterion of the great pantomimes was the lavish spectacle they afforded, and it is natural that some actors could appear on occasion with them as a foil for the pantomime. The pantomime was highy athletic, and we hear of jumps, sudden freezes, and even of somersaults. Yet the greatest attention is paid to their "exactness", i.e. the ability to imitate precisely the character they portray. In this the hands were of paramount importance, so that reference is often made to "cheironomy" and "talking with the hands". Regular terms of praise are "elegance" and "charm". The mask was that of the character but natural, without the distortion of tragedy, and with closed mouth; it must have been light, and the "flashing eyes" of the performer are praised. A feature of the later pantomimes that enable us to identify some pantomime masks are the long strands of hair that apparently gave names to such pantomimes as Crispus or Chrysomallos. The athleticism of the pantomimes is also found in the varieties of dancing that involved imitations of boxing and wrestling movements, which must derive from the gymnasium, but are found accompanied by choruses. Schools for these existed outside Rome. This accounts too for the description of their actions as "lygismos", the twisting flexibility of the trained athlete.

On the other hand, since so much of our information comes from disapproving church fathers or satirists, we hear much that is negative, about their "effeminate movements" and their deplorable morals. Juvenal tends to equate them with "cinaedi" and assumes that they corrupt the morals of womenfolk especially. That the pantomimes felt this criticism may be deduced from their claims on their epitaphs to having led lives of unimpeachable integrity. Nonetheless their amorous connections with many eminent Romans, beginning with Maecenas, are documented by the hostile Tacitus and others. The greatest pantomime of his day Mnester was put to death by Claudius on a morals charge, as was the great Paris in the time of Domitian: both were alleged to have had affairs with the empress. The "voluptas" of both was notorious. Not surprisingly such artists had their fan clubs; the "Paridiani" or "Anicetiani" are recorded from Pompeian graffiti. But more surprising is their close connections to the upper classes, attested by decrees of the Roman senate, which had as their aim the reduction in the following of these artists. Nonetheless Pliny records that no one had ever bought his freedom at so high a price as the pantomime Paris. Clearly the great artists could become extremely wealthy and have powerful connections even with the imperial house. This is not of course fully reflected in those epitaphs that survive, though the freedman Pylades Theocrit(es?) under Commodus reached the augurate in Pozzuoli and was honorary decurion of the "most splendid cities of Italy". In the east we have less information, save for T.Iulius Apolaustus at the end of the second century, who had over thirty statues raised to his honour in most of the great cities of Greece and Asia, was councillor of at least 22 cities, and citizen of more than could be listed.

Such performers were not only powerful. In Rome they and their supporters caused theatre riots, in fact the most disruptive known in classical times. This led to their frequent banishment and eventual recall in the first and second centuries. The reasons are not entirely clear. There is no doubt that they appeared in competitions, which exacerbated fan rivalry. Equally clear is that their connections with the upper classes gave them an assurance that could lead to provocations. We know of decrees of the senate under Tiberius that were directed at the pantomimes, until finally they were banished in 23. This is probably to be connected with the fact that Drusus, son of Tiberius, was their sponsor. But the senate sought to prevent contact between the upper classes and these performers. Therefore it ruled that pantomimes were not to perform in private houses, i.e. in the private theatres of the wealthy Romans; and that members of the upper orders were not to process with these artists in the street. Twice it sought by legislation to prevent younger members of the upper orders, both male and female, from performing professionally as pantomimes, something that would normally have led to their removal from these orders. The penalty was probably exile. It seems clear that the attraction was both the great financial rewards and also the popular acclaim. Though the usual venue for the great spectacles was the theatre, the pantomime is found adapted to private houses and to the amphitheatre and stadium as well. By the beginning of the third century pantomimes are found closely associated with the factions of the circus, i.e. the pantomimes of the Blues or Greens perform as part of the racing, presumably in the intervals. Here too they brought rioting, which led to intervention by the authorities. Theatre riots however are known from Byzantium, and a late emperor could complain that his own picture was obscured by those of pantomimes and charioteers. They remained popular until at least the sixth century in the east.

The organizations of the pantomimes are obscure. They were not eligible to enter the association of the Dionysiac artists, because they had no category in the Greek festivals. In Rome they and the mimes seem to have belonged from the first century onwards to a parallel organization called the "Parasites of Apollo", which was organized as a college of artisans, with officers and priests. In the east, they seem to have been accepted slowly and reluctantly by the festival artists, perhaps first in Egypt. They are given associate status as "synagonists", but relegated to performances outwith the festival competition. This would explain references to groupings such as "the competitors and the theatrical performers", "the Dionysiac artists and their associate competitors". When they do win competitions, they receive money prizes or as "overall competitors" first in Italy, then in Greece. Only with Commodus do they win sacred competitions in the east, probably due to the Romanization of eastern festivals. This finally gave them the status of "sacred victors" with attendant tax and social privileges, something the Italian virtuosos had long enjoyed. In the west their relations to the imperial authorities is revealed only by a small number of inscriptions, whose implications are disputed. It would seem that there was an imperial school for pantomimes, as there was for gladiators, and that the emperor eventually controlled the distribution of these popular artists as part of his disposition of patronage. They are said to be "launched" and may be sent to Milan or Lepcis in Africa as part of a system whereby communities are supplied with superior artists. In Rome itself the fan clubs seem to have been organized by street and region to support their local heros, something that obviously could engender overenthusiasm also. We are however woefully ignorant as to just how pantomimes were hired, and impresarios operated. It would appear that middlemen negotiated with the pantomime's agent, sometimes an imperial procurator, to supply the artist's services for given venues, but that imperial control of this valuable resource tightened in the third century.

The tragic pantomime was the great soloist of the ancient theater. His large troupe acted as a foil for his performance. But there were comic or at least light-hearted pantomimes as well, usually associated with the school of Bathyllus, the freedman of Augustus' minister Maecenas. These were more suited for private performance. But lavish pantomime was especially suited for the enormous theatres and odea with their increasingly multilingual audiences. Language gave way to the visual. Pantomime translated well to all corners of the empire and so helped to spread the common culture of greek mythology which was the artistic language of the far-flung empire, at least before Christianity and economic decline undermined it. Theatres therefore and pantomimes played their part in imperial propaganda, indirectly but at least sometimes directly.


Hartmut Leppin, Histrionen (Bonn 1992) on the Roman side, with excellent bibliography.

Richard Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience (Harvard 1992) 116-153, a brief and popular treatment

Georgios Theocharidis, Beitraege zur Geschichte des byzantinischen Profantheaters im IV. und V. Jahrhundert (Thessaloniki 1940) with good indices

E. Wuest, Art. "Pantomimus" Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopaedie XVIII 3 (1949) 833-69 gives still the best overall treatment

I.E. Stephanes, Dionysiakoi Technitai [in Greek] (Heraklion 1988) lists conveniently all known Greek dancers and pantomimes to that date

More will be forthcoming in the Cambridge History of the Theatre in progress, and from the Togo Salmon Conference on the Roman Theatre [McMaster 1993] to be published by University of Michigan Press, where especially the iconography of the pantomime will be treated.

William J. Slater

William J. Slater is co-author of a sourcebook on ancient theater, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.