The Roman Theater - Pantomime And Imperial Spectacle
( Originally Published 1935 )
The gamut of Roman dancing offers us a complete contrast to everything Greek, although a basic part of Roman theatre was seriously influenced by ideas from Attica herself, and from Hellenic colonists in Sicily or Magna Graecia. Dance, as the Greeks understood it, and to a great extent as we under-stand it, held little meaning for Romans, but they were responsible for several contiguous forms which have had serious, if only subsequent effect on the mutations of theatrical dancing.
The history of our modern stage-dance can be interpreted as a triangular contest between dancing proper, expressive mimicry and spectacular decoration in costume or scenery. One or the other of these elements, during the last two hundred years, seems always ascendant, and it has been the task of great reformers, Noverre, Vigano, Richard Wagner or Fokine to reassert the necessity for a synthesis. The Greeks, as far as we can tell, and as we would like to believe, in order to have at least one perfect point of reference, may have managed by a happy series of circumstances to. achieve the equilibrium of song or verse, dance and expressiveness. They were limited by technical poverties and insular boundaries, but this was their good fortune. In Rome, with the growing obsession of imperialist world-domination, all limits disappeared. An audience by no means trained or concentrated as the Greek, set a low common denominator for public tastes. Instead of attempting to conserve those factors necessary for a Iyric dance-drama, Romans were quick to over-emphasize each element in turn, with main accent on mime and spectacle. Dancing was practically eliminated, and through little fault of its own would receive such a bad reputation in company with other excesses, that it could not reemerge in a form worthy of its past honorable name for a thousand years.
We study the history of the Roman stage to show, not a connection with dance, but a separation from it. Aside from indigenous marriage rites, secular or religious feasts of aborigines in the Italian peninsula, with whatever aspects of theater they shared in common with drama-dances of any primitive society., their first theatrical representations were probably arranged by Greek colonials who remembered seasons of the great Dionysia. These starts fell on naturally fertile ground. Of all Mediterranean races, the Italians remain manually the most demonstrative. Their hands, shoulders, their whole bodies coincide with their tongues to make their meanings more intensely vivid. A number of local elements were fertilized by an already formulated Greek drama which can be briefly noticed. The inherent Latin gift for the assumption of a role was characteristically employed by composers of wedding-verses in Southern Etruria, who would sing, chant or shout scurrilous and witty descriptions of ceremonies, as nuptial serenades, with appropriate invocations to the gods of fruitfulness and love. They were called Fescennine (fascinum equals Greek: phallos). Although they turned into a complex literary form they never merged into dramas, as did the dithyramb. There were also players from Istria who had been imported to Rome at the foundation of `scenic games' in 364 B.C. when the Consuls considered it necessary to propitiate the gods with theatrical entertainment, and distract a populace harassed by plague. These Etruscan dancers and pantomimists, whose speech even seemed alien to the Romans, had not been out of touch with Greek settlers, and became so well-known that as istriones they are remembered for the name attached to all histrionic art. Their performances gave impetus to the popularization of the saturer (from goat-skin shepherd's cloaks), farcical after-pieces of a rustic origin, independently parallel to Greek satyr-plays. The scenici or mimi, specifically imitative actors, had their beginnings with the springs of the art itself. Their name may have replaced the older, planipedes, flat-foot or bare-foot buffoons among slaves and poor farmers. These mimes not only parodied the everyday life of a difficult existence, but in their versions enacted vulgar adaptations of the lives of gods and heroes. Their bawdy farces were at first performed alone, then as epilogues to the official dramatic games, and again, under the Empire, reasserted themselves, mostly preserving elements which were specifically pantomimic or in dumb-show.
The mimi also drew considerably from an important genre of Latin play. These were the so-called Atellan Fables, satirical comedies of small-town life, full of definite, recognizable characters. These have counterparts not only in previous comic types of Aristophanes and later Greek comedians from which they were also borrowed, but centuries later in Venetian and French farces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and our own con-temporary satires of Broadway or the Boulevards. Historians have made much of a consecutive tradition for all comic plays. Indeed there is much to support theories of absolutely unbroken descent. It is also a simple fact that domestic situations involving conflicts of married life, of contrast between city, suburbs and the farm are as comical and pitiful in Syracuse, New York, as they were in Graeco-Roman Syracuse. In Fabulae Atellan v (from the town of Atella in the Campagna) we find Pappus (or Papa), the heavy father;—Maccus, an ass-eared glutton, a white-washed country-bumpkin, hunchbacked, with big nose and skull, the prototype of Punch; Bucco, a puffy gossip,—and such others as the wily Cheat, the boasting Soldier, the grasping Whore, the Doctor-Charlatan, the effeminate Young-Man. They may be more real to us if we compare them to our equivalents of farce or comic-strip; the difficult Motherin-Law, the put-upon Father who has his sentimental triumph before the third-act curtain in spite of seeming silliness, the Son-in-Law-to-be whom Father privately encourages when his beautiful but fickle Daughter prefers the slick City-Fellow, or if in the city, the smooth Foreigner. The plots of the Atellana' were simple. The dialogue was improvised by actors as they went along. Plenty of slap-stick relief and broad local allusions with the names of local characters inserted drew ready laughter. For a short time they assumed a literary formulization but were wholly absorbed into pantomime under the Emperors. Plots recounting the abuses of demagogues and official corruption were often popular, but adultery and love were the most popular themes. After Nero murdered his mother, one Datus, an actor of the Atellance, accompanied a speech starting 'Hail Father, Hail Mother,' with the gestures of a man drinking from a cup, and thrashing about in water; this referred to the poisoning of Claudius, the drowning of Agrippina. Nero only banished him from the country.
The origin of the academic Roman stage had its occasion in 240 B.C., when, after victory in the first Punic War, public games were held with especial glory, after the precedent of Macedonia and Greece. The writer of both the comedy and the tragedy performed then was one Livius Andronicus, a freed slave of Hellenized Tarentum, the city famous for its Dionysiac celebrations. He was traditionally believed to have once lost his voice and hence invented the art of mime. His models were late Attic playwrights. The choros, as such, had little place. The dialogue was broken up by cantica, songs of a young boy, stood up in front of a player on the tibia (flute), while a single mime interpreted his lines by gesticulation. Actors took their parts very seriously. Quiritilian reports seeing them leave the stage in tears after a particularly pathetic scene. The style of their declamation was patterned on normal speech, but was no servile copy. Precision and grandeur were added. Gesture, predominantly of hands and arms, followed a preordained canon. Senatorial orators were instructed by actors in order to gain more powerful effects. Plutarch analyzed the Dance (movement) in three sections. Motion, a blanket term; Posture, a dancer-actor's attitude at the moment of an arrested pause in motion; Indication, a gesture whereby some external object, the heavens or earth, was pointed out. Roman dramatic literature degenerated into sophisticated, derivative dilettantism. Romans loved a full stage, noise and color. They were enchanted with Pompey who equipped the return of Agamemnon in the 'Clytemnestra' with six hundred superbly laden mules. Since the theater proper was an inadequate place for semi-military spectacle which they grew more and more to demand, it was replaced by the Circus and the Arena. This change was encouraged by censorious puritans of the conservative Republic who promoted the martial allure of gladiatorial combat as against the softness of the stage,—sensing quite early an electioneering facility held by con-trolling the games whose popularity was proverbial. Juvenal's mot, summing up the desires of the people, Bread and circuses, was no negligible half-truth to the Senate.
The Roman theatrum made several amplifications of the Greek theatron (place for seeing) which tells us directly little or nothing of its effect on Roman dancing. But this we must keep in mind for fifteen hundred years until Renaissance architects, in attempting to reconstruct the Roman stage from archeological sources, will provide a frame for our stage-dancing. This frame, however unlike its original, would be, nevertheless, our standard for the next half thousand years.
In Rome, as far as theatrical history extends, in spite of the perfunctory attitude by which Consuls voted games to propitiate the divinities, theatre was always theatre. Greeks were by nature participants, if not actually actors. Romans were always spectators. The Senate, perhaps because it was jealous of any amusements except the circus-games which it could control and exploit, for a long time prevented the erection of permanent stone scenes. The first lasting theatre at Rome was erected by Cornelius Pompey in 55 B.C., but even here the scena, or performer's portion, was wood. It had some eighteen thou-sand seats. Seventy-seven years later, in the reign of Tiberius, this house was burnt—and he completely rebuilt it in stone, though he hated the circus-shows.
The Romans, since they understood better than the Greeks the constructional advantages of key-stone arch and concrete vaulting, could bank seats upon such level ground as the Field of Mars, while the Greeks usually had to make the best of semi-circular hillsides. Roman auditoria were absolute semi-circles, and stage-buildings were integrated with them, making the whole fabric for the first time an entity. The stage platform was not more than five feet high, but far deeper than the Greek, and backed by an elaborate episkenion or frontal stage-scene, embellished with decorative architectural fantasy, broken entablatures or rosettes in recessive vaults supported by ornate pilasters and free-standing columns which held nothing but fancifully vegetated Corinthian capitals. The Greeks knew such a permanently busy decor would compete with the performers to their disadvantage, but Romans were not troubled by such logic. Indeed, performers seem almost to have been a rather minor consideration, compared to the splendors of the buildings' physical appurtenances, huge painted awnings to keep sun from their eyes, flower-water squirted about to cool them off, the regulated claques of applauders. There is much in the crassness and technical ingenuity of Roman civilization to remind us of our own. Nowhere is the parallel so upsetting as between their big, comparatively unloved theaters, and our own monstrous movie palaces with every miracle of exotic decorative allusion. We have `Egyptian,"Spanish,"Gothic,"Renaissance,' etc., while the Romans had only Greek, and besides air-conditioning, acoustics, long range projection, velvet comfort, conventionalized courtesy, all for the presentation of films, and mostly what films!
A secondary reason for the decline of Roman dramatic literature, and exclusion of any possibility of dance-drama comparable to Greek, which if not in actual breadth or nobility, might have at least resulted in a brilliant dance-satire (if not Euripides, then Petronious),—was the social-position of actors, mimes and dancers. Originally, poets hired their own troupes, training and performing with them, but later permanent companies composed of south Italian or Greek slaves, once owned by rich nobles, were rented out to the theatrical managers. As slaves, these wretched half-starved, insecure artists could be bullied or flogged at will, which they frequently were, or even killed by a master's or a rentor's word. There were some, who by the quality of their art were freed and achieved intimacy with the Emperor, which we shall see was not an undiluted blessing. But such exceptions did little to improve the status of thousands of professional or semi-professional mimes who neither had nor could ever hope to have, civil rights. Their miserable condition contributed to the unattractiveness of the stage as a profession. But had the patrician fathers really desired it, or the populace preferred it to games or big shows, the situation could have been altered.
What dancing there was in Rome surviving in records of paint, stone or verse, is of a preponderantly religious, or at least ritual nature, and when stage-dancing was designed for use either as dramatic interlude or a part of circus-shows, its form must have been somewhat determined by remnants of ceremonial usage. The Etruscans, one of three folk who created the Latin race, were of obscure origin leaving a meager history. They seem to have become a conquering nation before the start of the sixth century B.C.; were obsessed by the animal sacrifice, the inspection of entrails to prognosticate future events. This habit Romans later made spectacular, but without the pretext of prophecy.
They were masters of the double flute, and strictly observed a predetermined order in their dance-steps as a functional rite, which might lose its virtue if incorrectly repeated. Their goddess Menvra (Roman, Minerva), was the patroness of music, flutes and horns. Etruscan nobles did not take part in their games, and for funeral-dances supported a class of professionals who were of the same caste as flute-players, acrobats, or the best-looking slaves. There are very full tomb murals extant at Corneto, with vivid presentations of a crotalisteria, a female dancer with bells and flexible clappers or crotali, with which, as premiere danseuse, she marks her time. A male dancer and his partner (saltator and saltatrix) are paired, accompanied by a flautist (subulo). It was these people who were borrowed as famous dancers for the first known spectacles, to appease their neighbor's gods.
One of the most ancient of Roman dances was Ariadne's Dance, or the 'Troy-Game,' of Grecian origin, which we have had already in quotation from the Iliad, and which Virgil attached to the legend of Theseus. Its pattern is scratched on a Pompeian wall, with an inscription: `Labyrinth: here dwelt Minotaur,' and it is found frequently as a design in mosaic pavements, with hero and bull-headed monster standing in the center. Later on the Ludus Troia' was an equestrian sham-battle, revived as a brilliant game for young knights by Augustus. It is vividly described in the fifth book of Virgil's AEneid. Another early Roman dance was Bellicrepa, supposedly invented by the city-founder Romulus, to commemorate the Rape of the Sabine Women, and in essence was a survival of marriage-by-capture rites. Dancing as a whole played much less of a part in both national and private lives of the Romans, than the Spartans or Athenians. Cicero, who is said to have had a bad physique, formulated the Republican attitude against dancing (that feature of the theater which was most Greek), in one of his celebrated speeches:
Cato calls Lucius Murena a dancer. If this be imputed to him truly, it is the reproach of a violent accuser; but if falsely, it is the abuse of a scurrilous railer. Wherefore, as you are a person of such influence, you ought not, 0 Marcus Cato, to pick up abusive expressions out of the streets, or out of some quarrel of buffoons; but ought not rashly to call a consul of the Roman people a dancer; but to consider with what other vices besides, that man must be tainted to whom that can with truth be imputed. For no man, one may almost say, ever dances when sober, unless perhaps he be a madman; nor in solitude, nor in a moderate and sober party; dancing is the last companion of prolonged feasting, of luxurious situation, and of many refinements.
These infuriating and priggish phrases form one of the best examples of a vicious element of moral dishonesty which makes the parallel between Romans and too many modern peoples frightening. The so-called early Roman fathers, infected with that will to power which resulted in Rome's fall, found it convenient to make of Greece a nationalist butt, having appropriated as much Hellenic culture as they could stomach. It is true, however, the Athens of Cicero's day had sadly degenerated from the time of Pericles, and was filled with a mongrel population of dilute natives, Levantines and other less virile people. Later on Rome would be infested with innumerable oriental religions, of Attis, Isis, Osiris, Serapis and Mithras, brought into Rome for the convenience of worshipers who were alien to the empire's capital. Dancing was often their distinguishing mark and at least some of the popularity for native Romans in these cults may have derived from their ritual dances. This feature was conveniently sensational and always attracted the wrath of puritan chauvinists.* Seneca spoke of the malady of having a dancing teacher in every patrician house.
An artificial step of measured solemnity was affected by votaries of Juno, who, halting in the Forum, sang her praises, dancing a simple round. Other processional dances accompanied the lustral, or purification ceremonies, in which a circular figure was described, within whose radius no evil influence could act. Another was done by the Arval Fraternity on the occasion of Ambarvalia, a feast of Ceres. The Brothers of the Ploughed Fields, on the second of a three-day rite, in a special thrice-repeated three-step (tripudium), led around pigs, rams or bulls for sacrifice to Mars, formerly a vegetation, not a war god. February celebrated the Lupercalia, once the occasion on which Julius Caesar was thrice offered and thrice refused a crown. It may have been connected with a memorial to that she-wolf (Lupo) who suckled Romulus and Remus, but seems rather to be named for its Luperci (ones aproned in goat-skins), who raced around the Palatine, worshiping Pan, thrashing thongs
cut from sacrificed goats. In March and October were held holy processions of the Salii, whose ritual occupied three weeks. Led off by trumpets, equipped in full-battle armor they paraded the capital; at every shrine and temple they halted, and directed by two captains, performed a solemn pyrrhic in three measures, singing their own accompaniment.
The Salii, the priests of Mars, twelve in number, were instituted by Numa. Their dress was an embroidered tunic, bound with a girdle ornamented with brass. They wore on their head a conical cap, of a considerable height; carried a sword by their side; in their right hand a spear or rod, and in their left, one of the Ancilia, or shields of Mars. On solemn occasions, they used to go to the Capitol, through the forum and other public parts of the city, dancing and singing sacred songs, said to have been composed by Numa; which, in the time of Horace, could hardly be understood by any one, even the priests themselves. The most solemn procession of the Salii was on the first of March, in commemoration of the time when the sacred shield was believed to have fallen from heaven, in the reign of Numa. After their procession, they had a splendid entertainment, the luxury of which was proverbial.
The Roman word for dance, saltio, is perhaps falsely confused with these salii. There was an Arcadian, one Salius, held responsible for first instructing the Romans in dancing. The pacific, semi-historic king, Numa Pompilius, supposedly initiated this order with twelve youths of noble birth, who, shirted in purple and buckled into ceremonial arms, beat time with short swords on sacred shields. In late Roman sculpture they are confused with the Kuretes, the dancing nurses of Cretan Zeus. The Salii also honored Saturn, god of the sown-seed, leaping (saltatio) high into the air, so that by inductive magic they caused corn and other cereals to wax tall. There were numerous colleges of such dancing priests all over the peninsula, whose ritual was useful for fertility. A late Roman historian, Varro, says in connection with the Salii: "The meaning of dancing at religious rites is that our ancestors felt that no part of the body should be debarred from religious experience." One might add that the ancestors, if he means the original farmers of the seven hills, or even the Etruscans, probably derived such an idea from the Greeks. Another such cult, but entirely feminine, was connected with the worship of Bona Dea or Great Mother, whose secret rites no man knew, and when the fiend Caligula presumed to participate in her ceremonies he honestly scandalized 1 people whose capacity for scandal was exhausted. The great feast of Saturnalia, observed on the seventeenth of December, has not left us any particular descriptions of dances, but it is perhaps important to record here, because when Roman Christians would appropriate its season for Christ's Mass it would, through ensuing centuries, be occasion for many dramatic dances. Saturn's festival lasted a week. On the day, gifts of wax tapers (our Christmas candles), presents and dolls (survivals of human-sacrifice) were exchanged. At this time, all distinctions of class were nominally, in many cases actually, set aside.
Masters and slaves ate together. Supposedly instituted by Romulus at the winter solstice, it was a season for universal license, drunkenness, dancing in the streets; the only days in the year when bondsmen had freedom of speech.
There were also secular dances, none of which strike us as having any particular claims to national innovation when we remember Greece. In fact, a great deal of our idea of Greek dancing, at least in sculpture, comes from Graeco-Roman or pure Roman illustration. To be sure, Italians must have made variants of their own, and with a constant influx of captives from Cordoba, the Teutoberg forests, Nubian deserts and Scottish hills, Roman games adorned themselves with exotic tribal dances. But these were adornments, prized for their barbaric strangeness, testifying to the remote confines of Imperium Romanum, rather than for the dance-movements themselves. What a Roman connoisseur of the Empire found good in dancing is shown in `The Golden Ass':
Only the other day, at Athens in front of the Painted Porch with these two eyes of mine I saw a mountebank on horseback swallow a sharp sword point foremost, and again, for the offer of a few pence, thrust a hunting-spear, its death-dealing point downwards, right into his very vitals! And, look you, above the lance-head, where the shaft of the inverted lance rose from his open jaws towards his crown, there stood up a pretty girlish-looking boy who danced so nimbly with many a tortuous bending of his body that he seemed to have neither bone nor muscle. All we who stood by marveled. You might have likened him to some splendid snake twining with slippery coils about the staff that the god of healing bears, all rough with knots where the twigs had been lopped away.
The Romans were consistent in nothing but possibly their legal codes, and their attitude about dancing is no exception. As a whole they liked to see it, though they would allow themselves to be shocked if it was openly performed by too skillful amateurs or society-women. Sallust wrote of Sempronia: "She played and danced more gracefully than a respectable woman should."
Later on in his wonderful book Apuleius gives us an enchanting description of that type of dance-entertainment called by the Romans `dance-fables,' but which can only be accurately translated by our word ballet. This term has been hesitatingly employed here though other historians and translators are less shy, labeling the Astral dance of Egypt, the Spartan Pyrrhic and the Roman Troy-Game equally as ballets. Ballet in this essay is used in a very specific sense as a form appearing first only in the Italian Renaissance; but the spectacle that Apulieus saw, or at least that he described, even though it has no connection with the later form, is pure ballet. Libretti for such dance-drama were composed by poets like Lucan, and Apulieus must have had some practical experience to have written of them as he did.
Preceded by the Pyrrhic elsewhere quoted, and by other sportive dances, the `great curtain fell away, the lesser curtains were drawn back, and the stage was arrayed before our eyes: There is too much to quote entirely, but here is enough to show how strikingly close the performance of nineteen hundred years ago resembles, for example, Fokine's Daphnis et Chloe or Narcisse, Ben Jonson's and Inigo Jones' Masques, and the ballets of Lully, Rameau, and even Noverre. Stage-machinery, color, even music in dance-suites, combining the several harmonic modes, and the succession of entrances, or grouped dancers; all are identical.
Juno was followed by Castor and Pollux, whose heads were covered with oval helmets with stars set bright upon their crests. And Castor and Pollux also were no more than youthful actors. This maiden came forward to the rippling music of the Ionian flute, and with quiet and unaffected gesture and stately movement of the head promised the herdsman that if he awarded her the prize of loveliness she would make him king over all Asia. But she whom her array of armor showed to be Minerva was escorted by two boys, the armor bearers that go with the goddess of battle, Terror and Fear, dancing fiercely with naked swords. And behind her a flute-player sounded the warlike Dorian mode, mingling deep booming notes with shrill blasts that rang like a trumpet call, and he danced with nimble strength. With restless head and eyes in whose glance were threats, with swift and nervous gesticulation and fiery mien, she showed to Paris that if he accorded her the victory in beauty's battle, he should by her aid be made brave and glorious with the trophies of war.
But it was not in such dances that Rome made a lasting contribution to theatrical tradition, but rather in instituting pantomime as a form in itself. There is some confusion over the word, which, by itself, derives from Greek mimeomai, to counterfeit. The noun mime, its plural Mimi, are some-times used to signify performers of exclusively obscene shows. This usage is late, favored by Christians. Pantos means `all' and `pantomime' was a more general term for the mute interpretive art. Both `pantomime' and `dancing' were referred to by Latin and Roman Christians as Saltatio, and `saltation' is employed down through the eighteenth century by critics and historians of France and England.
The appearance of the phenomenon of imitation in animals and children is early and universal. It may be secondary to the instinct for rhythm, but at least in its aspect of unconscious play or recreation, it precedes dancing itself. Most primate animals and many birds imitate their wild neighbors, and it is obvious how quickly children ape the inflection of a nurse or parent's voice. In primitive social mimic dances, by their magic power of attracting the beasts imitated, are inextricably involved with totemism, the protection of a tribe by its animal-ancestors. These may be pleased by repetition of dances or motions which they once did in this world. The origin of costume, aside from that purely protective against the weather, is linked to mimicry, for the addition of fur or feathers increases the similarity of dancer to model.
In Rome, given a race gifted with a deep sense of mimicry, a strong love of shows, and a theatre disintegrating because its components of dance and song were never understood in necessary fusion with plot and dialogue, the development and popularity of pantomime was logical. But there is another and very real reason for the supremacy of the pantomimi. The tragic drama, as such, persisted into comparatively late times, as a pet luxury for intellectual snobs, but its audience was small. The great audience, the vast, roaring heterogeneous mob, diffuse and monstrous, who existed beneath the Roman rule, spoke not merely Latin, but mainly Syrian, Egyptian, Iberian, Gallic, Teutonic, Greek and Algerian. The language of the pantomimi was a universal tongue. It made no difference with what accent an actor's fingers, hands, arms or body spoke at Orange, Aspendus or Athens. Eyes read plainly what ears could not possibly understand. Then also, both Consuls and Emperors used the theater as an efficient means of placation or distraction, and, it was important to have as many seats, in as huge houses as possible, to affect the greatest numbers. In spite of the science of acoustics which taught them to bury hollow jars in stage floors and walls to transmit sound, audiences in all great theatres could see further than they could hear. Part of the value of masks, aside from their impersonalization, their intensification of an actor's role over and above the actor's identity, was their large-cut features which carried more clearly across stage, orchestra and into the audience.
The pantomimic dance-drama became an independent expression under Caesar Augustus, about 22 B.c. The two most famous rivals who brought their art to an unsurpassed perfection were Pylades, a Cilician, and Bathyllus, an Alexandrian. The Emperor once took the former to task for his incredible jealousy: and the mime replied, "It is your luck, Caesar, that the mob concerns itself with us." The new form was predominantly tragic. Its libretti were derived from literary tragedy. The unity of place was kept; the action consecutive. A choros, as well as chanting the text to be mimed, may also have sung in intervals to allow the dancers to change their costume and masks. It was in the year 22 that Pylades introduced a choir, instead of a single vocal accompanist, and an enriched orchestra in place of simple flutes. Pantomimes were famous for their robe, or cloak dances, which rather remind us of Loie Fuller's skirt dancers. They used the cloak as a kind of Protean mask for the whole body. It could be draped, or rearrayed or tied up, to imitate in motion `a swan's tail, the hair of Venus, the scourge of Furies' and so on.
In Ludwig Friedlander's `Roman Life and Manners,' perhaps the single fullest compendium of information on the subject, he explains that:
The pantomimic dance was not a dance in the modern acceptation; it consisted in expressive and rhythmic movements of head and hand, natural movements of the body, bendings and turns and even leaps. Nomius the Syrian, a rival of Pylades and Bathyllus, was censured for the slow movements of his hands, while his feet stirred too fast. Galen says that the strenuous exertions of dancers, the high leaps, quick turns, cowerings, and jerks, con-traction and stretching out of the legs, like all violent exercise, strengthen the body. But such motions took place after the pantomimic dance proper, according to Nonnus, whose Silenus leaps up on one foot and then on both, stands on his right foot, and lifts his left up to his breast and shoulder, bends it round his back up to his neck, whirls round, bent over backwards, so fast that his head seems to circle on the ground. But this does not take place until he has concluded his clever pantomimic display with the hands.
Incessant training and careful diet, especially abstention from rich food, secured the pantomimes full command of their bodies, and a pliability, elasticity and readiness, by means of which every movement could be graceful, elegant and effeminate. These qualities made them especially successful in feminine roles, in which they almost lost their sex. Apuleius says of his step-son's father-in-law, whom he reproaches for vice and lust of all kinds, that he was so pliable in his youth, as pantomime, that he seemed to have no thews and sinews, but his acting was untrained and inartistic. In the lewd scenes, which were the spice of this drama, seductive grace combined with luxury and shamelessness knew no limits. When Bathyllus, a beautiful boy, was dancing Leda, the most impudent actress of mimes felt like a mere country novice on seeing such mastership in the art of refined sensuality.
We are fortunate in having a complete portrait of the Roman mime in his full flower from a dialogue on Pantomime, preserved in the works of a Greek satirist, Lucian of Samosata, who lived roughly from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and eighty years after the birth of Christ. He was a witty, imaginative writer; observant, learned and realistic. He started as a sculptor's apprentice, but learned rhetoric instead, made a living by composing speeches, traveled widely, living later in Egypt. His essay on the Roman mimic-stage is labeled Orchesis, an adaptation from the Greek orcheisthai, a word for the whole art of dance, by which he specifically meant pantomime. It is cast in the form of a dialogue between two friends, one of whom, Crato, hates the stage and will have none of it,—the other Lycinus, who by his insistent, overwhelming exposition of its long history and power, convinces him of his error. It is good to read in full. Better than any other document, it tells us the real quality of the Roman pantomime.
Crato wants to know how any one can sit still and listen to the sound of a flute, and watch the antics of an effeminate creature got up in soft raiment to sing lascivious songs and mimic the passions of prehistoric strumpets to the accompaniment of twanging string and shrilling pipe and clattering heel?
The mimes had accompanists shod with iron soles to beat time for them. Crato would not show my long beard and white hairs amid that throng of women and lunatics [the audience]; and clap and yell in unseemly rapture over the vile contortions of an abandoned buffoon.
Lycinus defends the merits of the art.
Of the manner in which it combines profit with amusement; instructing, informing, perfecting the intelligence of the beholder; training his eyes to lovely sights, filling his ears with noble sounds, revealing a beauty in which body and soul alike have their share.
He explains how the art of dancing originated with Eros, the love-god who created all; how the heavenly bodies, in their orbits, danced. Perhaps Lucian had heard of the astral ballet of the Egyptians. He mentions the Kuretes, Homer's respect for the dance, Sparta's Pyrrhic, dancing in India, Ethiopia, and the Salii, themselves. His information is a precious conglomeration of personal observation, hearsay, reading, even the permissible amplification of a poet's fancy. One thing, however, is clear. Lucian loved the dance. He compares dance-pantomime with tragedy, comedy and those occasional performances on flute and lyre, which have a snobbish prestige, to show the superiority of mime.
In forming our estimate of tragedy [and Lucian the Greek, must refer chiefly to performances of Latin plays], let us first consider its externals—the hideous, appalling spectacle that the actor presents. His high boots raise him up out of all proportion; his head is hidden under an enormous mask; his huge mouth gapes upon the audience as if he would swallow them; to say nothing of the chest-pads and stomach-pads with which he contrives to give himself an artificial corpulence, lest his deficiency in this respect should emphasize his disproportionate height. And in the middle of it all is the actor, shouting away, now high, now low,--chanting his iambics as often as not; could anything be more revolting than this sing-song recitation of tragic woes? The actor is a mouthpiece: that is his sole responsibility;—the poet has seen to the rest, ages since.
On the other hand, I need not tell you how decent, how seemly, is the dancer's attire; any one who is not blind can see that for himself. His very mask is elegant, and well adapted to his part; there is no gaping here; the lips are closed, for the dancer has plenty of other voices at his service. In old days, dancer and singer were one: but the violent exercise caused shortness of breath; the song suffered for it, and it was found advisable to have the singing done independently.
I am chiefly concerned with pointing out the profit and pleasure to be derived from modern Pantomime, which did not begin to take its present admirable form in ancient days, but only in the time of Augustus, or thereabouts. In those earlier times we have but the beginnings of the art; the tree is taking root; the flower and the fruit have reached their perfection only in our own day, and it is with these that I have to do.
He finally arrives at the function of the pantomime
What must be his qualifications? what his previous training? what his studies? what his subsidiary accomplishments? You will find that his is no easy profession, nor lightly to be undertaken; requiring as it does the highest standard of culture in all its branches, and involving a knowledge not of music only, but of rhythm and meter, and above all of your beloved philosophy.
There is a long section on the subject-matter of which a pantomimic dancer should avail himself—the world's whole history from chaos to Egyptian Cleopatra. In this, he includes myths of all gods and legends of all heroes, in Greece, Rome and Egypt.
Lycinus then recounts the experience of the cynic Demetrius, who had inveighed against pantomime exactly in the terms of Crato's own objections:
The pantomime, he said, was a mere appendage to flute and pipe and beating feet; he added nothing to the action; his gesticulations were aimless non-sense; there was no meaning in them; people were hoodwinked by the silken robes and handsome mask, by the fluting and piping and the fine voices, which served to set off what in itself was nothing. The leading pantomime of the day—this was in Nero's reign—was apparently a man of no mean intelligence; unsurpassed, in fact, in wideness of range and in grace of execution. Nothing, I think, could be more reasonable than the request he made of Demetrius, which was, to reserve his decision till he had witnessed his performance, which he undertook to go through without the assistance of flute or song. He was as good as his word. The time-beaters, the flutes, even the chorus, were ordered to preserve a strict silence; and the pantomime, left to his own resources, represented the loves of Ares and Aphrodite, the tell-tale Sun, the craft of Hepha:stus, his capture of the two lovers in the net, the surrounding Gods, each in his turn, the blushes of Aphrodite, the embarrassment of Ares, his entreaties,—in fact the whole story. Demetrius was ravished at the spectacle; nor could there be higher praise than that with which he re-warded the performer. `Man,' he shrieked at the top of his voice, `this is not seeing, but hearing and seeing, both: 'tis as if your hands were tongues!' .. .
The pantomime is above all things an actor: that is his first aim, in the pursuit of which (as I have observed) he resembles the orator, and especially the composer of `declamations,' whose success, as the pantomime knows, depends like his own upon verisimilitude, upon the adaptation of language to character: prince or tyrannicide, pauper or farmer, each must be shown with the peculiarities that belong to him. I must give you the comment of another foreigner on this subject. Seeing five masks laid ready—that being the number of parts in the piece—and only one pantomime, he asked who were going to play the other parts. He was informed that the whole piece would be performed by a single actor. `Your humble servant, sir,' cries our foreigner to the artist, 'I observe that you have but one body: it had escaped me, that you possessed several souls.'
Other entertainments of eye or ear are but manifestations of a single art: 'tis flute or lyre or song; 'tis moving tragedy or laughable comedy. The pantomime is all-embracing in the variety of his equipment: flute and pipe, beating foot and clashing cymbal, melodious recitative, choral harmony. Other arts call out only one half of a man's powers—the bodily or the mental: as a physical exercise: there is a meaning in his movements; every gesture has its significance; and therein lies his chief excellence. The enlightened Lesbonax of Mytilene called pantomimes 'manual Paytone+Ones,' and used to frequent the theater, in the conviction that he came out of it a better man than he went in.
All professions hold out some object, either of utility or of pleasure: Pantomime is the only one that secures both these objects; now the utility that is combined with pleasure is doubled in value. Who would choose to look on at a couple of young fellows spilling their blood in a boxing-match, or wrestling in the dust, when he may see the same subject represented by the pantomime, with the additional advantages of safety and elegance, and with far greater pleasure to the spectator? The vigorous movements of the pantomime—turn and twist, bend and spring—afford at once a gratifying spectacle to the beholder and a wholesome training to the performer; I maintain that no gymnastic exercise is its equal for beauty and for the uniform development of the physical powers,—of agility, suppleness, and elasticity, as of solid strength.
I now propose to sketch out the mental and physical qualifications necessary for a first-rate pantomime. Most of the former, indeed, I have already mentioned: he must have memory, sensibility, shrewdness, rapidity of conception, tact, and judgment; further, he must be a critic of poetry and song, capable of discerning good music and rejecting bad. For his body, I think I may take the Canon of Polyclitus as my model. He must be perfectly proportioned: neither immoderately tall nor dwarfishly short; not too fleshy (a most unpromising quality in one of his profession) nor cadaverously thin.... Another essential for the pantomime is ease of movement. His frame must be at once supple and well-knit, to meet the opposite requirements of agility and firmness.
Lycinus admits, however, that:
Pantomimes cannot all be artists; there are plenty of ignorant performers, who bungle their work terribly. Some cannot adapt themselves to their music; they are literally "out of tune"; rhythm says one thing, their feet another....
And he gives an alarming example of the excesses in which an inartistic mime may indulge.
In most respects a capable, nay, an admirable performer, some strange fatality ran him a-ground upon this reef of over-enthusiasm. He was acting the madness of Ajax, just after he has been worsted by Odysseus; and so lost control of himself, that one might have been excused for thinking his madness was something more than feigned. He tore the clothes from the back of one of the iron-shod time-beaters, snatched a flute from the player's hands, and brought it down in such a trenchant sort upon the head of Odysseus, who was standing by enjoying his triumph, that, had not his cap held good, borne the weight of the blow, poor Odysseus must have fallen a victim to histrionic frenzy. The whole house ran mad for company, leaping, yelling, tearing their clothes. For the illiterate riff-raft, who knew not good from bad, and had no idea of decency, regarded it as a supreme piece of acting: and the more intelligent part of the audience, realizing how things stood, concealed their disgust, and instead of reproaching the actor's folly by silence, smothered it under their plaudits; they saw only too clearly that it was not Ajax but the pantomime who was mad.
Lucian was perhaps criticizing the distressing aptitude of the great Roman audience to prize grosser and more sensational aspects of realism as the height of artistic perfection, a tendency which let them be titillated only by the spilling of simulated or actual blood, as if liquid gore was the true shine of tragedy, a taste indulged to the hilt only in the circus. The contribution of circus-games to the history of stage-dancing is remoter than pantomime. But we frequently hear in deprecation of contemporary or recent dance-drama, that it is too circus-like, too spectacular. The first time this criticism leveled itself fairly was in Rome.
Roman public games, even to the last, had that perfunctory link to religion, with which first Consuls, and then Emperors found convenient to mask their personal intention, although the mob was too absorbed in the spectacle to care much under whose auspices it was held. However, for the sake of formality, at the start of each civil year games were vowed to the gods for the commonweal. These expenses were incurred at the public debt. The taxes of whole provinces were easily squandered on them. On the colonnade of a stable in Palatium is portrayed an imperial sideshow. A rope-dancer in buskins, dances on almost invisible wires: a climber edges up a wall away from a bear he has tormented. Bears act a comedy. A hundred trumpeters toot in chorus. Manilius mentions rope-dancers and jugglers, some hovering in mid-air, while others leaped to the ground from a tower, soaring through fire, like a fish in space. Animal trainers succeeded in schooling beasts in tricks against their natural habits. Boys danced on the backs of wild bulls, reared; were paired with horses to perform in pools; sea-lions greeted the populace by turning towards them, and barked answers to their given names. Such murderous careerists as Sulla were little less than artists in politic manipulation of the circus, and at no cost to themselves. In the year 93 B.C., as PrTtor, he exhibited one hundred wild lions in the arena, loosed and shot by archers specially imported by King Bocchus, his friend. An old senatorial decree which prohibited the importation of African beasts was conveniently repealed for the occasion. Sulla was a typical republican politician, who by his tacit campaigning with the games set the scale for more magnificent fiendishness in the later Cxsars. Of him, Plutarch tells us: he had so strong a natural love of buffoonery, that when he was still young, and of no repute, he spent his time and indulged himself among mimi and jesters; and when he was at the head of the State, he daily got together from the scena and the theater the lewdest persons, with whom he would drink and enter into a contest of coarse witticisms.... Towards the end of his life Roscius the comedian, Sorix the chief mimus, and Metrobius (with whom he was long attached in his youth) and who played women's parts in men's dress, enjoyed his favor.
The dramas of the Greeks demonstrated punishments of proud or godless men as horrible—but that horror, whether it was the blinding of OEdipus or the fate of Orestes, never intruded as only a bloody sight. The Romans were too unimaginative to accept a messenger's report of disaster, however impressively he may have been set in dramatic relief by the questions and movement of a trained choros. They wanted literally to see and hear the antagonists knife each other. Virgil bade other nations devote themselves to science or the arts, but to regere imperio populos, Romane, memento—Remember, Roman, thou shalt rule the world! Their spectacularization of cruelty was merely a visible, dramatized action of their instinct for hatred, their gluttony for power. The worst thing about vice is its demand for repetition, the necessity for increasing a dose to produce any excitement. Hence the staggering proportions of Roman games. It is not by accident that a lictor's fasces or bundled whipping-rods, lashed round the headsman's ax, is the fascist symbol.
The Circus Maximus could hold at one time three hundred and fifty thousand spectators. As a multiple political club, lounge, social rendezvous, betting-ring and amusement-park, the great circuses all over the Roman imperial world were an extremely important social factor. For those who wish to reconstruct their chariot-races or the vari-colored factions, gladiatorial combats of condemned prisoners or captives of war, sea-fights with slave-manned galleys in carefully flooded ditches, there is a mass of absorbing document. The last refuge of a profligate was the gladiatorial school. The aristocracy rarely was forced to perform in public. However, Cxsarism, whose chief policy was the mob's pleasure, did not regret the humiliation of nobles as another spurious example of their aims toward the destruction of classes.
To learn the game's value as entertainment to a civilized human, one need only read Pliny, a sensitive writer of the epoch, who says the circus was so boring in pointless repetition of fights and fights that he couldn't imagine how any one could support its tedium twice. That Pliny should find the sight of death by delicate torture merely continuously boring, rather than, for example, sickening, is an index of the period. The Greek attitude towards spectacular tragedy is defined in Aristotle's `Ethics.' Neither the killing of a criminal, nor the accidental death of an innocent man provides tragic pleasure. The killing is no misfortune in the eyes of the audience. There is no ethical problem involved. His pleasure is only the moral satisfaction of seeing justice. The death of the innocent is so senseless and unjust as to be merely hateful.
But here we are particularly occupied with dancing, and the chief importance of the games to the dance was the bad name which one incurred by association with the other. How bad a name can only be understood by feeling the righteous horror with which Augustine and Tertullian anathematized them. We may feel these antique churchmen were stupidly, even perhaps hypocritically censorious and blame them for attacks which withered dramatic art as a medium of free expression. We shall learn of the Christian Church's direction of the dramatic instinct in the next chapter, but we have not only Augustine and Tertullian as prosecutors, but such typical Romans as Seneca or Suetonius.
What use is protection or training? These things only postpone death. In the morning men are killed by lions and bears, at midday they are killed by the spectators. The killer is sent out to be killed, and the victorious fighter is kept back for another murder. "But," you will say, "one of them was a bandit." What of it? "He murdered a man." Then he deserves to be killed; but you, you wretch, what crime have you committed to make you deserve to see such a sight? "Strike him, flog him, burn him! Why does he shrink from the blade? Why does he strike so timidly? Why does he die so grudgingly?" This is an interval in the show—we must have some throat-cutting as an entracte.
He also zealously applied himself to the practice of several other arts of different kinds, such as fencing, charioteering, singing and dancing. In the first of these, he practiced with the weapons used in war; and drove the chariot in circuses built in several places. He was so extremely fond of singing and dancing, that he could not refrain in the theater from singing with the tragedians, and imitating the gestures of the actors, either by way of applause or correction. A night exhibition which he had ordered the day he was slain, was thought to be intended for no other reason, than to take the opportunity afforded by the licentiousness of the season, to make his first appearance upon the stage. Sometimes, also, he danced in the night. Summoning once to the palatium, in the second watch of the night, three men of consular rank, who feared,the words from the message, he placed them on the proscenium of the stage, and then suddenly came bursting out, with a loud noise of flutes and castanets, dressed in a mantle and tunic reaching down to his heels. Having danced' out a song, he retired. Yet he who had acquired such dexterity in other exercises, never learnt to swim.
Those for whom he once conceived a regard, he favored even to madness. He used to kiss Mnester, the pantomimic actor, publicly in the theater; and if any person made the least noise while he was dancing, he would order him to be dragged from his seat, and scourged him with his own hand.
Towards the end of his life Caligula was plagued with certain sanguinary premonitions. Psychiatrists tell us he was suffering from dementia pracox, but the diagnosis is recent; Suetonius continues:
Whilst he was at sacrifice, he was bespattered with the blood of a flamingo. And Mnester, the pantomimic actor, performed in a play, which the tragedian Meoptolemus had formerly acted at the games in which Philip, the King of Macedon, was slain. And in a piece called Laureolus, in which the principal actor, running out in a hurry, and falling, vomited blood, several of the inferior actors vying with each other to give the best specimen of their art, made the whole stage flow with blood.
He took great pleasure in seeing men engage with wild beasts, and the combatants who appeared on the stage at noon. He would therefore come to the theatre by break of day, and at noon, dismissing the people to dinner, continued sitting himself; and besides those who were devoted to that sanguinary fate, he would match others with the beasts, upon slight or sudden occasions; as, for instance, the carpenters and their assistants, and people of that sort, if a machine, or any piece of work in which they had been employed about the theatre did not answer the purpose for which it had been intended. To this desperate kind of encounter he forced one of his nomenclators, even encumbered as he was by wearing the toga.
As a youth Nero gained much credit by his firmness in the equestrian Troy-Game. His mother being banished, he then lived with his aunt Lepida, in a very poor way, under the care of two tutors, one a dancing-master, the other a barber. During his reign he visited some rather spectacular punishments "on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition."
Tacitus tells us that many of them were dressed in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to be torn to pieces by dogs in the public games, that they were crucified, or condemned to be burnt; and at nightfall served in place of lamps to lighten the darkness, Nero's own gardens being used for the spectacle.
Nero, who at his own murder regretted the artist perishing in him, fancied himself as a singer and inflicted himself on impatient audiences all over Italy. To make sure of his reception, he chose young men of the equestrian order, and about five thousand robust young fellows from the common people, on purpose to learn various kinds of applause, called bombi, imbrices and testoe which they were to practice in his favor, whenever he performed. They were divided into several parties, and were remarkable for their fine heads of hair, were extremely well dressed, with rings upon their left hands. The leaders of these bands had salaries of forty thousand sesterces allowed them.
The name bombi was derived from the humming of bees,—a confused din made either by hands or mouth; imbrices, from rattling of rain or hail on tile roofs; testoe, from the smashing of terra-cotta jars. The last two were made by beating on hollow vessels placed in the auditoria for the purpose. People were instructed to give applause with skill, and there were Laudicena, or praisemasters had for hire by actors, poets and god-Emperors. Here we have the clearest proof of the quality of Rome's theatricalization. Instead of a spontaneous audience following a contrived performance, a spontaneous actor directs contrived applause.