The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome

In this book, Catherine Edwards surveys Roman elite discourse around various manifestations of “immorality” including the theatre, “effeminacy”, luxurious housing, gluttony and expenditure. Her aim is to explore what the moralists’ focus on particular vices reveals about the anxieties of the Roman elite in justifying and maintaining their status. The point is made, for example, that constantly accusing other politicians of “effeminacy” as well as serving as useful invective against that individual, also serves to reinforce the inevitability of male dominance in public life by fixing the association between women and laziness, weakness, and depravity.

As my current work in progress is a novella about the rise of a young man (Antyllus)  from slave prostitute to pantomime dancer, the chapter that was of especial interest to me was the one exploring the Romans’ very ambivalent attitudes to the theatre and to actors themselves. Although the Roman public of all classes were keen theatre goers, there was a lingering suspicion of the theatre as somehow ‘unroman’, luxurious, depraved and generally suspect. The performers themselves occupied a highly ambivalent position in society.

On the one hand, their performances could win them admiration, fame and riches, not to mention in some cases an entree into the highest social and political circles, on the other, they were legally classed as infames, a status they shared with gladiators and prostitutes. Actors were sometimes slaves and often former slaves: even when they were free their status deprived them of the civil rights and protection officially guaranteed to most citizens. Their testimony had reduced weight in a court of law, they could not vote or stand for office and, most worryingly, they had no legal protection from violence. While only slaves were supposed to be subject by law to physical punishment, actors could be flogged on the orders of a magistrate, though this law was modified under the principate, restricting this power to the occasion of performances.

The Roman elite seem to have had an especial horror of citizen men and women performing on the stage, appearing to regard it as something very close to prostitution or servitude, in that the performer was displaying themselves for the pleasure of others. The fact that male actors acted women’s parts and that mime actors were sometimes women also contributed to their reputation of depravity.  That Nero or Caligula performed on stage is mentioned by Roman writers with the same outrage as their acts of murder and incest.

Exploring the reasoning behind the anomalously low status of actors (they suffered no such disrespect in Greek culture) Edwards points out how the servile or lower class actor shared with the political elite the power to address a crowd of thousands and that the parallels between the orator and the hired performer would have been disturbing to the former. Stigmatising the actor as depraved, effeminate and outcast  had the function of undermining the subversive potential of a voice that could fill a vast auditorium.

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