What was Ancient Pantomime?

To the modern reader, the word pantomime is liable to conjure up images of seasonal performances involving unlikely, shambling horses, risque dames, and enterprising cats. For the ancient Roman, however, at least from the time of Augustus onwards, the word pantomime evoked a type of performance both rather more elegant and more culturally pervasive.

The origins of pantomime are uncertain, but from some point during the first century BCE and surviving into the Byzantine era, pantomime was a vastly popular art form throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Literary references, the remains of theatres, epigraphic evidence, and art works are all testimony to the ubiquity of pantomime from Britain to the Near East.

Combining theatre and dance, the performance of pantomime centred around a single dancer, masked and sometimes elaborately costumed, bringing to life a story using dance and gesture to convey action and emotion in a manner similar to modern ballet or Indian classical dance. The narrative was often derived from mythology or from Greek tragedy, though dances based on pastoral or erotic themes could provide lighter entertainment. The setting of pantomime performances could range from a street colonnade, a packed theatre during a festival to an intimate dinner party entertainment for the very wealthy.

While the pantomime actor would be accompanied by musicians and sometimes singers, librettists or chorus dancers, he or she would embody each of the principle roles of the drama in turn exchanging masks throughout the performance to indicate change of character.

The word ‘pantomime’ derives from the fact that the one performer would take on all the roles, as ‘panta’ is the Greek for ‘all’ and ‘mimesis’ is to imitate or act. The overall effect of a pantomime performance was highly dramatic, noisy and emotional.

Who were the Pantomime Dancers?

While there were female pantomime actors, the most prominent exponents of the art appear to have been male.

Famous names that survive through inscriptions and literary references include Bathyllus and Pylades, who were among the first exponents of the art known in Rome, at the time of Augustus. Succeeding generations of dancers would adopt these resonant names as their ‘stage name’.

The most famous and successful pantomime actors were close to the equivalent of modern day pop stars or film actors. They undertook extensive performance tours and were feted by ardent fans, whose support sometimes spilt over into violent and disorderly conduct or could be a focal point for expressions of political discontent. Dancers are frequently represented in literature as being the focus of erotic fascination by both men and women.

In a sense, pantomime dancers occupied a social role comparable to that of gladiators. Often slaves or former slaves, even when freeborn pantomime actors, along with other popular performers, were legally infamis, not equal to ordinary Roman citizens due to the disreputable nature of their trade which was seen as tantamount to prostitution. The fact that male dancers wore a translucent silk tunic to show off the movements of their limbs and that they dramatised female roles added the further element of transgression of accepted masculine behaviour. Like gladiators, however, dancers though officially frowned upon by elite society, were feted and celebrated at all social levels. Sulla, a leading politician of the Late Roman Republic is noted disapprovingly by Plutarch as being fond of the company of theatrical performers, including Sorex the ‘archmime’ (Plutarch: Life of Sulla 2.4, 36.1).

Lucian, the prolific Greek satirist of the 2nd century CE, wrote an extended essay on pantomime in which he defends the art against the charge of being trivial and sensational and stresses not only the high level of skill but also of education and culture which the pantomime dancer must attain to.

Pantomime was a form of entertainment available to all the inhabitants of the larger towns and cities of the Roman Empire. As well as more private and exclusive venues, it was performed in the streets and at large public theatres and festivals, where attendance was usually free. Relying on dance and gesture to convey a narrative (although there might be additional librettists or singers) pantomime could be enjoyed and understood by those without any education or even knowledge of Latin or Greek. In that way, pantomime served as a medium of Greek classical culture. Only a narrow social elite might have either the education or the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the plays of the Greek tragedians, but everyone could watch the dances based, however loosely, on their plots.

The lone, masked pantomime dancer was thus a peculiarly compelling figure whose virtuosity in conveying emotion, character and story, through a repertoire of movements and gestures, delighted and educated all levels of Graeco-Roman society, from slaves to emperors, for many centuries.

When creating the character of Antyllus, the pantomime star of Dancing Phaedra, I drew on the contradictory ideas of what a pantomime dancer meant to their original audiences; both highly disciplined and athletic yet accused of being soft and dissolute, often a slave or former slave and never really respectable yet capable of commanding an audience of thousands and communicating the stories and motifs that formed the bedrock of classical culture. Antyllus’ is the story of how a slave prostitute struggles to live a life which successfully embodies these latent contradictions.

I took liberties with the vague chronology of the development of pantomime in Rome before the stardom of the likes of Pylades or Bathyllus in the early Empire, but there is evidence of pantomime dancers flourishing elsewhere as early as 80 BCE so even if there is no evidence that there were pantomime dancers like Antyllus performing in Rome in the decades just prior to the Civil War, there is nothing to say that there weren’t.


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