Theatre and Dance

Case Study: the Great (Panto)mime Riots of Rome

There were a number of forms of mime; the mime that inspired rioting in 14/15 and 23 CE was pantomime, a spectacular form of mime that was a form of solo ballet often retelling classical myths, with a star mime who danced and did spectacular acrobatics, a chorus, and an orchestra – you need to think about something akin to Cirque du Soleil, rather than Marcel Marceau.[1] Mime in this form inspired fanatical devotion on a level that equals anything modern fandom can produce, and perhaps on an even greater level – we do not hear of capital cities laid waste by hordes of Beliebers, for example. In 14 CE Augustus – who enjoyed the theatre and sponsored mime – died, and Tiberius came to the throne. Tiberius did not enjoy spectacles, especially after he was forced by the crowd to give freedom to Actius, a comic actor or mime.

Bust of Tiberius

That year [14 CE] saw a new form of religious ritual with the addition of a new college of Priests of Augustus, which was patterned on the ancient Titian brotherhood founded by Titus Tatius[2] to safeguard the Sabine rites. Twenty-one members were drawn by lot from the leading Roman houses and Tiberius, Drusus, Claudius, and Germanicus were added.[3] The Ludi Augustales, celebrated for the first time, were marred by a disturbance caused by the rivalry of the mime actors. Augustus had allowed these theatrical shows to please Maecenas, who was deeply in love with Bathyllus. He himself also had no personal dislike for amusements of this type, and considered it a graceful act to take part in the pleasures of the crowd. Tiberius had other tendencies, but as yet he lacked the courage to force into the ways of austerity a nation which had been indulged for so many years.

Tacitus, Annales 1.54

Cassius Dio adds a little more information, which suggests that the riots started when one of the stars refused to enter the theatre until he was paid more:

Meanwhile the people rioted, because at the Ludi Augustales one of the actors would not enter the theatre for the regular pay and they did not stop rioting until the tribunes of the plebs convened the senate that very day and begged it to permit them to spend more than the legal amount.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.47.2

15 CE saw more riots on a larger scale; it appears Tiberius cut the fee for mimes (Suetonius, Tiberius 34.1), while his son Drusus (then around 30) was extremely friendly with them:

Portrait of Julius Caesar Drusus

While Tiberius was carrying out these measures, Drusus performed the duties pertaining to the consulship equally with his colleague [Tiberius], just as any ordinary citizen might have done; and when he was left heir to someone’s estate, he assisted in carrying out the body. Yet he was so given to violent anger that he struck upon a distinguished equestrian and for this exploit received the nickname of Castor. And he was becoming so heavy a drinker, that one night, when he was forced to lend aid with the Praetorians to some people whose property was on fire and they called for water, he gave the order: “Serve it to them hot.” He was so friendly with the actors, that this class created a riot and could not be brought to order even by the laws that Tiberius had introduced for regulating them.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.14.9-10

Some of the measures that were taken are listed below:

The disorderliness of the stage, which had become apparent the year before, now broke out on a more serious scale. In addition to casualties among the people, several soldiers and a centurion were killed, and an officer of the Praetorian Guards wounded, in the attempt to repress the insults levelled at the magistracy and the dissension of the crowd. The riot was discussed in the Senate and it was suggested that the praetors should be given the authority to punish actors. Haterius Agrippa, a tribune of the people, vetoed this proposal and was attacked in a speech by Asinius Gallus. Tiberius said nothing, allowing the Senate to have this simulacrum of liberty. Still the veto held good, for the deified Augustus had once answered a question by saying that actors were immune from the whip, and it would be blasphemy for Tiberius to now do the opposite of what he had said. They passed a great number of laws to limit the expenditure on entertainments and to curb the extravagance of the fans. The most striking were: that no senator was to enter the houses of pantomime actors; that, if they came out into public, Roman equestrians were not to gather around them, nor were their performances to be followed except in the theatre; while the praetors were to be authorized to punish any disorder among the spectators with exile.

Tacitus, Annales 1.77

Clearly this did not work, as in 23 CE (the same year Drusus died) the riots broke out once more:

Next, after various and generally ineffective complaints from the praetors, Tiberius at last brought up the question of the effrontery of the histriones:[4] “They were frequently the instigators of sedition against the state and of depravity in private houses; the old Oscan farce, the trivial delight of the crowd, had come to such a pitch of indecency and power that it needed the authority of the Senate to check it.” The histriones were then expelled from Italy.

Tacitus, Annales 4.14

It was not just the actors who were expelled, but the leaders of their factions:

He took great pains to prevent disturbances by the people and punished those that occurred very, very severely. When a quarrel in the theatre ended in bloodshed, he banished the leaders of the factions, as well as the actors who were the cause of the trouble – and no entreaties of the people could ever induce him to recall them.

Suetonius, Tiberius 37.2


  1. If you don’t know who Marcel Marceau is you should look him up on YouTube.
  2. A legendary king of the Sabines, who eventually co-ruled that people and the Romans along with Romulus.
  3. All were members of the imperial family.
  4. This can refer to a wide range of actors, though probably mime actors are intended here.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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