Theatre and Dance

Development of Roman Theatre and Mime

In addition to slaughter, death, and men racing really, really fast, the Romans also liked the theatre, and ludi scaenici (‘stage games’) were offered alongside other spectacles as part of the annual ludi. In his monumental history of Rome Livy describes the foundation of the ludi scaenici in 364 and its development in the years after that:

In this year and the next, in the consulship of Gaius Sulpicius Peticus and Gaius Licinius Stolo, there was a plague. In that year, nothing worthy of mention happened except that to appease the gods they held a lectisternium,[1] the third one since the city had been founded. We are told that since neither human strategies nor divine relief blunted the force of the disease, they established the ludi scaenici, along with some other measures to appease divine wrath; this was something new for a warlike people, who had only seen circuses before then. As with nearly all first steps, it started off small; it was also foreign. Some players brought in from Etruria gave a suitable performance in the Tuscan way, dancing to the rhythm played by a flute without a song and without imitating the action in songs. Then young men imitated them and at the same time hurled jokes in rough verse at each other. . . .

After some time passed, it was Livius who first dared leave satura and weave a story with a plot. Like everyone else then, he acted out his own songs, but it is said that because he was often called back to the stage his voice became weak; he then asked the favor of having a boy stand before the flute player and sing while he acted with even more energy because he was not slowed down by having to use his voice. After that, singing was done with gestures accompanying it and the actors only spoke the dialogue portions. When such rules diverted plays from [simple] laughter and haphazard joking and translated them little by little into an art, the young men left acting in plays to these actors and began to exchange jokes woven in the old way among themselves. This is the source of what were afterwards called exodia, something especially connected with Atellan farces. This sort of play came from the Oscans and the young men held on to it and didn’t allow actors to pollute it. From then it has been the rule that performers (actores) in Atellans are not barred from voting and serving in the army, unlike other stage professionals. I thought it good to set out the small beginnings of plays, while doing the same for other beginnings, so that it will be clear how they have moved from such a sane start to a form of insanity which even wealthy kingdoms could barely endure.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 7.2

Roman theatre was often spectacular; in his games for the opening of his theatre (which could seat 40,000 – for more on the building see the next section) in 55 BCE Pompey the Great put on magnificently outfitted games as well as other entertainments. He used the spoils he had obtained in victories in the east as props.

You know all about the rest of the games, which hadn’t even that amount of charm which less lavish games usually have: for the spectacle was so elaborate as to leave no room for cheerful enjoyment, and I think you need feel no regret at having missed it. For what is the pleasure of a procession of six hundred mules in the Clytemnestra, three thousand bowls in the Trojan Horse, or brightly coloured armour of infantry and cavalry in some battle? These things roused the admiration of the mob; to you they would have brought no delight. But if during those days you listened to your reader Protogenes, so long at least as he read anything rather than my speeches, surely you had far greater pleasure than any one of us. For I don’t suppose you wanted to see Greek or Oscan plays, especially as you can see Oscan farces in your Senate-house over there, while you are so far from liking Greeks, that you generally won’t even go along the Greek road to your villa. Why, again, should I think you care about missing the athletes, since you disdained the gladiators – in which even Pompey himself confesses that he wasted his trouble and his pains. There remain the two wild-beast hunts, lasting five days, magnificent—nobody denies it—and yet, what pleasure can it be to a man of refinement, when either a weak man is torn by an extremely powerful animal, or a splendid animal is transfixed by a hunting spear? Things which, after all, if worth seeing, you have often seen before; nor did I, who was present at the games, see anything the least new. The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. No, there was even a certain feeling of compassion aroused by it, and a kind of belief created that that animal has something in common with mankind.

Cicero, Letters to his Friends 7.1

Here is another, later account:

Fragment of an ancient Roman marble map of the early 3rd century CE showing the Theatre of Pompey.

During these same days Pompey dedicated the theatre in which we still take pride. In it he provided an entertainment consisting of music and gymnastic contests, and in the Circus a horse-race and the slaughter of many wild beasts of all kinds. Indeed, five hundred lions were used up in five days, and eighteen elephants fought against men in heavy armour. Some of these beasts were killed at the time and others a little later. For some of them, contrary to Pompey’s wish, were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them. For it is said that they would not set foot upon the ships before they received a pledge under oath from their drivers that they should suffer no harm. Whether this is really so or not I do not know; for some in time past have further declared that in addition to understanding the language of their native country they also comprehend what is going on in the sky, so that at the time of the new moon, before that luminary comes within the gaze of men, they reach running water and there perform a kind of purification of themselves. These things I have heard; I have heard also that this theatre was not erected by Pompey, but by one Demetrius, a freedman of his, with the money he had gained while making campaigns with the general. Most justly, therefore, did he give his master’s name to the structure, so that Pompey might not incur needless reproach because of the fact that his freedman had collected money enough for so huge an expenditure.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 39.38

There were a number of theatrical genres in Rome, ranging from Latin translations of Greek tragedies and comedies, to plays dealing with Roman history (fabula praetexta), to Atellan farce and mime. Mime was the sole form of theatre that involved female actors; one of whom Cytheris was especially famous and a close associate of both Mark Antony and Brutus, Caesar’s assassin. Mark Antony was especially friendly with mime actors:

We are told, at any rate, that Antony once feasted at the wedding of Hippias the mime, drank all night, and then, early in the morning, when the people summoned him to the forum, came before them still stuffed with food and vomited into his toga, which one of his friends held out to help. Sergius the mime also was one of those who had the greatest influence with him, and Cytheris, a woman from the same school of acting, was also a great favourite – he took her with him in a litter on his visits to the cities and her litter was followed by as many attendants as that of his mother.

Plutarch, Antony 9.4

Mime was subdivided into several forms, of which pantomime became the single dominant theatrical form in Rome after its introduction by Augustus’ freedman Pylades in 22 BCE.

Choregos and actors

Augustus allowed the praetors who wanted to do so to spend three times as much on the public festivals as the amount granted them from the treasury. Thus, even if some people were vexed at the strictness of his other regulations, this action and his restoration of one Pylades, a mime, who had been exiled on account of sedition, ensured they remembered them no longer. This is why Pylades is said to have replied very cleverly, when the emperor rebuked him for having quarrelled with Bathyllus, a fellow-artist, and a favourite of Maecenas: “It is to your advantage, Caesar, that the people should devote their spare time to us.”

Cassius Dio, Roman History 54.17

Pylades’ form of mime was the most spectacular and was not generally considered that appropriate for private performances, as one of the characters in a dialogue written by Plutarch points out:

I reject the sort of dancing which is called Pyladean from Pylades, because it is full of pomp, very pathetical, and requires a great many people; but if we would admit any of those sort that deserve the praise Socrates mentions in his discourse about dancing, I like that sort called Bathyllean,[2] which requires not so high a motion, but has something of the character of the Cordax, and resembles the motion of an Echo, a Pan, or a Satyr frolicking with love.

Plutarch, Table Conversations 7.8.2

The following account of the omens before the death of Caligula give some idea of the sort of special effects that might be used in Roman theatre:

The day before Caligula was killed he dreamt that he stood in heaven beside the throne of Jupiter and that the god struck him with the toe of his right foot and hurled him to earth. Some things which had happened on that very day shortly before he was killed were also regarded as omens. 4 As he was sacrificing, he was sprinkled with the blood of a flamingo,[3] and the pantomimic actor Mnester danced a tragedy which the tragedian Neoptolemus had acted years before during the games at which Philip, King of the Macedonians,[4] was assassinated. In a farce called Laureolus, in which the chief actor falls as he is making his escape and vomits blood, several understudies so vied with one another in giving evidence of their proficiency that the stage swam in blood. A nocturnal performance besides was rehearsing, in which scenes from the lower world were represented by Egyptians an Ethiopians.

Suetonius, Caligula 57.3

Like gladiators and charioteers – and all those who were perceived as selling their bodies – actors were infamis (except for those who acted in Atellan farce) and while they might acquire great fame and wealth, had a very low status in the Roman hierarchy. The Emperor Augustus took action against some actors who it was felt were getting above their status.

Augustus was so especially strict about curbing the lawlessness of actors, that when he learned that Stephanio, an actor of Roman plays, was waited on by a matron with hair cut short to look like a boy, he had him whipped with rods through the three theatres and then banished him. Hylas, a pantomimic actor, was publicly lashed in the atrium of his own house, on complaint of a praetor, and Pylades[5] was expelled from the city and from Italy as well, because by pointing at a spectator who was hissing at him with his finger he turned all eyes upon him.

Suetonius, Augustus 14

There was also the chance that some lines might suddenly be turned against the emperor:

Bust of Tiberius

How grossly Tiberius was in the habit of abusing women even of high birth is very clearly shown by the death of a certain Mallonia. When she was brought to his bed and refused most vigorously to submit to his lust, he turned her over to the informers, and even when she was on trial he did not cease to call out and ask her “whether she was sorry”; so that finally she left the court and went home, where she stabbed herself, openly upbraiding the ugly old man for his obscenity. Hence a stigma put upon him at the next plays in an Atellan farce was received with great applause and became a saying, that “the old goat[6] was licking the does.”

Suetonius, Tiberius 45.4

Others, like the satirist Juvenal, rabidly attacked what they saw as the moral dangers of mime:

Can you find any woman that’s worthy of you under our porticoes? Does any seat at the theatre hold one you could take from there and love with confidence? When sinuous Bathyllus[7] dances his pantomime Leda, Tucia wets herself and Apula cries out as if she were making love with sharp tedious cries. Thymele watches carefully: naive Thymele learns something.

Juvenal Satire 6[8] (Translated by A. S. Kline)

However, all this criticism was ignored by most. Some wealthy Romans kept troops of actors in their house for private entertainment – and also rented them out for various ludi. One such was Numidia Quadratilla, a very wealthy lady of the late 1st century CE:

Numidia Quadratilla has died, having almost reached the age of eighty. Up until her last illness she enjoyed uninterrupted good health, and was unusually strong and robust for a woman. She has left a very prudent will, having disposed of two-thirds of her estate to her grandson, and the rest to her grand-daughter. The young lady I know very slightly, but the grandson is one of my closest friends. He is a remarkable young man, and his merit entitles him to the affection of a relation, even where his blood does not. Notwithstanding his remarkable attractiveness he escaped all malicious gossip both as a boy and a youth: he was a husband at twenty-four, and would have been a father if fate had not disappointed his hopes. He lived in close quarters with his luxury-loving grandmother, but was very scrupulous about his own behaviour, although he respected her. She kept a company of pantomimes and was an encourager of this class of people to a degree not appropriate for one of her gender and social status. But Quadratus was never at these entertainments whether she gave them in the theatre or in her own house; nor, indeed, did she require him to be present. I once heard her say, when she was recommending to me the supervision of her grandson’s studies, that it was her custom, in order to pass away some of those unemployed hours with which female life abounds to amuse herself with playing at draughts or watching her pantomimes, but that whenever she engaged in either of those amusements she always sent away her grandson to his studies: she appeared to me to act in this way as much out of reverence for the youth as from affection. I was a good deal surprised, as I am sure you will be too, at what he told me the last time the priestly games were on.[9] As we were coming out of the theatre together, where we had been entertained with a show of these pantomimes, “Do you know,” said he, “to-day is the first time I ever saw my grandmother’s freedman dance?” Such was the grandson’s speech! While a set of men of a far different stamp, in order to do honour to Quadratilla (I am ashamed to call it honour), were running up and down the theatre, pretending to be struck with the utmost admiration and rapture at the performances of those pantomimes and then imitating in musical chant the expression and manner of their lady patroness. But now all the reward they have got, in return for their theatrical performances, is just a few small legacies, which they have the mortification to receive from an heir who was never so much as present at these shows.

Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.24

The following is an extract from a 2nd century CE novel about a young man who is turned into a donkey and gets into all sorts of trouble along the way. In the course of his adventures he is condemned to the arena (in his donkey form), but gets to witness a mime show which precedes the other events:

Portrait of ancient writer Apuleius

The day appointed for the show came at last. I was led to the amphitheatre’s outer wall, by an enthusiastic crowd, in procession. The entertainment began with actor’s comic mimes, while I enjoyed myself by the gate browsing the rich and juicy grass growing at the entrance, and now and then refreshing my eyes with a glance at the show through the open portal. There were boys and girls in the bloom of youth, outstanding in their fresh beauty, splendid costumes, and graceful movements, ready to perform the Pyrrhic dance. They moved in decorous unwavering order, now weaving in and out in a whirling circle, now linking hands in a slanting chain, now in wedges forming a hollow square, now separating into distinct troops. When the trumpet’s final note un-wove the knotted complexities of their intricate motion, the curtain was raised, the screens folded back, and the stage was set.

There stood a mountain of wood, built with noble skill to resemble that illustrious Mount Ida that Homer sang. It was planted out with living trees and bushes, and from its summit a stream of water flowed from a fountain made by the designer’s own hand. A handful of goats were cropping the grass and a youth, beautifully dressed in the manner of Paris, as Phrygian shepherd, an Asiatic robe flowing over his shoulders, a gold tiara on his brow, pretended to be tending the flock. Then a shining lad appeared, naked except for a cloak worn on his left shoulder, attracting all gazes with his blond hair, with little gold wings on either side projecting from his curls and a wand, proclaiming him as Mercury. He danced forward bearing in his right hand an apple covered in gold leaf, and offered it to the actor playing Paris. Then, relaying Jupiter’s instructions for the action to follow, he nodded, swiftly and gracefully retraced his steps, and vanished. Next arrived a respectable looking girl dressed as the goddess Juno, a pure white diadem on her brow and a sceptre in her hand. Then on came another you’d have recognised as Minerva, a shining helm crowned with an olive wreath on her head, holding a shield and brandishing a spear as if off to battle. Then another girl made her entrance, a real beauty with an ambrosial complexion, playing Venus, as Venus looked before marriage. Her exquisite naked form was bare except for a piece of silken gauze with which she veiled her sweet charms. An inquisitive little breeze kept blowing this veil aside in wanton playfulness so that it lifted now to show her ripening bud, or now pressed madly against her, clinging tightly, smoothly delineating her voluptuous limbs. The goddess’ very colouring offered interest to the eye, her body the white of heaven from which she came, her veil the cerulean blue of the sea from which she rose.

Each of the girls who played a goddess was accompanied by attendants; Juno by two lads from the acting troop, depicting Castor and Pollux, heads capped with helmets shaped like halves of the egg they came from, topped by stars to signify the Twins, their constellation. To the sound of an Ionian flute piping melodies, the goddess advanced with calm unpretentious steps, and with graceful gestures promised Paris rule over all Asia if he granted her the prize for beauty. The girl whose weapons denoted Minerva was guarded by two boys, depicting Terror and Fear, armour-bearers to the war-goddess, leaping forward with drawn swords. Behind them a piper played a battle tune in the Dorian mode, a deep droning intermingled with shrill screeches, stirring them to energetic dance. Minerva tossed her head, glared threateningly, and informed Paris in swift and abrupt gestures that should he grant her victory in the beauty contest then with her assistance he would be renowned for his bravery and his triumphs in war.

Then came Venus, to the audience’s loud applause, taking her place gracefully at centre-stage, sweetly smiling and ringed by a host of happy little boys, so chubby and milky-white you’d have thought them real cupids flown down from heaven or in from the sea. With little wings and archery sets and all the rest they truly fitted the part, lighting their mistress’ way with glowing torches as if they were off to a wedding feast. Next a crowd of beautiful girls streamed in, the most graceful of Graces, the loveliest of Hours, scattering garlands and loose flowers in tribute to their goddess, paying honour to the queen of all pleasure with the blossoms of spring.

Now flutes of many notes played Lydian airs in sweet harmony, and as their soft melodies charmed the hearts of the audience, Venus began a gentle dance, with slow hesitant steps and sinuously swaying body and head, advancing with delicate movements to the sweet sound of the flutes. Letting fly passionate or sharp and menacing glances, she often seemed to be dancing by means of her eyelids alone. As soon as she reached the judge, Paris, she promised with transparent gestures, that if he preferred her above the other two goddesses she would grant him a bride of marvellous beauty, the very image of herself. At this the Phrygian youth, gladly handed her the golden apple, in token of yielding her the victory.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass Book 10, (Translation A.S. Kline)


Media Attributions

  1. A feast for the gods.
  2. After Bathyllus, its most famous performer.
  3. These were not normally used as sacrificial animals, but Caligula had exotic animals sacrificed as part of the cult of his own divinity.
  4. Philip II, the father of Alexander. The tragedy was Cinyras.
  5. He was a freedman of Augustus and one of those who introduced pantomime to the Romans; he focused on tragic pantomime. He attacked the audience on other occasions: one when he was acting out the madness of Hercules the audience hissed at him for not dancing properly; he threw off his mask and screamed “idiots! I am acting the role of a madman!” His exile was in 18 BCE – he was back within a year.
  6. Tiberius had retired to the island of Capri,; the Latin for goat is caper, hence the double meaning.
  7. One of Augustan artists who introduced pantomime to Rome; he appears to have focused on comic pantomime and rather sexy version of myths.
  8. This is a satire against women in which Juvenal basically accuses them of all the evils that a Roman could imagine. And that was quite a few.
  9. Games run and put on by members of the priestly colleges, rather than the magistrates.


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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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