Other Types of Roman Theater

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Other Types of Roman Theater

Mime and Pantomime.

Mime was a genre of theatrical performance lying outside the formal boundaries of tragedy and comedy. It originated in Greece, where it probably began as the informal performance of imitative gestures, impressions, dances, and songs. Mime actors did not wear masks or shoes, and performed mimetically, as the name of the genre implies, improvising the expression of simple but ribald plots from mythology or daily events through gestures, dance, and facial expressions, accompanied by music. In Greece, mime performers were included in the same class as acrobats, much lower socially than the state-sponsored actors, directors, and producers of tragedy, comedy, and the dithyramb. In Rome, performances of mime were at first connected to the Floralia, a raucous and bawdy festival for the goddess Flora, which was established in the late third century b.c.e. Flora was a goddess of blooming plants and was thought to be suspiciously Greek by conservative Roman traditionalists. The Floralia was patronized by prostitutes: in fact, mima or "mime actress" was a euphemism for a prostitute, and women in mimes often displayed their bodies provocatively. Sulla, the Roman dictator in the early part of the first century b.c.e., elevated the status of mime by socializing with mime performers. Mime eventually became a literary genre in the first century b.c.e., written by such authors as Laberius and Publius Syrus, a former slave who was freed because of his talent in the genre of mime. Historical sources relate that Julius Caesar asked Publius Syrus to compete in the Roman Games of 46 b.c.e., and he challenged his fellow producers of mime to a contest of improvisation, of which Caesar declared him the winner. Roman mime was known for its inclusion of proverbial expressions and pithy moral teachings (despite its reputation for indecency), which were excerpted and collected by Seneca the Elder, among others. This genre reached its peak of popularity in the last years of the Roman Republic, but continued to be enjoyed throughout the remainder of the Roman Empire. A connected genre, "pantomime," meaning "one who mimes everything," became popular in the Roman Empire. It was brought to Rome from the Hellenistic east in 22 b.c.e. by the actors Pylades, who was said to have a more dramatic tragic style, and Bathyllus, who preferred comic themes. A single, silent performer who wore a mask and loose clothing to permit free movement, accompanied by musicians and singers, acted out pantomime, and sometimes an actor spoke while the pantomime described the action physically. Prominent authors like Lucian (39–65c.e.), an epic poet, wrote lyrics for pantomime, and because of its greater demands on the performer, was deemed to be of higher status than mime. Pantomime remained fashionable in both the Roman and Eastern Roman empires well into the sixth century c.e.



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Gladiatorial Games and Other Spectacles.

Scholars posit that fights between armed opponents at Etruscan funerals were the origin of the Roman gladiatorial combats, dating from the third century b.c.e. Whatever the source, the gladiator became a truly Roman figure, who could earn wealth, admiration from the ladies, and even freedom if successful in the amphitheater. Candidates for Roman office often funded gladiatorial contests as they did performances of other Roman entertainments, like theater, mime, and acrobatic shows, in order to gain popularity among the masses and win votes. Their original connection to funerals was superseded quickly by the desire of politicians and officials to appease the often rowdy and fickle Roman population. Gladiators probably fought in the Roman Forum before permanent amphitheaters were constructed beginning in the early Roman Empire. The most famous amphitheater in Rome is the Colosseum, whose remains still stand. The building of this massive and complex structure was undertaken during the reign of Emperor Vespasian and finished up under Titus in 80 c.e. The amphitheater has an extensive basement with waiting areas for gladiators, criminals about to be executed, and others unlucky enough to be sent out to face danger and death in the arena, as well as holding pens for wild animals, like lions and tigers, for beast-fights and brutal executions of criminals, slaves, and other undesirables. There were many amphitheaters all over the Roman Empire, as the Romans eagerly exported their favorite entertainments to the furthest reaches of their colonies. As the Roman lust for larger and more elaborate spectacles grew, officials sponsored contests featuring thousands of gladiators and victims. There were four types of gladiator. The Thracian used a round shield and curved dagger. Both the Samnite—dressed to resemble a warrior from the Oscan town of Samnium—and the murmillo—identifiable by a fish on his crest—were armed with a long shield, helmet with a visor, and sword. The retiarius ("net-man") had little body armor and relied on agility and speed with his net and trident. Most gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals who were pressed into service. Free citizens could also sell themselves to a keeper of a gladiatorial team. The combats were often gruesome affairs, resulting in amputated limbs, horrendous wounds, and death. Not all Romans relished these bloody exhibitions: the great Roman statesman Cicero bemoaned the popularity of these brutal entertainments. The poet Juvenal (first–second century c.e.) was disgusted when a dog ran past with a human hand in its mouth after a night of gladiatorial combats. Other types of popular public spectacle, most involving a high level of risk, were wild-beast hunts, executions, chariot-racing, athletic competitions, military triumphal processions, numerous religious holidays and festivals, and religious rituals.


introduction: Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger most likely composed his tragedies while serving as an adviser to Nero in the mid-first century c.e. Seneca's tragedies are a puzzle to modern scholars: when exactly were they written, and for what purpose? Are they meant to teach Stoic principles, despite their grotesque violence, or were they merely meant to entertain the callous court of a maniacal emperor? At any rate, they are the only extant Roman tragedies and as such provide us with a glimpse of the continuing tradition of the tragic genre. In his play Thyestes, Seneca retells the gory tale of the sons of Pelops, Thyestes and Atreus, who are doomed to repeat the gruesome familial pattern of cannibalism and revenge. Thyestes has seduced his brother's wife, and in a horrible act of vengeance Atreus has killed his nephews and cooked them to serve to his brother in an ironic "reconciliation" banquet for his brother.

Thyestes (after finishing his grim meal and discovering its source): This is what shamed the gods, this drove the day against its dawn. Wretched me, what noises shall I make, what laments? What words will be enough for me? I recognize the severed heads, the hands cut off, the feet ripped from broken legs! This is what the ravenous father could not gulp down. My sons' guts are rolling around inside me, and my crime concealed in my stomach struggles without a way out and searches madly for an escape. Brother, give me your sword that is clotted with my own blood. With its blade, the path to freedom may be provided for my children. You refuse to give me the sword? Then may my chest echo, beaten by resounding blows! Hold back your hand, you miserable son of a bitch—let's show mercy to the ghosts of the dead. Who in the world has ever seen such a horrible crime? What Heniochian [a notoriously savage nation] who lives on a jagged cliff of Mt. Caucasus, what Procrustes [an unusually sadistic fellow], who causes fear among the Cecropians? Look at me, a father who crushes his sons, and is in turn crushed by them. Is there no limit to evil?

Atreus: There ought to be a limit to evil when you do evil, but not when you repay it. Even this [gesturing at the bloody body parts of the children] is not enough for me. I should have poured their hot blood right from their wounds down your throat, so that you could drink their gore while they were still alive! My words of rage were lost in my rush. I stabbed them with a deep thrust of my blade, I slaughtered them at the altars, I placated the sacred hearth with their blood as an offering. I carved up their lifeless corpses and I tore them to pieces, immersing some parts in boiling pots: others I set to drip over slow fires. I tore off their limbs and muscles while they were still breathing, and I watched their livers pierced on a thin spit, still quivering, and I myself fed the flames. Their father could have done all these things better—my pain has fallen for no purpose. He ripped apart his sons with an unholy mouth, without knowing it, and without them knowing it!

source: Seneca, Thyestes, in Tragedies. Ed. Frank J. Miller (London and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968). Translated by Lisa Rengo George.

Nero and Seneca.

One era of the Roman Empire deserves special mention here. When Nero became emperor in 54 c.e. he introduced a new level of interest in the performing arts. He had been tutored by Seneca the Elder and fancied himself as a talented artist, author, musician, and actor. He developed his own version of Greek games called "The Neronia," instituted in 60 c.e., and he himself performed in the second year of the games. Nero often traveled to Greece to perform in games and to give recitals of music and drama. His refusal to heed the traditional laws of Rome, which forbade members of the upper classes to perform on the public stage, outraged many Romans. Seneca, son of Seneca the Elder, became one of Nero's advisers. He had been a senator and held other political offices, but was renowned for his skills as a public speaker and author. He amassed a great fortune while serving under Nero, but his position in the emperor's court also meant that he had to accept the emperor's unsavory and cruel methods, including several assassinations, while at the same time espousing moral values. His works are comprised of several philosophical and didactic treatises, a book on natural science, a comedy parodying the emperor Claudius, and nine tragedies based on Greek mythology. These plays were modeled explicitly on Greek tragedies: they were written in tragic meters and in episodic form, and they included choral songs and dances. His style has often been called "Euripidean" since he explored the psychology of his characters, portrayed individuals as blameless victims of fate or the gods, and focused on some of the most gruesome and shocking events portrayed in myth. At the same time, his treatment of themes and characters is so exaggerated it may have been intended as parody. Scholars have argued for centuries about whether Senecan drama was meant to be staged or only recited in private performances or public acting contests. Some have pointed out that the plays would have been impossible to stage realistically, since they portrayed murders, funeral pyres, animal sacrifices, and other scenes of ferocious violence—events that always took place off stage and were only described during the course of a Greek tragedy. Others have argued that the unstageable events could have been performed mimetically, or that the dramas were not intended to be staged as a whole, since many individual scenes are performable. Still others have suggested that Seneca wrote these gory dramas only to be read as an evening's entertainment at court or to provide "set pieces" for Nero and others to perform at recitals or in contests. Not surprisingly, Seneca's plays featured beautifully written speeches with fine rhetorical turns, extensive descriptive passages, moralizing and pithy epigrams, or short sayings. Senecan drama had great influence on theater in the Renaissance and in Tudor and Jacobean England.


Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon, eds., The Art of Ancient Spectacle (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; New Haven, Conn.: distributed by Yale University Press, 1999).

Pat Easterling and Edith Hall, eds., Greek and Roman Actors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Anna Motto and John Clark, Senecan Tragedy (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1988).

Ruth Scodel, ed., Theater and Society in the Classical World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993).

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Other Types of Roman Theater

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