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p763 Mimus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp763‑764 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

MIMUS (μῖμος) is the name by which, in Greece and at Rome, a species of the drama was designated, though the Roman mimus differed essentially from the Greek μῖμος.

The Greek mimus seems to have originated among the Greeks of Sicily and southern Italy, and to have consisted originally of extempory representations or imitations of ridiculous occurrences of common life at certain festivals, like the Spartan deicelistae. At a later period these rude representations acquired a more artistic form, which was brought to a high degree of perfection by Sophron of Syracuse (about 420 B.C.). He wrote his pieces in the popular dialect of the Dorians and a kind of rhythmical prose (Quinctil. I.8). The mimes of Sophron are designated as μῖμοι σπουδαῖοι, which were probably of a more serious and ethical character, and μῖμοι γέλοιοι, in which ridiculous buffoonery preponderated. Such mimes remained after the time of Sophron a favourite amusement of the Greeks, and Philistion of Magnesia, a contemporary of Augustus, was a celebrated actor in them (see Müller, Dor. IV.7 §5).

Among the Romans the word mimus was applied to a species of dramatic plays as well as to the personsa who acted in them. It is certain that the Romans did not derive their mimus from the Greeks in southern Italy, but that it was of native growth. The Greek mimes were written in prose, and the name μῖμος was never applied to an actor, but if used of a person it signified one who made grimaces. The Roman mimes were imitations of foolish and mostly indecent and obscene occurrences (Ovid, Trist. II.515; Valer. Max. II.6 §7, X.11), and scarcely differed from comedy except in consisting more of gestures and mimicry than of spoken dialogue, which was not the case in the Greek mimes. The dialogue was, indeed, not excluded from the Roman mimes, but was only interspersed in various parts of the representation, while the mimic acting continued along with it and uninterruptedly from the beginning to the end of a piece. At Rome such mimes seem originally to have been exhibited at funerals, where one or more persons (mimi) represented in a burlesque manner the life of the deceased. If there were several mimi, one of them, or their leader, was called archimimus (Suet. Vespas. 19; Gruter, Inscript. 1089.6).

During the latter period of the republic such farces were also represented in the theatres; but it appears that they did not attain any high degree of perfection before the time of Caesar, for it is not until then that writers of mimes are mentioned: Cn. Matius, Decius Laberius, and Publ. Syrus were the most distinguished among them (Gellius, XV.25; Suet. Caes. 39; Cic. ad Fam. XII.18). These coarse and indecent performances, of which Sulla was very fond,b had greater charms for the Romans than the regular drama: hence they were not only performed on the stage, but even at repasts in the houses of private persons. On the stage they were performed as farces after tragedies, and during the empire they gradually supplanted the place of the Atellanae. The exact time, however, when the Atellanae yielded to the mimes is uncertain. It was peculiar to the actors in these mimes, neither to wear masks, nor the cothurnus, nor the soccus, whence they are sometimes called planipedes (Diomed. III.487; Gellius, I.11; Macrob. Sat. II.1). As the mimes contained scenes taken from common life, such as exhibited its most striking features, their authors are sometimes called biologi or ethologi (Cic. pro Rabir. 12, de Orat. II.59), and the works themselves were distinguished for their richness in moral sentences. That distinguished and living persons were sometimes exposed to ridicule in these mimes, is clear p764from J. Capitolinus (M. Ant. Philos. c29). (Cf. Reuvens, Collectan. Literar. I p51, &c.; Osann, Analect. crit. I p67, &c.; Ziegler, De Mimis Romanorum, Götting. 1788).


Thayer's Notes:

a For a good illustration of a mimus, see the woodcut in Smith's article on the Roman slipper known as a soccus.

b Plutarch, Life of Sulla, 2.2 and passim.


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