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p862 Pantomimus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp862‑863 of

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

PANTOMI′MUS is the name of a kind of actors peculiar to the Romans, who very nearly resembled in their mode of acting the modern dancers in the ballet. They did not speak on the stage, but merely acted by gestures, movements, and attitudes. All movements, however, were rhythmical like those in the ballet, whence the general term for them is saltatio, saltare; the whole art was called musica muta (Cassiodor. Var. I.20); and to represent Niobe or Leda was expressed by saltare Nioben and saltare Ledam.

Mimic dancers of this kind are common to all nations, and hence we find them in Greece and Italy; in the former country they acquired a degree of perfection of which we can san scarcely form an idea. But pantomimes in a narrower sense were peculiar to the Romans, to whom we shall therefore confine ourselves. During the time of the republic the name pantomimus does not occur, though the art itself was known to the Romans at an early period; for the first histriones said to have been introduced from Etruria were in fact nothing but pantomimic dancers [Histrio, p612], whence we find that under the empire the names histrio and pantomimus were used as synonymous. The pantomimic art, however, was not carried to any degree of perfection until the time of Augustus; whence some writers ascribe its invention to Augustus himself, or to the great artists who flourished in his reign (Suidas, s.v. Ὀρχησις παντόμιμος.) The greatest pantomimes of this time were Bathyllus, a freedman and favourite of Maecenas, and Pylades and Hylas (Juv. VI.63, Suet. Aug. 45; Macrob. Sat. II.7; Athen. I p20).º The great popularity which the pantomimes acquired at Rome in the time of Augustus through those distinguished actors, was the cause of their spreading not only in Italy but also in the provinces, and Tiberius found it necessary to put a check upon the great partiality for them; he forbade all senators to frequent the houses of such pantomimes, and the equites were not allowed to be seen walking with them in the streets of Rome, or to attend their performances in any other place than the public theatres, for wealthy Romans frequently engaged male and female pantomimes to amuse their guests at their repasts (Tacit. Annal. XIV.21). But Caligula was so fond of pantomimes that one of them, M. Lepidus Mnester, became his favorite; and through his influence the whole class of pantomimes again recovered their ascendancy (Suet. Cal. 36, 55, 57; Tacit. Annal. XIV.21). Nero not only patronized them, but acted himself as pantomime (Suet. Nero, 16, 26), and from this time they retained the highest degree of popularity at Rome down to the latest period of the empire.

As regards their mode of acting, we must first state that all pantomimes wore masks, so that the features of the countenance were lost in their acting. All the other parts of their body, however, were called into action, and especially the arms and hands, whence the expressions manus loquacissimae, digiti clamosi, χεῖρες παμφῶνοι, &c. Notwithstanding their acting with masks, the ancients agree that the pantomimes expressed actions, feelings, passions, &c., more beautifully, correctly, and intelligibly than it would be possible to do by speaking or writing. They were, however, assisted in their acting by the circumstance that they only represented mythological characters, which were known to every spectator (Juv. VI.63, V.121; Horat. Epist. II.2.125; Sueton. Nero, 54; Vell. Pat. II.83). There were, moreover, certain conventional gestures and movements which every body understood. Their costume appears to have been like that of the dancers in a ballet, so as to show the beauty of the human form to the greatest advantage; though the costume of course varied according to the various characters which were represented. See the manner in which Plancus is described by Velleius (II.83) to have danced the character of Glaucus. In the time of Augustus there was never more than one dancer at a time on the stage, and he represented all the characters of the story, both male and female, in succession (Lucian, de Saltat. c67; Jacobs, ad Anthol. II.1, p308). This remained the custom till towards the end of the second century of our aera, when the several parts of a story began to be acted by several pantomimes dancing together. Women, during the earlier period of the empire, never appeared as pantomimes on the stage, though they did not scruple to act as such at the private parties of the great. During the latter time of the empire women acted as pantomimes in public, and in some cases they threw aside all regard to decency, and appeared naked before the public. The Christian writers therefore represent the pantomimic exhibitions as the school of every vice and licentiousness (Tertull. de Spect. p269,a ed. Paris; see also Senec. Quaest. Nat. VII.32; Plin. Epist. V.24; Ammian. Marc. XIV.6; Procop. Anecdot. 9).

Mythological love stories were from the first the favourite subjects of the pantomimes (Ovid. Remed. Am. 753), and the evil effects of such sensual representations upon women are described in strong colours by Juvenal (VI.63, &c.). Every representation p863was based upon a text written for the purpose. This text was called the Canticum (Macrob. Sat. II.7; Plin. Epist. VII.24), and was mostly written in the Greek language. Some of them may have represented famous scenes from, or the whole subjects of Greek dramas; but when Arnobius (adv. Gent. 4, cf. Antholog. I. p249) states, that whole tragedies of Sophocles and Euripidesb were used as texts for pantomimic representations, he perhaps only means to say that a pantomimus sometimes represented the same story contained in such a tragedy, without being obliged to act or dance every sentiment expressed in it. The texts of the pantomimes or cantica were sung by a chorus standing in the background of the stage, and the sentiments and feelings expressed by this chorus were represented by the pantomimus in his dance and gesticulation. The time was indicated by the scabellum, a peculiar kind of sole made of wood or metal, which either the dancer or one of the chorus wore. The whole performance was accompanied by musical instruments, but in most cases by the flute. In Sicily pantomimic dances were called βαλλισμοί, whence perhaps the modern words ball and ballet. (Cf. Lessing, Abhandlung von den Pantomimen der Alten; Grysar, in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclop. s.v. Pantomimische Kunst des Alterthums; Welcker, Die griechischen Tragödien, pp1317, 1409, 1443, 1477).


Thayer's Notes:

a I don't have that particular edition in front of me, but the nastinesses of the pantomimic schools are mentioned twice in the de Spectaculis: 17.2 (Latin English) and 23.6 (Latin English).

b Arnobius does not mention Euripides.


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