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Bill Thayer

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The Roman section only (pp612‑613) of an article on pp611‑613 of

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

 p612  HI′STRIO, (ὑποκριτής), an actor.

[. . .]

2. Roman. The word histriones, by which the Roman actors were called, is said to have been formed from the Etruscan hister which signified a ludio or dancer (Liv. VII.2; Val. Max. II.4 §4; compare Plut. Quaest. Rom. p289 C). In the year 364 B.C. Rome was visited by a plague, and as no human means could stop it the Romans are said to have tried to avert the anger of the gods by scenic plays (ludi scenici), which, until then, had been unknown to them; and as there were no persons at Rome prepared for such performances, the Romans sent to Etruria for them. The first histriones who were thus introduced from Etruria, were dancers, and performed their movements to the accompaniment of a flute. That the act of dancing to this accompaniment should have been altogether unknown to the Romans is hardly credible; the real secret must have been in the mode of dancing, that is, in the mimic representations of the dancers, such as they are described by Dionysius (Antiq. Rom. VII.72) and Appian (VIII.66). That the Etruscans far excelled the Romans in these mimic dances, is more than probable; and we find that in subsequent times also, a fresh supply of Etruscan dancers (histriones) came to Rome (Müller, Etrusk. IV.1.6). Roman youths afterwards not only imitated these dancers, but also recited rude and jocose verses, adapted to the movements of the dance and the melody of the flute. This kind of amusement, which was the basis of the Roman drama, remained unaltered until the time of Livius Andronicus, who introduced a slave upon the stage for the purpose of singing or reciting the recitative, while he himself performed the appropriate dance and gesticulation. [Canticum] A further step in the development of the drama, which is likewise ascribed to Livius, was, that the dancer and reciter carried on a dialogue, and acted a story with the accompaniment of the flute (see Gronov. ad Liv. l.c.) The name histrio, which originally signified a dancer, was now applied to the actors in the drama. The atellanae were played by freeborn Romans, while the regular drama was left to the histriones who formed a distinct class of persons. It is clear from the word of Livy, that the histriones were not citizens; that they were not contained in the tribes, nor allowed to be enlisted as soldiers in the Roman legions; and that if any citizen entered the profession of histrio, he, on this account, was excluded from his tribe. Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, I p520, note 1150) thinks differently, but does not assign any reason for his opinion. The histriones were therefore always either freed-men, strangers, or slaves, and many passages of Roman writers show that they were generally held in great contempt (Cic. pro Arch. 5; Corn. Nep. Praefat. 5; Suet. Tib. 35). Towards the close of the republic it was only such men as Cicero, who, by their Greek education, raised themselves above the prejudices of their countrymen, and valued the person no less than the talents of an Aesopus and Roscius (Macrob. Sat. III.10).º But notwithstanding this low estimation in which actors were generally held, distinguished individuals among them attracted immense crowds to the theatres, and were extraordinarily paid (Cic. c. Verr. IV.16). Roscius alone received every day that he performed one thousand denarii, and Aesopus left his son a fortune of 200,000 sesterces, which he had acquired solely by his profession (Macrob. l.c.). The position of the histriones was in some respects altered during the empire. By an ancient law the Roman magistrates were empowered to coerce the histriones at any time and in any place, and the praetor had the right to scourge them (jus virgarum in histriones). This law was partly abolished by Augustus, in so far as he did entirely away with the jus virgarum, and confined the interference of the magistrates to the time when, and the place where (ludi et scena) the actors performed (Tacit. Ann. I.77). But he nevertheless inflicted very severe punishments upon those actors who, either in their private life or in their conduct on the stage, committed any impropriety (Suet. Aug. 45). After these regulations of Augustus the only legal punishments that could be inflicted upon actors for improper conduct, seem to have been imprisonment and exile (Tac. Ann. IV.14, XIII.28). The jus virgarum is indeed said to have been restored to the praetor by a law of Augustus himself (Paull. Sent. V. tit. 26), not expressly, but by the interpretation put upon this law by the jurists. But this interpretation cannot have become valid till after the reign of Tiberius, of whom it is clearly stated that he refused to restore the jus virgarum, because it had been abolished by his predecessor (Tac. Ann. I.77). These circumstances, and the favour of the emperors, increased the arrogance and the loose conduct of the histriones, and the theatres were not seldom the scenes of bloody fights. Hence Tiberius on one occasion found himself obliged to expel all histriones from Italy (Tac. Annal. IV.14; Dion Cass. LIX. p738).º Some of the later emperors were exceedingly fond of histriones, and kept them for their private amusement (histriones aulici, Spartian. Hadrian. c19; Jul. Capitol. Verus, c8). They performed at the repasts of  p613 the emperors (Sueton. Aug. 74), and were occasionally allowed also to play in the theatres before the people (publicabantur). In the Digest (3 tit. 2 s1) we read that all actors were infamous. From the time of Tacitus the word histrio was used as synonymous with pantomimus (Bötticher, Lex. Tacit. p233).

Respecting the ordinary pay which common actors received during the time of the republic nothing is known. The pay itself was called lucar (Tac. Ann. I.77; Plut. Quaest. Rom. p285 C; Festus, s.vv. lucar and pecunia); which word was perhaps confined originally to the payment made to those who took part in the religious services celebrated in groves.​a In the times of the empire it seems that five denarii (Senec. Epist. 80), or, according to others (Lucian. Icaromen. c29), seven drachmae, was the common pay for a histrio for one performance. Several emperors found it necessary to restrict the practice of giving immoderate sums to actors (Tacit. l.c.; Suet. Tib. 34). The emperor M. Antoninus, who was fond of all histrionic arts, ordained that every actor should receive five aurei, and that no one who gave or conducted theatrical performances should exceed the sum of ten aurei (Jul. Capitol. M. Anton. c11; compare Schol. ad Juvenal. VII.243). But it is not clear whether in this regulation the payment for one or more performances is to be understood. These sums were either paid by those who engaged the actors to play for the amusement of the people, or from the fiscus (Lipsius, Excurs. N. ad Tacit. Annal. I.). Beside their regular pay, however, skilful histriones received from the people gold and silver crowns which were given or thrown to them upon the stage (Phaedr. Fab. V.7.36; Plin. H. N. XXI.3).

Thayer's Note:

a f you have no Latin, don't be taken in by this! It is sheer etymological speculation on our author's part: the Latin for grove is lucus.

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