Greco-Roman Pantomime

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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Pantomime in Greco-Roman Antiquity

Ancient pantomime performances centred on elaborate dancing movements performed by a solo male (or, more rarely, female) dancer accompanied by musicians and singers. The dancer skilfully mimed characters and stories with their entire body, which made for a stunning visual spectacle. Performances of this kind became popular from the beginning of the Imperial period. The plot of the story was sung by the chorus or the solo singer who accompanied the dancer, and it is likely that each performance was built from a succession of small scenes, often inspired by tragedies or mythological episodes. Pantomime performances were not constrained by the usual conventions of the tragic genre, and erotic scenes were not rare on stage. Death could also be represented. Through dance, the pantomime performer was able to convey deep feelings and emotions to the audience.

The number of musicians and singers could vary, so that the spectacle could be adapted to a wide range of public and private performance venues. The solo pantomime dancer wore a mask with a closed mouth, in contrast to tragic or comic masks, as the dancer neither sang nor spoke during the performance. Pantomime masks were elaborate and beautiful, and the performer used several masks (generally up to five) in each show to impersonate the different characters of the story. The dancer usually wore an ankle-length tunic or robe of high-quality fabric (silk) and sometimes a mantle; a scarf completed the costume and could be used as a prop or to signify specific aspects of a fictional character.

It is sometimes hard to draw a clear distinction between pantomime and mime or dance because the words used to designate a pantomime dancer in literary and epigraphical sources were commonly used to describe other genres of performance. As well as the Latin word pantomimus (from Greek pantomimos, i.e. a person able to mime everything), generic words were also used to refer to the pantomime dancer. In Greek, orchestes, originally meaning “dancer”, was commonly used. In Latin of the Imperial period, the word histrio (whose etymology links it to the visual elements of a performance, see Paillard 2020) came to be used almost exclusively as a synonym for “pantomime dancer”, but could also mean “actor” or performer in general. Because of this confusing terminology, it can be difficult to determine whether a textual reference to a specific performer is to a pantomime dancer or to another kind of dancer, a mime, or an acrobat.


Pantomime is often said to be a typically Roman theatrical genre that originated in Rome during the early Imperial period (around 22-23 BC) with artists such as Pylades and Bathyllus. Both were born outside of Rome, Pylades in Cilicia (Asia Minor) and Bathyllus in Alexandria, and both started their life as slaves (Pylades of Augustus and Bathyllus of Maecenas) before being freed and acquiring a widespread fame that brought them close to the circles surrounding Augustus. Yet the true origins of pantomime must be located earlier and outside Rome, although already in antiquity pantomime was thought to be of Italic or Roman origin (see Jory 2008, 158). Aristonikos, who lived at the same time as Pylades and Bathyllus, called pantomime “the Italian dance” (Athenaeus, Deipn. 1.20e).

Despite ancient testimony supporting the close association of pantomime with Italy, the word pantomimos occurs as early as 80-60 BC: a performer named Ploutogenes, hired by Zosimos for a public banquet in the city of Priene, is described as a pantomimos (see Garelli 2007, 118-123). It is unclear, however, whether he is to be understood as a performer of pantomime in the strict sense, or merely someone who was able to mime everything he was asked to.

While pantomime might be indebted to pre-existing types of visual entertainment and literary genres (e.g., mimes, Atellan farces, non-dramatic dances), it is not unlikely that what Pylades and Bathyllus brought to or invented in Rome was something relatively new, perhaps a mix between Greek and local Italic traditions. It is clear, moreover, that the real success of pantomime began in the Augustan period: the emperor promoted a new type of theatrical entertainment that mixed dance (which had a long local Italic tradition) with Classical Greek themes. This was a good tool to popularize and spread Greek mythological themes, which well suited Augustus' political agenda (see Beacham 1999, 146).

Pantomime libretti

The highlight of a pantomime show was the visual rather than the “literary” component, which took the shape of a pantomime libretto presenting the story and sung by the accompanying singer or chorus. As Libanius remarked (Orat. 64.87-88), the spectators judged the performance by the quality of the dance, not by the accompanying songs. Unlike the text of tragedies or comedies, no pantomime libretto is extant, as if it had no purpose outside the context of a performed pantomime (see Jory 2008, 161). Judging the merits and literary quality of these libretti is therefore a difficult task for the modern scholar. Some ancient authors (e.g., indirectly, Juvenal Sat. 7.86-7) had a negative perception of the literary merits of libretti written for pantomime performances, and it is safe to assume that not all these libretti were of the highest literary quality, especially since they did not necessarily affect the success of a pantomime performance. However, we also know that famous and talented poets (including Statius and Lucan) composed texts intended to be danced by a pantomime performer, and that extracts of the works of Ovid and of Virgil’s Aeneid (for example the story of Dido) were used as sources for pantomime libretti. How close the libretti were to the initial poems we do not know. In the reverse phenomenon, pantomime performances may have directly or indirectly influenced other genres. Some passages of Seneca’s tragedies, for example, may have been influenced by contemporary pantomime performances, and could themselves potentially be used as pantomime libretti (see Zanobi 2008 and 2014 and Zimmermann 1990 and 2008).

Although no pantomime libretto is extant, extracts of texts intended to accompany pantomime performances may be preserved on papyrus; as there is no clear model, however, it is difficult to ascertain this with certainty and to distinguish these from other kinds of texts, such as poems used as the basis for mimes. Hall (2008, 258-282), for instance, argues that the so-called “Barcelona Alcestis”, a papyrological document conserved in Spain, preserves a pantomime libretto, demonstrating that the structure and topic of the text fits what we know of a pantomime performance (i.e. a succession of several scenes where the actions and emotions of various characters are staged).

Three words reported in an anecdote in Macrobius (Sat. 2.7.13) constitute our only certain literary testimony for the kind of content sung in a pantomime performance. In this anecdote, the famous pantomime dancer Pylades blames the lesser-known Hylas for the way he mimed in his dance the expression τὸν μέγαν Ἀγαμέμνονα (“the great Agamemnon”), as sung by the accompanying chorus/singer. (Hylas had been imitating a tall rather than a great man, according to Pylades” expert eyes.)

Surveying this meagre evidence allows us to make a final remark: it is likely that early pantomime libretti were composed in Greek, as the first pantomime dancers seem to originate from Greek-speaking areas. However, given the rapid success of the genre, libretti in Latin must soon have appeared.

Public perceptions of pantomime

The success of pantomime was apparent from its very beginnings in Rome in 22 or 23 BC; its popularity grew further during the Imperial period, and pantomime was ubiquitous by the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The reputation of early pantomime dancers such as Pylades, Bathyllus, and Paris spread across the Mediterranean world between the middle of the first century BC and the first century AD, and many later dancers acquired a fame comparable to today’s international “stars”.

Pantomime shows generated strong emotional responses among the spectators. Galen (On Precognition 14.630.15) records the case of a respectable Roman woman who consulted him complaining of an irregular heartbeat. The doctor found that she was deeply in love with the pantomime dancer Pylades and that her heart beat more quickly each time she saw him!

Public pantomime shows were almost always part of a competition, and riots and fights between fans of different pantomime dancers took place in the theatres (on unrest in theatres, see, e.g., Tacitus Ann. 1.77). Of course, such occasions were also exploited politically. Pantomime spectacles gathered large audiences and took place in the presence of the Emperor. At such occasions, Romans could easily demonstrate their dissatisfaction or opposition to imperial politics. As causes of social unrest, pantomime performers were banned a number of times, essentially between the reigns of Augustus and Trajan. However, prohibitions never lasted for long. Pylades himself was expelled from Italy by Augustus in 18 BC but was allowed to come back soon afterwards. More fundamentally, Tiberius banned all pantomimes (and other actors) after riots and troubles that took place several times during his reign. The ban seems to have stayed in place until the reign of Caligula.

Pantomime dancers were popular with all strata of Roman society, from the least privileged, who loved their shows, to the Roman élites and leaders, who saw opportunities to use them as political tools. Elite Romans invited the dancers to perform in their houses and liked to be seen in public in their company: Bathyllus was very close to Maecenas, for example. Some emperors, like Lucius Verus, were known to mingle with them and to consider them as favourites (see Historia Augusta, Verus, 8, 6-11).

Attitudes towards pantomime dancers remained ambivalent, however, despite their popularity and the fact that some of them acquired influence in Roman society. Two major late literary sources set out to counter the usual attacks against pantomime dancers: Lucian’s On Dancing (mid- 2nd cent. AD) and a discourse of Libanius (Oration 64, 4th cent. AD) in defence of dancers. Lucian (On Dancing 61) praises dancers for their skills and highlights the fact that they had a deep knowledge of mythology, ancient history, and the works of ancient poets. Their athletic skills were also remarkable, as they were able to use their body with energy and subtlety to convey the contents of the stories they danced. For this they were admired, even loved.

On the other hand, their technical competence was offset by their reputation for licentiousness, promiscuity, and effeminacy. As the figure of Crato claims in Lucian’s dialogue, those negative moral characteristics could be transferred to the spectators who attended pantomime shows; the spectators” morals, it was thought, would be compromised, and they too would become effeminate and soft. There was a deep fear of the danger presented by someone who was, by trade, able to “imitate anything and anyone”, and so whose identity was impossible to grasp.

Pantomime in the history of theatre

The success of pantomime proved long-lasting and widespread: every corner of the Roman empire witnessed pantomimic activities of some sort, and we find evidence for pantomime performance as late at the mid-7th cent. AD.

The diffusion of the genre, however, was not immediate. While it began to be integrated in festivals in Italy shortly after the death of Augustus, it was not until the second century that pantomime dancing became part of the programme of Eastern festivals and competitions. This diffusion in the Roman Empire was closely linked to the development of the imperial cult, as this type of highly popular entertainment was considered a convenient tool for its spread. Emperors increasingly took control of what became a pantomime industry; the diffusion of the genre through performances across the Empire was one of the means by which Emperors could communicate and showcase their importance to peoples far from the centre of power in Rome. Pantomime performances worked as mass communication media. Augustus” patronage of pantomime dancers and their activities constituted a precedent for later emperors in encouraging the diffusion of the genre.

At a more popular level, the success of pantomime has often been closely related to the decline of other theatrical forms. Libanius (Orat. 64.112) alludes to a perceived correlation between the decreasing success of tragedies and the increasing popularity of pantomime. As spectators began to lack the necessary education to appreciate tragedies, they became fond of the more accessible pleasure provided by pantomime shows. Although the idea of a direct evolutionary link between tragedy and pantomime is probably a misconception (see Garelli 2006), pantomimes can be seen as a further step in the translation and adaptation of Classical Greek tragedies for a Roman audience. Classical tragedies were in a first stage “translated” into Latin plays, and adapted for a Latin-speaking audience. As the Empire expanded, however, theatrical audiences could no longer automatically be assumed to understand Latin (or Greek) very well. The new genre of pantomime, which reperformed (see Webb 2017) Classical stories through the medium of gestures and bodily movements, could be understood even by people who did not understand the language in which the accompanying solo singer or the chorus sang. Lucian, On Dancing 64, reports that a “barbarian” came to Nero’s court and attended a pantomime performance. Without understanding a word of what was sung, this foreigner could nonetheless understand everything just by looking at the dancer’s moves. Throughout the Roman empire, everyone was able to access Classical stories thanks to pantomime.


R. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, 1999.
M.-H. Garelli, “Pantomime, tragédie et patrimoine littéraire sous l’Empire”, Pallas 71, 2006, 113-125.
--- Danser le mythe: la pantomime et sa réception dans la culture antique, 2007.
E. Hall, “Is the ‘Barcelona Alcestis’ a Libretto?”. In Hall and Wyles (eds.) 2008, 258-282.
E. Hall and R. Wyles (eds.), New Directions in Ancient Pantomime, 2008.
J. Jory, “The Pantomime Dancer and his Libretto”. In Hall and Wyles (eds.) 2008, 157-168.
--- “Pylades, Pantomime, and the Preservation of Tragedy”, Mediterranean Archaeology 17, 2004, 147-156.
I. Lada-Richards, Silent Eloquence: Lucian and Pantomime Dancing, 2007.
E. Paillard, “Note sur l’étymologie d’histrio”, Cahiers de l’Institut de Linguistique et des Sciences du Langage 60, 2020, 103-107.
R. Webb, “Reperformance and Embodied Knowledge in Roman Pantomime”. In R. Hunter and A. Uhlig, Imagining Reperformance in Ancient Culture, 2017, 262-280.
A. Zanobi, “The Influence of Pantomime on Seneca’s Tragedies”. In Hall and Wyles (eds.) 2008, 227-257.
--- Seneca’s Tragedies and the Aesthetics of Pantomime, 2014.
B. Zimmermann, “Seneca und der Pantomimus”. In G. Vogt-Spira (ed.), Strukturen der Mündlichkeit in der römischen Literatur, 161-7.
--- “Seneca and Pantomime”. In Hall and Wyles (eds.) 2008, 218-226.

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Citation: Paillard, Elodie. "Greco-Roman Pantomime". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 16 September 2020 [, accessed 27 February 2024.]

19596 Greco-Roman Pantomime 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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