Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.05


Hartmut Leppin, Histrionen: Untersuchungen zur sozialen Stellung von Bühnenkünstler im Westen des Römischen Reiches zur Zeit der Republik und des Principats. Antiquitas Reihe I Abhandlungen zur Alten Geschichte 41. Bonn: Habelt, 1992. Pp. 366 + viii. 117 Swiss francs. ISBN 3-7749-2517-8.


Reviewed by William J. Slater, McMaster University.

This substantial book appears only one year after its submission as a dissertation at Marburg under K. Christ. A large portion (pp.189-313) is taken up by a prosopography of Roman actors, which replaces that of J.E. Spruit, hidden in Dutch in MNIR 34 (1969) 61ff. This is preceded by 14 chapters dealing with various aspects of the social history of Roman acting, in which Leppin commendably includes pantomimes, mimes and similar artists, but not some of the minor performers of acroamata and theamata; it will therefore be left up to some other industrious student to update H. Blümner's Fahrendes Volk for the Roman side. The koprologists who amused Tiberius and the kotylist who failed to amuse Julian and baffled the Celts, are anonymous and so absent from the prosopography but equally absent from the book. This becomes tricky when one considers that mimes overlap with the imitators of lawyers, the evidently unrelated makers of pig noises, and other producers of "un brouhaha joyeux"; while pantomimes overlap with acrobats, boxers, and their less cultivated kin; likewise a dwarf choral pipe-player and some musicians are in, other musicians are out. Defining a histrio is not easy, and ludius is missing also from the index.

Other self-imposed and necessarily arbitrary limitations should be mentioned. The Greek world is invoked often, but there is understandably a reliance on a few works, especially Stephanes' valuable Dionysiakoi technitai. The actors of Southern Italy are in danger of falling into the chasm between the Greek and Roman artists, and the list cribbed from Stephanes on p.158 is a stopgap. Pub[lius] the magoidos at hellenistic Delphi (Robert, Et. Epigr. p.7 = Stephanes 2120) therefore disappears altogether; sadly, because he sounds interesting enough. The tragic poet and technites Publius son of Publius Romaios disappears as well except from TGF I, this time because Stephanes does not include poets; yet we should be interested that he was performing in Greece in 90 B.C. Crispus of Alexandria -- written in Greek -- is a pantomime who died in Asia, and is not mentioned here but is in Stephanes' list, while T. Claudius Pardalas is in Latin and here, but not in Stephanes. One needs to use and have at hand both books, know what is not in them, and, to judge by my own experience, constantly update them. Still Leppin's list is supplemented by his extracts from Stephanes on p.158, and later a further list of "scheinbare Histrionen", on which [p.315] he notes that he could double the size of his list if he noted everyone who had at some time been called a Roman performer.

On the temporal side Leppin shows little interest in the late Roman period, and the western church fathers, let alone the still largely unexploited eastern fathers, are seldom noticed; we are still dependent on the indigestible material of Juergens' Pompa Diaboli and Weismann's Kirche und Schauspiel. Perhaps more serious, the testimony of the legal corpora is sometimes noted but not exploited properly for the later period. In this Leppin is sometimes less useful than J.E. Spruit, De juridische en sociale positie der romeinse acteurs (Assen 1966), whose dense Dutch is mitigated both by his willingness to quote sources, and his excellent indices.

Within these limitations it has to be said that this is such a useful book that it will be an essential part of the library of anyone interested in ancient acting. And not just for the prosopography: his survey of the social history of the theatre is relatively brief, even compressed, and necessarily omits many issues and points one would have wished discussed, but it is exceedingly useful. Even when it is too brief, the references take us further. Leppin has been particularly diligent in tracing down the inscriptions, though he obviously could not inspect them. I single out for commendation here the order he has introduced into the dynasties of Pylades, correcting quietly some of the articles of Bonaria in R.E. He does tackle some particular issues in appendices. These are 1. Musical Competitions in the West (where I miss Jory's important discussion in 1988 of the rise of the pantomime competition, perhaps too late for him, though it is in the bibliography); 2. The dispatch of imperial pantomimes from Rome, apparently part of a larger policy of the second century; 3. The stage names of the artists (not adequate without the Greek examples); 4. The meaning of diurnus; 5. The meaning of adlectus; 6. Cassiodorus's text on 115 B.C. Leppin rejects Mommsen's translation of diurnus, a word used of distinguished mimes, as "on daily salary" and opts for something like "independent", but it is not clear to me why these could not amount to the samething. The discussion of Cassiodorus' text concerns the issue whether the ludus talarius was banned or not, and I observe that Jory has promised to show that it was one of the origins for pantomime, while P.L. Schmidt has attributed to it a major place in the history of Roman Republican theatre. Leppin holds that it was banned. There will be disagreement.

In a way such questions of detail are almost endless in the epigraphy of Roman drama, let alone in theatre history generally. Since Leppin is generally offering a survey one cannot expect that he will handle them all; and even if he did, the evidence is of such sparsity as to make persuasive solutions unlikely. There is e.g. no discussion at all of the self-definition of mimes as "of the second (third, fourth) parts", and it is assumed [51] without question that archimimus means leader of a troupe. Yet he writes [12 2]: "Besondere Rollen ...erwaehnt man bei Mimen nicht"! Leppin assumes that Theorus = Bathyllus; Jory has denied this, I believe rightly. And so on: one simply cannot expect a doctoral student to cover in detail the multitude of philological legal political and economic issues raised by the theatrical industry or even just by the theatre inscriptions.

Some important passages have been missed; I offer two very different examples. Pliny's statement in the Panegyric 54.1 that Trajan has not used pantomimes for purposes of political propaganda (sc. as Domitian did) may or may not be true, but it is extremely important, not only because it is, as far as I know, unique; for if, as the statement suggests, pantomime could be propaganda, then we must deduce that its importance for the emperors consisted in more than imperial catering to mob amusement. One great gap in our understanding is precisely the use of the theatre for propaganda and manipulation, as opposed to patronage. Yet, as we ought now to know, mass gatherings are of immense importance to the orchestrated policies both of totalitarian regimes and of their opponents. Leppin could tell us a great deal more about claques than he does here, since after all this is the political arm of the theatrical industry.

A revealing passage in Suetonius, Claudius 34.2, missing here, tells us of the rage of the usually popular and theatre loving Claudius when the surprise effects or complex machinery failed to work properly. The carpenters, in an early example of quality control techniques, were sent out to be butchered in the arena. Nothing could show more clearly the immediate and personal stake of an emperor in the success of his theatrical spectacles. The "social position of the actor" in imperial service was unimaginably precarious; things had to work. But on the opposite side Leppin seems to me to underestimate hopelessly the political power of the pantomimes [162 and often]; certainly they were infames and they rarely get the honours of magistracy awarded even to mimes, nor do they sit on an imperial consilium. No matter: that is not how imperial regimes operate. Tiberius' or Hitler's or even McKenzie King's astrologer, not to mention Rasputin, offer better models. And if Leppin ever serves in the administration of a university, he will find out that things are not much different there either, and his textbook theories will not help him. Being associate dean is not much use when knowing the president's wife and playing squash with the provost is what counts; Josephus knew that. Many of our Roman imperial historians do not. Those brought up on Prussian Beamtentum are having a hard time these days comprehending the hideous disordered reality behind the monolithic facade of East German politics.

There are times when Leppin does not read his texts aright. No one [54] should read Petronius without suspecting jokes. None of his artists can be considered as doing anything but parodies of the normal. The oft repeated statements that victors go through holes smashed in city walls, and have the right to overturn statues of defeated stars [105] are derived from Nero's lunatic behaviour, and have no validity beyond that. Then again one could wish for more philological insight. Herodian, culturally conditioned as a Greek, could call the mob shouting in the circus "ekklesiazein"; but then he uses "theatron" for theatre and amphitheatre alike. Perhaps this is one reason why Leppin does not emphasize that the mimes and pantomimes performed increasingly in the circus and the amphitheatre, and the implication [67] that there were no pantomime riots after the first century, save in the circus, is both unlikely and, even if it were true, of no significance. "Theatre" was now not confined to the theatre.

My central complaint however is that Leppin, unlike e.g. Spruit, almost never cites texts. Scholars will have to spend a long time assembling the inscriptions that are central to his theme. Without the texts they cannot control what they read. Let me take the example of M. Sempronius Nicocrates, who is in both Leppin's and Stephanes' prospography. He was a poet and kitharist but in his epitaph in verse [GVI 1049] he says that worn out by his travels he became a trader in "eumorphoi gynaikes". Leppin says in his prosopography that he had become a pimp or slave-trader, "was er als Abstieg empfand". Really? the text when consulted does not say anything about his feelings, and we may reasonably doubt whether any cultured Greek wanted to advertise for posterity that as a result of travel fatigue he had made a mid life decision to become a pimp. Is it not more likely that he was a type of theatrical impresario, like the "pronoetes auletridon" of the papyri [B. Adams, Paramone 178 n.380], or the locator Plebeius, listed in the prosopography this time, who was diurnus and therefore probably a mime before he went into administration and became a locator? Then there is the Latin mime and later "promisthota" (= manceps, according to Leppin) T. Uttedius Venerianus of Philippi, whom I can locate in the lists of neither scholar; but he is mentioned without name on pp. 55, 58 and 90 as [ILS 5208], all passages listed in the epigraphic index, while his name is oddly missing in the general index and from the whole book. Sometimes old artists did not fade away, they became businessmen. It requires a unnecessary amount of searching to ascertain all this. My experience is that the epigraphic index is good, the index of literary texts less so, and the Sachenindex very deficient. The index of names is useful but, as the example of Venerianus shows, will not always find the person, when the epigraphic index will. One should check both indexes before concluding that data are missing.

This is an essential book, because it organizes facts that are not easily available, and makes them readily accessible to a wide public. For that reason alone it deserves to have been published and to be bought. Whether it is stimulating, original, provocative or indeed any of the other ritual epithets vainly employed by reviewers to convince us that they are still awake, depends I suppose on what time of night one reads it. I continue to read and consult and annotate it with thankfulness and recognition of a job well done. It will save you time and let you get to bed earlier. It is a credit to the writer and the series in which it appears.