Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.62

Christophe Hugoniot, Frederic Hurlet, Silvia Milanezi, Le statut de l'acteur dans l'Antiquité grecque et romaine.   Tours:  Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 'Villes et Territoires', Université François-Rabelais, 2004.  Pp. 368.  ISBN 2-86906-185-4.  €44.00 (pb).  

Contributors: Diego Lanza, Patricia Easterling, Eric Csapo, Brigitte Le Guen, Paola Ceccarelli, William Slater, Katherine Dunbabin, Silvia Milanezi, Christophe Hugoniot, Jean Christian Dumont, Emmanuel Soler, Pascal Arnaud, Catherine Gourdet, Arnaud Suspene, Marie-Helene Garelli-François

Reviewed by John Jory, The University of Western Australia (
Word count: 2871 words

For a thousand years of Greco-Roman history actors exerted a powerful influence on contemporary society and culture. Yet how they fitted in to that society, their place and their standing as individual members of that society, was always ambivalent. This collection of articles, deriving from a colloquium at the University of Tours on 3 and 4 May 2002, focuses directly on this general problem and adds considerably to our knowledge despite the acknowledged gaps in the available evidence. After an introduction by the editors and a short general bibliography the articles are grouped under the following four headings: I. Naissance d'un monde professionnel, II. Identifier l'acteur: méthodologie, terminologie, typologie, III. L'acteur dans la cité, IV. L'acteur, le pouvoir impérial, l'aristocratie. In the introduction the editors give a brief resume of the history of actors in Greece, offer some comments on the sources and note the most significant modern works on the topic while lamenting the comparative lack of work on Roman actors. They then provide a summary of the contributions of the participants in the Colloquium under the four headings cited above.

I. Naissance d'un monde professionnel.

The section opens with an article by Diego Lanza, 'L'acteur comique face aux institutions'. In it he emphasizes the all important role of the protagonist in the production and reception of the plays. The protagonist provides the link beween the stage and the audience. He dominates the scene and his characters and in his actions he reflects the anxieties of the public and sends a message to those that cause them. Not everyone will go along with all of L's propositions but the emphasis is salutary.

In Patricia Easterling's, 'À propos du statut symbolique des acteurs', she turns to four well known artistic representations of anonymous actors and hypothesizes that they represent deliberate memories of roles played by a protagonist. Two are unmasked and two are masked. One perhaps would have welcomed an exploration of this distinction. Turning to anecdotes about Polos and Archias she underlines the complex relationship between events portrayed on stage and the realities of life in the stories, true or false, that attached themselves to actors in the ancient world.

Eric Csapo is among those who have recently challenged the Athenocentric view of fifth century dramatic productions and in 'Some Social and Economic Conditions behind the Rise of the Acting Profession in the Fifth and Fourth centuries BC' he convincingly establishes the case for widespread theatrical activity outside of Athens from the mid fifth century onwards. He moves on to examine the epigraphic, literary and archaeological evidence for the development of the acting profession in the fourth century and then turns to consider a number of inscriptions found outside of Athens usually taken to refer to performances in that city itself. He demonstrates once and for all that these inscriptions refer to performances at celebrations of the Rural Dionysia and are part of a general spread of drama into Attica in the fifth century. A table of known and suspected venues for drama from ca. 440 to ca. 370 BC illustrates developments outside of Attica. He argues that professional actors could earn a profitable living and enjoy great popularity before the end of the fifth century and that in 386 BC we see evidence of a corporate identity developing when 'tragic actors' introduced old plays into the festivals. This is a foretaste of the subsequent corporate activity of the associations of Technitai of Dionysus. This is a welcome correction to the commonly held view.

Brigitte Le Guen takes the history of the acting profession further in 'Le statut professionnel des acteurs grecs à l'époque Hellénistique'. She sets out to investigate a view, widely but not universally held, that actors originally worked independently but that after the death of Alexander and the formation of the associations of artists of Dionysus the actors were incorporated into one or other of those associations and no longer worked as independent operators. Looking first at the literary and epigraphic evidence for tragic and comic actors between 323 and 280 BC she argues that none of it points to any of them being part of an association before 280 BC, an unsurprising conclusion since no such organization is attested in that period, as the author accepts. Le Guen then shows that of about 450 known comic and tragic actors of the third to first centuries BC only 73 or 16% are definitely attested as members of an association of τεχνῖιται. Where delegates of such an association negotiated contracts for performance she argues that it is the association as a whole that selects the supporting artists for the stars by a democratic vote and not the stars themselves. Artists who did not fulfil their obligations to perform had to give account of themselves not only to the festival authorities but also to the association. Moving on to consider the possibility that individual artists might have negotiated their own contracts without reference to any association she asserts that the use of the term 'technitai' for the artists in these inscriptions does not necessarily refer to members of the associations of Dionysiac τεχνῖιται and concludes that although certainty is impossible in the present state of the evidence it is likely that some artists at times operated independently of the associations. While this conclusion is incontestable the reviewer wonders about the possibility that in some theatrical contexts τεχνῖιται might indeed have been used as shorthand for members of the synods of Dionysiac artists.

II. Identifier l'acteur: méthodologie, terminologie, typologie .

This section opens with '"Autour de Dionysos": Remarques sur la dénomination des artistes dionysiaques' by Paola Ceccarelli. In posing the question of why the artists chose the title οἱ περὶ τὸν Διόνυσον τεχνῖιται she also investigates the rather unflattering διονυσοκόλακες and διονυσιοκόλακεςand discusses the relationships between the terms. διονυσιοκόλακες was formed by analogy with διονυσοκόλακες to describe the courtiers of Dionysius I of Syracuse on the basis of his close connections with the theatre and his association of himself with Dionysus. Outside of Sicily famous actors, accustomed to negotiating with Hellenistic kings, were not happy with the term κόλακες and preferred to be known as τεχνῖται, experts. The association of these kings, and Demetrius Polyorchetes in particular, with the god Dionysus led to the formal adoption of the term οἱ περὶ τὸν Διόνυσον τεχνῖιται, probably at the time of the reorganisation of the Dionysia and introduction of the Demetria.

Basing himself on a number of euergetic inscriptions from Stratonicea, William Slater in 'Where are the Actors?' asks why they tell us so little about the performers they record and stresses the general difficulty of interpreting epigraphic evidence for theatrical performances. In Stratonicea visiting performers, θεατρικοί, ἀκροάματα, were honoured and hired, while 'the needy' were 'honoured' alongside them (the reviewer wonders what 'honours' the needy would have appreciated except sustenance). 'Ἀκροάματα' are shown by comparison with other inscriptions to include both thymelic and dramatic Artists of Dionysus as well as performers in general. The Artists were not specifically referred to the inscriptions because the organisers of the festivals recorded only their own euergetism and thus did not mention the Artists for whom the state was responsible, while for reasons of prestige the Artists did not want any mention of the fact that they received a salary of some sort for competing. Slater's mastery of the evidence is as assured as usual but it is disconcerting that some inscriptions are translated while others are not. A further thought: it is not clear to me that only Artists of Dionysus took part in the ἀγῶνες and, if non members of the synods took part, then it seems natural for all participants to be labelled as ἀκροάματα by the festival organisers.

In 'Problems in the Iconography of Roman Mime' Katherine Dunbabin examines representations of a specific group of lascivious dancers across the Graeco-Roman world from the first century BC to the third Century AD. These dancers characteristically have sticks or staves in their hands while other features include protruding buttocks, a dangling phallus, pointed hats, loin cloths or diaphanous robes. Not all of these characteristics appear on each dance scene but the dancers seem to belong to a homogeneous group. In many scenes spectators look on while the dancers perform and the occurrence of amphoras and tables indicate a convivial setting. Dunbabin argues that these dancers may be cinaedi and points to an Egyptian connection. The dancers are regularly referred to in modern commentaries as mimes and Dunbabin concludes with pictures of funerary monuments of two genuine mimes, C. Fundilius Doctus, possibly a mime writer, from Nemi, and Eucharistos, from Patara.

Silvia Milanezi in 'À l'ombre des acteurs: les amuseurs a l'époque classique' studies the entertainers who did not perform primarily at the great festivals, occasionally referred to collectively as ἀκροάματα. She considers the varying but overlapping activities of the πλάνοι, the θαυματοποιοί and the γελωτοποιοί, their frequent presence at symposia and their relationship to parasites. Comparing them to 'professional actors', defined earlier as those who participated in the official contests organised by the cities, she points out that they too were 'stars' in their own right and concludes with useful tables of references in Athenaeus, in Plutarch and in inscriptions. It should be kept in mind that members of the guilds of Artists of Dionysus could also be referred to as ἀκροάματα, as is shown in the article by Slater.

III. L'acteur dans la cité

Part three of the collection begins with a study by Christophe Hugoniot "De l'infamie à la contrainte. Évolution de la condition sociale des comédiens sous l'Empire romain" or 'Évolution du statut de l'acteur sous l'Empire romain' as it is called in the chapter headings! He investigates the changed status of Roman actors in the fourth century AD and the reasons for the change. He starts with a summary of infamia as it applied to actors in the republic and early empire and contrasts the freeborn actors of the East with those of the West, who were mostly of servile origin. He cites the unique case of Lucius Acilius Eutyches who was made a decurion at Bovillae in the second century and argues, rather improbably, that as an archimimus he composed libretti rather than acted, or alternatively that he only acted in Greek festivals, acting that did not bring infamia on the performer. He suggests that the citizenship edict of Caracalla in 212 contributed to the restrictions on actors found in the fourth century because with it came an increase in the number of 'Roman' festivals (ludi) in the East. From this he deduces for that area a gradual substitution of the culture of the ludi for the culture of the ἀγῶνες and a decline in the numbers attracted to the profession. In the west there was a similar increase in the number of ludi and the shortage of actors led to measures which forced them to perform on stage and forbade them leaving what became a hereditary profession.

In "Roscius and Laberius" Jean Christian Dumont compares the circumstances of these two equites.

Emmanuel Soler looks at fourth century Antioch in "Les acteurs d'Antioche et les excès de la cité au IVe s. ap. J.-C." He first considers the hierarchy of the performers and finds that pantomimes were the 'aristocracy' followed by mimes and then actors of comedy and tragedy. Naturally pantomimes were also the wealthiest and therefore could employ the largest claques, among them even sophists. Their looks also empowered them and this leads to an investigation of the relationship between actors and prostitutes. While it was claimed that theatrical performances were licentious, Libanius defends the pantomimes and compares them favourably with dancers of the cordax, a performance which Julian singles out for an attack on the theatre at Antioch. Chrysostom is primarily concerned with the nudity of female mimes, whom he calls prostitutes, reflecting a common view of pantomimes also. According to both Chrysostom and Julian the mimesis essential to the performances corrupted the spectators as did even the songs sung by the various choruses. Finally Soler considers the links between actors and social, political and religious tensions within the city. Julian found himself impotent against the popularity of the theatre, and he forbade priests to attend performances or invite actors to their dwellings. Yet in exceptional circumstances he expelled a group of Phoenician performers from the city. Libanius demonstrates how governors were influenced by the theatrical claque and indulged it in return for their acclamation. Support of theatrical performers in the face of threats to leave was a constant drain on the resources of the city and its councillors and brought tensions between them. None the less, despite the attitude of the Christian Church, the theatre was indispensable for any city of the status of Antioch.

IV. L'acteur, le pouvoir impérial, l'aristocratie.

The final section opens with Pascal Arnaud's 'L'empereur, l'histrion et la claque, un jeu réglé et ses dérèglements' in which he explores the relationship between the actors, the emperor, himself a participant in the spectacle, and the audience. The traditional libertas associated with theatrical shows permitted actors and audience to make fun of the emperor and his maiestas without normally eliciting a punitive response. When severe action was taken it was reported on adversely by ancient writers, often as an act of a 'bad' emperor, and in general the effective limit to punishment was exile. Claques were also an essential part of the shows, manipulating the audience primarily to win favour for their patron, but also to influence demands made upon the emperor. Both activities could lead to disorder in the theatre that the emperor could best quell by his presence, although Caligula and Nero, who were said to have encouraged rioting, were the exceptions. As a participant in the enthusiasms of the crowd the emperor became one of them and the conduct of emperor, actors and claques were constrained within a strict code of unwritten conventions. The article touches on a number of interesting issues but is marred by some misinterpretations e.g. p. 285 the reference is to Suetonius, Caligula 27 not 16; there is no mention of Datus and the man burned alive was a poet, not an actor; p.281 it was not the silent pantomime dancers who uttered ioca against Verus but the mimes, a confusion of the performances that is found elsewhere.

Catherine Gaudet's 'Pantomimes et grandes familles sous le Haut-Empire' looks at relationships between influential families, including the Imperial family, and the pantomimes. The majority of pantomimes were freedmen, particularly imperial freedmen, and therefore as freedmen had obligations to their former masters which included performing for them or their friends or even being hired out to third parties. These performances brought attention and popularity to the family name, and pantomimes and their factions were used for electoral campaigns. An inscription from Pompeii, the measures taken in 15 AD, and the well known story about Ummidia Quadratilla are evidence for this practice. Unfortunately some of the conclusions rest on debatable interpretation of the evidence; the measures of 15 AD have little to do with electoral campaigns (p. 317); there is no evidence in Pliny that a pantomime imitated Ummidia on stage, only that a crowd of her clients acting as a claque mimicked her actions, (p. 318), nor that this was the first occasion that her son had visited the theatre (p. 319), only that it was the first time he had seen his mother's pantomime or her claque perform either at home or in a theatre.

Arnaud Suspène surveys the evidence for participation by Senators and Equites in Roman festivals and the reactions of the authorities in 'Les ordres supérieurs sur la scène et dans l'arène de la fin de la République aux Flaviens: le sens politique d'une passion pour les spectacles'. Noting the conflicting evidence for the practice and inconsistencies in the attitudes of the various emperors towards it he concludes that those wishing to appear were motivated by the popular desire for striking new spectacles, by a desire to impress those in power and a desire to enrich themselves.

The final contribution by Marie-Hélène Garelli-François, 'Néron et la pantomime' seeks to show how the image of Nero as a pantomime developed and the reasons why he showed such an interest in the genre. She demonstrates that there is no direct and reliable evidence that Nero performed as a pantomime, and argues that his interest in the performances was politically inspired. Few modern scholars would query the first demonstration, the arguments for the latter are less convincing.

In summary this is an impressive collection of papers that will be a valuable resource for all interested in the acting profession in the ancient world. The topics covered are varied and eclectic and the book cannot be seen as a comprehensive study of its theme. Many articles rightly stress the paucity of evidence on which to base firm conclusions, a few shed valuable new insights on how the profession developed and, as is always the case with such compilations, some contributions add little to our knowledge. Much remains to be done and it is to be hoped that the organisers of this colloquium will repeat their efforts in the near future.

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