BMCR 2009.08.52

Demons and Dancers: Performance in Late Antiquity

, Demons and Dancers: Performance in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. viii, 296; 10 p. of plates. ISBN 9780674031920. $45.00.


The theatre of the Roman Empire has long been treated by scholars as a period of decadence when serious drama, that is tragedy and comedy, suffered terminal decline, to be replaced by the frivolous, immoral and often obscene genres of pantomime and mime, popular with the mob but unworthy of serious consideration. That judgement depends in part on the prejudices of traditionally trained classical scholars in favour of (surviving) literary texts, in part on accepting at face value the criticisms and attacks of the moralists, pagan and Christian. The paradox that the apogee of Roman theatre building coincided with this period of supposed decline was sometimes commented on but not closely examined; what actually took place on the stages of these theatres has seemed to most of little interest.

In recent years the situation has changed dramatically. The modern interest in theatre history in its own right, beyond the study of the surviving texts, and in the social functions of performance and entertainment, together with more critical approaches to the sources which aim to decode the agendas that lie behind their statements, has brought about a complete re-evaluation of the imperial theatre, and much more serious attempts to understand the nature of its leading genres. In addition to the present book, two books on pantomime have appeared in the past two years, and other categories of performance have been examined at greater or lesser length.1 Whatever their focus and format, all are confronted by the same basic problems: the limitations of the surviving sources, their lacunae and biases, and their heterogeneity, composed of different literary genres from different periods, and of epigraphic and archaeological material in very uneven proportions.

Ruth Webb announces her objective in her introduction: to combine ‘the study of mime and pantomime as performance arts with the analysis of the rhetorical strategies of the ancient discussions of the theater’ (18). Before this she gives a brief outline of the principal sources and some of the problems that their accounts give rise to; the biases, pro and anti, of the literary sources and the difficulties in reading them critically, the gaps and drawbacks of other types of documents such as legal texts, inscriptions, or papyri. Her focus she declares to be the eastern, Greek-speaking part of the empire, from the second to the sixth centuries, a focus dictated by the concentration of the written sources in this period and area. Her book falls into two halves, the first (chapters 1 to 6) concerned with the performance and performers themselves, the second (chapters 7 to 9) with the image of these two main forms of theatrical performance and their practitioners which emerges from the written sources, and the extent to which a critical reading of these sources beyond their rhetoric can reveal genuine underlying attitudes about the theatre in the wider society.

The first part begins by looking at the social context of entertainment in the later empire, stressing the changes in organisation and funding discernible by the fourth century (ch.1), and at the social standing of actors and actresses in this period (ch.2). There follow two chapters (3 and 4) devoted to the pantomime, both the genre itself and its performers. She does not attempt to give an account of the historical development of the genre, but prefers a synchronic approach, maintaining that few significant changes are discernible between the second and sixth century; instead she sets out to offer an account of the essential characteristics of the dancers’ art and their relation to their audience. In this she draws on her familiarity with a wide range of dance traditions, including non-Western forms of masked dancing such as the Japanese Noh and Balinese Topeng, which she uses to bring out the intrinsic (and not culture-specific) expressive potential of the human body and the consequences of dancing in a mask.

Combining these basic elements with the scattered evidence of the ancient sources, she does an excellent job of reconstructing the extraordinary virtuoso skills of the dancers; the figures who are so often dismissed by their critics as soft and effeminate must in fact have been trained from early youth in extreme athletic agility, and must have acquired an ingrained understanding of mimetic techniques and communicative gestures. She also rightly stresses that the appreciation of this art by its audience depended on a two-way process, with the viewers as a body, not just the more educated among them, expert in catching the allusions and interpreting the sense of the movements. Her emphasis throughout is on the dancers themselves more than on the performance as a whole; the thematic repertory and its potential sources are discussed only briefly, musical accompaniment and the chorus even more briefly (62-3), and she accepts without question Jory’s arguments against the existence of a secondary actor (79).2 The focus on the dancers is legitimate in view of the similar preoccupation in the sources; they were beyond any question the stars, all the rest was subsidiary. Nevertheless the effect of pantomime on the audience and its extraordinary popularity must have depended not only on the dazzling gyrations and expressive poses of the dancer but also on other aspects of the spectacle: the music with the insistent rhythmic beat of the scabellum, the movement and singing of the chorus, the costumes and the colours. The great theatres with their huge stages (many of them 50m or more long) were not in fact ideal foils for a single dancer; they were designed for performances which depended on visual and auditory spectacle as much as any grand opera.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to mime. Webb starts with the basic, but not always sufficiently acknowledged, fact that mime was first and foremost funny; its aim was to provoke laughter from the audience. In her attempt to analyse the humour of mime she rightly stresses the importance of the mimes’ verbal dexterity alongside the slapstick and the crude ethnic stereotypes. She also, following Wiemken, makes sense of the combination of written scripts with improvisation: a limited number of basic plot types and characters provided the structure, the performers elaborated them as they went along. She describes mime as ‘the drama of everyday life’, but acknowledges a problem of definition: the term, she claims, is often used as a sort of ‘catch-all category into which any unspecified or invented performance type can be thrown’ (102). She therefore excludes various forms which have been classified as mimes, notably the supposed aquatic mimes or performances in water.3 But she is somewhat disingenuous in her dismissal, for the range of performers that could be covered under the general heading ‘mime’ was very wide, and included many specialities that are obscure to us, and she has earlier admitted that the shows could involve performing animals and probably acrobatics and juggling. So while she is right to insist that the admission of mime to some (very few?) official contests by the third century must have implied the acceptance of a recognised format with rules and conventions, this is only part of a much larger and more unstable picture. It seems better to recognise that the more formal type of theatrical mime, presumably equivalent to the hypotheseis of Plutarch (QC 7.8 = Mor. 712ἐ, occupied one end of a spectrum which included a huge variety of popular entertainment running all the way to low level street performers, some of whose practitioners might be described as mimes; it is impossible to establish clear lines of demarcation. She also seems to me to try too hard to impose a pattern on the humour of the mimes, emphasising their subversion of the dominant order as a way of exploring the tensions and ambiguities within society. While such a reading can readily be applied to the Adultery Mime (of which we hear perhaps too much in our sources) or the Moicheutria, her attempt to read a similar pattern into the Charition mime (the only other one of which a substantial portion survives) seems somewhat forced; once again, our evidence is limited and biased.

In the final three chapters the focus shifts to discussions of mime and pantomime in the late antique sources, with special attention paid to the Christian anti-theatrical polemics of the fourth century and later. Fundamental to her treatment of these is the belief that the ideas and arguments contained in these works, while needing to be interpreted in the light of the writer’s moral and ideological agenda, still convey significant information and raise important questions about contemporary attitudes towards the practices they attack. She therefore endeavours, as she puts it, to read the rhetoric ‘against the grain’, looking for the gaps and the silences, and attempting to reveal the underlying concepts and attitudes which they exploit and distort. Her treatment here is often subtle, showing how the impassioned attacks of Chrysostom, for instance, reveal very clearly his awareness of the power and attraction of the performance and its effects on the audience, and exploring the extent to which they reflect, and play on, an anxiety about mimesis which goes back to Plato.

She makes it clear that the attacks on the theatre, whether by pagan moralists or Christians, represent the views of a minority of the intellectual elite, and attempts to give full weight to the ‘other voices’, those representing the majority for whom the shows were innocent entertainment and a source of pleasure and happiness, voluptas or terpsis or similar terms. Nevertheless, the scales are inescapably weighted on the other side, and the determination and brilliance of the attacks end up outweighing the comparatively tame and conventional defences offered by Libanios or Chorikios; Webb’s analysis of the strategies of the polemicists presents a view of late antique audiences as prey to tensions and anxieties about identity and the nature of representation. The book’s title is affected by this; yet the Demons which figure in it occupy a comparatively small place in Christian anti-theatrical polemic, and magic seems to have been less commonly associated with the theatre than with the circus. The more simple view of the shows as innocent and necessary pleasures had a lot of life in it still; Chrysostom’s audience, or most of it, evidently continued to flock to the theatre and the games, and the emperors themselves bowed to ecclesiastical pressures only to the extent of banning shows on Sundays and feast days, while insisting on the need to maintain the pleasures of the people.

Webb’s book does not offer a comprehensive survey of pantomime and mime, nor does it set out to. The concentration on the Greek world seems designed to suit the written texts, especially those of the later centuries, and her own interests in the interaction between theatre and critics that are expressed most articulately in later Greek writings. One may regret not seeing more attention paid to the epigraphic sources, both Latin and Greek; those in Greek play a small part in her study, but more might have been made of their ability to offer an alternative view, even if one with its own bias. The epitaphs of Vincentius from distant Timgad, whose dancing held the theatre spellbound until the rising of the stars, or of Eucharistos from Patara whose portrait shows the typical bald pate of the stupidus above the verses that praise his charm and grace, are as eloquent in their own way as any Christian rhetoric.4 Nor does she try to discuss the archaeological material, except for the handful of (mostly well-known) works that are illustrated; though difficult to deal with, it too can offer a different viewpoint. Rather, the most important contributions of the book are first, an insistence on the two art forms as performance, especially the chapters on pantomime written from the point of view of someone who understands dance and can make clear its demands on the performers and its powers to enthrall its audience, and secondly an analysis of the polemics about the theatre in late antiquity which, while refusing to take their claims at face value, uses them to illuminate the attitudes that they are attacking. It is a valuable addition to the growing body of work on the late Roman theatre.


1. M.-H. Garelli, Danser le mythe. La pantomime et sa réception dans la culture antique, Louvain 2007; E. Hall, R. Wyles, edd., New Directions in ancient Pantomime, Oxford 2008.

2. p.79, following E.J. Jory, ‘The pantomime assistants’, in Ancient History in a modern University 1, edd. T.W. Hilliard, R.A. Kearsley, C.E.V. Nixon, A.M. Noble, Macquarie 1998, 217-21. But the question remains problematic, and needs more discussion.

3. pp.100-1. But the recent study (unknown to Webb) of A. Berland-Bajard, Les spectacles aquatiques romains, CEFR 360, Rome 2006, shows that there is more evidence for such performances than she acknowledges, even if its interpretation and classification are far from straightforward.

4. Vincentius: J. Bayet, ‘Les vertus du pantomime Vincentius’, Libyca — Archéologie, Épigraphie 3, 103-21 [= AE 1956, 122]. Eucharistos: H. Yilmaz, S. Sahin, ‘Ein Kahlkopf aus Patara’, EA 21, 1993, 77-90, pls.9-11; E. Voutiras, ‘Der Tod eines Mimus’, EA 24, 1995, 61-72.