BMCR 2023.09.12

Aspects of Roman dance culture

, Aspects of Roman dance culture: religious cults, theatrical entertainments, metaphorical appropriations. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 80. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2022. Pp. 340. ISBN 9783515133234.

Open access

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


The study of dance in the ancient world went through a revival during the past quarter century—and in the process came very much of age.[1] But the majority of studies have dealt with the Greek world only. Even when in several instances the subject matter, and in many instances the source material was related to the Roman imperial period, there was never any talk of Roman dance. As to an indigenous Roman dance tradition, whether with roots in deep time or consisting of more recent appropriations, it was largely overlooked, if its existence was not flatly denied. Exceptions were few and far between.[2] The times they are a-changing. Authors such as Zoa Alonso Fernández, Angela Bellia, Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar, Karin Schlapbach, Ruth Webb and Ismene Lada-Richards (all but the last mentioned contributing to the volume under review) have refocussed the discussion of ancient dance towards Roman (-period) dancing. The Brill journal Greek and Roman Musical Studies has also been instrumental in this respect. As a sign of the times, we have this wide-ranging volume on Roman dance, arising from a conference held in Fribourg in 2019. Most revealing of the change that has taken place is that Fritz Graf’s contribution on dance traditions in Greek poleis is here subsumed under “Roman dance culture”. How right he is; I stand corrected: my own study of Greek dance (Attractive performances. Ancient Greek dance: three preliminary studies, 1997) in fact dealt with Greek and Roman dance and should have made that explicit in its title.

That this Roman dance culture was rich and vibrant is made abundantly clear in Karin Schlapbach’s excellent lengthy introduction, and by the fourteen chapters of this book. There are three sections: dance in a religious context, dance in a non-religious or not primarily religious context (here called ‘spectacle culture’) and a smaller, third one, ‘Discourses’, that feels a bit like the odds and ends that did not fit the other sections, although it could have been as important a section of the book as the other ones. One also may wonder whether ‘spectacle’ is the right word to use when trying to distinguish the ‘worldly’ from the ‘religious’, if that distinction is valid at all: in her introduction, Schlapbach rightly observes that the categories are not mutually exclusive (p.25) and that dance “served perhaps also to connect various dimensions of Roman culture that we tend to think of as separate” (p.28), giving examples of the ways in which different forms of dance (and other cultural phenomena) were intertwined.

The fourteen papers range across the Italian peninsula and the Greek East, and chronologically cover the whole period between the 7th century BC and the 4th century AD, though most papers address Roman imperial days (what is noticeable here is that the Etruscans get short shrift: they are barely mentioned though they could have contributed to the chronological depth of the volume). As to different types of dance, we encounter the tripudium, orchestopala, the dancing of the Fratres Arvales and the Salii, the therapeutai and Gaditanae, dance in mystery cults and civic ritual, both Greek and Roman pompae, dance in the theatrical setting of Greek and Roman tragedy and comedy, pantomime, and dancing at the occasion of the banquet. The sources brought to bear on this are a large and varied collection of inscriptions, papyri and literary texts. Much less frequently, archaeological sources and modern re-performances are adduced as well.

Angela Bellia presents a well-illustrated conspectus of images of dancers with intertwined arms and hands: reliefs from northern Italy, vase and tomb paintings from Magna Grecia. The epigraphic evidence shows the northern group to be situated in the context of the cult of the Matres and Matronae. That dance and music were an effective/affective element of ritual behaviour, that the imagery memorializes actual cultic activity, and might even form part of that activity, seem reliable conclusions—and not just for these sets of images. Whether in the southern group we have a true parallel to the northern one, and whether all such dancers belong in the sphere of female cultic activity concerned with rites de passage and fertility, and protection of women in general, must, however, remain speculative.

Francesca Prescendi gets to grips with the fact that the word tripudium means both a three-step dance, and a divinatory practice centred on observing feeding chickens—a conundrum tackled before, and solved by either denying any connection between the two, or considering the dance as imitating the movement of the chickens. After presenting a complete overview of everything connected to the tripudium, Prescendi suggests that both senses of tripudium arose from a single original event, an auspicium ex tripudiis, where the human three-step was matched by the divinatory observation of a specific hopping by the birds. Possibly so, but does this change our understanding of either divination or dance?

Fritz Graf, in a particularly rich overview, presents the epigraphic evidence for dance traditions in the Greek East (Boeotian syrtoi, Milesian molpoi, Ephesian kouretes, Olympian epispondorchestai, and nameless others) which show both continuity and renewal. Contemporary developments, primarily the growing popularity of the pantomime, are reflected in certain changes, such as the introduction of solo dances. The only aspect in which the reader is not well-served by Graf is in his rather summary bibliography.

Sylvain Perrot discusses a 3rd-century papyrus (P. Daris 7). A very specific case—of the leader of a troupe of artists (the orchestopalaistodidaktos of the text seems to be a scribal error for orchestopalaistodidaskalos) complaining about overdue payments—is put by Perrot into the context of both the organisation of festivals in Roman Egypt, which embraces the hiring of professional musicians and dancers, and also the possible nature of the orchestopala. Perrot and Graf have written what to my mind are easily the most interesting contributions to this volume: they leave all speculation, other than ordinary interpretative licence, behind and are on quite solid ground, and they lead us as a matter of course from the specific to the general, i.e., dance as an element in the socio-economic and religious life of ancient society.

Next, we have a cluster of papers dealing with pantomime and other theatrical performances. Ruth Webb interestingly argues for a religious dimension to the pantomime: quite hypothetical, as Webb says herself (p.131), but persuasive. Seen in the context of the suppression of ‘pagan’ cults in the 4th century, the idea of people looking for alternative outlets for their continuing ‘pagan’ devotion seems quite acceptable. Helen Slaney looks at the performance of tragedy by pantomimic dancers. Whether tragic texts were used verbatim as libretti for pantomime we do not know, but Slaney considers these texts as a choreographic resource regardless. Her idea—that components of the texts (in this paper she concentrates on verbs of movement, but other textual elements would work in a comparable manner) were translated into dance by way of kinaesthesia—seems reasonable enough, and finds support in modern experiments where dancers were asked to put tragic texts into pantomimic performance. One wonders how else one could go about dancing a tragedy that has to remain recognizable. Raffaella Viccei analyses the 4th- or 5th-century text known as the Alcestis Bracinonensis, which she supposes was conceived as a pantomimic libretto for a single dancer performing the different parts: she looks for textual clues to be translated into movement, but also considers the archaeological spaces where pantomime may have been performed—including modern re-performance in antique settings. Even if we cannot know for certain, the idea of textual pointers that inform a mime’s performance seems fairly self-evident.

Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar considers Aeschylus’ Lycurgeia and Eumenides as a model for the Roman Republican tragedies of Naevius and Ennius. At least part of the choral imagery in these tragedies might refer to actual choral performance, and “while we will never know how the tragedy of Ennius [or of Naevius] was staged” (p.156), it seems likely they could not do without a dancing chorus. Likely indeed. Timothy Moore says much the same for Roman comedy. Elsewhere Moore has argued for lascivious ‘cinaidic dance’, and what he calls ‘gestural dancing’, throughout Roman comedy. Here he focuses on climactic moments near or at the end of the play where self-referent remarks about dancing or lively motion in general, and the metre of the texts, seem to indicate the insertion of a high-spirited dance. Again quite likely.

Lauren Curtis dissects an interesting passage in Suetonius’ Life of Augustus, in which an audience jeers at Octavian when a pantomimic dancer portrays a gallus (effeminate eunuch) beating a drum to the line “see how the cinaedus [passive homosexual profligate] controls the globe”—they understand the dance and words to refer to the up-and-coming Octavian’s lust for power, his wanting to control the orbis terrarum. Curtis points out that this is not a unique instance, but that the pantomime is bound up with politics: the mousike—dance, music, textis enlisted to support and legitimize imperial power but at the same time can also subversively comment on that power by way of some subtext, or be understood to do so by an audience that creates its own subtext. One could add that this certainly holds good for all arts within the purview of Roman authority.

Four papers discuss ancient texts that deal with ‘dance’ on a meta-level: conceptually and metaphorically. Eleonora Rocconi argues that the very existence of pantomime and its mimetic character led to increased reflection on the communicative nature of gesture and on the similarities between rhetorical performance and pantomimic dance. She studies this by way of Cicero and Quintilian, a century apart, and thus illustrates how pantomime’s growing importance occasions changes in the Roman discourse on nonverbal communication, all the while keeping rhetorical delivery and dance strictly separate; although communicating vessels, they are valued very differently. Karin Schlapbach looks at dance metaphors in Horace. In fact, the instances she analyses are more than mere metaphors: poetry is presented as a corporeal performance, as a form of dance. The poet is a dancer, in the sense that the poet either dances, as a soloist or in a chorus, in public, that is, bodily interacts with an audience. Despite several interesting asides about dance practice and dance discourse, this paper seems to say more about the way Horace looks at the creation and performance of poetry, than about dance. Zoe Alonso Fernández, in a difficult, rather jargon-laden, exposé, discusses what she calls the sensorium of the banquet: the synesthetic, multisensory experience of a festive meal with music and dance. If I understood rightly, her main focus is on the discourse about the banquet. When reading/being read to about convivia, the audience’s memory is appealed to: they relive bodily, with all senses, what they have experienced. Although moral indignation about luxuriousness is an obvious surface layer, underneath there is this layer of reliving one’s own pleasurable experience. René Bloch re-reads Philo: Philo extols cosmic dance and condemns (panto)mime, but shows himself knowledgeable about this-worldly dance, indeed thinks, in a platonic vein, that being informed about dance is necessary for a proper education. Such contradictory statements, argues Bloch, reflect the cultural amalgam of imperial Alexandria.

To my mind, the papers by Bloch and Alonso Fernández, now in the religion and spectacle sections, would fit better in the discourse section. To these, and Rocconi and Schlapbach, one might also add part of Webb’s paper, who, departing from Libanius, looks at Neoplatonist views of the dancer as not merely representing something or someone, but ‘making present’, ‘becoming his subject’. Curtis’ chapter, on the other hand, I would have moved out of the discourse section because, although it departs from Suetonius’ use of an anecdote about dancing, it is concerned with the way in which politics play out in actual pantomimic performances, rather than discourse about them. Indeed, it looks like a central issue for this volume (and any other volume on ancient dancing) whether we speak about dances (actual choreographies, plural) and their performance, context, reception, and meaning, or about dance (an activity, singular) that is commented on in general terms. The second is fairly straightforward, largely consisting of the fine-tuning and filling-in of what we already know in broad strokes; the first is more of a challenge—we have no dances left. If archaeological, epigraphical or papyrological sources are adduced, however, we can make some real progress: Bellia, Graf, Perrot are good examples of what can be achieved, Prescendi is in-betweenish. Otherwise, we can see here the many dangers that lurk in the passage from literary text to ancient practice, where one has to steer between the Scylla of what is (too) obvious and the Charybdis of what is (too) conjectural.

Despite some misgivings—it seemed more useful to present those in some detail, rather than to reiterate words of praise—this is an extremely useful collection of papers. Its contents and the numerous references to relevant literature will help put Roman dancing on the map. Karin Schlapbach’s modestly expressed hope that this volume “will serve as an invitation to further study” (p.29) will undoubtedly be fulfilled.


Authors and Titles

Karin Schlapbach, Introduction: Dance at Rome—Roman Dance


Part I: Religion

Angela Bellia, Between Magna Graecia and Rome. Towards an Archaeological Approach to Dance Performance in Cults

Francesca Prescendi, Trois pas vers les dieux. Le tripudium entre danse et divination

Fritz Graf, Ritual Dances in the Imperial Epoch. What Epigraphy Can Teach about Dancing

René Bloch, ‘Tänze, die keine Tänze waren’. Widerspruchliches über den Tanz bei Philon von Alexandrien

Ruth Webb, ‘Making the God Present within Himself’. Pantomime Dance and Devotion in Fourth-century Antioch


Part II: Spectacle Culture

Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar, Envisioning and Reenacting the Chorus in Republican Tragedy. The Cases of Naevius’ Lycurgus and Ennius’ Eumenides

Timothy J. Moore, Roman Comedy and the Final Dance

Zoa Alonso Fernández, Dance and the Senses at the convivium

Sylvain Perrot, Toute peine mérite salaire. L’orchēstopalaistodidaktos Stephanos (P. Daris 7)

Helen Slaney, The Kinetic Vocabulary of Tragedy

Raffaella Viccei, Performative Aspects of the Pantomime and Performative Spaces: Alcestis Barcinonensis and Archeological Sites


Part III: Discourses

Eleonora Rocconi, The Orator and the Dancer. Conceptualizing Gestures in Roman Performances

Karin Schlapbach, Der Dichter als Tänzer und Körperperformer. Die Kinetik des Dichtens Horaz

Lauren Curtis, Roman Rhythms. Music, Dance, and Imperial Ethics in Suetonius’ Life of Augustus



[1] Full disclosure: I served on Zoa Alonso Fernández’ PhD committee, and was invited by Karin Schlapbach to participate in the conference that gave rise to the present book, though I could not attend. I hope I am at sufficient arm’s-length from the project and contributors to provide an open-minded review.

[2] Günther Wille, Musica Romana. Die Bedeutung der Musik im Leben der Römer, Amsterdam 1967; Mario Paola Guidobaldi, Musica e danza, Roma 1992.