The ancient Greeks loved the theater and ancient Greek actors enjoyed a position of eminence and respect. In contrast, although entertainment and drama were similarly adored in Ancient Rome, theater performers were often demeaned by the upper-class society and also perceived as morally unclean. The emperor Tiberius, who ruled Rome from 14 to 37 AD and not the most morally upstanding man himself, urged those of high society and theatrical performers to avoid interacting with one another. Later, Julian the Apostate, who ruled from 361 to 363 AD, would prohibit pagan priests from attending the theater so that the actors and the theater itself did not receive any form of elevation in status, because of their attendance. The Roman Empire then, placed itself in a peculiar position of admiring the performing art yet, at the same time, viewing the theater as a symptom of the degradation of society and the stubborn attachment of the people to it, as the worst social curse of the Empire.
The church tried to ‘release these unhappy slaves of a cruel voluptuousness’. By the time of Valentinian I, who reigned from 364 to 375 AD, the church had gained considerable grounds in ‘rehabilitating’ performers and introducing them into respectable society. An actress who, on her death bed, asked for and received the last sacraments, had to promise to never return to her ‘hateful’ theatrical life in case she recovered. A law, which was probably devised by Saint Ambrose in 380 AD, demanded that actresses who did not profess Christianity, had no hope for release from the theater. Another law was passed a year later which promulgated that any actress who had secured her freedom from the theater by professing Christianity but later relapsed, would be recalled to theatrical servitude for the rest of her life. The harsh tone of the language of this law shows a contempt for a class whom society punished viciously. In 394 AD, Emperor Theodosius I banished all pictures of theatrical performers from the vicinity of his own ‘sacred’ statues. However, although the position of the acting class was never essentially changed, there were always particularly gifted artists, who occasionally rose above their station and enjoyed the friendship of people of high standing.
Some actors are born to perform
Ancient Roman citizens began including theatrical games following the devastation of a widespread plague in 364 BC. The games were originally meant as a supplement to the Lectisternium (an ancient Roman propitiatory ceremony, which consisted of a meal offered to gods and goddesses) being performed to intensify the Romans’ efforts in pacifying the gods. Years later, citizens introduced professionally performed drama to the eclectic offerings of the Ludi (public games) held throughout each year. The largest of these festivals was the Ludi Romani which were held every September in honor of Jupiter. It was as a part of the Ludi Romani in 240 BC that Livius Andronicus became the first playwright to produce translations of Greek plays to be performed on the Roman stage.
The first actors who appeared in Roman performances were originally from Etruria, a region of Central Italy, located in an area that covered part of what are now Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria. This tradition of foreign actors would continue in Roman dramatic performances and led to many disadvantages associated with the profession. As the actors themselves were foreigners, captives or slaves who could later buy their freedom through their theatrical skills, they were denied the same political and civic rights that were afforded to ordinary Roman citizens, because of their perceived low social status. The exemption of actors from military service, further inhibited their rights in Roman society as it was impossible for an individual to hold any form of political career, without having some form of military experience.
As it was traditional in Roman society that children would take up the profession of their parents, ancient Roman actors were often born into the profession. However, not everyone in Rome could become an actor. Even in the ancient world actors were required to have a certain physical presence and ability. Stage acting required actors to use grand gestures to accompany and emphasize their speeches. Strong voices and stamina were also required as their voices needed to carry for long periods of time in the open-air amphitheaters. Being an actor also required a strong musical ability, not only because songs were often involved in performances, but because they often had to exchange their lines rhythmically due to the musical nature of their performance.
Despite all these considerations and demands required of the average ancient Roman actor, due to the common opinion that spending too much time at the theater was detrimental to a populace’s character, there were generally no permanent theaters in Rome where actors would perform until 55 BC. The standard design for Roman theater costumes was a long robe called a chiton. A himation, which was made of heavier drape and commonly used as a cloak, was usually worn over a chiton. The chiton and himation were often colored to denote a character’s gender and rank – a rather handy practice, as in the early Roman theater the female characters were originally played by men, although eventually female slaves took the roles of women in plays. The color coding enabled the audience to recognize the characters and their status from the colors that they wore. For example, a purple costume identified a rich man, while boys wore striped togas. Soldiers wore short cloaks, poor men wore red, and women would wear yellow robes. A short tunic indicated a slave, while a yellow tassel indicated that the character was a god. Roman actors also wore cheap and simple sandals called the baxa, made from vegetable leaves, twigs, and fibers. The soles of the shoes were made of woven palm leaves and the strap of the baxa was made from palm and vegetable leaves in a style similar to modern day flip-flops.
Some actors have the Emperors’ ears
Mnester, a celebrated pantomime actor in the reigns of Emperors Caligula (27 – 41 AD) and Claudius (41 – 54 AD), seemed to be one of the performers who had broken this tradition. Caligula especially prized Mnester’s acting and used to kiss him in full view of the audience, leading to Historian Suetonius’ allegation that Mnester was one of Caligula’s lovers. Further, if anyone made the slightest noise when Mnester was performing, Caligula would have the offending audience member dragged from his seat and flogged him himself. It was also accounted among the portents of Caligula’s death that, on the morning of his assassination, Mnester played the very character which was acted on the day of Philip of Macedon’s murder by the tragedian Neoptolemus centuries before in 336 BC.
In the reign of Claudius, Caligula’s successor, Mnester managed to retain the favor of the imperial court. He was among the many lovers of Messalina – Claudius’ wife and empress of Rome. He was also among the lovers of Poppaea Sabina the elder, the mother of Nero’s empress, who was also called Poppaea Sabina (the younger). Mnester’s relationship with Messalina nearly caused a serious riot in Rome when the empress compelled him to abandon the stage so that she might have his companionship without any interruption from the stage. It is an indication of Mnester’s popularity as a performer at the time that the people resented the sacrifice of their pleasures to those of the empress. The tumult was only somewhat appeased by the rather foolish excuse which Claudius assigned to Mnester’s absence. Claudius told the people that Mnester belonged to his wife and he, despite being the emperor, had no power to force Mnester to act. However, this did not mean that Claudius himself did not appreciate Mnester’s talent. During the triumph for the campaign in Britain in 44 AD, the brass money issued in Caligula’s reign was called in and melted down, and some of the metal was cast into statues of Mnester.
Of course, Mnester was one of the exceptions to the rule. If life was difficult for an average male actor in ancient Rome, the life of an average female actor was not much better. If anything, being an actress would have offered them even less freedom than other Roman women at the time. The philosopher Cicero said: “Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians.” This philosophy did not translate well for ancient Roman women and it translated to an even worse fate for actresses. Women were not allowed to act in religious plays and wives would be kissed by their husbands to check for evidence of drinking, which could be punished by divorce or death.
As women were not allowed to act in religious dramas, they would have had to confine their talents to the more popular type of drama. Women who participated in these plays were often prostitutes, as their realism meant that sex acts were sometimes performed on stage – there are even records of real execution scenes using convicted criminals. Therefore, life as a female performer would have meant the same hardship and even less choices as their male counterparts.
When the church intervened, they realized that daughters were often trapped into following the same path as their parents and it endeavored to offer a way out. One actress who took this way out was the slave and mime actress Claudia Acte, who was also the Greek concubine of the Emperor Nero. Another convert was Saint Pelagia of Antioch, a rich mime actress who, upon overhearing a sermon gave ll her earthly belongings to the church. She disappeared and resurfaced some years later when it was discovered that a male hermit living in Jerusalem was revealed to be a woman.
In 6th century Constantinople, a mime actress named Theodora was the most famous and beloved performer of her generation. She became famous for her naked mime of a mythological tale in which Zeus rapes Leda by appearing as a swan. Her version was to lie on her back, while attendants scattered barley on her groin, to be picked at by geese. Theodora later married the Emperor Justinian and became a powerful Empress of the Eastern Empire.
Comedy and Politics in Ancient Rome
When comedians or comic actors perform, their jokes are often criticisms highlighting a social issue or a family reality. They invite their audience to laugh at the sometimes depressing and ridiculous lives that they live, which include spouses, politicians and many other characters that they would encounter on a daily basis. Although making other people laugh is a good thing, a joke can hurt and humiliate – this was particularly dangerous when an actor poked fun at politicians or even the emperor himself. However, this did not stop comedians and actors from injecting politics into their performances, often at their own peril. In a story recounted by Diodorus Siculus in Bibliotheca historica (Library of History), a performer portrayed an anti-Roman stance, only to be murdered by Roman soldiers for doing so. This prompted a comedian to announce to the crowd in the next act: “I’m not a Roman either. I travel throughout Italy searching for favors by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So, spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses.”
In the early 200s and late 100s BC, comic dramatists Plautus and Terence became the fathers of theatrical comedy with more than 25 plays combined. For hundreds of years following their deaths, their successors used humor to defy expectations, antagonize Roman society, and engage with the political discourse of the day. In 54 AD, Seneca the Younger wrote a short play called The Apocolocyntosis, which mocked the recently murdered emperor Claudius. In the play, Seneca mocked Claudius’ physical and mental ailments. He also mocked Claudius’ fondness for dice games by describing a nasty punishment for the late emperor, which was a dice cup without a bottom. Fortunately, no one attempted to murder Seneca for such jabs, because his sponsor was Claudius’ successor, Nero.