During the reign of Augustus (r. 31 BCE – 14 CE) a certain type of dance became popular that would remain a theatrical favorite in Rome for centuries. In the dance, a performer, known as a pantomimus, entertained the crowd with a cross between the antics of a mime and the artistry of a ballet. These pantomimi, as they are known in plural, were said to have worn masks and elaborate costumes, dancing along to accompanying sounds from musicians and singers.
The pantomimi dancers found an interesting fan in the youthful Roman emperor, Nero (r. 54-68). As an aspiring musician and theatre performer, himself, Nero was naturally drawn to the dancers. Around the year 56, when Nero’s infamous bad habits were starting to become prevalent, he allegedly decided to liven up the bustling theatres where the performances were held. According to the historian and statesman, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), the audience of the pantomimi were already a rowdy crowd, often getting into fights over differing opinions concerning who would be named the best dancer. Tacitus claimed that Nero enjoyed these skirmishes so much that he abolished any penalties for fighting and gave prizes to the winners. He was also alleged to have sometimes taken part in the brawls.
Nero, however, eventually came to regret his enabling of the fights in the theatre. The enthusiastic crowds showing up for the dances became so rowdy that Nero ultimately imposed a temporary ban, forbidding all pantomimi from performing in Italy. Even so, the dancers would come back and continue to be popular after the downfall of Nero.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Dancers and musicians, c. 475 BCE, tomb of the leopards, Monterozzi necropolis, Tarquinia, Italy. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fresco a secco. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.