Pantomime dancing and metamorphosis literature in Late Antiquity
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 22:56 by Ray Harding
Almost coincident with the end of the Roman Republic and Augustus' assumption of imperial power, Tragedy, a genre Rome had inherited from Greece and never been entirely successful in adapting to its own ends, disappeared almost entirely from the literary record as a performance genre. Tragedy on stage would henceforth be restricted to the performances of the pantomimes wherein a single dancer would enact all the roles in a given tragedy. Pantomime along with its more low-brow travelling companion mime, which similarly replaced comedy as a genre, would remain the dominant theatrical performance styles in the Roman and subsequent Byzantine Empires until their banning under Canons 51 and 62 of the Council in Trullo seven hundred years later. Approximately twenty-five years after the generally accepted date for the introduction of pantomime to the Roman world by the dancers Bathyllus of Alexandria and Pylades of Cilicia, 23/22 BCE, Ovid, drawing upon a long-established Greek tradition would assay the first major account in Latin of the metamorphosis tales that were such a feature of the mythology Rome had inherited from its eastern neighbours. Tales which either involved incidences of metamorphosis or which were, like Ovid's 15 book opus, a compendium of such tales would appear again and again in both languages (but most frequently in Greek) over the next five hundred years - the last major example being the Dionysiaca of Nonnus written approximately 520CE, coincidentally very close to the point at which Justinian would deliver the first of a series of body-blows to pantomime by withdrawing support for theatre in order to finance his wars of reconquest in Italy. It is the contention of this thesis that there was what amounts to a symbiotic relationship between pantomime and metamorphosis tales that accounts both for the longevity of each and the temporal parallels between them. Simply put, a great deal of the popularity of the pantomime lay in the extraordinary plasticity of the dancers and their ability to embody thereby the transformations of the famous tales, and by doing so raise the tantalising possibility that the tales could be true. Despite long-held claims of the Roman 'invention' of the genre, modern scholars are in general agreement that what appeared at the court of Augustus at the beginning of the generation prior to the commencement of the Common Era, was simply a modification of a long pre-existing Greek practice. With this in mind it is the further contention of this work that pantomime and its retelling of the traditional Greek stories operated in parallel with the display orators of the Second Sophistic as a means by which those who identified themselves as Greek kept their culture and traditions alive during the long centuries of Roman rule.