If anyone ever complains about celebrity culture today, or despairs at how we’re all obsessed with actors, just hit them with some facts about acting in Imperial Rome:
Romans were obsessed with actors called pantomimes, masked, silent dancers who told stories through movement, not unlike our modern ballet dancers. You might not think that sounds exciting, but people went apeshit over them.
Seriously. People formed fan clubs for their favourite pantomimes. There is an inscription on a wall in Pompeii that gives endorsement to a political candidate from the Paridiani - the fan club of the pantomime Paris. The Paridiani were like the ancient equivalent of our Hiddlestoners and Cumberbitches.
These fan clubs could get really, really violent. They formed factions that would sit together at the theatre, and brawls often broke out as they fought over their favourites. (For some reason, riots hardly ever occurred at the amphitheatre, where people were getting murdered and torn apart by beasts, but at the theatre, where they were watching ballet dancers of all things, riots broke out all the time. Unbelievable.)
In 14 CE the populace rioted when one of the pantomime actors hired
for the Augustalia refused to perform unless his pay was
increased; the tribunes had to request an emergency meeting of the
Senate so they could beg for more money before the people tore them apart. (Dio
I cannot overstate how serious some of these theatre riots were. In Tiberius’ reign, it is believed that the rivalry between the pantomime fan clubs was the biggest threat to law and order in the city of Rome. They were so bad they required Senate intervention. Actors
were targeted and punished for inflammatory behaviour, expenditure on
entertainment was slashed, and the crowd was brought to heel by threats of exile for
disorderly conduct. They were threatened with exile to stop the fighting. Suddenly the Cumberbitches don’t seem so bad.
Sometimes the rioting and the licentious behaviour of the actors meant that emperors would banish entire theatre troupes from the city of Rome, or from Italy itself, to keep order.
The rivalry between the actors themselves was no less intense. At one
performance, the pantomime Pylades heckled his rival (and former pupil)
Hylas, who was playing Blinded Oedipus, by calling out “You’re seeing!”
In another story, Pylades was playing Insane Hercules when
the spectators heckled him for using inappropriate gestures. Pylades
ripped off his mask and yelled, “Fools! I am playing a madman!” and tried to fight the audience. (Macrob
This same Pylades (he got around a lot) also shot
actual poisoned arrows into the audience when he was playing Hercules.
Similarly, the tragic actor Aesopus (not a pantomime) is said to have gotten so into his role as the villain Atreus that he actually killed one of the servants crossing the stage.
Emperor Caligula was so passionate about acting that when a clap of thunder interrupted the performance of his
favourite pantomimes, he tried to fight the sky. Seneca says: “Emperor
Caligula was angry with heaven because it kept drowning out
his pantomime actors… and when his revelry was terrified by lightning
bolts (which must have fallen short of their mark!) he called on Jupiter
for a fight to the death, exclaiming the Homeric verse: “Either lift me
up, or I will lift you!” (De Ira, 1.20.8).
Many emperors and aristocrats had pantomimes as boyfriends (Maecenas, Caligula, Nero, etc.) Those chosen as imperial consorts were the best of the best; it would be like monarchs or presidents today taking Oscar winners as their lovers. Tom Hanks and Vladimir Putin, anyone?
Certain emperors became so caught up in the celebrity and entertainment-fuelled culture of Imperial Rome that they started acting themselves (something that was hugely degrading for any freeborn person, but especially an aristocrat or an emperor to do). Caligula was assassinated when he was on his way to the theatre, to prevent him from making his public debut as an actor. The famous Nero often performed and acted in tragedies, weirdly enough, while wearing masks fashioned after his own face, or (if he were playing a woman’s role) after the face of his dead wife Poppaea, whom he kicked to death. Nero was so into performing that he forced people to stay and watch him, and there are (probably exaggerated) stories of women giving birth and men shamming death so they could escape because no one was allowed to leave. (Could you even imagine Barack Obama starring in Broadway shows? Or Queen Elizabeth spending her nights playing Lady Macbeth at the Globe? Incredible.)
People complain today about girls being obsessed with actors, but it was the same in Rome. Juvenal says: “When nancy-boy Bathyllus is dancing the Leda pantomime, Tuccia wets herself. Apula whimpers, just as if she were in a man’s embrace, drawn-out and with sudden anguish.” (Satires, 6.63-5). I need a cold shower.
Another, humorous description of female infatuation with actors: “Some women burn for sordid folks and cannot rouse desire
unless they see either slaves or servants in short tunics. The arena ignites
some, or a mule-driver flooded with dust, or an actor made low by exhibiting
himself on stage. My mistress is one of these; she jumps all the way from the
orchestra and the first fourteen rows and with the plebs in the upper seats seeks
what she loves. (Petronius, Satyricon, 126).
Empresses were not immune either, and pantomimes were involved in sex scandals at the highest level. The Empress Messalina forcibly seduced Mnester; the Empress Domitia Longina seduced Paris. (Both of the actors were executed.)
And that doesn’t even scratch the surface!
In conclusion, if you think our modern obsession with celebrities or the tendency for teenage girls to obsess over actors is in any way new, think again. This has been happening since the years BC. It happened in Greece, it happened in Rome, it happened in Shakespeare’s time. At every point in history, people have been obsessed with actors and celebrities. Just be grateful we don’t have to watch our world leaders acting anymore.