ancient Roman pantomime: Bathyllus, Pylades, and other celebrities

Among ancient Roman mass media, pantomime had an attention share probably only slightly smaller than chariot racing and gladiator fights. Ancient Roman pantomimes presented emotionally fraught mythic episodes through the bodily movement of a mute, solo dancer. Pantomime rapidly gained attention beginning about 23 BGC under the reign of Augustus. Two pantomime dancers — Bathyllus of Alexandria and Pylades of Cilicia — quickly became celebrities. Bathyllus favored lascivious burlesques and comedy. Pylades specialized in solemn tragic scenes. Both presented rapidly in succession different passions and characters. They attracted huge numbers of enthusiastic spectators.

Just as many men keenly follow and support football teams while paying little attention to important public issues, so too did pantomime fans. Rivalries between Bathyllus’ and Pylades’ fans caused riots in Rome and prompted Augustus to rebuke Pylades. Responding from the standpoint of a political adviser to Augustus, Pylades reportedly replied: “You are ungrateful, Master. Let the people kill their time with us!”[*] Put differently, Pylades urged Augustus to recognize the political value of having the population absorbed in entertainment.

Recently, a street-leading news source has put forward pantomime in a protest over the suppression of modern expression. This pantomime redivivus blurs the classically contentious boundary between pantomime burlesque and rhythmic tragic movement. It can be seen worldwide from now to at least the end of YouTube as it currently exists. That’s a gigantic circus, a huge colosseum. Most of the seats undoubtedly will be empty. This isn’t pantomime in Roman mass media.

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[*] Reported in Cassius Dio, Roman History 54.17.4.  The above translation is from Beacham, Richard C. 1999. Spectacle entertainments in early imperial Rome. London: Yale University Press, p. 145.

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