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Dancing in the Dark: Nocturnal Pantomime Performances at Greek and Roman Festivals

Mali Skotheim

            An epitaph for a pantomime, Vincentius, from Timgad in North Africa, praises the deceased dancer who "held the theater until the evening [stars] arose" (tenuit theatrum us/que in ortus vesperos, Bayet [1967] 441). While Vincentius' epitaph is often cited as evidence for the attractive power of pantomimes (Lada-Richards 2007; Webb 2008; Hall 2013), scholars have not yet explored the reality of nocturnal pantomime performance behind the arresting image of the dancer captivating the audience into the night. I argue that Vincentius' epitaph references not just the skill of a dancer, but also the actual practice of nocturnal dance. I contextualize Vincentius' night-time dancing by collecting the literary and epigraphic evidence for nocturnal pantomime dancing at Greek and Roman festivals of the imperial period (1st c. BCE to 3rd c. CE).

            Nocturnal entertainments became popular at festivals of the imperial period, due in part to innovations in lighting technology which allowed theaters to be illuminated after dark. Angelos Chaniotis has even spoken of a broader trend towards "nocturnalization" in the Hellenistic and Roman-era Greek world (Chaniotis 2015). The Maiouma festival, for example, which was celebrated in Antioch, Aphrodisias, and Ostia, was a nocturnal festival with theatrical entertainment; as described by Malalas, σκηνικῆς ἑορτῆς νυκτερινῆς (Chronographia 12.284-285). With σκηνικῆς, Malalas refers to mime and pantomime. Malalas also reports that the citizens of Antioch had to request additional funding from Commodus in the 3rd c. CE to fund the oil for the lamps at the Maiouma.

            Honorific inscriptions for benefactors of night-time entertainments focus on the substantial cost of providing oil for the lamps for these events; the ability to light a theater at night became a demonstration of lavish expense, a spectacle in itself. In a series of honorific inscriptions for the benefactors of the Panamaria at Stratonikeia (e.g. IGSK Stratonikeia I 192, 199, 203, 254, 295), the benefactors are praised not only for their contributions of oil for the festival, which was celebrated " through the whole day through a greater part of the night" (IGSK Stratonikeia I 254), but also for paying for the akroamata, the hired entertainment. The akroamata included pantomime dancers, as well as mimes and other paratheatrical performers (Robert 1930; Slater 1990); a pantomime is specifically mentioned as part of the akroamata in IGSK Stratonikeia I 199.

            At some festivals of the imperial period, pantomimes performed at the end of the dramatic and musical program (as at the Demostheneia at Oenoanda, as well as the Sebastea at Naples) or at the end of the entire festival (as at Delos). Pantomimes also seem to have performed at the close of Roman festivals; Nero, for example, planned to dance a pantomime of Vergil's Turnus on the last day of the victory games in Rome (Suetonius, Nero 54). Some festivals set aside separate days for pantomime performances, but others, I suggest, may have scheduled them to take place at the end of the day's competitions, i.e., at night.

Session/Panel Title:

Time and Memory

Session/Paper Number

3.2

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