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Dancing with Pentheus: Pantomime at the Convivium in Roman Gaul

Elizabeth Mitchell

This paper looks at two Roman triclinia from Gallia Narbonensis, both of which employ figures and compositional structures reminiscent of pantomime in their decor (Figs 1, 2). In these rooms, mosaic floors and frescoed walls are decorated in such a way as to transform the space into a stage, where guiding lines and scattered mythological figures on the floor coopt everyone in the room – guests and hosts, diners and servers alike – into the performance of the dance.

My argument draws on recent work on the reciprocal influences of the visual arts on pantomime and pantomime on the visual arts (Dunbabin 2010; 2014, Lada-Richards 2004, Huskinson et al. 2008), on scholarship documenting the thriving and distinctive mosaic industry in this region (especially Lancha 1977; 1981), and also on the extensive literature, in both architectural and behavioural senses, on the theatricality of Roman triclinia. I contend that these triclinia, and particularly their mosaic floors, use the conventions of pantomime to blur boundaries between spectator and performer, mythical imaginary and real social setting, and image/architecture and its human occupants. The resultant Gesamtkunstwerk is a self-conscious, highly playful decorative organism which requires as its crucial, activating centre the body of that figure whom we usually denominate as the viewer. In these rooms, however, viewing alone will always be marked as an insufficient response.

Mosaic floors, which by their very nature demand to be walked on, occasion complex games of perception and interaction. In my first case-study the visitor is asked to respond to the figure of Lycurgus, who struggles against a vine which covers the whole floor of the room while an audience of dining satyrs and maenads looks on. In the second, excavated in 2007 and recently published by Boislève et. al., the crucial figure is Pentheus, dying at the hands of Agave in the centre of the floor while wandering maenads stalk the complex geometric mosaic periphery of the room; theatre masks confront both the person entering and the one getting up from his or her kline at the back of the room. What happens when we insert a human body into these “dangerous mosaics”? A diner or slave using these rooms can choose either to watch the dance from a distance, following the model of the Bacchic diners watching Lycurgus, or, conversely, to see themselves as part of the show, directing their steps carefully along the curved lines of the vine or the guilloche to avoid the axe of Lycurgus or the thyrsi of the maenads. And a slave or new arrival who crosses the scene without looking risks becoming an unwitting part of the diners’ entertainment.

Pantomime is not the only model for these figures; the Lycurgus type, for example, is close to one which is known from a 2nd century BCE mosaic from Delos. But in the Narbonnaise mosaics the protagonists are clearly staged in such a way as to suggest dance and dinner-party entertainment, and an interpretation which gives weight to such models of performance seems likely given the widespread role of pantomime as a transmitter of Greek mythological characters and stories across the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Both Pentheus and Lycurgus are mentioned as subjects for pantomime in Lucian’s On the Dance.

Finally, my paper raises questions about the ways in which performance integrates Greek mythological fantasy with distinctively Roman convivium. It asks what sort of blueprints these mosaics offer for social behaviour and shared mythological imaginary, and how the echo of a pantomimic dance is used here to both inculcate and creatively transfigure the rituals of elite everyday life. 

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Roman Dance Cultures in Context

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