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Pantomime Dancing and the Development of New Modes of Subjectivity

Alessandra Zanobi

Ancient pantomime is said to have been introduced in Rome under the principate of Augustus in the year 22 A.C. There are no extant accounts of its origins and development and efforts made at tracing them remain tentative. Recently, pantomime has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention (Lada- Richards, 2007; Webb, 2008; Hall&Wyles, 2008; Zanobi, 2014), but the investigation of its relation to the wider cultural milieu has not yet been fully undertaken.

I wish to show that pantomime, as a cultural and social phenomenon, is inscribed in and belongs to the wider cultural climate characteristic of the period spanning between the end of the Republic and the beginning of the principate. Placing pantomime in its cultural context and showing its relation to literary and religious phenomena can help us better understand this genre and also deepen our knowledge of Roman culture more generally. For instance, Galinsky (1975, 68-69), McKeown (1979, 71-84) and Richlin (1992, 174-76) have hinted at the fact that there is a link between pantomime and elegiac poetry. One area in which Roman elegy and pantomime clearly overlap concerns the crossing or blurring of gender boundaries and the adoption of a “female” subjectivity. It has been argued that one of the most important features of Roman elegy was its literary engagement with new modes of feeling such as the appropriation of elements which are typically associated with female subjectivity. It is first in Catullus' poems that we find the expression of these new ways of feeling, which were then appropriated and transformed into topical elements of the elegiac genre in the works of Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid.

In order to provide a brief description of such new modes of feeling, I will use here Catullus' Attis (poem 63) as the most illustrative case among his poems of this novel sensibility. Later on, Catullus' Attis will also serve to elucidate the relationship between this new mode of subjectivity and pantomime dancing. The poem is thus chosen as a paradigmatic case for illustrating this twofold set of relationships. 

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Roman Dance Cultures in Context

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