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Dancing in Roman Dress: Fabula Togata and the Music of Pantomime

Harry Morgan

Somerville College, Oxford University

This paper will explore the relationship between music and dance in Roman theatre during the early imperial period. The paper will focus specifically on the evolution of the dramatic genre known as fabula togata and the relation of this genre to the origins of the pantomime. My contention is that modern scholarship on the pantomime (e.g. Lada-Richards 2007) has promoted an overly narrow conception of how musical styles developed under the patronage of the Julio-Claudian emperors. By studying the evidence for choreographed productions of togatae, I hope to complicate our understanding of the history of pantomime, while drawing attention to the different ways in which song and dance were fused through the medium of theatrical performance.

Fabulae togatae were comic plays on Roman themes. Developed in the 2ndcentury BC by the playwrights Titinius, Afranius, and Quinctius Atta, the genre was much in vogue during the late republican period (Wiseman 2002; Manuwald 2011; Kragelund 2016). Although we know the titles of several togatae, no complete plays have survived, and so we must rely on scattered allusions in literary texts to understand what a typical performance might have looked and sounded like. The fabula togata has been identified by some scholars as an important precursor to the pantomime, which, according to Jory (1981), made its debut in Rome in 23 BC. However, it is clear from various sources that togatae were still being performed during the Julio-Claudian period, packaged in a strikingly original format which put choreography centre-stage. Pliny the Elder mentions a certain Stephanio, who at the Ludi Saeculares primus togatus saltare instituit (HN 7.159); a Stephanio togatarius –presumably the same man – appears in Suetonius’ Life of Augustus (45), in a list of performers whose notorious on-stage antics incurred the wrath of the emperor. Furthermore, in his treatise De Grammaticis (21), Suetonius tells the story of C. Melissus, a favourite freedman of Maecenas and later an intimate of Augustus, who is credited with the invention of ‘a new form of togatae’.

Suetonius saw the advent of pantomime as bringing about a radical change in the way Roman audiences experienced the combined effect of music and dance: Pylades Cilex pantomimus, cum veteres ipsi canerent atque saltarent, primus Romae chorum et fistulam sibi praecinere fecit (Suet. De Poetisfr. 3 Rostagni; see Wiseman 2014). Other sources give a similar impression (cf. Macr. Sat. 2.7.18). And yet, in terms of the interaction between sound and movement, the pantomime and the togata were qualitatively different (contra Hunt 2008). While we should be wary of drawing sharp distinctions between performance categories (following, e.g., Wiseman 2002), it is evident from Suetonius that togatarii, unlike pantomimi, did not perform as soloists, and it seems likely that they sang as well as danced. How are we to make sense of these discrepancies? 

I will conclude that the arrival of pantomime did not change the face of Roman music overnight, as scholars have suggested. Rather, the pantomime and the togata together point towards a pattern of Roman experimentation with musical and choreographic modes, which continued long after 23 BC. Seen in this light, the careers of Stephanio and Melissus can provide new insights into the diverse theatrical landscape of early imperial Rome.

Session/Panel Title

Moving to the Music: Song and Dance in Antiquity

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