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The “Hidden Transcript” of the Laureolus-Mime

Anne E Duncan

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The Laureolus-mime concerned the capture and public execution of a notorious bandit leader. Its first known performance was mere hours (and steps) away from Caligula’s assassination in 41 CE, and it was performed through the second century CE. This paper will suggest that the Laureolus-mime’s surprising longevity was due to a possible subversive interpretation of the mime in which Laureolus was a folk hero to the disenfranchised in Roman society.

To explain the Laureolus-mime’s appeal, this paper will use Scott’s (1990) theory of the “official transcript” and “hidden transcripts” in societies with unequal power relations. Scott argues that those in power develop an “official transcript” of social relations which is enforced on subordinates by implicit threats of violence.  Subordinates develop “hidden transcripts” in which they can express their frustration with the powerful in veiled ways, as in folk tales celebrating “trickster” figures, or images of the World Upside Down (e.g., the Saturnalia). 

As an unauthorized genre performed outside traditional theatrical venues by scandalous performers, mime was well-positioned to critique traditional, authorized Roman culture, as certain mime routines reveal: the adultery mime flouted traditional Roman ideology about marriage and female chastity, while mimes travestying Christian sacraments satirized the new religion. The Laureolus-mime was another example of a plot in which insubordination against established Roman values, laws, or rules was expressed, then ultimately thwarted (Webb (2008) 131). 

Because it featured the execution of the main character, the mime was exceptionally bloody. The Laureolus-mime was used in a “fatal charade” during the dedicatory games of the Flavian Amphitheater in 80 CE (Mart. Spect.7), where the condemned criminal playing Laureolus was mauled by a bear while being crucified (Coleman (2006) 82-96, (1990) 65). Close reading of other testimonia reveals that the mime often depicted Laureolus evading capture or escaping from bondage before his ultimate punishment.  Describing the ill-omened performance of the mime in 41 CE, Suetonius says that “the lead actor, rushing, fell and vomited blood” (Calig. 57), which suggests that the mime featured an escape attempt as well as prodigious quantities of blood.  In his account of this performance, Josephus summarizes mime’s plot: “a leader is caught and crucified” (AJ 19.1.13). In an allegorical text, Tertullian describes Enthymesis as unable to fly over the Cross, unlike Laureolus in the mime (Adv. Valent. 14). Juvenal mentions the Laureolus-mime once by name (8.187) and references Laureolus elsewhere as “the trickster runaway slave of Catullus” (13.111; Sutton (1986) 63-67).

Any performance of the Laureolus-mime could be read by those in authority as celebrating the bandit leader’s well-deserved downfall, complete with bloody evidence of suffering; the “fatal charade” in 80 seems to have emphasized this “official transcript.” (Scott (1990) 206 notes that the “official transcript” often denigrates insurgents as bandits, while the “hidden transcript” elevates bandits into folk heroes.)  The “hidden transcript” of the Laureolus-mime’s other performances may have been that Laureolus, a runaway slave, bandit leader, and trickster figure, defied and evaded authorities successfully, if only for a short time. 

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