Entertainment & Leisure

Entertainment and Leisure

The first permanent stone theater was erected by Pompey in 55 BCE (it was during a Senate meeting in the portico of this theater that Caesar was assassinated). This computer-generated model of a generic Roman theater illustrates its basic components: semicircular orchestra surrounded by high, tiered stone seats in the auditorium (cavea), with a flat stage where the actors performed in front of a permanent backdrop (scaenae frons) that rose as high as the stands and was attached to them at both sides to form an enclosed building. This model shows the Theater of Marcellus, built by Augustus in honor of his deceased nephew and able to seat about 14,000 spectators. An Odeon was quite similar to a theater in construction but much smaller, generally used for musical performances and literary recitals.

Pantomime: By the end of the Republic, classical drama was largely out of favor. Much more popular were the pantomimes, which also employed masks but no words. These elaborate performances usually involved one male dancer, the pantomimus (“he who imitates all things”) who used gestures and dance to act out a simple story, usually based on a myth that the audience would recognize (in this bone statue, the dancer holds a mask with closed mouth, indicating that he is a pantomime). The dancer was accompanied by a chorus and musicians along with elaborate staging, so in some respects the pantomime resembled a modern ballet. Although a few women might perform in pantomimes, most of the dancers were male, and some became popular celebrities. The ancient physician Galen writes of a case in which he diagnosed that an upper-class woman’s illness was due to her infatuation for a dancer (named Pylades after the freedman of Augustus who was one of the founders of the pantomime).

Mime: The mime was another type of performance in theaters that was popular during the imperial period. No masks were worn in mimes, which included dialogue (unlike the pantomimes). Both males and females took part in the performance, though any woman who became an actress automatically lost her claim to respectability. The stories acted out in mimes were loosely constructed around adventure plots, with plenty of bawdy sex and often violence as well.