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date: 25 February 2024



  • William Beare
  •  and Antony Spawforth


  • Latin Literature

Pantomime, the most popular art-form of Roman theatre under the empire, in which a solo dancer (pantomimus, παντόμιμος‎‎) represented mythological themes without voice, supported by instrumental music and a chorus. The apparent meaning is ‘one who imitates everything’, but the distinctive quality of pantomime is that the artist did everything by imitation, as in modern mime. The art, which had Hellenistic antecedents, was introduced at Rome in 22 bce by the Cilician Pylades and Bathyllus of Alexandria (1) (see maecenas, c.), with sufficient novelties for it now to become known as the ‘Italian dance’. Pylades' innovation, according to himself (Macrob. Sat. 2. 7), was to add the orchestra and the chorus. Bathyllus seems to have specialized in light themes related to comedy or satyric drama, such as Pan playing with a satyr; Pylades' style is said to have been ‘high flown, passionate’ (Ath. 1. 20e) and related to tragedy. Tragic subjects were in fact a favourite, and Greek inscriptions grandly describe pantomime-performers as ‘actors of tragic rhythmic dance’ (ὑποκριταὶ τραγικῆς ἐνρύθμου κεινήσεως‎‎). A highly sophisticated art, demanding much from both performers and spectators, pantomime was essentially serious, and so enjoyed a higher status than the mime.

Performance took place in the theatre or privately. The artist, usually a handsome, athletic figure, wore a graceful silk costume (Suet.Calig.54) permitting free movement and a mask with closed lips (Lucian, Salt.29), widely represented on Roman monuments. Behind him stood the chorus, the musicians and the scabillarii, who beat time by pressing with the foot on the scabillum, a wooden or metal instrument fastened underneath the sandal. Beside the artist there sometimes stood an assistant—perhaps an actor with a speaking part (Lucian, Salt.68). The dancer might in one piece have to appear in five different roles, each with its own mask (Lucian, Salt.66; cf. 63). The dancer's power to convey his meaning by steps, postures, and above all gestures (Quint. Inst. 11. 3. 88) was aided by certain conventions, e.g. there was a traditional dance for ‘Thyestes devouring his children’ (cf. atreus). The songs of the chorus were of secondary importance (Libanius, Pro Saltatione381); surviving fragments are in Greek. Men of letters such as Lucan (M. Annaeus Lucanus) and Statius wrote libretti for the pantomime. Pantomime-artists were popular in both halves of the empire. In the east they performed not just in special shows but also in agōnes, including, eventually, such old sacred festivals as the Pythian Games. In late antiquity the pagan content of the pantomime drew the fire of church fathers, especially John Chrysostom; but it still flourished in the 6th century.


  • Lucian, De saltatione.
  • Libanius, Pro saltatione.
  • J. Jory, in P. Easterling and E. Hall (eds.), Greek and Roman Actors (2002), 238–253.
  • I. Lada-Richards, Silent Eloquence: Lucian and Pantomime Dancing (2007).