Abstract: Scenes from the Roman stage: the theatre in the art of the Roman Empire

Roman theatre buildings are among the most striking monuments to survive from all over the Roman Empire, yet it is often assumed that the theatre was in terminal decline after the end of the Republic, and that the performances that were presented in the theatres that we see today were irredeemably trivial and vulgar in nature and content. It is clear in fact that there was a lively theatrical culture throughout the centuries of the Empire, but the written sources that describe it are limited and often biased.  One of the principal sources of evidence for its vitality comes from representations in art, but they are not always straightforward to interpret. Scenes of theatrical performance with masked and costumed actors, principally of the comedies of Menander, continued to be produced in the 3rd century AD and occasionally even later, in mosaics, paintings, and other media; but it has been questioned whether they do indeed provide evidence for the continued performance of the plays, on the public stage or at private entertainments, or should be seen as conventional assertions of allegiance to traditional literary culture. The two most successful theatrical genres under the Empire were the mime, comic and undoubtedly often vulgar, and the so-called pantomime or ‘tragic rhythmic dance’, essentially a ballet by a solo dancer to musical accompaniment, usually on a mythological theme. My talk discusses the nature of theatrical performance during the later Empire, and examines the evidence of the representations in art, including some remarkable new finds that have appeared in recent years.

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