THE IGNOBLE POSITION OF ROMAN ACTORS

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 91-2.

IN Greece actors had enjoyed a position of eminence and respect; but in Rome their condition was mean and contemptible. Like many other professions in the empire, that of play-making was hereditary. Actors were foreigners, captives, or more frequently slaves who through skill had been able to purchase their freedom. During the republic and the early days of the empire, women actors never appeared; but in later years women acted both in the mimes and pantomimes. In either case the position was an infamous one. Julian, called the Apostate, made it a rule that priests of his pagan religion should never be seen within the walls of a theater. Even the far-from-Puritanical Tiberius forbade people of the stage to hold any intercourse with the Roman knights and senators. The famous Acte, at one time a favorite concubine of the Emperor Nero, was an actress in the mimes. Tradition has it that she was converted through the teachings of Saint Paul; that she was banished by the Emperor; and that, after his death, she was the only person willing to prepare him for decent burial. The Church, while condemning the obscenities perpetuated in the name of art, often fought for the enactment of laws which should release "these unhappy slaves of a cruel voluptuousness." [1] There were rules designed to regulate the movements of supposedly converted actresses; and these were characterized, even by indifferent writers of the time, as cold, cruel, and unjust. Dill describes them as showing "an inhuman contempt for a class whom humanity doomed to vice, and then punished for being vicious." Legally the position of the acting class was never essentially changed; but in time the social standing was somewhat improved, and gifted artists, such as Roscius in comedy and Aesopus in tragedy, occasionally rose above their station and enjoyed the friendship of men of high standing.

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1 Dill, Roman Society.

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