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It is very possible that pantomimic (Clown) performances were practised at feasts or merry-makings among the Jews and ancient Egyptians, and we know that the early Greek drama largely partook of the nature of pantomime; but pantomime as a regularly organized theatrical entertainment was first introduced at Rome in the reign of Augustus. Indeed, that exalted personage is said to have been the inventor of it. It is certain, at any rate, that he patronized it most liberally, and that splendid pantomimes were produced in Rome during his reign. Maecenas, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and most of the literary men of the day, frequented the theatres to witness them; and in some of their works we have criticisms of the pieces and of the actors who performed in them. There were two great rival pantomimists at this time in Rome, Bathyllus and Pylades. The former was originally a slave in the household of Maecenas; but his master was so delighted with the way in which he used to amuse his guests with mimicry and other antics at table that he gave him his liberty, and procured him an engagement at the theatre. Bathyllus was a grotesque and funny dog, who trode the lighter walks of pantomime; but Pylades was of a serious turn, and excelled in representing stories of a tragical kind. This Pylades actually wrote a treatise on his art, in which he declared that no man could be a good pantomimist (chironomist he was called, from the practice of expressing himself chiefly by the motion of the hand) who did not understand music, geometry, natural and moral philosophy, rhetoric, painting, and sculpture. 'All which the poets have feigned,' wrote Pylades, the clown, 'all which the mythologists have taught, all which the historians have recorded, must ever be present to his recollection.' The pantomimes in those days generally represented the loves or exploits of the gods and goddesses. The skill of the performers seems to have been perfectly wonderful. The snarling old cynic, Demetrius, after witnessing the pantomime of the 'Loves of Mars and Yenus ' (in the time of Nero), said, 'I hear all that you are doing, for it is not only my sight that you address, but your hands appear to 'Speak.' The people of Rome were quite mad at this time about pantomimes and pantomimists. When Nero requested Demetrius to name what gift he desired, the 'old gentleman asked for a pantomimist, and assigned as a reason that he had many neighbours of whose language his own people were ignorant, but that if he were in possession of one of the performers in the pantomime he need not provide himself with interpreters. The Emperor Augustus was extremely partial to the pantomimists. By his command they were exempted from that corporal punishment to which mimics and players were exposed, and they were indulged moreover by a release from certain civil prohibitions. This, however, caused the fraternity to presume upon their privileges. Bathyllus and Pylades became jealous of each other, and their partizans got up rows in the streets, and this caused some of their privileges to be withdrawn. Shortly after this Bathyllus died, and Pylades had the field all to himself, which made him intolerably conceited and overbearing. On one occasion, when a critic hissed him, he stopped in the middle of his performance and pointed the man out to the indignation of the audience. For this he was banished; but the populace soon brought him back again. Another rival to Pylades now appeared in one Hylas, a pupil of the deceased Bathyllus. Pylades and Hylas contended together in the same theatre, and the passages of wit between them, seem to have been exceedingly smart. In trying to represent the character of Agamemnon, in a particular line which termed him 'the great," Hylas stood up on his tiptoes. 'That,' said Pylades, 'is being tall, not great.' The audience called upon him to do it better himself, and when he came to the line he threw himself into an attitude of meditation, thus giving an idea of the first characteristic of a great man. Augustus became alarmed at these disputes, possibly thinking them a little too political, and calculated to excite the populace; but Pylades argued with him, and pointed out the advantage which the emperor gained, as long as the attention of the Romans could be diverted by pantomimes from the consideration of their political subjection. 'Sire,' he said, 'you are ungrateful: the best thing that can happen to you is that they should busy themselves about us.' Pylades was evidently better versed in statecraft than the emperor. Hylas seems to have been a very irritating rival of the old favourite. But he paid the penalty of his provocations at last. A partizan of Pylades caught him one night, and gave him a sound horsewhipping on his own door-step.
In the reign of Tiberius the quarrels of the players grew yet worse. Blood was shed in the theatres, and not only were the lives of some spectators sacrificed in the squabble, but several of the emperor's guards were killed. It was consequently proposed in the senate to subject the pantomimists to corporal punishment; but it was eventually considered disrespectful to the memory of Augustus to repeal his act of exemptions. Regulations, however, were made for reducing the enormous sums which had hitherto been granted for producing pantomimes, and some provisions were made for diminishing the arrogance of the performers. Senators were forbidden to enter their houses. Roman knights were not allowed to follow in their suite, and their exhibitions were prohibited elsewhere than in the theatres. But in the course of a few years the disorders arising from these theatrical performances increased to such a pitch that all the actors were banished from Italy.
They crept back again, however, in the reign of Caligula, and soon acquired all their old licence. Nero found much amusement in their squabbles, and often took part in them. On one occasion, when stones and benches were flying about in the theatre, Nero actively participated in the fray, and broke the praetor's head with a footstool. The pantomimists under this reign were once more the delicise (the delights) of the Romans. Again, however, they were banished; and again they were brought back at the demand of the Roman youth, who could not exist without their pantomimes. Under Domitian their performances became of a very profligate character. The great performer of these days, Paris, was accused of being too intimate with some of the high-blooded dames of Rome. He devised and acted a pantomime called the 'Amour of Leda,' which won great applause, chiefly, it would appear, because it was not very decent. The emperor's wife, Domitia, fell in love with this handsome clown and was divorced in consequence.
The Roman pantomimists were employed at this time not only upon the stage, but to amuse the guests at great houses during dinner. They appeared as carvers, and the flying knife which they brandished was directed with a different movement to each dish. He was considered to know little of his art who could not vary his flourish as he operated upon a hare, or a hen or a lark.
There were amateur pantomimists in those days. Stage-struck Roman youths paid large sums of money to be allowed to play, and their friends seem to have countenanced and supported them. Pliny tells a story of two youthful Romans of equestrian rank who died while exhibiting in the same pantomime. The scandals which arose in consequence of these unseemly proceedings led to the final suppression of the pantomimists by Trajan.
The pantomimes of the Romans were called Fabulae Atellenae, from Atella, the name of a town, where they were first introduced on a small scale. The actors wore masks and high-heeled shoes, furnished with brass or iron heels, which jingled as they danced. Latterly the fabulae were designed to admit of a good deal of horse play and knocking about, and it is not by any means improbable that the actors may have been in the habit of burning each other with red-hot pokers. It is very certain that a kick in a certain place was held to be a very good joke, and was always rapturously applauded. The Fabulae Atellanae and the Chironomists are therefore fairly entitled to be regarded as the first examples of the pantomime and its modern performers—clown, pantaloon, harlequin, and columbine.