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Gaius the Pantomime

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

Jane Bellemore*
The University of Western Australia


Gaius had a deep interest in matters theatrical. There is much evidence of his passion for the personalities of the stage and arena, and sources document his actual participation in theatrical and sporting entertainments, including, for the purposes of our discussion, his foray into terpsichorean activities. Most, if not all, of the pantomime ‘appearances’ of Gaius were private, restricted probably to his residence on the Palatine, but one of the reasons which allegedly urged on his assassination in early A.D. 41 was the fear that Gaius was going to dance publicly. Whether or not this motive for the assassination was genuine, for it to have been plausible, Gaius’ dancing must have been the subject of much gossip and perhaps of disapproval.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1994

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Thanks go to Professor E.J. Jory for his advice. He should not be held responsible for mistakes, nor does he necessarily subscribe to the arguments presented.

1 On Gaius’ infatuation with actors et al., see Philo Legatio ad Gaium 203-6Google ScholarSuetonius Gaius 18.1,33,55Google Scholar.1; Dio Cassius 59.2.4,59.5.2-3,59.21.2,59.24.7, 59.27.1.

2 Seneca de Ira 1.20Google Scholar.8; Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 42Google Scholar; Suet, . Gaius 54.12Google Scholar; Dio Cassius 59.5.2-5; cf. 59.27.1. Gaius as gladiator (Suet. Gaius 32.2; cf. 19.2, 54.1; Dio 59.5.5); as charioteer (Suet. Gaius 54.1; cf. 55.2-3; Dio 59.5.4, 59.14.6); Gaius’ interest in scenic games (Suet. Gaius 18.2); circus (Suet. Gaius 18.3); games generally (Suet. Gaius 20).

3 Suet. Gaius 54.1; Dio 59.5.5.Google Scholar

4 Suet. Gaius 54.2Google Scholar; Dio 59.29.6; cf. Seneca de Ira 1.20.8.Google Scholar

5 There were rumours about Gaius’ sexual involvement with a leading pantomime of the period. Gaius allegedly had sex with Mnester (Suet. Gaius 36.1Google Scholar), kissed him openly at shows (Suet. Gaius 55.1Google Scholar; cf. Dio 59.27.1), and is said to have become upset if any noise was made while Mnester danced (Suet. Gaius 55.1; cf. 57.4)Google Scholar. Gaius’ relationship with Apelles the tragedian is also described as close (Philo Leg. 203Google Scholar; Suet. Gaius 33; Dio 59.5.2).Google Scholar

6 From the upper-class Roman perspective much about the art of the pantomime lacked ‘dignitas’: its participants were usually of inferior birth; and dancing or even showing a leg was frowned upon in good Roman circles. In addition, actors were ‘infames’. See Balsdon, J.P.V.D., Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (London 1969) 279-88;Google Scholar cf. 274-88; Newbold, R. F., “The spectacles as an issue between Gaius and the Senate’, PACA 13(1975) 30-5.Google Scholar

7 Lucían de Saltatione 41 suggests some of these roles. On this work, see Kokolakis, M., Pantomimes and the Treatise ΠεΙοΣεΩΣ (Athens 1959).Google Scholar

8 For an ancient explanation of dance in its many forms, see Lucían de Salt, passim; on pantomime, de Salt. 29Google Scholar ff. In general, Oxford Classical Dictionary 2, ed. Hammond, N.G.L., Scullard, H.H. (Oxford 1970)Google Scholar s.v. ‘Pantomimus’; in particular, see Rotolo, V., Il Pantomimo (Palermo 1957) 181Google Scholar; Jory, E.J., ‘Continuity and change in the Roman theatre’, Studies in Honour of T.B.L Webster 1 (Bristol 1986) 147Google Scholar-9; Jory, E.J., “The literary evidence for the beginnings of Imperial pantomime’, BICS 28 (1981) 147-61;Google ScholarJory, E.J., “The drama of the dance. Prolegomena to an iconography of Imperial pantomime’, in Roman Theatre and Society, ed. Slater, W.J. (Michigan 1995) forthcoming.Google Scholar

9 This would have been required for the travail of Leto’, as Lucían de Salt. 38.Google Scholar

10 This was the alleged admonition given to Gaius by the praetorian prefect Macro (Philo Leg. 4151).Google Scholar It has been noted, however, that Augustus dressed up sometimes in a fashion appropriate for a mime or pantomime; cf. Flory, M., Abducta Neroni Uxor: The historiographical tradition on the marriage of Octavian and Livia’, TAPA 118(1988) 352-6.Google Scholar

11 Although Philo and Seneca also allude to Gaius’ interest in pantomime (Philo Leg. 42; cf. 44Google Scholar-5; Seneca de Ira 1.20.8), neither of these contemporaries of Gaius records a specific performance by the emperor.

12 In the closing lines of Gaius 11, Suetonius reports that Tiberius compared Gaius to a sea-monster or to Phaethon, characters appropriate to pantomime. See Gagé, J., Basileia (Paris 1968) 54.Google Scholar

13 Josephus reports that Gaius occasionally assumed the accoutrements of a woman, including a wig and a stola (Antiquities 19.30), a description which parallels that by Suetonius.

14 When Gaius is said to have imitated artists as they were performing, he is depicted as having done so only in an impromptu fashion (Suet. Gaius 54.1).Google Scholar

15 Gaius 54.2Google Scholar: ‘Nec alia de causa videtur eo die, quo periit, pervigilium indixisse quam ut initium in scaenam proeundi licentia temporis auspicaretur.’ Gaius, , in fact, may have been intending to dance some theme involving the underworld that night (Suet. Gaius 57.4).Google Scholar

16 Also Dio 59.5.5.

17 It is not entirely clear whether the ‘palla’ was used for restricted purposes, including the imitation of a woman, or whether it was in more general use (FrontoEp. ad Ant. Imp. de Orat. 5.2Google Scholar). On the uncertainties concerning the garb of pantomimes, see Jory, ‘Drama’ (n.8 above).

18 See also Luciande Salt. 63Google Scholar and Kokolakis (n.7 above) 40.

19 Seneca makes an issue of the frivolous’ footwear and other apparel worn by Gaius: de Beneficiis 2.12,Google Scholarde Constantia 18.3, de Ira 3.4; also PlinyNH 37.17Google Scholar. On the differing accoutrements of theatrical performers, see Beare, W., Roman Stage 3 (London 1964) Appendix D.Google Scholar

20 Admittedly Suetonius could have derived this information on Gaius dressed as various gods from an original context which dealt with his godhead, one which also provided material such as that discussed in Gaius 22, where he mentions the emperor’s dealings with Jupiter. Yet the references in Gaius 52 to a trident, the caduceus and the dress of Venus would have been superfluous to a discussion of Jupiter, and nowhere does Suetonius record that Gaius thought that he had a special rapport with Neptune, Mercury or Venus.

21 Elsewhere we can see that Suetonius has markedly altered the context of an anecdote derived from Seneca, which has specifically described Gaius’ behaviour during a pantomime performance (Sen. de Ira 1.20.8)Google Scholar. Suetonius uses the incident to demonstrate that Gaius talked to Jupiter on a regular basis (Gaius 22.4)Google Scholar. This implies that Suetonius has, at least on one occasion, tampered with the evidence that linked Gaius to pantomime. On the Senecan anecdote, see Simpson 494-501, and on anecdotes in general, Sailer, R., ‘Anecdotes as historical evidence for the principate’, G&R 27 (1980) 6983.Google Scholar

22 On his interest in clothes, see Lindsay ad 52.

23 Seneca NQ 7.32Google Scholar.3 suggests that many men and women participated in pantomime during the reign of Nero. So, to Roman audiences of Suetonius’ time, the clothing of a pantomime per se would not have elicited much excitement, although comments on Gaius’ unusual costumes in another context probably would have.

24 See Wiseman ad locc.

25 On Pyrrhic dancers, see Slater, W.J., ‘Three problems in the history of drama’, Phoenix 47 (1993) 200205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 There is a lacuna in the text by Dio for events late in Gaius’ reign, A.D. 40 to 41 (59.25.1-60.2.1). Some extracts from Dio’s original account have been supplied by excerptors, and these provide some bridging details about the period, but we can never be sure where the later scribes have eliminated vital material or interposed their own views. This necessarily makes these extracts untrustworthy, although it is felt that they are generally reliable (Millar, F., Dio Cassius [Oxford 1964] 14).Google Scholar

27 Jos. Ant. 19.75Google Scholar; Suet. Gaius 56.2Google Scholar, cf. 58.

28 See Wiseman ad loc.

29 In the 2nd century A.D., it would seem that Dionysiac mysteries were used as a front by those who wanted to dance as pantomimes (Nilsson, M.P., The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age [New York 1975] 60)Google Scholar. Genuine performances of mysteries may have included the participants representing mythological scenes (Burkert, W., Greek Religion, trans. Raffan, J. [Oxford 1985] 277Google Scholar). If so, Josephus may simply have confused the performance of a pantomime with that of mysteries because of their similar content. Suda s.v. ‘Gaius’ also records the so-called mysteries of Gaius, surely derived from Josephus, since the Suda actually cites Josephus by name on many occasions.

30 The term ‘pervigilium’ used by Suetonius may have suggested the concept to Josephus, although ‘initia’ would be more usual. We should also note that the Pyrrhic dances the boys were to perform were ballets of mythological derivation (Wiseman ad 104), so it is perhaps not unexpected that Josephus has confused Pyrrhic dances with pantomime. See also Slater (n.25 above) 200-5.

31 Josephus has also produced a garbled version of the events surrounding the pantomime performed just prior to Gaiusdeath (Ant. 19.94-5Google Scholar; cf. Suet. Gaius 57.4)Google Scholar. See Sutton, D.F., Seneca on the Stage (Leiden 1986) 63-7Google Scholar; Wiseman ad 94-5; Lindsay ad 57.4. The veracity of Josephus has been upheld by Gryzbek, E., Du calendrier macédonien au calendrier ptolémaïque (Basel 1990) 25-8Google Scholar, who assumes that Josephus used Greek sources for this information. On the likely Latin sources, see esp. Feldman, L.H., ‘The sources of JosephusAntiquitates, Book 19’, Latomus 21 (1962) 320-33Google Scholar, Wiseman xii-xiv and Wardle 466-82.

32 Smallwood ad 42 notes that Philo is apparently more restrained than other sources in his presentation of Gaius as a participant in theatrical and other entertainments. In this, however, Philo’s account does not differ much from that of his contemporary Seneca (de Ira 1.20.8).Google Scholar

33 In the in Flaccum Philo also used theatrical motifs. He describes the Alexandrians as playing a part in their deception of Flaccus, the governor of Egypt (19, 38, 72; cf. 34, 85, 93). On the use of theatrical motifs as indicating deep interest in the theatre, see Wright, F. W., Cicero and the Theater (Northampton 1931) 94.Google Scholar

34 Philo displays his loathing of theatrical performers in Legatio 203-4Google Scholar, describing one of the favourites of Gaius, Apelles, as having been a prostitute before he became an actor (cf. Suet. Gaius 33).Google Scholar

35 Suetonius has also used some theatrical terms in his description of Gaius’ activities: the theatrical attitude struck by Gaius, (Gaius 15.1Google Scholar); farce undertaken by Gaius in Germany (Gaius 45.2Google Scholar). See also Josephus, Bellum 4.156Google Scholar, Antiquities 6.264Google Scholar.

36 The term is used again by PhiloLeg. 237Google Scholar to describe the story of the Gorgon’s head.

37 .

38 Wüst, E., RE 18.3.844.Google Scholar

39 Pantomime performance of the role of Dionysus was one of the better known dances, introduced into Rome by Pylades (Jory, ‘Drama’ [n.8 above]).

40 The fact of the choruses themselves, clearly specially trained for singing in fashions appropriate for Gaius’ different manifestations, surely suggests that Gaius’ performances were more than just the emperor dressing up to be a range of different gods. Were all these people as mad as Gaius?

41 Simpson 501-11; cf. Barrett 145-53.

42 Simpson 489-511.

43 Townend, G. B., ‘Traces in Dio Cassius of Cluvius, Aufidius, and Pliny’, Hermes 89 (1961) 230Google Scholar, suggests that there is a convergence between Dio 59.26-9 and Jos. Ani. 19.4 ff. Dio seems to have used all manner of sources, perhaps including Josephus at times, although elsewhere he clearly diverges from Josephus’ account.

44 The question of the sources used by Suetonius and Josephus for the reign of Gaius has been reviewed by Wardle 466-82. Although there has been no real consensus, it is nevertheless clear that Josephus availed himself of a source or sources in Latin and did not use Philo or another source in Greek for this part of his account (cf. Simpson 492 n.4). Both Suetonius and Josephus may have followed the same or similar Latin sources. For a summary of the discussion of the sources for Suetonius, see Lindsay 812; on Josephus, see Feldman, L.H., ‘Flavius Josephus revisited’, ANRW 2.21.2 (1984) 816-21.Google Scholar

45 The sort of idea expressed by Philostratus VA 5.32, a comment that Gaius indulged in Bacchic-mania (… …). Barrett 146 believes that the evidence of Philo and Dio, even as it stands, says nothing about Gaius’ divinity.

46 On clothing, see Lindsay ad 52; on the games, see Bradley, K., ‘The significance of the Spectacula in SuetoniusCaesares’, Rivista Storica dell’Antichità 11 (1981) 131-7Google Scholar.

47 See Simpson 495.

48 The impersonation of Bacchus/Dionysus is also noted by the late source Aurelius Victor de Caesaribus 3.10, whose theme overlaps with that of Dio. There is evidence for some minor correspondences between Dio and Aurelius Victor (Bird, H.W., Sextus Aurelius Victor, a historiographical study [Liverpool 1984] 44, 74, 85).Google Scholar

49 Dio’s use of sources is notoriously difficult to determine; for example, for Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, it is clear that Dio has used Caesar himself, but he has adapted Caesar’s work and also supplemented his account with other sources which cannot have had the first-hand authority of Caesar, sometimes using these sources in preference to Caesar himself (McDougall, I., ‘Dio and his sources for Caesar’s campaign in Gaul’, Latomus 50 [1991] 616-38).Google Scholar

50 Philo almost certainly himself contrived these passages about Gaius (Smallwood ad 75-6). Dio, of course, probably used an intermediate source. On the inference that Philo was Dio’s source on this issue, see Reggiani, C.K., ‘La “Legatio ad Gaium” di Filone’, ANRW 2.21.1 (1984) 561.Google Scholar

51 In antiquity: Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.4.1-2.7Google Scholar. See Barraclough, R., ‘Philo’s polities’, ANRW 2.21.1 (1984) 449-51, 456-61Google Scholar. On the tendency of Philo towards philosophical fiction, see Bilde, P., ‘The Roman Emperor Gaius (Caligula’s) attempt to erect his statue in the temple of Jerusalem’, STh 32 (1978) esp. 71-2.Google Scholar

52 Smallwood 26-7; cf. ad 355-6.

53 On the special interest of Gaius in Alexandria, see Philo, in Flaccum 23Google Scholar; cf. 34; Legatio 338Google Scholar; cf. 172, 250; Smallwood ad 359; SuetGaius 49.2.Google Scholar Perhaps Gaius favoured the Alexandrian Greeks because Alexandria was a centre renowned for its interest in theatre, particularly pantomime. See Balsdon (n.6 above) 337; Wallace-Hadrill, A., Suetonius (London 1983) 185.Google Scholar

54 Barraclough (n.51 above) 458.

55 Note the similar behaviour attributed to the gentiles of Jamnia (PhiloLeg. 200-2).Google Scholar

56 Cf. Jos. Ant. 18.261.Google Scholar

57 Simpson 492.

58 Since Gaius is reputed to have desecrated the temple of the Dioscuri, it seems unlikely that he would have seriously impersonated these divinities. See Smallwood ad 78.

59 On the nature of the god, cf. 162-4.

60 TacitusHistories 5.9Google Scholar and Jos. Bellum 2.203Google Scholar record that the statue was to be that of Gaius in his own right. Tacitus has clearly followed the line of Josephus adopted in the Bellum (Charlesworth, M.P., “The traditions about Caligula’, CHJ 4 (1933) 114Google Scholar ff., Wardle 480-2), which accords with the so-called Latin tradition. See Smallwood ad 346; Simpson 491-3.

61 Simpson 491-511.

62 Note that the Senate did not vote Gaius even after his victories in the north earlier that same year (Dio 59.25.5).

63 Suet. Gaius 22.4Google Scholar reports that Gaius used to ‘invite’ the moon to his arms, not that he had intercourse with her.

64 Similarly, both Suetonius and Philo record that others thought of Gaius as a god, or at least called him so to his face. See SuetoniusGaius 22.2Google Scholar, where some people allegedly called Gaius ‘Jupiter Latiaris’ (cf. Dio 59.28.5); cf. Simpson 497 ff. See also PhiloLeg. 354; cf. 355,372.Google Scholar

65 The second extract, in fact, seems to be an expanded version of the first. Vitellius, in difficulties with the emperor because of his successes against the Parthians, is said to have used every sycophantic device at his disposal to win Gaius’ favour, including pretending that he was worshipping the emperor as a god. He was the one—perhaps the only person of note—to dub Gaius a ‘hero’ and a ‘god’. Gaius then may have tried to put Vitellius on the spot, ‘inter varios iocos’, saying that he was having intercourse with the moon (59.26.6), and he may have asked Vitellius if he could see him (59.27.6).

66 In an earlier passage, Dio claims, rather than that Gaius imitated Poseidon, that he despised him (59.17.11). Why would Gaius seriously pretend to be Poseidon when he had already proved his superiority over him?

67 Dio 59.26.7 simply repeats and elaborates on the characteristics of each of the deities (previously mentioned in 59.26.5-6): Dionysus Heracles Apollo ; Poseidon Zeus ; Artemis Athene, not mentioned above ; and Aphrodite .

68 On this, see Gelzer, M., RE 10.1Google Scholar s.v. ‘Iulius (Caligula)’ 133, col. 411; Simpson 493-4, 498-511; Barrett 146.

69 In fact, it looks as if Dio and Suetonius have shared a common Latin source at this point, the latter claiming: in publicum processit … aliquando sericatus et cycladatus …’. Later in Gaius 52, it is noted that Gaius adopted triumphal ornaments. On Dio, see Freyburger-Galland, M.-L., ‘Le rôle politique des vêtements dans l’Histoire romaine de Dion Cassius’, Latomus 52 (1993) 124-5.Google Scholar

70 Even in this extract there are suggestions that Gaius’ antics often took place in a theatrical milieu. Seneca de Ira 1.20.8Google Scholar reports an incident which is also relayed by Dio 59.28.6 (Simpson 498). As part of Gaius’ alleged desire to compete against Jupiter, it is reported in the latter source that the emperor had a machine for reproducing thunder and lightning, which he used against Zeus himself. Such a machine properly suits a theatrical setting (e.g. Suet. Claud. 21.6, 34.2), and the behaviour attributed to Gaius, of throwing a javelin against a rock in this same context, sounds also like part of some theatrical production.

71 Suetonius (Gaius 22) and Josephus, (Bell. 2.184Google Scholar, Ant. 18.256Google Scholar) also claim that Gaius wanted to change the head of the statue of Olympian Zeus for his own (Simpson 500).

72 Gaius tried to put people on the spot over this issue: Apelles, (Suet. Gaius 33Google Scholar); and perhaps similarly a Gaul (Dio 59.26.8-9). See Simpson 496.

73 Seneca also does not record that Gaius wanted to deify himself by taking on the appearance of a number of gods, althoughde Tran. 14.9Google Scholar could contain a suggestion of the godhead of Gaius. The reference, however, to an unspecified Caesar leaves the interpretation open to doubt (Simpson 489 n.2.; Barrett 149-50). The fleeting nature of this allusion, even if to the godhead of Gaius, simply underlines the general point that Seneca does not record Gaius’ appearances as a range of gods. This point of view agrees with that expressed by the ‘Latin’ tradition. On Seneca as a probable source for the reign of Gaius, see Lindsay 8-12.

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