Roman Dance
Roman Dance

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Circus Spectacle
Cato the censor
Public Festivals
Pantomimes & Mimes

There were two kinds of dance: gymnastic and mimetic; the former to represent body achievement whereas mimetic would convey  by gestures, movements and attitudes certain ideas or feelings, and also single events or a series of events, as in the modern ballet

Circus Spectacle
The origins of the famous Circus Maximus date back to Rome which favored spectacle over the more refined arts found in the public arenas of the Greeks. Elephants added to the splendor of the triumphal processions of Romans returning as victors from wars far a field. Putting elephants on display began in 275 B.C. when four war elephants were presented to the people. Twenty years later, the Romans were able to present 100 elephants which were believed to have been captured when the Carthaginians surrendered in Sicily. These particular elephants were given stimulants to provoke into fighting each other according to  Roman writer, Pliny, who credited the elephants with more intelligence and fairness than the Roman spectators. 

The Romans were also the first to train elephants for modern-looking circus entertainment with similar tricks and routines to those of today; dancers performed on their backs while elephants played the cymbals.

Fighting elephants also continued to be a highlight of Roman circuses including duels between a gladiator and an enraged elephant.

An amphitheatre in a community became a prized symbol of Roman citizenship in the outlying areas of Italy.

With the invention of concrete to substitute for stone in building in the first century B.C.,  much innovation for public structures became possible.

Tile-covered concrete quickly supplanted marble as the primary building material and more daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes rather than dense lines of columns suspending flat architraves. Mosaic tiles for floor patterns and frescoes for wall were imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

An amphitheatre is round or oval in shape whereas a theatre is semi-circular.However, an amphitheatre differs from a circus, which was used for racing and looked more like a very long, narrow horse shoe. The first known amphitheater dates to 80 BC at Pompeii; the fist permanent one in Rome goes back to 29 BC.

The construction of the Colosseum began under the rule of Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 and was completed by his son, Titus, in the 80s AD. It was built at the site of Nero's enormous palace, the Domus Aurea, which had been built after the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Some historians believe that the construction of the Colosseum might have been financed by the looting of King Herod the Great's Temple in Jerusalem which occurred about AD 70. Dio Cassius said that 9,000 wild animals were killed in the one hundred days of celebration which inaugurated the amphitheatre opening. The arena floor was covered with sand, presumably to allow the blood to drain away.

The Colosseum hosted large-scale spectacular games that included fights between animals (venationes), the killing of prisoners by animals (see: Zoophilia: Roman games and circus) and other executions (noxii), naval battles (naumachiae, via flooding the arena) up until AD 81, and combats between gladiators (munera). It has been estimated that several hundreds of thousands died in the Colosseum games. The Colosseum's name is derived from a bronze colossus (a 130-foot or 40-metre statue) of Nero nearby.

The Circus Maximus, presumably built in the reign of Tarquin I (c.616–c.578 B.C.),  and rebuilt by Julius Caesar, was reported by Pliny in his Natural History to have a capacity of 250,000, though this figure is suspiciously large. The games, aside from races, were brutal and bloody, and for this reason the Greeks, even under Roman domination, never really accepted the circus.In Ancient Rome the circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated.

Etruscan bronze dancer with eyes of diamonds, found at Verona. Now in the British Museum.
Fig. 19: Etruscan bronze dancer with eyes of diamonds, found at Verona. Now in the British Museum.
Throughout history, dance has been a part of ceremony, rituals, celebrations and entertainment. It is traceable through archeological evidence from prehistoric times to the first examples of written and this pictorial documentation which dates as far back as 200 BC. Many contemporary dance forms can be traced back to historical, traditional, ceremonial, and ethnic dances.
Although dance and music can be traced back to prehistoric times it is unclear which art form came first. However, as rhythm and sound are the result of movement, and music can inspire movement, the relationship between the two forms has always been symbiotic
DANCING often had a religious significance and might be a regular part of the worship of the gods.
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Rome allowed the foreign arts of music and dance to dominate their culture since Roman citizens considered performing on the stage beneath them. The Greek religion was different. Instead of making their gods great, transcendent, and mysterious, the Greek poets beginning with Homer made their gods in their own image. This is the beginning of humanism, for not only did the Greeks make their gods human-like, but actually glorified the human body in their gods.

Roman views of the gods were much more practical; as they viewed the gods on a contractual basis. If a Roman citizen performed the proper farming purification ceremonies he would get a good harvest. On the other hand the Greeks performed sacrifices as gratitude to the gods, or for forgiveness of sins. The Roman religion had a less beautiful view of the gods than the Greeks. The Greeks had a complicated view of their gods as fickle, even proper sacrificing would not guarantee the favor of the gods. The Romans viewed the gods almost like machines that would grant good or bad depending on what they did.

Rome as a conquering imperial power represented nearly the whole world of its day, and its dances accordingly were most numerous. Amongst the illustrations already given we have many that were preserved in Rome. In the beginning of its existence as a power only religious dances were practiced, and many of these were of Etruscan origin, such as the Lupercalia, and the Ambarvalia. In the former the dancers were semi-nude, and more rurally ritual; the latter was a serious dancing procession through fields and villages. That the Etruscan, Sabellian, Oscan, Samnite, and other national dances of the country had some influence on the art in Rome is highly probable, but the paucity of early Roman examples renders the evidence difficult.

A military dance, supposed to be the Corybantum. From a Greek bas-relief in the Vatican Museum.
The Pyrrhic dance was also introduced into Rome by Julius Caesar, and was danced by the children of the leading men of Asia and Bithynia.

As the State increased in power by conquest, it absorbed with other countries other habits, and the art degenerated often, like that of Greece and Etruria, into a vehicle for orgies, when they brought to Rome with their Asiatic captives even more licentious practices and dances. As Rome, which never rose to the intellectual and imaginative state of Greece in her best period, Greek arts represented wealth, commerce, and conquest to Roman nobles. No Roman citizen danced except in the religious dances.

The only other major power in the Western Mediterranean was Carthage, a colony founded by the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon. “Phoenicians” in Latin is Punici, thus the wars against them are known as the “Punic” wars. Carthage attacked Rome, but Rome triumphed. In the first Punic war (264-241 BCE), Rome gained Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, which had previously been part of the Carthaginian empire. After the second Punic war, as Greek habits easily made their way into Italy, it became a fashion for the young to learn to dance. The greatest naval power of the Mediterranean in the third century BC was the North African city of Carthage near modern day Tunis. The Carthaginians were originally Phoenicians and Carthage was a colony founded by the Phoenician capital city of Tyre in the ninth century BC; the word "Carthage" means, in Phoenician, "the New City." While the Romans were steadily increasing their control over the Italian peninsula, the Carthaginians were extending their empire over most of North Africa, the Strait of Gibraltar, and  most of southern Spain.

 In 201 BC the second Punic war ended and ability for Greece to trade in wine and culture through its many cities in southern Italy and Sicily greatly increased. Greek slaves taken in wars in the east became the educators of the noble sons of Rome. Greek was the first literary language of the Romans, who wrote their first histories in Greek. Like much of the Mediterranean and Roman colonies, the taste for the wild, orgiastic and ecstatic rites of Dionysus and the Great Mother Goddess was strong.

Bacchante. From a fresco, Pompeii, 1st century B.C.

Bacchantes From a fresco,
Pompeii, 1st century B.C.

The education in dancing and gesture were important in the actor, as masks prevented any display of feature. The position of the actor was never recognized professionally, and was considered infamia. But the change came, which caused Cicero to say "no one danced when sober." Eventually the performers of lower class occupied the dancing platform, and the wealthy class was happy to be entertained. While accordingly the taking part in the masked farces with stereotyped characters, that formed the usual native amusement, was looked upon as an innocent youthful frolic, the appearing on a public stage for money and without a mask was considered as directly infamous, and the singer and poet were in this respect placed quite on a level with the rope-dancer and the harlequin.

Urban magistrates were legally entitled to inflict bodily chastisement and imprisonment on any actor at any time and at any place. The necessary effect of this was that dancing, music, and poetry, at least so far as they appeared on the public stage, fell into the hands of the lowest classes of the Roman burgesses, and especially into those of foreigners.

Public Festivals
The public games (ludi) were originally part of religious festivals, but eventually entertainment superseded religion and the games became more numerous.
By the 1st century BC, magistrates used private games to gain support in elections. The emperors successfully continued this practice, and the games became more and more lavish as each tried to out-do his predecessor. Enormous amounts of money were spent on the games, yet admission was free. By the close of the 2nd century there were 135 official celebrations, and by the end of the 4th century there were 176.
For the wealthy, however, entertainment could take place at home as they hosted their own dinner parties and lavish banquets. Along with dinner could be music, singing, and dancing by professionals. In some circles, recitation of written work, such as poetry and speeches, followed. For the plebeians, associations (collegia) may have thrown dinner parties.

Theatre in Rome
In Ancient Rome, plays were presented at the time of the games on contemporary wooded stages. The first such permanent Roman theater was ordered to be built by Pompey in 55 BC, eventually erected on the Campus Martius at Rome. Built of stone, it had a seating capacity of 27,000. Essentially patterned after the Greek theater, it differed in the respect that it was built on level ground.
Excavated out of the sides of hills, the circular space located in front of the stage in a Greek theater was called the orchestra, where choruses and actors performed. Since Roman plays usually lacked a true chorus, the area in front of the stage which might have been an orchestra simply became a semicircular area.

In the theatre the method of the Roman chorus differed from that of the Greeks. In the latter the orchestra or place for the dancing and chorus was about 12 ft. below the stage, with steps to ascend when these were required; in the former the chorus was not used in comedy, and having no orchestra was in tragedies placed upon the stage. The getting together of the chorus was a public service, or liturgia, and in the early days of Grecian prosperity was provided by the choregus.

All actors in Roman plays were male slaves. Men played the parts of women. The typical stock characters included the rich man, the king, the soldier, the slave, the young man, and the young woman. If necessary, an actor would play two or more roles in a single performance.

The most notable part of an actor's regalia was probably his mask. While different masks and wigs were used for comedies than tragedies, certain characteristics remained constant. All masks had both cheek supports and special chambers which acted as amplifiers. Gray wigs represented old men, black for young men, and red for slaves. Young men donned brightly colored clothing, while old men wore white. In this manner the characters could be easily identified by the audience.

Admission to the Roman plays was free for citizens. Originally, women were barred from viewing comedies and were only admitted to tragedies, but later, no such restrictions were imposed.

Pantomimes & Mimes
Pantomimes, popular during the 1st century BC, involved miming roles to accompaniment of singers, dancers, and musicians, in addition to visual effects, similar to a ballet. In mimes of antiquity actors spoke. A pantomime was a dramatic performance whose subject was taken from Greek mythology. There was a chorus of singers, an orchestra, and an elaborate stage setting. The chief dancer told the whole story by gestures and conventional signs, and portrayed each character in turn.

Dance had two elements: movement, which could be taught to anyone; and gesture, which was reserved for professional dancers. Women were allowed in mimes and pantomimes, which were more popular than typical plays. 

They carried mimetic dances to a very perfect character in the time of Augustus under the term of Musica muta.

Bacchanal Dance
Other kinds of dances were frequently performed at entertainments, in Rome as well as in Greece, by courtesans, many of which were of a lascivious nature with the dancer seem to have frequently represented Bacchanals. The images found at Herculaneum and Pompeii in a variety of graceful attitudes show a love of dance occurring. 

The god of wine known as Dionysus, Bacchus or Libor and his rites of revelry grew in popularity and practice throughout the empire much like Brazilian and Caribbean Carnaval dance and music today continues to grow in popularity.

Gymnastic Dance
Villa Romana del Casale is located about 5km outside the town of Piazza Armerina in Sicily in the 4th century A.D. It's large collection of mosaics have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the fame of this mosaic is derived from the bikini-like costumes the girls are wearing as they move their bodies gracefully.
One of the most important nations of antiquity was the Etruscan, inhabiting, according to some authorities, a dominion from Lombardy to the Alps, and from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic.

Etruscan dancing and performances. From paintings in the Grotta della Scimia Corneto, about 500 B.C. AEtruscan dancing and performances. From paintings in the Grotta della Scimia Corneto, about 500 B.C. characteristic illustration of the dancer is from a painting in the tomb of the Vasi dipinti, Corneto,  belongs to the archaic period, and is perhaps as early as 600 B.C. It exhibits a stronger Greek influence than some of the paintings. The panels show a military dance to pipes, with other sports, comes from the Grotta della Scimia, also at Corneto; these show a more purely Etruscan character.

 That the Phoenicians and Greeks had at certain times immense influence on the Etruscans
Etruscan dancer. From a painting in the Grotta dei Vasi dipinti--Corneto.
Etruscan dancer. From a painting in the Grotta dei Vasi dipinti--Corneto.

 is evident from their relics which we possess. Greece built colonies on the Italian peninsula, thus influencing Etruscan cities. As the Roman army expanded it conquered the Etruscans, who were also influenced by the Greeks, and then the Greek colonies. Although Rome had physically conquered Greece, it was Greek thought had conquered Roman thought.

There is little doubt that they were dancers in every sense; there are many ancient sepulchres in Etruria, with dancing painted on their walls. Other description than that of the pictures we do not possess, for as yet the language is a dead letter. They considered dancing as one of the emblems of joy in a future state, and that the dead were received with dancing and music in their new home. They danced to the music of the pipes, the lyre, the castanets of wood, steel, or brass, as is shown in the illustrations taken from the monuments.

Etruscan Dancing. From the Grotta del Triclinio.--Corneto.
 Etruscan Dancing. From the Grotta del Triclinio.--Corneto. The pretty dancing scene from the Grotta del Triclinio at Corneto is taken from a full-sized copy in the British Museum, and is of the greatest interest. It is considered to be of the Greco-Etruscan period, and later than the previous examples. There is a peculiarity in the attitude of the hands, and of the fingers being kept flat and close together
Funeral dance from the same tomb.
Funeral dance in the obsequies of a female. From a painted tomb near Albanella.
Funeral dance in the obsequies of a female. From a painted tomb near Albanella.Almost as interesting as the Etruscan are the illustrations of dancing found in the painted tombs of the Campagna and Southern Italy, once part of "Magna Grecia"; the figure of a funeral dance, with the double pipe accompaniments, from a painted tomb near Albanella may be as late as 300 B.C., and those from a tomb near Capua are probably of about the same period. These Samnite dances appear essentially different from the Etruscan; although both Greek and Etruscan influence are very evident, they are more solemn and stately. This may, however, arise from a different national custom.
Funeral dance. From Capua.
A great dance of a severe kind was executed by the Salii, priests of Mars, an ecclesiastical corporation of twelve chosen patricians. In their procession and dance, on March 1, and succeeding days, carrying the Ancilia, they sang songs and hymns, and afterwards retired to a great banquet in the Temple of Mars. That the practice was originally Etruscan may be gathered from the circumstance that on a gem showing the armed priests carrying the shields there are Etruscan letters. There were also an order of female Salii. Another military dance was the Saltatio bellicrepa, said to have been instituted by Romulus in commemoration of the Rape of the Sabines.


Mommsen, Theodor born Nov. 30, 1817, Garding, Schleswig [now in Germany] died Nov. 1, 1903, Charlottenburg, near Berlin, Ger. in full Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen German historian and writer, famous for his masterpiece, Römische Geschichte (The History of Rome). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902.

Greek Comedy Dancing In Rome
  Greek Mythology: From Rome to Today by Rit Nosotro

Dancer. From a fresco in the Baths of Constantine, 4th century A.D.
Dancer. From a fresco in the Baths of Constantine, 4th century A.D.
Dancers using castanets or cymbal were often part of the percussion ensemble. Castanets became popular in Rome between the first two Punic wars
Cato the Orator & Censor
Cato became known as the Censor for his monitoring of the behavior of public officials and his desire to extricate any Greek influence or capitalist ideas and to return to conservative Roman conduct and morality.

As censor, he attempted to preserve old Roman ancestral custom, mos maiorum. He supported, in 181 BC, the law against luxury, lex Orchia, and in 169 BC, the law that limited a woman’s financial freedom, lex Voconia. He is also known as Cato the Censor due to his austere scrutinization of Senate officials in 184 BC and the removal of those who he considered too liberal or open to new foreign ideas, and those who were extravagant or who he felt lived luxurious, immoral lives.

"The trade of a poet," says Cato, "in former times was not respected; if any one occupied himself with it or was a hanger-on at banquets, he was called an idler."

Cicero reproached Cato for calling Murena a dancer (saltator), (Pro Muren. 6; compare in Pison. 10).

“The common people, however, liked Cato’s censorship. When they set up a statue in his honour, the inscription in it did not refer to his military triumphs, but simply to the fact that this was Cato the Censor, who, by his discipline and temperance, kept the Roman state from sinking into vice.” (p.100, Plutarch : Ten Famous Lives)

Cato fought in the Second Punic War in Spain. It was here where the Carthaginians were driven out by Publius Scipio Africanus in 206 BC, and Hannibal’s army was destroyed in 202 BC. Three important terms of peace were that the Carthaginians cede Spain to Rome, that they were forbidden from waging war without the permission of Rome, and that they were allowed to keep their original territory in Africa.

Cato’s style of writing showed a simple form lacking eloquence but highly theatrical.Cato brought the talented writer of Greek, Oscan, and Latin, Quintus Ennius (239-169 BC) to Rome. Ironically, Ennius was a major force in introducing Greek culture into Rome, but for his shaping of Roman patriotism and the influence he had in shaping the development of Latin literature, he is often considered the father of Latin literature.

During the time of Cato, the Romans were superstitious and believed in charms and incantations or carmina. The word carmen means a chant, song, poem, or incantation. Cato wrote a book of prayers or incantations for the dead in verse, known as Carmen de moribus. It also included his own conservative moral views and religious ideas.

Entertainment was essential to daily life in Ancient Rome. As noted by Juvenal, it seemed that all Romans were interested in was "bread and circuses." And with theaters, amphitheaters, circuses, and public baths galore, the Romans never seemed to get bored.

Baths were meant for leisure, but also, for social gathering. In addition to the bathing areas could be found portico shops, marketing everything from food, to ointments, to clothing. There were also sheltered gardens and promenades, gymnasiums, rooms for massage, libraries, and museums. Complimenting these scholarly havens were slightly more aesthetic marble statues and other artistic masterpieces.

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Years ago, I was at a workshop with mythologist Joseph Campbell, and he was showing us pictures of the sacred. He showed us this wonderful bronze statue of the god Shiva, dancing. Inside a ring of flame the god was dancing. He had one foot in the air, and the other foot resting on the back of a little man, who was crouched down in the dust, giving his full, absorbed attention to something he was holding between his hands. I asked Joseph Campbell, "What is that? What is that little guy doing down there?" Campbell said, "That's a little man who is so caught up in the study of the material world that he does not notice that the living god is dancing on his back."

Rachel Naomi Remen



Tiberius by a decree abolished the Saturnalia, and exiled the dancing teachers, but the many acts of the Senate to secure a better standard were useless against the foreign inhabitants of the Empire accustomed to sensuality and licence.


and while at this period poetry still played altogether too insignificant a part to engage the attention of foreign artists, the statement on the other hand, that in Rome all the music, sacred and profane, was essentially Etruscan, and consequently the ancient Latin art of the flute, which was evidently at one time held in high esteem, had been supplanted by foreign music.

Ciaran Hinds stars as Julius Caesar, the commander of Rome's conquering army in Gaul, and Kevin McKidd is the handsome Lucius Vorenus, one of the two foot soldiers around whom the drama unfolds.

Ray Stevenson is the swaggering legionary Titus Pullo, Vorenus's battlefield cohort; James Purefoy is Mark Antony, one of Caesar's powerful political allies; Lindsay Duncan is Servilia, the lover of Caesar and mother of Brutus; Polly Walker is the powerful, manipulative and sexy Atia; Kerry Condon is Octavia, the daughter of Atia, who is forced to choose duty over love.

Also keep you eye on the character played by Ben Whishaw as Gaius Octavian, son of scheming Atia, who inherents his mother's cunning to become the first Emperor of Rome

What's not to like about Polly Walker chewing scenery as Atia? Or the finely nuanced, begrudging friendship between Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson)? There is burgeoning greatness in the portrayals of Octavian (Max Pirkis) and Brutus (Tobias Menzies). Meanwhile, can Niobe (Indira Varma) come out and play -- pretty please?

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