Praying for those involved in cinema and theatre

Actors in Roman Society
Actors in Roman Society  While the ancient Greeks idolized actors as the interpreters of the great comedies and tragedies of the Greek poets and writers, Romans had a different, less respectful view. In terms of social standing actors were considered to be on the same level as labourers or slaves. Indeed many actors were either slaves-in-service to a manager of a company or freed slaves who, having bought their freedom, joined a company of performing players; many other actors tended to be foreigners or captives. For the most part acting was hereditary, although Roman citizens were not allowed to become actors. 

                                                Roman theatre in Orange (Provence) France

In lifestyle Roman actors did not enjoy a good reputation and their morals challenged even the decadence of Roman society. Their performances could be lewd, highly sexual and offensive, even going as far as to appearing naked on stage and engaging in sexual acts. They could also be highly critical of the political status quo and so ran the gauntlet of emperor and senator. As expected, some emperors were as critical of them and took certain measures in an attempt to counteract their notoriety: Emperor Julian the Apostate forbade the pagan Roman priests from attending theatrical performances to avoid giving the performances respectability, and the more enlightened Emperor Tiberius would not allow people of the stage to have any contact with the upper classes. Far from being great dramas most Roman plays were whimsical, more mimes and pantomimes; the classics we know and respect were in the minority.

In the early Roman Republic (before the emperors emerged after Julius Caesar) women did not enter the profession, it was considered inappropriate for them given the nature of the lifestyle. However in the Imperial period a number of women emerged as famous actresses, earning reputations as infamous as their male counterparts. Indeed one of the Emperor Nero’s concubines, Acte, was an actress. According to tradition Acte was converted by St Paul, something which would not have endeared St Paul to Nero. Following her conversion she was banished by Nero, but interestingly enough, after his ignominious death she was the only one who would prepare his body for a decent burial. 

Over the years a number of actors became quite influential, counting among their friends men of high standing within Roman society. Some gifted theatrical artists such as Roscius, in comedy, and Aesopus, in tragedy, earned considerable reputations and were fêted by the Romans. Indeed our own St Genesius had a respectable reputation and was considered a gifted writer, actor and comedian, even by the Emperor Diocletian who was present at the performance in which he was converted. 

                                                    Mosaic: Roman actors preparing for a play

Given the nature of much Roman drama, the early Church made no secret of its disapproval of the obscenities being performed on stage while working as vigorously as it could – even during the persecution, to free those who were enslaved in the acting profession. Towards the end of the 4th century St Ambrose was particularly successful in this regard. The Church was open to receiving actors as converts, as the examples of St Genesius and Acte reveal, but would have demanded an improvement in their way of living, and generally expected them to leave the stage given the situations most actors were forced into in any particular performance. 

When Rome became Christian the situation of Roman acting did not change, in fact many actors turned their attention to the Church and her liturgies, being as critical of them as they were of the pagan ceremonies. The Church was as critical in return condemning the immorality and paganism of many of the plays. Over time the public eventually lost interest in the mimes and pantomimes, preferring the gladiatorial games and chariot spectaculars to the plays and it was not until the Middle Ages that theatre would again capture the hearts of the Romans with the emergence of Bible plays, and later in the Renaissance with the revival of the great Greek and Roman tragedies.

© The Fraternity of St Genesius 2007


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