After the global pandemic closed stadiums and silenced performances worldwide, the world’s highest-paid celebrities earned a combined $6.1 billion before taxes and fees, a $200 million drop from 2019. But did you know actors in Ancient Rome had a more difficult time?
In ancient Rome, actors were considered little better than prostitutes in terms of social standing. Acting as a profession was regarded as illegitimate and repugnant. Many Roman actors were slaves, and it was not uncommon for a master to beat a performer as punishment for poor performance.
An Actor But Not A Star
Almost all ancient Roman plays were performed during ludi or the traditional games. Because there were no weekends for relaxation or merriment for the Ancient Romans, games and festivals provided opportunities for them to relax and enjoy festivities, including the art of theater.
Actors would perform tragedies and comedies for audiences while music played in the background, creating a lively and enthralling scene.
Instead of honoring and respecting actors as the Greeks did, the Romans had a different view of the profession. It’s difficult to imagine how Roman society, known for indulgence and extravagance, could regard a single profession as morally repugnant. Actors were considered to have a lower, more dangerous status in Roman society and were frequently avoided. (Source: Blogs Transparent)
Born to be Actors
Actors were frequently born into the profession, as was common in Roman society, where children followed in their parent’s footsteps. However, the profession was fascinating to pursue. Actors had the license to behave badly on stage and even mock politics, which probably contributed to their bad reputation.
If you’re familiar with the history of European theatre, you might recognize these trends and patterns. Another trend was the refusal to cast women in plays. Women did not work as actresses in the early Republic. However, women eventually took the stage. Acte, an actress, even won the favor of Emperor Nero and became one of his favorite concubines, demonstrating that the place of actors and actresses in society was strangely volatile.
Despite all of the attention paid to the Ancient Roman actor, there were no permanent theaters in Rome where actors could perform until 55 B.C.E. This was due to the widespread belief that spending too much time at the theater was detrimental to a populace’s character.
There were only two requirements for a performance before there were permanent theaters: a place for the audience to sit or stand (cavea) and a place for the actors to perform (scaena). The stage had a backdrop (scaenae frons) and an acting space in front of it (proscaenium).
In Ancient Rome, entertainment and drama were adored, but the performers of these entertaining feats were frequently mocked by higher society or perceived as morally unclean. Interestingly, this is a thought pattern that has persisted in Europe for centuries, and there may even be remnants of these sentiments in today’s society. A historian is always interested in how the past reflects the future. (Source: Blogs Transparent)
Image from TheGuardian