Emotional Effects of Competition for Attention
in the Greco-Roman World

face of a prisoner

Competition for attention was much greater in the Hellenistic period than in fifth-century Athens. The geographic expansion of Hellenistic culture in the fourth and third centuries expanded the market for symbolic works far beyond the boundaries of Athens or any other individual city. In addition, the fragmentation of Alexander’s empire after his death in 323 BCE raised the stakes of political competition. Competing successors to Alexander commanded enormous resources. They had both strong incentives and ample means to serve as lucrative sources of patronage. Ambitious scholars, writers, performers, and other symbolic producers could anticipate a high return from currying favor with politicians.^ ^ Intense competition for attention played out across the broad geographic scope of Hellenistic culture and continued through the imperial Roman era.

Composing and arranging literary epigrams become a prominent form of elite competition in the Hellenistic world. Most epigrams inscribed on stone from sixth-century BCE Greece to the present take a non-literary form that satisfies personal, circumstantial interests (funerary commemoration). However, about the beginning of the third-century BCE, epigrams began to be collected and circulated on papyrus for pleasure and instruction. The first author-edited collection of epigrams probably also dates to the third-century BCE.^ ^ The Milan Posidippus Papyrus, a collection of epigrams from the late third century or early second century BCE, shows considerable literary sophistication and an orientation toward elite patronage. Allusions to prior compositions, self-conscious variations on literary conventions, serial revisions by different authors, and other inter-textual competitive strategies played out quickly through the short texts of epigrams. Occasional epigrams inscribed on stone were much less in competition for attention than were literary epigrams circulated on papyrus.

In the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, having actors sing highlights from well-known tragedies largely replaced staging of complete tragedies. No complete Greek tragedy from after the fifth-century BCE has survived. No evidence exists for the performance of complete tragedies after the early third-century CE through to early modern times.^ In the Hellenistic period and during the Roman Empire, tragic performances tended to eliminate the chorus and present, often by a solo actor, highlights from fifth-century Athenian tragedies. For example, a third-century BCE performance excerpted and re-arranged lyrical highlights from a Euripidean tragedy. Another performance from the early second century CE or earlier excerpted from different tragedies scenes related to a common mythic figure. In the Greco-Roman period, Euripides was the most popular source for tragic excerpts. The performance of tragic texts became more like an entertaining recital or musical concert than like a dramatic narrative.^ ^ ^

An actor singing highlights from well-known tragedies has important advantages in competition for attention. Compared to presenting unknown work, staging material from revered, well-known tragedies lessens promotional effort and has a lower risk of popular rejection. Choosing highlights from well-known tragedies allows the most attractive material to be presented at the least cost of audience time and attention. Highlights allow a wide range of intense emotions to be staged within a single performance. Highlights shift attention from plot to character. Both emotional lability and emphasis on character are associated with competition for attention. The Hellenistic pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata observes that “men take greater pleasure in listening to those who are singing such music as they already know than music which they do not know.”^ The prevalence of serials and sequels among popular twenty-first-century books and movies also testifies to the importance of established brands in competition for attention.

Lessening the number of actors and institutionally organizing actors both plausibly relate to growing competition for attention. Performances of tragic highlights in the Greco-Roman period typically involved only a solo actor. There was no chorus. Lessening the number of actors in a performance fosters the development and exploitation of celebrity actors. While celebrity actors existed before the Hellenistic period, the growth of the inter-city market for actors in the Hellenistic period magnified the earning potential of celebrity actors.^ Most actors undoubtedly were not celebrities. Formal, pan-Hellenistic trade organizations of actors, such as the Artists of Dionysus, date to the early third century BCE.^ Organizing a trade is a characteristic response to competition detrimental to the interests of most persons (non-celebrities) within the trade.

Competition for attention spanned a wide variety of visual and verbal forms. In early second-century BCE Rome, Terence, a highly successful Roman playwright, claimed that one of his plays had been interrupted. Attracted by rumors of a different type of event, a noisy crowd had poured into the theater. The actors’ leader described what happened:

When I started to act it for the first time, talk about boxers spread,
(not to mention the hope of a tightrope walker)
an army of slaves formed, disorder grew, women were shouting;
these before the end forced me to leave the stage.^

About five years later, another attempt was made to perform the play. A large crowd seeking a different type of show again interrupted it:

I brought {the play} out again;
I was a success in the first bit, when meanwhile there came a rumor
that gladiators were about to be presented. A crowd flocked in,
they made an uproar, they shouted, they fought for seats.
I meanwhile couldn’t keep my place.^

These accounts rhetorically contrast popular entertainment with elite theater. They highlight elite concern for social status (“I … couldn’t keep my place”). An army of slaves, disorder, women screaming – these details all signal, in second-century BCE Rome, a low-status environment. Terence’s plays were popular relative to other playwrights’ plays. But his plays were much less popular than chariot races and gladiator shows. The account of the interruptions testify to competition for attention between narrative drama and other spectacles.

The insecurity of high-status performers in competition for attention also underlies an account of success. The orator Adrian held the prestigious Chair of Rhetoric in Rome in the mid-second century CE. A historian celebrating the lives of leading orators wrote:

{Adrian} so successfully drew the attention of all Rome to himself that he inspired even those who did not know the Greek language with an ardent desire to hear him declaim. And they listened to him as to a sweet-voiced nightingale, struck with admiration for his facile tongue, his well-modulated and flexible voice, and his rhythms, whether in prose or when he sang in recitative.

Here “all Rome” refers to Roman elites, as the subsequent text makes clear:

So much so, that, when they were attending shows in which the vulgar delight – these were, generally speaking, performances of {pantomime} dancers – a messenger had only to appear in the theatre to announce that Adrian was going to declaim, when even the members of the Senate would rise from their sitting, and the members of the equestrian order would rise, not only those who were devoted to Hellenic culture, but also those who were studying the other language {Latin} at Rome; and they would set out on the run to the Athenaeum, overflowing with enthusiasm, and upbraiding those who were going there at a walking pace.^

The humor in this third-century-CE account would obvious to readers of its time. Describing senators and equestrians (Roman elites) attending the “vulgar” pantomime performance presents a status incongruity.^ Other details develop it into comedy. The messenger, a characteristic feature of fifth-century Athenian tragedy, textually motivates the formal description of these high-status men rising from their seats. But then, abandoning concern for dignitas, the men run to the Athenaeum, “overflowing with enthusiasm.” Moreover, emphasizing the comic reversal, they disparage those going there at a walking pace. Competition for attention spanned popular pantomime dancing and elite display oratory. It undermined status hierarchies.

The festivals that Roman leaders Aemilius and Anicius organized about 167 BCE contrast competition for acclaim with competition for attention. Aemilius and Anicius had separately led military victories over Greek peoples. Aemilius celebrated his victory with a festival in the Macedonian home kingdom of Alexander the Great:

he put on a show at Amphipolis with great display: he had planned it well in advance and had sent messengers to the cities of Asia and the kings to announce it and, when he had himself toured the Greek states, he had informed the leaders. For a mass of every sort of craftsman involved with putting on the show, and athletes and famous horses, gathered from right across the whole world, along with embassies with sacrificial victims, and everything else that is usually done in Greece for gods and men at great games was done in such a way that they marveled at not only the splendor, but also his practical wisdom in putting on spectacles, at which the Romans were then inexperienced. Feasts were also prepared for the embassies, with the same opulence and care. A saying of Aemilius himself was widely circulated: that to prepare a banquet and to put on games were the task of the same man who knew how to win at war. … The crowd who came had as a spectacle no less than the stage show, no less than the competitions of men and the racing of horses, all the booty of Macedon laid out to view^

These “games” probably included music, dance, and verbal performances drawing upon Greek traditions; “a mass of every sort of craftsman involved with putting on the show” can also be translated as “a crowd of all sorts of professionals in the art of entertainment.”^ Another account notes Aemilius’s concern for propriety and detail:

In managing and arranging these feasts, and in seating and greeting the guests and discerning what degree of respect and consideration was due to each of them, he displayed a high degree of precision and care. The Greeks were impressed to see a man with so much important business to conduct not belittling these amusements, but paying appropriate attention even to trivial details. … If anyone expressed amazement at the care with which he prepared these feasts, he used to tell him that the same mental facility was involved in taking charge of a military formation and a symposium; the only difference was that you had to make one strike as much fear as possible into the enemy, and the other give as much pleasure as possible to the guests.^

Aemilius, with keen appreciation for history and Greek culture, apparently sought to reproduce in Greece a proper, major Greek festival. Doing so would help him to receive Greek acclaim as the new ruler of the Greek states.

Anicius, in contrast, staged a spectacle consistent with Roman competition for attention. Anicius’s military victory was neither as important nor as bountiful as Aemilius’s. Moreover, Anicius ranked considerably below Aemilius in familial prestige and personal reputation. Anicius could not compete successfully with Aemilius in the field of well-established, well-structured claims to merit. Anicius could, however, compete with Aemilius for attention. That meant organizing popularly successful games in Rome. Anicius did just that:

having sent for the most celebrated scenic artists from Greece and constructed an enormous stage in the circus, he first brought on all the flute-players at once. These were Theodorus of Boeotia, Theopompus, Hermippus and Lysimachus, who were then at the height of their fame. Stationing them with the chorus on the proscenium he ordered them to play all together. When they went through their performance with the proper rhythmic movements, he sent to them to say they were not playing well and ordered them to show more competitive spirit. They were at loss to know what he meant, when one of the lictors explained that they should turn and go for each other and make a sort of fight of it. The players soon understood, and having got an order that suited their own appetite for licence, made a mighty confusion. Making the central group of dancers face those on the outside, the flute-players blowing loud in unintelligible discord and turning their flutes about this way and that, advancing towards each other in turn, and the dancers, clapping their hands and mounting the stage all together, attacked the adverse party and then faced about and retreated in their turn. And when one of the dancers girt up his robes on the spur of the moment, and turning round lifted up his hands in boxing attitude against the flute-player who was advancing towards him, there was a tremendous applause and cheering on the part of the spectators. And while they were thus engaged in pitched battle, two dancers with musicians were introduced into the orchestra and four prize-fighters mounted the stage accompanied by buglers and clarion-players and with all these men struggling together the scene was indescribable. As for the tragic actors Polybius says, “If I tried to describe them some people would think I was making fun of my readers.”^

Scholars differ about whether this performance was a deliberate parody of a Greek festival or an earnest, but under-rehearsed attempt to adapt Greek culture for a Roman audience.^ ^ ^ Those aren’t the only possibilities. The performance occurred on “an enormous stage in the circus” in Rome. That puts it at the center of competition for attention in Rome. The performance included celebrity flute-players. Employing celebrities helps to attract attention. Anicius re-directed the performance in mid-course to generate audience applause. Overall, the account conveys Anicius’s keen practical knowledge in competing for attention. Polybius’s account of the performance, although plausibly first-hand, might be greatly exaggerated or largely fabricated to contrast competition for acclaim (Aemilius in Greece) with competition for attention (Anicius in Rome).

The most popular attractions in the Roman Empire were chariot races, gladiator fights, staged animal hunts, and pantomime shows. Huge permanent structures were built to house the audiences attracted to these public spectacles. Elite men competed vigorously in sponsoring public spectacles. The magnitude and frequency of the spectacles, much less than the substance of particular performances, shaped public opinion about elite men. At least in some instances, spectacles were advertised so as to attract attention to them. For performers, objective victories and attractiveness to the public were primary measures of performative success. Performers in these spectacles usually came from low-status groups — prisoners, slaves, foreigners, non-citizens. Performing in the theater, arena, or circus was in itself a disreputable act. Nonetheless, some chariot racers, gladiators, and pantomimes became celebrities. These celebrities acquired great wealth and personal access to leading politicians.^ Success in competition for attention through public spectacles created political power both for elite sponsors and for celebrity performers.

Emotions generated during Roman spectacles apparently were volatile and wide-ranging. Chariot racing most likely generated the sorts of emotions that persons now feel at car races and running races. Chariot racing, however, was much more dangerous than either. Spectators often saw chariot drivers being seriously injured and killed.^ In gladiator fights, death was a regular feature of the event. Some spectators probably felt deep revulsion in seeing a gladiator suffer a bloody, painful death. But repetition and in-group/out-group psychology could generate other emotional reactions. A description of Emperor Claudius’s behavior at a gladiator contest associates his behavior with that of the masses:

He gave many gladiator shows and in many places…. Now there was no form of entertainment at which he was more familiar and free, even thrusting out his left hand {indicating death to the loser}, as the commons did, and counting aloud on his fingers the gold pieces which were paid to the victors; and always and repeatedly he would address the audience, and invite and urge them to merriment, calling them “domini” (masters) from time to time, and interspersing feeble and far-fetched jokes.^

Most Roman spectators probably reacted to the violence of gladiator contests like early twenty-first-century U.S. spectators react to the violence of U.S. football matches. They feel short bursts of excitement, joy, dejection, and anger against a baseline feeling of well-being, the well-being of relaxing for entertainment.

Lucian’s second-century-CE text on pantomimes, The Dance, hints at contrasting imperatives between competition for attention and competition for acclaim. The Dance is a dialogue between two characters, Crato, who initially deplores pantomimes, and Lycinus, who defends them. The Dance begins with Lycinus acknowledging to Crato, “this is a truly forceful indictment {against pantomime dances} that you have brought, after long preparation.”^ After five relatively brief dialogue turns, Lycinus issues a lengthy, learned encomium on pantomime. Just before Lycinus’s peroration, he acknowledges a weakness in the case for pantomime performances:

As in literature, so too in dancing what is generally called “bad taste” comes in when they exceed the due limit of mimicry and put forth greater effort than they should; if something large requires to be shown, they represent it as enormous; if something dainty, they make it extravagantly effeminate, and they carry masculinity to the point of savagery and bestiality.

Something of that sort, I remember, I once saw done by a dancer who until then had been in high esteem, as he was intelligent in every way and truly worth admiring; but by some ill-luck, I know not what, he wrecked his fortunes upon an ugly bit of acting through exaggerated mimicry.^

The reference to literature and “bad taste” evokes criteria of acclaim, rather than attention. So too do the subsequent references to “high esteem,” “intelligent,” “worth admiring,” and “ugly.” The “ill-luck” by which the actor “wrecked his fortunes” was spectacular:

In presenting Ajax going mad immediately after his defeat, he so over-leaped himself that it might well have been thought that instead of feigning madness he was himself insane; for he tore the clothes of one of the men that beat time with an iron shoe, and snatching a flute from one of the accompanists, with a vigorous blow he cracked the crown of {the actor playing} Odysseus, who was standing near and exulting in his {play} victory; indeed, if his watch-cap had not offered resistance and borne the brunt of the blow, poor Odysseus would have lost his life through falling in the way of a crazy dancer. The pit, however, all went mad with Ajax, leaping and shouting and flinging up their garments; for the riff-raff, the absolutely unenlightened, took no thought for propriety and could not perceive what was good or what was bad, but thought that sort of thing consummate mimicry of the ailment^

In short, the dancer presenting Ajax made a giant leap toward being a celebrity pantomime. Others judged the dancer’s actions differently:

the politer sort understood, to be sure, and were ashamed of what was going on, but instead of censuring the thing by silence, they themselves applauded to cover the absurdity of the dancing, although they perceived clearly that what went on came from the madness of the actor, not that of Ajax.^

Shrewd, status-conscious academics today respond similarly to the work of some of their peers. With equal shrewdness, the dancer after his performance seated himself between two high-status persons (senators) in the audience. The dancer was said to have subsequently repented of his performance in accordance with the imperatives of competition for acclaim:

What irked him {the dancer} most was that his antagonist and rival, when cast for Ajax in the same role, enacted his madness so discreetly and sanely as to win praise, since he kept within the bounds of the dance and did not debauch the histrionic art.^

Lucian was a highly sophisticated rhetorician. Across Lycinus’s lengthy declamation, the concluding spectacle seems to be the most affective. Crato abruptly declares, “all agog, ear and eye alike,” his new interest in attending pantomime dances. How Lucian truly felt about pantomime dancing isn’t clear.^ But Lucian clearly recognized how to attract attention.

Lucian ironically indicated that acclaim was the measure of pantomime dance. In response to the point that pantomime dance generally was not part of the competition at public games, Lucian countered: “if the dance does not feature in contests, I maintain that it is because the governors of the games thought the thing too important and too grand to be called into competition.”^ That’s absurd. Gladiator contests, chariot races, animal hunts, and pantomime performances were primary attractions at public games in imperial Rome. These spectacles were not in competition for acclaim. Theatrical contests with institutionalized selection of competitors and institutionalized judgments of success weren’t typical for imperial Roman games. To the extent that theatrical contests were included, they were probably mainly used to evoke the cultural prestige of ancient Greece. Pantomime dancing never participated in contests for acclaim like dramatic festivals in fifth-century Athens.

Compared to fifth-century Athenian tragedies, pantomime performances evoked a wider range of emotions and moved across emotions more quickly. Lucian’s The Dance directly compares tragic drama and pantomime dance:

The themes of tragedy and the dance are common to both, and there is no difference between those of the one and those of the other, except that the themes of the dance are more varied and more unhackneyed, and they contain countless vicissitudes. … In general, the dancer undertakes to present and enact characters and emotions, introducing now a lover and now an angry person, one man afflicted with madness, another with grief, and all this within fixed bounds. Indeed, the most surprising part of it is that within the selfsame day at one moment we are shown Athamas in a frenzy, at another Ino in terror; presently the same person is Atreus, and after a little, Thyestes; then Aegisthus, or Aerope; yet they all are but a single man.^

The typical pantomime staging — a single, unspeaking dancer, with musical accompaniment — is an apt arrangement for rapid shifts in emotional tone. Musical instruments allow a trained musician to shift emotional tones easily, quickly, and effectively. The dancer, synchronizing emotionally with the music and free from the task of producing emotionally appropriate sound, could concentrate on physical movements communicating the selected emotion.

The pantomime’s movements emotionally presented different characters in rapid succession. Lucian declares through Lycinus, “The chief occupation and the aim of dancing, as I said, is impersonating.”^ Emphasis on character relative to plot is typical in competition for attention. Describing pantomimes’ rapid transformations, a rhetorician in fourth-century-CE Antioch figured them with gods:

the possibility of each of the actions being accurately observed has been taken away by the speed of their body repeatedly undergoing a change to whatever you like. Each one of them is almost Proteus the Egyptian. You would say through the wand of Athena, which transforms the shape of Odysseus, they take on every guise; old men, young men, the humble, the mighty, the dejected, the elated, servants, masters. With respect to their feet, one might even question whether they possess the advantage over Perseus.^

A single pantomime dancer could not rapidly present different characters through realistic narrative. Lucian writes that a barbarian, upon learning about pantomime, remarked to the dancer, “I did not realize, my friend, that though you have only this one body, you have many souls.” The word pantomime combines verbal forms indicating all (pan, panto) and mimicry (mime). Lucian explicitly references this etymology: “the Greeks of Italy quite appropriately call the dancer a pantomime, precisely in consequence of what he does.” ^ ^ Libanius further describes pantomimes presenting multiple characters: “the theatre saw Deianeira, but also Oeneus and Achelous and Heracles and Nessus.”^ The pantomime, taking up five different masks in a single performance, was one body that presented many souls. Those many souls were brief, emotional characterizations.

Much of the pantomime’s communication with the spectators occurred without distinct signifiers. The pantomime did not merely use gestural-representational movement as a substitute for words. A Latin epigram from sometime before the early sixth-century CE re-enacts pantomimic technique:

Declining his masculine breast with a feminine inflection and molding his pliant torso to suit either sex, the dancer enters the stage and greets the people, promising that words will come forth from his expert hands. For when the sweet chorus pours forth its delightful song, what the singer declaims, the dancer himself confirms with his movements. He fights, he plays, he loves, he rages, he reverses, he stops. He illuminates the truth, he imbues everything with grace. He has as many tongues as limbs, so wonderful is the art by which he can make his joints speak although his mouth is silent.^

As one scholar has insightfully observed, this epigram “hints at the full drama of the pantomimic performance with its account of the dancer’s slow, controlled entrance; the lightning-fast repertoire of actions and movements; the bursts of rhythm and energy punctuated by climactic stops.”^ The three paratactic sets of contrasting action-pairs range from complex movements closely related to a person’s external circumstances (fighting and playing) to non-specific actions expressing internal emotional states (loving and raging) to simple movements meaningless apart from their circumstances and emotional coloring (reversing and stopping). An extended metaphor inconsistently links words, speaking, and dancing throughout the epigram. Words come forth from hands, but limbs are tongues, and joints speak. Singers declaim like orators who confuse the grammatical gender of words. Most significantly, the epigram describes sweet, delightful, and graceful dances. Pantomime dancing also presented tragic myths such as Agave in a bacchant frenzy tearing off her son King Pentheus’s head.^ Only the grotesque image of “as many tongues as limbs” and a contextualization of “rages” (bacchatur, in the noun form bacchae, suggests the action in tragedies such as Euripides’s Bacchae) imply pantomime dancing that prompts horror and disgust. Contemporary readers would have recognized those popular pantomimic emotions in the epigram’s silent joints.

Ancient reports emphasize pantomime dancers’ expressive hands. An observer in the second century CE described a pantomime dancer’s movements:

fracturing his body in all sorts of ways, now making his eyes flash, now making sinuous movements with his hands and raging from behind his clay mask^

Pantomime dancers in imperial Rome wore a silk robe and a scarf, both of which contributed importantly to their performances.^ Nonetheless, hand movements seem to have been the most important aspect of a pantomime’s performance. A leading scholar of ancient pantomime observes that ancient literature contains:

constant references to them as “speaking with their hands.” Artemidoros states that it is “obvious to everyone” that “not to have hands is not a good thing for sailors, dancers, and jugglers as they are unable to do their work without them.” Almost every source mentions the eloquent hands of the dancers, some to the exclusion of all else^

Indian dance forms such as Kathakali evince hands’ expressive capabilities. This expressive capability is not merely an instrument of the mind. Like emotions, hand movements can function sub-consciously and generate mental states.^ ^

Modern scientific data supports hands’ emotional expressiveness. Researchers recorded actors eliciting fourteen emotions using relevant situation descriptions. As part of their expressions, the actors uttered two standard sentences. The standard sentences were non-semantic syllable strings constructed from six European languages. Video recordings of the actors uttering the standard sentences, which had durations of two to three seconds, were the controlled representations of emotional expression. Coders categorized bodily movements during these representations. Four types of hand movements statistically differentiated among some of the fourteen emotions. Emotions differentiated via the two-to-three-second hand movements were hot anger, elated joy, despair, fear, shame, and interest. Hand movements naturally express emotion intentionally expressed verbally.^

Persons observing masked dancer-actors can recognize different emotions through mere seconds of bodily movements. Researchers recorded actors portraying happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. The researchers carefully controlled the circumstances of the actors’ emotional representations, including the actors’ costumes:

The actors wore uniform dark-grey, tight-fighting clothes and headwear, so that all parts of their anatomy were covered. One large and one small suit were created, to ensure reasonable fit for all actors. The headwear consisted of several layers of tights, which allowed the actor’s head orientation and movement to be seen, but not the features or expressions of his or her face.^

The actors’ costumes included strips of reflective tape so that point-light representations of the actors’ movement (point-movement schemas, known as biological movement representations) could be extracted. The actors were instructed to complete each emotional representation in about six seconds. The resulting video recordings were then used in controlled tests of humans’ ability to identify emotions from bodily movements. In a forced-choice categorization among the five emotions expressed, experimental participants correctly identified the emotion in 75% to 91% of trials. Participants correctly identified emotions only slightly less well when shown the extracted point-light patterns of movement.^ These and other similar experiments show convincingly that seeing bodily movements can effectively convey different emotions through only seconds of expression.

Along with solo tragic singers, pantomimes brought adaptations of fifth-century Athenian tragedies into competition for attention in the Roman Empire. In the fourth century CE, Libanius asserted pantomimes’ cultural pedigree and attested to the broad popularity of tragic pantomime:

So, up to the point where the race of tragic poets was in bloom, they continued to come into the theatres as universal teachers of the people. But when, on the one hand, tragic poets dwindled and, on the other hand, only the very rich could participate in the instruction offered in the schools of art and poetry, while the majority of the people were deprived of education, some god took pity on the lack of education of the many and, to redress the balance, introduced pantomime as a kind of instruction for the masses in the deeds of old. Consequently, a goldsmith now will do not badly in a conversation with a product of the schools about the house of Priam or of Laius.^

A second or third century epitaph for the pantomime Krispos states that he won “the greatest prize for rhythmic tragedy” and declares, “The world marveled at and praised the graceful movements of his hands, and saw in him the golden flower of its theaters.”^ In competition for attention with chariot racing, gladiator shows, and animal hunts, pantomime performances — performances of intense, labile emotions — became the new theatre of tragedy.

Philostratus’s Imagines: Words in Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

Under the Roman Empire, competition for attention among rhetoricians, pantomimes, and other performers played out in part through contrasting claims about the value of seeing and hearing. Rhetoricians were keenly aware of pantomime’s success in competition for attention.^ Rhetoricians appealed less visually to their audience than pantomimes did to spectators. Moreover, rhetoricians speaking in Greek or Latin weren’t intelligible to the share of the population who didn’t understand those languages. Just as for epigramists writing about visual art, a challenge for rhetoricians was to out-perform verbally visual effects.^ In competition for attention, out-perform meant in part to evoke more effectively a wide range of emotions.

Philostratus’s Imagines is a telling textual artifact of competition for attention. Seneca, a politically prominent philosopher of the first-century CE, complained:

Who respects a philosopher or any liberal study except when the games are called off for a time or there is some rainy day which he is willing to waste? And so the many schools of philosophy are dying without a successor. … But how much worry is suffered lest the name of some pantomime actor be lost for ever! The House of Pylades and of Bathyllus continues through a long line of successors. For their arts there are many students and many teachers.^

Pylades and Bathyllus were leading Augustan-era pantomimes. In celebrity (and wealth), they far exceeded any philosophers. Philostratus seems to have been a sophist, a type of rhetorician, in the period now called the Second Sophistic. Philostratus is generally thought to be Philostratus the Elder (Philostratus of Lemnos), born about 190 CE. In any case, Philostratus’s position relative to pantomimes probably wasn’t any better than that which Seneca described for philosophers.

Philostratus’s Imagines seems to respond to Seneca’s lament. According to Philostratus, Imagines records his discourses at a villa outside the walls of Naples. Philostratus stayed there in the days of the public games in Naples. According to Philostratus, despite the public games in the city, young men kept coming to his villa-lodging outside the city and importuning him to speak. Unlike rhetoricians longing for a large audience such as gathered for public games, Philostratus was reluctant to speak publicly to the young men pleading for his teaching. His host’s son, a ten-year-old, an “ardent listener and eager to learn,” persistently sought from Philostratus his interpretation of the paintings covering the villa’s walls. Philostratus, “in order that he {his wealthy host} might not think me ill-bred,” agreed to teach the boy.^ Philostratus placed the importuning young men as a secondary audience to the boy. Philostratus described a rhetorician’s fantasy. It reverses Seneca’s lament.

Wealth was associated with performative success in the Roman Empire. In the Introduction to the Imagines, Philostratus highlights his luxurious accommodations:

I was lodging outside the walls in a suburb facing the sea, where there was a portico built on four, I think, or possibly five terraces, open to the west wind and looking out on the Tyrrhenian sea. It was resplendent with all the marbles favoured by luxury, but it was particularly splendid by reason of the panel-paintings set in the walls, paintings which I though had been collected with real judgment, for they exhibited the skill of very many painters.^

Persons who traveled to see public games generally had crude accommodations. A second-century-CE text discussing popular travel to Olympia states:

Well, aren’t difficulties found at Olympia? Don’t you get hot? And crowded? Isn’t bathing a problem? Don’t you get soaked through in your seats when it rains? Don’t you finally get sick of the noise, the shouting and the other irritations? I can only suppose that you weigh all those negatives against the worth of the show, and choose, in the end, to be patient and put up with it all.^

For physical comfort, being with Philostratus was much more appealing than being at public games.

In his Imagines, Philostratus verbally evokes emotional experiences even more labile than those of pantomime performances. Consider, for example, the section entitled Antilochus. Philostratus first uses phrases and events from Homer’s Iliad to interpret for the boy a scene mixing eros, joy, grief, and fear:

That Achilles loved Antilochus you must have discovered in Homer, seeing Antilochus to be the youngest man in the Greek host and considering the half talent of gold that was given him after the contest. And it is he who brings word to Achilles that Patroclus has fallen, for Menelaus cleverly devised this as a consolation to accompany the announcement, since Achilles’ eyes were thus diverted to his loved one; and Antilochus laments in grief for his friend and restrains his hands lest he take his own life, while Achilles no doubt rejoices at the touch of the youth’s hand and at the tears he sheds.^

Philostratus declares “such is the scene in Homer.” Homer’s scene, however, is emotionally quite unlike Philostratus’s scene. Homer’s epic relentlessly moves forward with much more unified emotion. The eros and joy in Antilochus and Achilles’s relationship is completely submerged in the action of the relevant Homeric passage:

And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives
caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed,
out of the tents they ran to ring the great Achilles,
all of them beat their breasts with clenched fists,
sank to the ground, each woman’s knees gave way.
Antilochus kneeling near, weeping uncontrollably,
clutched Achilles’ hands as he wept his proud heart out –
for fear he would slash his throat with an iron blade.
Achilles suddenly loosed a terrible, wrenching cry^

After emotionally re-coloring this Homeric text, Philostratus describes a related painting ostensibly present on the wall before him. Color in the painting adds terror to Homer’s story:

Memnon coming from Ethiopia slays Antilochus who had thrown himself in front of his father, and he seems to strike terror among the Achaeans – for before Memnon’s time black men were but a subject for story

Grief is pervasive among the figures:

the army mourns the youth, standing about him in lamentation; and, their spears fixed in the ground and their legs crossed, they stand, most of them in their grief bowing their sorrowing heads on their spears. … {Achilles} laments, throwing himself on the breast of Antilochus

Philostratus’s account ends figuring Antilochus’s bloody, dead body with eros and joy:

Let us next look at Antilochus. He is in the prime of youth, just beyond the period of downy beard, and his bright hair is his pride. He leg is slender and his body proportioned for running with ease, and his blood shines red, like colour on ivory, where the spear-point penetrated his breast. The youth lies there, not sad of aspect nor yet like a corpse, but still joyous and smiling; for it was with a look of joy on his face (because, I fancy, he had saved his father’s life) that Antilochus died from the spear-thrust, and the soul left his countenance, not when he was in pain, but when gladness prevailed.^

The description “his blood shines red, like colour on ivory, where the spear-point penetrated his breast” may allude to royal female sexual initiation.^ Philostratus’s Imagines associates paintings’ use of color and shading with more effective, intimate reading of eyes and with the ability “to recognize the look, now of the man who is mad, now of the man who is sorrowing or rejoicing.”^ Pantomimes evoked intense, labile emotions. Philostratus’s Imagines also does so to an extraordinary extent.

Philostratus’s Imagines seems to have been historically influential in shaping understanding of the philosophical enterprise. In the intellectually vibrant culture of ninth-century Abbasid Baghdad, the eminent scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq described the origin of schools of philosophy in picture rooms:

These philosophical gatherings originated from the fact that the rulers of the Greeks and of other nations used to teach their children philosophy and instruct them in various kinds of literary culture. They erected for them houses of gold, decorated with a variety of pictures, which were to serve to refresh hearts and attract eyes. The children stayed in these picture houses in order to be educated with the aid of the pictures found in them.^

Refreshing and engaging hearts and eyes describes emotional response. Hunayn’s aetiology of philosophical teaching probably was based on Philostratus’s Imagines. As a section in Hunayn’s book Anecdotes of the Great Philosophers, Hunayn’s description circulated widely across western Eurasia. Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah copied it into his Lives of the Physicians, written in Damascus in the thirteenth century. Echoes of Hunayn’s text seem to exist in the thirteenth-century Spanish Sindibad work, Book of the Wiles of Women.^ All these works are within the main stream of Greco-Roman-Islamic intellectual culture.

Emotional dynamics depend more on the structure of symbolic competition than on the nature of the media. A scholar of sophists like Philostratus stated:

Competition for status was the foundation upon which the entire edifice was built: sophistry was at once a collective celebration of the exclusivity of elite culture, and a forum within which individual members of the elite could vie for personal prominence.^

Entry into competition with sophists was quite open, formal institutions for judging merit and bestowing acclaim were quite weak, and attracting attention and followers was the primary path to sophistic success. The status of sophists like Philostratus was determined in intense competition for attention. The magnified emotional dynamics of Imagines are characteristic of such competition for attention.

Seneca, Master of Emotions in Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

Seneca, meaning Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, was a leading statesman, Stoic philosopher, and dramatist in the first century of the Roman Empire. Seneca was personally and intellectually versatile and pragmatic. He was elected to a quaestorship. He won recognition as a brilliant orator. After Seneca got into political difficulties, Nero’s mother Agrippina called Seneca back from exile to be tutor to her son. Seneca became an adviser and speech-writer for Nero when Nero became Emperor. Seneca wrote books of political satire (Apocolocyntosis), essays in applied Stoic philosophy, and studies of nature (Naturales quaestiones). These works acquired enough notice and circulation to have survived to the present.

Seneca expressed disdain for competition for attention and popular success. Seneca’s play Hercules Furens described acclaim by “the mob” and vagaries of popular success:

One is more dazed by popular acclaim;
the mob, more shifting than seawaves,
hoists him as he swells with an empty breeze.

Another may be carried to many countries
by Renown; garrulous Rumour may praise him
through every city^

Seneca lamented and philosophically analyzed pantomime’s greater popular success than philosophy:

For who that is pleased by virtue can please the crowd? It takes trickery to win popular approval; and you must needs make yourself like unto them; they will withhold their approval if they do not recognize you as one of themselves. … if I see you applauded by popular acclamation, if your entrance upon the scene is greeted by a roar of cheering and clapping, — marks of distinction meet only for actors, — if the whole state, even women and children, sing your praises, how can I help pitying you? For I know what pathway leads to such popularity.^

According to an ancient historian, Seneca was a speech-writer “whose pleasing talent was so well suited to a contemporary audience.”^ Seneca wrote the speech that soon-to-be-emperor Nero spoke at Emperor Claudius’s funeral:

On the day of the funeral the emperor pronounced his predecessor’s praises. While he recounted the consulships and Triumphs of the dead man’s ancestors, he and his audience were serious. References to Claudius’ literary accomplishments too, and to the absence of disasters in the field during his reign, were favourably received. But when Nero began to talk of his stepfather’s foresight and wisdom, nobody could help laughing.^

The audience’s laughter at Nero’s delivery of Seneca’s words of false praise defies a wooden, dispassionate interpretation. Seneca’s disdain for pleasing the crowd is Stoic. Given Seneca’s versatility and his appreciation for trickery, his theatrical work should not be interpreted stoically. Seneca apparently tricked Nero.

Seneca wrote his tragedies in ways that favored their popular success. Compared to fifth-century Athenian tragedies, Seneca’s tragedies communicate more from a third-personal standpoint. Running commentaries, which do not occur in Greek tragedy, are a common third-personal form in Seneca’s tragedies. Narrative set-pieces are another common third-personal form.^ Nominally first-person speech also often has a third-personal standpoint. For example, Megara in Seneca’s Hercules Furens declares: “A cold shudder runs through my stunned body. What outrage has struck my ears?”^ The third-personal standpoint common in Seneca’s tragedies characterizes competition for attention.

Other features of Seneca’s tragedies also indicate competition for attention. Compared to fifth-century Athenian tragedies, Seneca’s tragedies have a looser narrative thread and more focus on characters’ internal psychological dynamics.^ Fifth-century Athenian tragedies represent persons in action. Seneca’s tragedies represent passions in persons and environments.^ Passions in Seneca’s tragedies are more volatile and wide-ranging than passions in fifth-century Athenian tragedies. These differences indicate a shift from competition for acclaim to competition for attention.

Seneca magnified emotional dynamics in his tragedies. Trojan princess Polyxena’s execution in Seneca’s Trojan Women moves emotions quickly across contrasting feelings. Helen, who was the object of the terrible battle at Troy, links marriages and funerals:

Any marriage that is funereal and joyless, that brings lamentations, slaughters, blood, and groans, deserves Helen as its sponsor.

Helen falsely tells Polyxena of the gods’ kindly favor: “plans to dower you with a blessed union,” “the holy rites of lawful wedlock” uniting Polyxena to Pyrrhus, son of Greek hero Achilles and heir to the throne of a Greek kingdom. Andromache, widow of a slain Trojan hero, believes Helen’s story. Andromache declares:

For the ruined Phrygians {Trojans} this was the one woe missing – to rejoice. Pergamum’s {Troy’s} wreckage is blazing all around: an apt time for a wedding! … Go on, prepare the wedding! What need of pine brands and ceremonial torches, what need of fire? Troy lights the way for this strange wedding. Celebrate the nuptials of Pyrrhus, you Trojan women, celebrate them worthily – with sounds of blows and groaning.

Subsequently a messenger reports the truth:

O cruel deaths, harsh and pitiable and horrible! What crime as grim and savage has Mars beheld in these twice five years? What shall I first tell with tears: your griefs {to Andromache} or yours, old woman {to the mother of Polyxena}?

A crowd of Trojans and Greeks gathers for Polyxena’s execution for conspiring in the killing of Achilles. The crowd gathers at Achilles’s burial mound in a space that “slopes up in the form of a theatre.” Gathering in a theatre, the play’s spectators hear a messenger describing the crowd in a space like a theatre watching Polyxena’s execution.^ This double layer of spectatorship removes the play’s spectators further from a second-personal standpoint. The messenger reports Polyxena being led to her death:

Both peoples {Trojans and Greeks} were held paralyzed by dread. She {Polyxena} herself lowered her gaze in modesty, but her eyes were radiant nonetheless, and her beauty shone forth more than usual at its ending, as Phoebus’ light is always lovelier at the moment of setting, when the stars take up the cycle and failing daylight is threatened by night’s closeness. The whole crowd was awestruck. Some were moved by her beauty, some by her tender years, some by life’s shifting changes; all were moved by the braveness of her spirit, facing death head-on; they marveled and felt pity.^

The description of Polyxena’s radiant eyes and her beauty (“as Phoebus’ light…”) gives the messenger’s speech the same emotional lability as is found in Philostratus’s Imagines. Seneca’s Medea similarly describes Medea showing “evidence of each and every emotion.” That emotional lability is foreign to fifth-century Athenian tragedy.

As the execution ritual continues, the range of emotions widens along with the viewpoint on the action. The Trojan War was fought over Helen. Pyrrhus, Polyxena’s false groom, was the son of Archilles. Archilles desired Polyxena. The messenger’s description of Pyrrhus killing Polyxena aligns eros with death:

When his hand did plunge the blade-thrust deep into her, and then withdrew the death weapon, blood suddenly erupted through the massive wound.

While only a few lines earlier Polyxena “lowered her gaze in modesty,” her emotional tone quickly shifts again:

Nevertheless in dying she still maintained her pride: she fell, so as to make the earth heavy for Achilles, face downward and with angry force.

The messenger’s perspective continues to retreat and widen:

Each group wept, but the Phyrgians {Trojans} uttered timid laments, while the victor {Greeks} lamented more loudly. Such was the order of the ritual. The spilt gore did not stand or flow on the ground’s surface: immediately the tomb swallowed and savagely drank down all the blood.^

An astute scholar of Seneca’s tragedies noted that in Seneca’s Trojan Women:

the dramatic action is particularly incoherent and episodic. … Seneca was aiming at portraying the most dramatic, pathetic, or spectacular episodes within the Trojan saga, without any particular interest in creating dramatic coherence as well as dramatic illusion.^

Emotions change too rapidly in Seneca’s tragedies to flow throughout the human body. Only the brain can entertain them.^ The emotional dynamics of fifth-century Athenian tragedy, in contrast, had the bodily physiology of drunkenness.

Seneca’s Hercules Furens has characteristically greater emotional lability than does Euripides’s Herakles. In Seneca’s prologue, Juno rages against Hercules:

Onward, my anger, onward! Crush this overreacher! Grapple with him, tear him apart with your own hands.

Because she is not truly in a Bacchic frenzy, Juno’s reasoning continually pushes back her emotion:

My mind will aggressively pursue undying anger, and my fierce resentment will abolish peace and wage eternal warfare.

What warfare? Any fearful thing the hostile earth produced, or sea or air brought forth, however frightening, monstrous, poisonous, dreadful, savage, has been broken and tamed. He prevails….

Juno summons violent, fearsome Furies against Hercules, then immediately asks herself, “Juno, why are you not raging?” Juno is not raging only in the sense that her rage does not overwhelm her reason. She summons the Furies to madden her, but then immediately her reason prompts an abrupt change in emotional tone:

I must change my prayer: may he return and find his sons safe, I pray, and may he come back strong of hand.^

Juno’s plan is to set Hercules at war with himself, just as she has been at war with herself. Hercules’s loss will be her victory and her revenge.

Euripides’s prologue to Herakles is less volatile. Amphitryon starts proudly, declaring his famous name and describing his prominent family. He then describes the background narrative for the drama. The actions of that narrative transform him into a pathetic figure. He becomes a “blathering old nuisance,” and his family, “worse than beggars.”^ That transformation occurs through minutes of narrative apparently traversing years of time. In contrast to Juno’s psychological turmoil, Amphitryon’s emotions are tightly bound to specific external circumstances represented in narrative.

In Seneca’s Hercules, Amphitryon and Megara enter with speeches containing unmotivated, counter-balancing shifts between confidence and despair. Amphitryon questioningly contrasts Hercules’s past heroics with his current impotence. But he concludes with sudden, unlimited confidence in Hercules:

He will be with us, seeking vengeance, and suddenly emerge to the sight of the stars. He will find a way, or else make one.

Megara picks up dramatically on Amphitryon’s confidence:

Emerge, my husband! Dispel the darkness by force, break it open! If there is no way back, if the path is closed, then return by rending the earth, and release with you all that lies in the grip of the black night.

But despair closes in on Megara and encompasses her:

Either return safely and defend us all, or drag us all down. — You will drag us down, no god will rebuild our broken lives.^

Amphitryon’s and Megara’s concluding positions set up a short argument between them. But the emotional movements that took them to their positions occur with no reason for those different positions.

In Euripides’s Herakles, the emotional contrast between Amphitryon and Megara is more muted. With her first speech, Megara follows Amphitryon’s emotional movement in the prologue from pride to despair. A short argument between Amphitryon and Megara arises with Amphitryon’s weak justification for doing nothing:

My girl, I don’t know what to say. Our troubles
Call for hard thought, not casual chatter.
When you’re weak, what can you do but wait?
…The tears welling up
In your boys’ eyes, brush them away;
Tell them a story that will make their crying stop,
No matter how much a lie the story seems to you.

In Euripides, imagined stories with emotional effects are merely lies for children. External circumstances drive adult emotions:

The wind blowing against us, that makes you
Desperate now, won’t always be this strong —
It’ll blow itself out.^

While storms within the mind can vanish in seconds, storms in the natural world take hours or days to blow out. Emotions in Seneca often vanish in seconds. Emotions in Euripides typically last hours.

Hercules’s madness is less narratively motivated and more internally generated in Seneca than in Euripides. Concluding a prayer for a peaceful natural order, Seneca’s Hercules adds:

If the earth is even now to produce some wickedness, let it come quickly; if she is furnishing some monster, let it be mine.^

A monstrous madness then immediately clouds Hercules’s mind. Hercules instantly becomes the monster that he seeks. In Euripides, madness appears as a personified phantom that the chorus first sees above the roof of Hercules’s house. Madness is a caring but dutiful woman who first argues against Hera’s plan to madden Hercules. Recognizing that she must do her job, Madness describes what she will do and then describes her actual maddening of Hercules. While in both plays madness comes upon Hercules instantaneously, the difference in the dramatic framing makes the madness in Seneca’s play more abrupt and surprising. The monstrous murderer that Oedipus seeks in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus is revealed to him slowly. That’s consistently with the longer narrative development of Hercules’s madding in Euripides relative to in Seneca.^

Hercules’s madness ends with external action in Euripides and internal action in Seneca. In Euripides, the maddened Hercules ultimately charges at his step-father Amphitryon. Only Athena knocking Hercules down with a boulder checks his madness. In Seneca, Amphitryon despairingly urges Hercules to kill him, too:

Look, the victim stands at the altar, his neck bent, and awaits your hand. I present myself, willingly, insistently: perform the killing!

At this height of pathos and horror, Hercules emotionally metamorphoses:

What is this? Are my eyes failing, and grief dulling my sight, or do I see Hercules’ hands trembling? His eyes are closing in sleep…^

Unlike in Euripides, in Seneca no external physical object strikes Hercules. Hercules’s hands trembling hint at an internal emotional break. The action is psychological. That enables emotions to be both more extreme, and more volatile.

Seneca had disdain for popular competition for attention. Seneca’s plays, however, have the emotional lability characteristic of competition for attention. Despite his disdain for it, the emotional lability of Seneca plays indicate that he participated in competition for attention.