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Mimic competition in 46 BCE

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Three Roman mimes. Terracotta figurines from the 1st century BCE
Three Roman mimes. Terracotta figurines from the 1st century BCE

In 46 BCE Julius Caesar defeated the still opposing optimates (including Cato the Younger) under Thapsus. To celebrate the victory in Africa, Caesar’s supporters decided to organize games (ludi), during which mime competitions were to be held.

Ancient mimicry was extremely popular at that time in ancient Rome and was characterized by the fact that the actor used more of a gesture than a word on the stage. The movements of the body and hands or the grimace on the face were to amuse the viewers. No masks were used on stage and women were also performing alongside the men. The actors often improvised and usually performed barefoot. Usually, slaves, liberators or people of low social status performed on the stage.

The greatest actors of the time had to face the stage, including Publilius Syrus, a former Syrian slave whom we know thanks to his Sententiae, also as Publilii Sententiae, which gathered many ancient golden thoughts. Syrus has appeared in many Italian cities as an actor, where he became immensely popular over time. His wit and good contact with the audience were especially appreciated. His skills were appreciated by, among others Cicero, who could see him on stages. In turn, the recreated literary mimes of Syrus were appreciated by Seneca the Younger and Macrobius. In the middle of the 1st century BCE, Syrus was a true stage star and could be compared to today’s Hollywood stars. It should be noted that Syrus also wrote stage pieces.

Julius Caesar forced the second most popular literary mime at that time to participate in the competition – the almost 60-year-old Decymius Laberius (105-43 BCE), who was an equite and Roman citizen. It should be noted, however, that this one did not appear on stage on a daily basis – it was considered unworthy of a Roman – but only created literary works. Thus, Decimus had enormous resentment towards Caesar for this insult.

Decimus finally lost his fight with Syrus and was to complain later: “No doubt I was living a day longer than I should have lived”. Descending from the stage, he was to address Caesar with the words: “The man whom many fear must fear the many”. Caesar was to say to him: “Although I was on your side, Laberius, a Syrian has beaten you”. Caesar, however, did not take revenge for the insult of Decimus and, according to Macrobius, was to give him a prize of 500,000 sesterces1, and, according to Suetonius, keep him in a state of equites2.

Footnotes
  1. Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2, 7
  2. Suetonius, Divus Julius, 39
Sources
  • Aleksandra Szymańska, Ireneusz Żeber, Publilius Syrus. Maksymy moralne – Sententiae, Wrocław 2020

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