The Byzantine Empire: God’s Kingdom on Earth. A world of mysticism, asceticism and philanthropy. A colourful world of pantomimes in the hippodrome, bride shows in the palace and liturgical processions through the polis. A byzantine court of intrigue and propaganda where the head of state and the heads of the Church toggled power and policy. A history peopled with philosopher-monks, pirate-archons, poet-nuns, emperor-saints, mercenary soldiers, eunuchs and slaves, marauding crusaders, cross-dressing clerics and fools for Christ. A people who lived their daily lives in, out and around awe-inspiring basilicas, thundering arenas, urban and remote monasteries, civic baths, hospitals and hostels for the poor. The Byzantines: a society that regarded itself as Roman but spoke Greek.
When Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient town of Byzantium in 313 C.E.he named his New Rome, Constantinople. The language and culture of his new seat of power was Latin. Theatrical pastimes were those of the late Roman empire. Gone was the popularity of classical dramas and comedies. Carnival and spectacle entertained the masses. Animal fights, chariot races and gladiatorial bouts were enjoyed along with jugglers, dancers, mimes, pantomimes and dramatic recitals.
By moving his capital to the East, Constantine may have given himself a fresh start however the Empire would suffer the tensions of a division of east and west for centuries.When eventually the rift saw the independence of the West in 6th century C.E., Greek was adopted as the administrative language of the remaining Empire. The people of the Empire however, still regarded themselves as Romans.
They also believed they were God’s legacy on Earth. They ordered their world to mirror the organisation of Heaven. As God had His hierarchy of angels, the Byzantines had a hierarchy of priests and civil servants. As the Church gave them laws and admonished their behaviour, the state collected taxes and provided infrastructure.
It was the Church that made a rudimentary education available to all. Ecclesiastical learning was the norm. For the wealthy classes, pagan texts written by the Ancient Greeks and Romans were available. Texts that complimented the teachings of the Christian Church were encouraged e.g., Plato. However, texts that couldn’t throw light on the understanding of Christian tenants and dogmas were discouraged e.g., Aristotle. Pagan theatre did not fare well.
From the earliest dates, Ancient Greek drama was inseparable from pagan ritual. Early dramatic texts commemorate the pagan gods. The ancient plays were presented at festivals in honour of the Olympian gods e.g., Dionysus and Apollo. The cult of Dionysus with its Bacchanalian festivities; bawdy humour and the practice of wearing short tunics to show off long, detachable phalluses would not be accepted by the new Christian religion.
The Christian God was a jealous god. Worship of all or some of the pantheon of pagan gods was not acceptable. The Trullan Synod, a gathering of over two hundred clerics in c.692 C.E., tried to snuff out pagan practices including theatrical ones. Performers would be denied Christian rights if they did not repent of their sin – performing.
A consequence of this was the loss of many ancient texts. Monks and nuns didn’t break taboo and transcribe these works freely. By this time the ancient classics were no longer in vogue neither with audiences nor performers. Now even God frowned upon them. The carnival style amusements replacing them were visual, satiric, had an immediate response and were not dependent on scripts. The desire to investigate ancient plays would interest few. And then there was the curse of good house keeping.
In the way of the pre-modern world, nothing was disposable. The papyri of the ancient sources were more precious than the plays written upon them, plays that espoused pagan virtues and excesses. It was a matter of good economy and good virtue to wash out the original text and reuse the papyrus in a higher Christian cause. In this practice many palimpsests were created. It was because of this practice that the work of Menander was lost in the middle ages and then rediscovered in Egypt in 1907.
Menander (341/2 B.C.E. – 270 B.C.E.), the greatest writer of New Comedy in Ancient Greece had a heavy-handed influence over the later Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence. Through the adaption of his scripts by Plautus and Terence his inspiration and style would influence the Commedia Dell’arte and later playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere. His work took the subject matter of the Ancients away from the realm of the gods and into the domestic situation of citizens. In his most complete surviving play, O Dyskolos, he acknowledges Pan in the prologue by having him deliver it.
Menander’s comedy was one of character, situations and ribald innuendo. He took the satiric writings of the philosopher, Theophrastus (c.371-c.287 BCE) off the page and created live character types in masks for the stage. Thus he gave prototypes for the stock characters of the Commedia Dell’arte. Despite his dramas winning the Lenaia Festival 8 times and Plautus and Terence acknowledging his influence over their work, knowledge that his comedies existed was all we had for 900 years. The scripts were somehow lost in the Middle Ages.
Can more be recovered? How many lie dormant, hidden within palimpsests?
In the next part of this article, I will look at Egypt’s unique place in the hopes of recovering ancient texts and the connection the Karagiozi and Karagöz puppet theatre have with late Roman comedies and Byzantine theatrical performances.
See images of Byzantine artefacts on the Crafty Theatre, Byzantine, Pinterest board.
Map of the Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire
Emperor Constantine I
Greek Mime Artist c. 100 B.C.E.
A Menander Palimpsest on Papyrus