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T. E.

Kinsey

Masks on the Roman stage


In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 58 fasc. 1, 1980. Antiquit - Oudheid. pp. 53-55.

Citer ce document / Cite this document :


Kinsey T. E. Masks on the Roman stage. In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 58 fasc. 1, 1980. Antiquit - Oudheid.
pp. 53-55.
doi : 10.3406/rbph.1980.3274
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/rbph_0035-0818_1980_num_58_1_3274

MASKS ON THE ROMAN STAGE

This paper is concerned with the use of masks on the Roman comic stage
between the times of Terence and the actor Roscius.
At De Or., III. 221 Cicero writes: sed in ore sum onmia, in eo autein ipso
dominants est omnis oculorum , quo melius nostri Uli senes, qui personatum ne
Rosciutn quidem magno opere laudabant. This passage has been taken as evidence
that Roscius introduced the practice of wearing masks on the Roman stage. The
only evidence which supports this interpretation is that of Diomedes (p. 489,
Keil) : antea itaque galearibus non personis utebantur, ut qualitas coloris indicium
faceret aetatis, cum essent aut albi aut nigri aut ruft, personis vero uti primus
coepit Roscius Gallus, praecipuus lustrio, quod oculis perversis erat nee satis
decorus in personis nisi parasitus pronuntiabat.The statement personis vero uti
primus coepit Roscius Gallus could be simply an inference from the De Oratore
passage ; Diomedes inferred that the senes disliked the wearing of masks because
it was an innovation and seeing the name of Roscius assumed that he was the
innovator. The reason Diomedes gives for the innovation could be an inference
from Cic, ND, I. 79 : at erat Csc. Roscius) sicuti hodie est, perversissimis oculis.
Diomedes' reason would be suspect since this same Cicero passage tells us that
Catulus found Roscius pulchrior deo. If the squint did not repel Catulus at close
quarters, it could hardly have been much of a handicap on the stage. However the
statement that Roscius only acted without a mask in the role of parasite and the
one about the use of wigs are not derivable from Cicero and Diomedes' views
may be taken with some distortion from Varro whom he cites elsewhere. More
on this later.
Another interpretation of Cicero's words is that Roscius and other actors
performed sometimes with masks, sometimes without 0). This interpretation is
supported by the evidence of Donatus. He says ipraef. Eun., 1 .6) : acta plane ludis
Megalensibus L. Postumio L. Cornelia aedilibus curulibus, agentibus etiam tune
(1) F. H. Sandbach in The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome (London, 1977), p. 1 1 1
translates personatum 'because he wore a mask' and says that it is not necessary to
suppose from this passage that Roscius ever acted without one. This interpretation
however contradicts the statement of Diomedes that Roscius played the role of parasite
without a mask and, for our purposes, the Cicero passage would still suggest that the senes
were used to actors without masks. Cicero can hardly mean that they never warmly
applauded any actors.

54

T. E. KINSEY

persoiiatis L. Minucio Prothymo L. Ambivio Turpione and (praef. Ad., 1.6) liaec
sane acta est ludis scaenieisjunebribus L. Aemilii Pauli, agent ibus L. Ambivio et L.
(?) qui cum suis gregibus etiam turn personati agebant. From these passages it may
be inferred that though masks were in use in the time of Terence, they were not in
common use since Donatus qualifies persona th by etiam turn and etiam tune
('even then') (2). Moreover in his prefaces to the three other plays on which we
have his comments he merely says (praef. And., 1.6) egerunt L. Atilius
Praenestinwi et L. Ambivius Turpio, (praef. Hec, 1.6) egitque L. Ambivius and
(praef. Phorm., 1.6) agentibus L. (Cassio) Atilio et L. Ambivio. Since masks are
mentioned in the prefaces of the first two plays, we can surely infer from the
absence of such a mention in the prefaces of the last three that they were
performed without masks (3).
Moreover Donatus' etiam tune and etiam turn imply that masks were more
widely used later on and the De Oratore passage has the same implication. It
implies that the senes' aversion to the use of masks had disappeared and the
disappearance could have been either the cause or the consequence or partly both
of their wider use. The dramatic date of the De Oratore is September, 91 so the
change would seem to have taken place in the closing decades of the second
Donatus'
century. Furthermore
qui cum suis gregibus etiam turn personati
agebant can mean either (I) that they acted the play in masks with the assistance
of their troupes or (II) that they acted the play with their troupes in masks as well
as themselves. The second interpretation is the more probable. There is no
mention of greges in the other prefaces though they must have been used. The
reason why they are specially mentioned here could be that on this occasion, but
not on the others, the greges too wore masks. This means that in the time of
Terence not only were masks used in some performances and not in others, but

(2) Sandbach (op. cit., p. 112) takes etkim tune and etiam mm to mean 'still' in the sense
'as late as this' rather than 'as early as this' and says the contrast is with Donatus' own day,
the fourth century A.D., when masks had been abandoned. This would mean that
Donatus thought masks had been used from very early in the history of the Roman stage.
But in De Comoedia. 6 3 he says that the first actors to use masks were Cincius Faliscus in
comedy and Minucius Prothymus in tragedy. A Minucius Prothymus is mentioned in the
performance of the Eunucluis in 161. The evidence is by no means conclusive but it does
suggest that Donatus thought masks were introduced not much if at all befoie the time of
Terence.
(3) It may be significant that the two earliest plays, the Andriu (166) and the Hecyra
(165), were staged without masks. The Eimuchus and the Phormio were staged in 161 and
the A delphi in 1 60. In the Adelphi not only the principal actors but he grege% (see below)
wore masks.

MASKS ON THE ROMAN STAGE

55

that in performances where masks were worn they were sometimes worn by all
the actors, sometimes not.
To return to the passage from Diomedes, it may contain a certain amount of
truth derived from Varro. Diomedes may be right in saying that wigs were used
before the time of Roscius to differentiate characters, wrong only in going on to
assume that masks were never used. He seems right in thinking that a change
took place in Roscius' lifetime, namely the wider use of masks, wrong in believing
that Roscius first introduced the use of masks to the Roman stage. If Roscius did
not introduce masks, can we say that he was responsible for their wider use ?
This must remain doubtful. The fact that Roscius played the role of parasite
without a mask suggests he was aware of their disadvantages as well as of their
advantages. Such awareness could well have led to variations in the extent to
which they were used from play to play, actor to actor, director to director and
perhaps from period to period. On the one hand Greek influence would have
favoured their use, they facilitated the doubling of roles and plays like the
Menaechmi and Amphitruo would have been easier to stage with them. On the
other hand they must have hindered the knockabout comedy the Romans loved
and completely prevented the use of the face as a dramatic instrument. True, in
the Roman theatre most of the audience would probably not have been able to see
the expression on an actor's face, but the important people, like Cicero's senes,
would have been sitting at the front (4).
T. E. Kinsey.

(4) Special seats were assigned to senators as early as the ludi Romani of 195 (Liv.,
34.44).