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  • Writer's pictureHeavenly Path News Team

What was Byzantine theater like and how did it change over time?

What happened to the Theatre during the Byzantine period?

"...The broad picture is that theater, at least the way ancient Greeks and Romans understood the term, weakened and almost died out in Byzantium. That didn’t happen at once, of course; it was rather a long, complicated, and multifactorial process.

“... in the late Antiquity, theater had come to be associated with licentiousness, vulgarity, and the loss of valuable time. That was not a solely Christian idea, as many would probably imagine; we also encounter it in pagan scholars and writers like Zosimus.”

Starting with the late 1st century BC, Roman theater had entered a phase of decline, at least as far as traditional, classic drama (tragedy, comedy) is concerned. Other theatrical genres like mime and pantomime came to the spotlight and became increasingly popular in the following centuries. Thus, already in the late Antiquity, theater had come to be associated with licentiousness, vulgarity, and the loss of valuable time. That was not a solely Christian idea, as many would probably imagine; we also encounter it in pagan scholars and writers like Zosimus. It was a biased opinion, of course, which we shouldn’t adopt at face value.

In the 4th century, the influential Archbishop of Constantinople John I Chrysostom became a prominent critic of theater, attributing a large part of the immorality he saw everywhere around him to it. According to the Church Father, songs, music, and theatrical happenings aroused lust, posed dangers to peaceful family life, made people decadent and slack, and could even be exploited by heretics. On the other hand, the eminent pagan rhetorician Libanius wrote an oration in defense of pantomimes, and so did other sophists and orators of the era. Both sides offer us valuable knowledge, because outside of their works there’s little to no information about the content and style of plays and happenings.

In spite of what the elite had to say, before the collapse of the cities (6th–7th century), theater remained quite popular, as did the hippodrome. Inside the urban centers life remained “archaic” much more than life in the countryside did. Most of that came to an end as a result of natural disasters, famines, social unrest, and foreign invasions. The new cities were more like fortified settlements, and their cultural life was significantly weaker—a period of agrarianization and “medievalism” had started. At the same time, the conservative Quinsext Council (692) banned theater and all similar happenings and festivals as pagan remains, though we have reasons to believe such prohibitions were neither practicable nor enough to dissuade even faithful Christians from engaging in “Bacchic,” carnival feasts and processions, whenever that was possible.

Even so, theater didn’t die off. As a word, it came to denote spectacles in the hippodrome and literary clubs where poetry and orations were read aloud. Dialogues and plays for reading (e.g. Christus patiens) were still written. In the palace, jesters and mimes survived as well, not to count the intricate and sophisticated theatricality that survived in the imperial ceremonies—it’s been said, not unjustly, that the Byzantine court was in fact a vast theatrical scene carefully designed to instill awe, jealousy, and admiration in anyone who would visit it. The slanderous accounts about Emperor Michael III’s (r. 842–867) reign include a variety of mime-like happenings staged by the monarch himself, some of which revolve around satire against the Church.

From its own side, at the end, the Church did develop a relationship with theater, its big antagonist during the late Antiquity. This relationship was both direct (there were a few attempts to create religious drama, albeit without much success) and indirect (religious services also functioned based on principles of theatricality). At the end, during the Palaeologian renaissance, even some kind of nascent liturgical drama emerged, though it failed to grow any roots." by Eleftherios Tserkezis, BA Classics, MA Byzantine History.

The only piece of Byzantine litterature which could be argued to be a play or a tragedy is The Christos Paschon. Some say it's three different plays: The Crucifixion, The Burrial and The Resurrection. It is not dated and it's anonymous. The earliest manuscripts are from the XIIIth c.

The Byzantine Empire was a profoundly Christian one and it had adversity to anything Greek (with the exception of Greek philosophy, in particular neo-Platonism, which was studied within a Christian framework at the “University” of Constantinople) including Greek Music, Greek paintings, Greek statues, Greek dance, Greek architecture and of course Greek drama. All these Greek artforms were percieved by the Orthodox Church as profoundly linked to Greek paganism and thus something to hate, as a good Christian.

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