Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Actors in the lobby: How an artists’ association influenced imperial decision-making

Bram Fauconnier

This narrative is based on inscriptions dealing with the so-called thymelic synod, the ‘international’ artists’ association of the Roman empire. This association defended the professional interests of actors and musicians who performed at prestigious competitive festivals. Today, some of its activities would be styled ‘lobbying’: the association’s contacts at the imperial court enabled them to influence imperial decision-making, to the advantage of its members.

Asia Minor, 120s AD

After a long day’s journey, a motley group of men approached the city of Miletus. Their most valuable possessions were safely stored in carts: no money-chests or exotic commodities, but musical instruments, masks and costumes. These men were actors, poets and musicians who toured the Roman empire to compete in agones, athletic and artistic competitions that were held during religious festivals. Every respectable Greek city from southern Gaul to Syria organised such competitions. They were a source of pride and rivalry between cities, who tried to lure the most illustrious competitors to their festivals.

The men who approached Miletus were no mere ‘entertainers’. They even abhorred this word, as they considered themselves as esteemed competitors who contended on the stage for the sake of honour. That this honourable profession earned them a nice sum of money was of course a welcome bonus. Cities awarded attractive prizes, not only for the victors, but also for those who came second and third. When an artist triumphed in one of the most prestigious festivals he received on top of that a monthly pension from his hometown. As such, first-class competitors could throughout their career amass a fortune the average entertainer could only dream of.

An unwelcome surprise, however, awaited the artists who now passed through the gates of Miletus. The festival for which they had come had been cancelled at the last moment by the city authorities. The secretary of the city declared that the money earmarked for the festival would instead be used to build a new fountain, and that the artists better came back next year, when the great Didymeia were on the programme. The artists were furious: without any prize money, their investment in the journey to Miletus would not yield any profit. And this was not an isolated incident: recently, the city of Chios had played the same trick on another theatre ensemble.

The artists decided that this was the last straw. They protested with the leader of the company, the comic actor Theophrastos. The man was not only actor, but also archon, an important official of the international artists’ association better known as the thymelic synod. Theophrastos bundled the complaints in a letter, which he then passed on to a secretary of the synod who was about to set sail for Rome.

Rome, about AD 130

Commotion in the thymelic synod’s headquarters in the theatre district on the Campus Martius. One of the high priests of the synod had just returned from an audience with emperor Hadrian on the Palatine. It had been no great effort to find a willing ear there: as a personal friend of the emperor, he was a welcome guest at court. The high priest had spoken with Hadrian about the many problems competitors faced on their travels through the empire: competitions had been cancelled, prize money embezzled by corrupt festival organisers and competition rules trampled on. The emperor had promised to deal with these abuses.

Naples, AD 134

After a final deliberation with synod officials, Hadrian’s secretary sealed an imperial letter with the following decision:

“I order that all the competitions be held, and that it not be permitted for a city to divert funds destined for a contest to other expenses, nor do I permit to use prize money on the construction of a building […] I have written to Miletus and Chios to restore to you the contests which they cancelled.”

The emperor also made some other decisions, all in favour of the travelling artists. The thymelic synod had done its job.

Athletes and Artists in the Roman Empire by Bram Fauconnier

About The Author

Bram Fauconnier

Bram Fauconnier is a specialist on the associations of competitors in the Roman empire. Having obtained his PhD from the University of Amsterdam (2018), he worked as a postdoc at G...

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