The ancients had a celebrity culture. No, it is not a new concept. Lavish lifestyles, cult-like fame, idols, a newsworthy wealthy elite known for their luxurious indulgences and refined tastes, it was all very much in evidence in the ancient world. Part 1 looks at actors and musicians.
1. Actors and Musicians
They may not have held a particularly prestigious place in Roman society (it was not considered a seemly occupation for a wealthy Roman citizen), but the Romans greatly admired these entertainers. They loved their theatre, comedy especially. Even the rather austere statesman Quintus Lutatius Catulus praised the famous actor Quintus Roscius, admittedly for his looks rather than his acting prowess:
“Although he is human, in beauty he appears fairer than a god.”
Now, be honest, which actor did you put on your wall as a teenager?
Hmmm? Never mind!
A touching tribute to a fine actor comes in a letter by Pliny (5.19). His freedman Zosimus, a highly accomplished comic actor, lyre-player, and reader of history, oratory, and poetry, has been in ill-health. Pliny asks his friend Valerius Paulinus if he can make his fine farm at Forum Iulii available to Zosimus to help him recover.
Romans were a little less happy about emperor Nero’s theatrical ambitions. Nero was unperturbed, however. He merely began his grand tour elsewhere. He began in Naples and attracted quite a crowd (Tacitus’ Annals 15.33).
A charming story from Greece is the story of Arion, a famous Corinthian singer. He made a great fortune singing in Sicily. Sailing home, the boat crew plotted to kill him to take his money. He was bound and forced to walk the plank, but not before he was granted a final request: to sing for the last time. Then, he jumped down into the sea. Charmed and delighted by his lovely voice, a dolphin rescued Arion and carried him on his back to safety.
Now this story is probably a myth, but it does suggest that musicians were an important part of Greek culture. Indeed, they are frequently the subjects of vase paintings depicting performances, party entertainers, and music lessons.
We even have evidence of monuments erected in honour of famous musicians, just as we see nowadays, for example, the statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux, Switzerland, or the beautiful park on Sirmione, Lake Garda, named after Maria Callas, just opposite the villa to where she used to retreat.
Just like today, they wanted to remember them, they enjoyed music, and actors and musicians could become icons.