Ancient Applause

Interesting feature in the Atlantic on the origins of applause … plenty of Classics fodder in this one. Here’s a bit in medias res as a bit of a tease:

[…] As theater and politics merged — particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire — applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero’s letters seem to take for granted the fact that “the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.”) Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume — and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length — of the crowd’s claps for clues about their political fortunes.

“You can almost think of this as an ancient poll,” says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.” Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for “buy” buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people’s polls — to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it’s nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.”

Caligula was neither the first nor the last politician to find himself on the business end of an opinion poll — just as Shakespeare was neither first nor last to see the world and its doings as an ongoing performance. In Rome, as in the republics that would attempt to replicate it, theater was politics, and vice versa. There, “even being a ruler is being an actor,” Aldrete points out. “And what he’s trying to gain is the approval of the audience.” The dying words of Augustus, the legend goes, were these: “If I’ve played my part well, then clap your hands, and dismiss me from the stage with applause.”

So savvy politicians of the ancient world relied on the same thing savvy politicians of the less-ancient often do: oppo research. Cicero, the ur-politico, would send friends of his to loiter around the theater, taking notes to see what kind of greeting each politician got when he entered the arena — the better to see who was beloved by the people, and who was not. And his human clap-o-meters had a lot of information to assess. “Ancient crowds tended to be more interactive than they are today,” Aldrete points out. “There was a lot of back and forth between speakers and crowds. And particularly in the Greco-Roman world, crowds — especially in cities — were really good at communicating messages through rhythmic clapping, sometimes coupled with shouts.” The coding was, he says, “a pretty sophisticated thing.” […]

Folks who want to see the major effect applause had in various Roman situations might want to check out Csapo and Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama and/or David Potter’s paper in Slater (ed.), Roman Theatre and Society … keywords there and elsewhere would be claqueurs and/or fautores. [the latter volume was ‘assistant edited’ by yours truly]

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