Actors – The Lowest Social Class In Ancient Rome

Unlike in the progressive modern world where one can become a part of the high-society and idolized by mindless plebs simply by the merit of being a (famous) actor, the ancient Romans had the exact opposite stance. Actors in the Roman world were considered the lowest of the low, being on roughly the same social status as slaves. That the Romans had a low opinion on actors should not come as a surprise, as actors by definition, act. In a society where honesty, merit, personal accomplishments and pursuit of civic virtue were in high regard, it is thus understandable that they were frowned upon.

All this is not to say that the ancient Romans did not enjoy theatre or theatrical performances. While it is true that quite a few “conservative” Romans – Gaius Marius, for example – disliked anything Greek, most would still have appreciated Greek culture and literature (which I would argue, far surpasses anything even especially our modern world has to offer). The Romans, as much as the Greeks, loved the playwrights and poets. The performers however, – while quite possibly being proffesional and very good – were merely doing their jobs, just not a respectable one – at least in the minds of the ancient Romans. In sharp contrast, actors in Classical Greece were often honoured, as the Greeks loved their interpretation of the plays.

Due to their low reputation in Roman society, the actors were free to engage in lewd, sexual and other immoral acts on the stage, that promted the emperors to take an active stance against theatrical performances. Tiberius, for example did not allow actors to have any contact with the upper classes, and Julian the Apostate forbade pagan priests from attending any threathical performances.

But it were not only the actors who were looked down upon in ancient Rome. Announcers and auctioneers were also frowned upon, together with realtors and brokers. Despite this, people in said proffessions were paid quite well, and many would become rich in the process. But their low status meant that they, together with actors, were ineligible to run for office.

As opposed to actors, succesful gladiators and charioteers could become celebrities and amass great riches in the process. This shows the respect Roman people had towards martial and athletic prowess. They were still beneath social contempt, but they were not acting; they were real, and thus worty of respect.