Ancient Greek and Roman Rope-Walkers | The History of Slack


While our ritual form of prayer, slacklining, is a relatively new invention, the act of rope walking has been documented in some form or other since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. (And that’s just what we know of! It is theorized that ropes and fibers have been in existence since at least 32,000 BC, if not longer!)

Rope walking is the true mother of slacklining. Like slackliners, rope walkers used ropes simply anchored at each end, with no guy wires and no pole for stabilization. (This was the only way to perform aerial acts until 1800, when steel cable was invented.)

The ancient Greeks were fascinated by rope-walking (though they likely attributed the skills of rope walkers to magic more than technique), and had four different words for rope-walkers: the Oribat dances on the rope, the Neurobat sets his rope at great heights, the Schoenobat flies down the rope and, the Acrobat does acrobatics on the rope. In 260 BC Censor Messala did away with these distinctions, uniting them into a single word: funambulus [funambule], [from funis, a rope, and ambulare, to walk.]

Many different kinds of balancing acts already existed, including aesthetic dance movements and satiric routines.

Rope-walkers, together with members of the Senate, wore white to indicate that they required the special protection of the Gods. Although they were highly respected, the Greek’s fascination with rope walkers is the very reason why rope walking was excluded from the Olympics and other public games. Because of this, rope-walkers slowly started to fall into the classification of performers rather than gymnasts, and they often became the providence of jesters and other entertainers.

In Ancient Rome, tightrope dancers reportedly put on spontaneous performances high above the streets and even in the Coliseum. While Ancient Romans did not discourage the practice, they appear to have been much more reserved in their opinion of rope-walkers than the Greeks, brushing off rope-walking as more entertainment than sport.

In 165 BC, the Roman playwright Terence famously had to cancel the first staging of his play Hecyra after it was disrupted by a troupe of funambules that supposedly had just arrived in town. A rumor spread that a tightrope-walker and boxers were about to perform, and the inattentive audience lost their interest in his act. Terence himself refers to this failure in the prologues to two subsequent productions:

“ita populus studio stupidus in funambulo

animum occuparat.”

“The crowd dumb with desire wanted

a tightrope walker.” (Hec. 4-5)

“quom primum eam agere coepi, pugilum gloria

(funambuli eodem accessit exspectatio)

comitum conventus, strepitus, clamor mulierum

facere ut ante tempus exirem foras.

“As soon as I began the show, a love of boxers

(hope of tightrope walkers also intervened)

attracted such a crowd, clamor, women’s shouts,

that I had to exit prematurely.” (Hec. 33-36)

In an excerpt from the Historia Augusta, reported by Julius Capitolinus, Marcus Aurelius apparently ordered that “mattresses should always be put underneath the ropes” of tightrope walkers (who were often young boys) after a little boy rope-walker fell at one of his celebrations. From this, we can reason that Roman tightropes were high enough to get hurt while falling, but not so high as to make safety precautions pointless.

Furthermore, Roman writers were already beginning to recognize the many principles and lessons that tightrope walking taught and how well those lessons could be applied to other areas of life. Tertullian, an early Christian author from Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa, uses rope walking as an analogy to demonstrate the challenges Christians face while trying to have faith in their willpower and find balance on the line of modesty and chastity, all the while staving off the constant threat of temptation to fall into sin:

“Come, you rope-walker upon modesty, and chastity, and every kind of sexual sanctity, who, by the instrumentality of a discipline of this nature remote from the path of truth, mount with uncertain footstep upon a most slender thread, balancing flesh with spirit, moderating your animal principle by faith, tempering your eye by fear; why are you thus wholly engaged in a single step? Go on, if you succeed in finding power and will, while you are so secure, and as it were upon solid ground. For if any wavering of the flesh, any distraction of the mind, any wandering of the eye, shall chance to shake you down from your equipoise..” - De Pudicitia (On Modesty)

Just like Greece, Rome disallowed ropewalkers to the Games, but for different reasons. Pausanias wrote, “Their activity didn’t improve the body or the mind, and could only be called violent and life-endangering.” The culture of the time was that it was all right for rope-walkers to appear at celebrations and other triumphs, yet they were denied licence to compete amongst themselves at public games.

These vastly different reactions to rope walkers throughout ancient Greece and Rome highlight a pattern in human thought that we continue to see even today. For some reason, rope walking seems to inspire strong and intense reactions in anyone that observes it. For as long as there have been rope walkers, opinions on the activity have been split in two: inspirational or reckless.

As the rope-dancers became alienated from the Roman world of sport and athletics, many found themselves among the attractions at circuses and sideshows along with the magicians, jugglers, jesters, and mountebanks (tricksters and charlatans). Under the influence of these group, they started to supplement their show with satire, attacking the moral betrayals of politics and society with grotesque caricatures of its nuptial dances. (They would never have dared to do this in Greece, where the art of rope-walking was held in the highest regard as part of the education of the young.)

In more recent times, we have found further proof to collaborate these stories. Buried for 1700 years under the same volcanic ash that buried Pompeii, ancient plaster paintings dating as far back as AD 79 were discovered that appear to depict what look like small demons walking on tightropes stretched over what some interpret to be A-frames, a structure slackliners continue to use today.

Rope walkers also began to find themselves at odds with the new found religion Christianity. Hell-bent on daring acts, they set up their ropes at great heights without the protection of a net or mattress. St. John Chrysostom is said to have described how “They could barely walk up and down on them, a blink of an eye or any loss in concentration would have been enough to consign them to the dust.’ Moreover, a few tightrope-walkers were attempting to pull the stunts of the rope-dancers at such heights: ‘They undress’, writes St John, ‘and then get dressed again, as though they had just got out of bed. Some of the audience daren’t watch out of modesty, others out of fear.’ Between the fear of some and the morals of others began a long battle for our faith.


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