The term for such a grouping is a claque. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the province of the opera, where devotees would congregate at performances to huzzah or hiss their favorite performers. The custom largely died out in the late 19th century, but it had its roots in ancient Rome.
I dove into the history of the classical claque few years ago, when I wrote a glam rock play produced in Washington, D.C. by WSC/Avant Bard called Nero/Pseudo – with music by Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) and Jim Elkington (The Zincs, Tweedy).
One of the most resonant stories of ancient times – with strange echoes in the afterlife of Elvis Presley – is the tale of a false Nero who rose up in Greece after the emperor’s suicide in 69 AD. This pretender resembled Nero and played the lyre, and he actually gathered a substantial mob of followers before he was intercepted and killed.
Nero/Pseudo traces the journey of that pretender, and its second act is set at a concert that attempts to capture the elements of a Neronian performance. Nero was reportedly an average poet and a passable player of the lyre, but the emperor’s voice was thin enough that he would rest it for days before singing, writing out his commands with chalk.
Nero’s public appearances as a poet, actor and lyre-player scandalized Rome’s upper-and-middle classes. One imagines they sat in horrified silence or gave polite applause. Indeed, the gates were shut behind the audiences who assembled to hear Nero perform, with no one allowed to leave on pain of death. (Suetonius records that women actually gave birth at Nero concerts.)
Tepid applause wouldn’t do for an emperor so vainglorious. So claques were recruited and deployed to make sure that Nero received sufficient applause. Ancient historians who write about Nero revel in the details of these paid supporters. They were called the “Augustiani,” and offered up a continuous din of praise as the emperor performed. Their leaders were provided with 400,000 sesterces a performance to divvy up among the claque.
Nero’s handlers even brought in consultants from Alexandria to teach the Augustiani cheers that sounded like bees, or the clatter of objects on roof tile, or literally the sound of falling bricks. (In the production of Nero/Pseudo, we settled on Queen’s “We Will Rock You” for the latter.)
In Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius, the Roman historian also remarks upon the unique appearance of the Augustiani:
It was easy to recognize them by their pomaded hair, splendid dress and absence of rings on their left hands.
One can recognize some key elements of the Neronian claque in its nascent revival. Imperial demands for adulation that abhor a silence that may leave the ruler exposed. The triumph of celebrity rule over stifling norms and propriety.
Indeed, the latter element is why the contemporary claque may win the approval of those who helped elect our current president. The Neronian claque did not simply demand that Romans put aside their critical judgement and submit to a day at the theatre one could not escape, but it did so for specific political aims.
Or, as one character in Nero/Pseudo who is desperate to form such a claque puts it in a song:
Bland insipid humdrum Rome
Needs turning upside down
Stuff Senate halls with actors
Dress urchins in fine gowns
Swap out the cops with tender thugs
Watch matrons pleasure clowns
Install the epicures as priests
Let pornographers paint the town
Read more about Nero/Pseudo at http://www.richardbyrneplays.com/neropseudo