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Theater performances in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A mosaic showing a theatre group preparing for a performance. You can also see the music with aulos.

The theatre of ancient Rome was a very diverse and interesting form of art. There were various types of festivals, street theatres, acrobatics and large theatrical performances, such as comedies by Plautus or tragedies by Seneca the Younger. Although the Romans attached great importance to tradition and their own creativity, with the process of Hellenization in the 3rd century BCE, Greek works began to have an increasing influence on Roman drama. The Greek influence on Roman culture resulted from the fact that the Romans conquered the Greek colonies in 270-240 BCE. The influence of Hellenistic culture could be seen throughout the Western Empire, around the Mediterranean Sea, and even reaching Britain in time. In this way, Roman performances and dramas gained variety, expression and sophistication like never before.

In ancient Rome’s stage work, there are several characteristic varieties of theatrical arts (they are arranged in order of popularity among the Romans):

  • Mime – short, often improvised life scene, acting;
  • Pantomime – a silent show in which the actors used gesture and movement, not avoiding bluntness and cruelty. The actor (pantomimus) was usually a side character of the performance, and his task was to dance, sing;
  • Fabula atellana – a folk Italian farce in which actors performed in masks characteristic for each character;
  • Fabula palliata – a comedy play in which the Romans make fun of the Greeks (the authors of the palliata were, among others, Plautus and Terentius);
  • Fabula togata – a comedy play in which the Romans make fun of themselves;
  • Fabula cothurnata – a Greek tragedy;
  • Fabula praetexta – a Roman-style tragedy.

Virtual tour of Greek and Roman theatres

Formation of the Roman theatre

The Roman historian Titus Livius mentions that the Romans first encountered theatre in the 4th century BCE when actors performed theatrical performances in Etruscan. The historian Richard Beacham claims, however, that the Romans had contact with theatrical art long before the aforementioned contact of the Romans with Etruscan actors. We can speak of Roman drama as such since 240 BCE, when Livius Andronicus – a Greek who became the first Roman poet – on ludi Romani between September 15 and 18, 240 BCE, he staged Greek comedy and tragedy for the first time in his Latin rewrite and this date is considered to be the arbitrary beginning of Roman literature. On the basis of the preserved titles, it can be seen that he mainly processed the plays of Sophocles and Euripides. In 204 BCE, at the behest of the pontiffs, Livius Andronicus composed a choral song to appease the gods. It was sung by a choir of twenty-seven virgins.

A mosaic showing a tragic and comedy mask.

In 235 BCE another Roman poet, Gnaeus Naevius, staged his first drama in Rome. His plays were usually remakes of Greek culture. He also staged his own Roman comedies (fabula togata). 35 titles of these plays and about 140 fragments have reached our times. He introduced fabula praetexta, a national tragedy, to Roman literature. Nevius was the author of the first Roman tragedies based on mythological (Romulus) and historical (the victory over the Gauls – Clastidium) themes. He wrote Bellum Poenicum – an epic about the First Punic War (7 books) which influenced “Aeneid” Virgil.

Gnaeus Nevius exposed himself (through malicious allusions in his works) to the family of Cecilius Metell and Scipio Africanus. He was imprisoned in 206 BCE and sentenced to a pillory. After his release, he settled in the African city of Utica, where he died. Only small fragments and titles of plays remain from his work.

Both Andronicus and Nevius contributed to the Roman drama. The former was known for his tragedy, while the latter made comedies. Their successors usually followed one of these paths, which contributed to their intensive development. By the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, Roman drama had already had an established position in Roman culture. Moreover, a “guild” of Roman playwrights (collegium poetarum) was formed.

All Roman comedies that have survived are the so-called fabula palliata (comedies based on Greek prototypes) and come from the pen of two playwrights: Plautus and Terentius. By recreating the Greek originals, both of them gave up the role of the choir in the piece, dividing the work into episodes. Moreover, they introduced music during dialogues (1/?of Plautus ‘dialogues and 2/?of Terentius’). The action takes place mainly in the streets. Plautus, the more popular of the two, wrote (between 205 and 184 BCE) mainly farces filled with intelligent and playful dialogues. The texts were written in a blunt language, close to the colloquial Latin of that period, presenting many realistic situations from the life of antiquity.

A statue of ivory a statue of a Roman actor of a tragic art.

Terentius, in turn, wrote in the years 166-160 BCE His 6 comedies have survived to our times. The themes of Terentius’ works were dominated by the love experiences and elation of Athenian youth in love with hetter; and the constant motives of the action were: separation, finding and recognition. Terentius was a generation younger than Plautus and never managed to overshadow him with fame and popularity. However, while Plautus’ plays were eagerly played in theatres, Terentius’ plays were included in the school reading list quite early in Roman education and remained in this role until the end of antiquity. This provided them with enough copies of circulation to keep them alive to our day.

No Roman tragedy has survived to our day, despite the fact that it was a popular form of drama. Historians know three names of early playwrights: Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius. The tragedies of Seneca the Younger and an unknown author survived the times of the empire. From Seneca’s oeuvre we know 9 plays, each of which is fabula crepidata (taken from Greek originals). His works include:

  • Hercules Furens
  • Hercules Oetaeus
  • Troades
  • Phoenissae
  • Medea
  • Phaedra
  • Oedipus
  • Agamemno
  • Thyestes

Seneca’s tragedies were probably non-stage works, intended only for reading or recitation. The authorship of the tragedy by Seneca Octavia presented in the collections is being questioned. Currently, most researchers believe that it was created after the death of its alleged author.

Historians do not know who is the author of the only surviving example of fabula praetexta (a work based on the Roman original).

Heroes of Roman comedies

  • Adulescens – young, rich, not too brave, but a hero in love. He has a tendency to mourn his fate and expects support. Another hero often has to act on his behalf. His father is an old man (senex) whom he fears but does not respect. He wears a dark wig and his clothes are usually scarlet.
  • Senex – the old man has several incarnations. As a father, he is too strict or too submissive. As a lover, she introduces problems in relationships with her son, slave and wife. The woman he loves is usually his son’s chosen one and is definitely younger than him. He never manages to get a woman and he is controlled by his wife. Sometimes he is a family friend who helps young people (adulescens). He is often mean, wearing plain white clothing with long sleeves.
  • Leno – manages the lupanarium. He often has to deal with adulescens going to his brothel. He is amoral and only interested in money. He dresses in a tunic with a money purse to the side and is often bald.
  • Miles gloriosus – literally “braggart soldier”. He loves himself more than anyone else. He sees himself as a beautiful and brave legionary when he is actually stupid, cowardly and gullible. He is usually in love with the same woman as adulescens. He wears a tunic with long sleeves and has curly hair.
  • Parasitus – a parasite that lives only for itself. Often seen as a beggar asking for a meal he is usually denied. He is lying for his own gain. He dresses in a long black robe with long double sleeves.
  • Servi – about half of the actors are slaves. They often have most monologues. They are not typical slaves from Roman houses. Servus callidus or “intelligent slave” is usually very talkative. Most of the time he is faithful to his masters – more adulescens than senex. It is often the source of the action. He is dressed in a tunic and wears scarves.
  • Ancilla – A maid or nurse of undefined age. Its role comes down to presenting information or helping other heroes. She is a tool of her mistress who often uses her as a relay of information.
  • Matrona, mulier or uxor – the mother, woman or wife is cunning. She loves her children but is temperamental towards her husband. She doesn’t have to be a devoted wife, but sometimes she is. He wears a long robe with flowing sleeves and a cloak.
  • Meretrix – a prostitute in love or working for money. The first type is a younger girl, in love with adulescens, while the second type is an old woman, experienced through life. Both women are very attractive, with a meticulous hairstyles and a yellow outfits.
  • Virgo – the bride who is the love object of adulescens. It doesn’t have a big role. She is beautiful and virtuous. Treated in art as a form of reward.

Roman theater

The oldest outdoor theatre in ancient Rome is the so-called The Grand Theater in Pompeii.
Author: Radomił | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Roman theatre showed many features in common with Greek theatre of the Hellenistic period. The structure was of similar elements, but there were also quite significant differences. The theatre was built of an audience (cavea), a stage (pulpitum) and a stage building called skene. Roman theatres were covered with a roof that protected primarily against the rays of the sun (a canvas cover was stretched over the audience). The audience was inscribed in a rectangular projection. Roman theatres were most often built on flat (compared to Greece) terrain. So the audience was shaped differently. It was a semicircle inscribed in a quadrangle with amphitheatre places for the audience. In the rear part, in the corners of a shape similar to a triangle with a concave side, staircases were placed, allowing you to enter the auditorium. External, wide doors led to the cages, placed under the arcades of the facade of the auditorium. The facade was built as a multi-story arcaded wall topped with a gallery. The audience itself was divided by horizontal passages (praecinctiones) and radial steps (scalaria) into horizontal sectors (maeniana) and vertical (cunei). The semicircular square (orchestra) was reduced compared to Greek theatres (the choir did not always take part in Roman performances). On the other hand, the proskenion, called the pulpitum in Rome, was expanded. The audience did not extend beyond the diameter of the orchestra, so the skene was lengthened. Its front part had numerous niches, breaks, columns and painting decorations, and the doors placed in them were used by actors to go out to the stage and leave it. The middle ones, the biggest ones, served the main characters, and the side ones were used by the rest of the people. There were three doors in the facade. Hyposkeon was also covered with numerous reliefs. A novelty in Roman theatres was the use of a curtain (aulaeum), which was lowered down into a specially prepared opening. Another innovation introduced by the Romans was the use of theatre posters called programinata, informing about the performance being held.

The theatre had almost no native tradition in Rome. Most likely, for this reason, the Roman Senate banned the placement of seats in the theatre built in Rome in 154 BCE. The work has been discontinued. The oldest discovered in ancient Rome is the so-called Grand Theater in Pompeii. It was built around 80 BCE and could hold about 15,000 spectators. In Rome, the first wooden theatre was built only in 58 BCE (with the consent of Marcus Scaurus). Three years later, in order to obtain permission to build a stone theatre in the Field of Mars, Pompey ordered the chapel of Venus the Victorious to be placed on the crown of the audience. The audience did sit with their backs to the chapel during the performance, but the rest of the time the audience of the building erected by Pompey resembled a monumental staircase leading to the temple. The last information about the built Roman theatre comes from 17 BCE.

The best-preserved Roman theatres are in Orange (Vaucluse) in France and in Leptis Magna in Libya.

3D reconstruction of Pompey’s Theater. It was the first Roman theatre built of stone. It was built around 55 BCE. Its construction was financed by Pompey to strengthen his political position in Rome. Due to the ban on the construction of this type of building, Pompey decided to create a complex, combining a theatre and a temple dedicated to the Victorious Venus (Venus Victrix) – the audience also played the role of stairs. It is in the portico of this theatre Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE.

Roman theatres in Britain

Roman theatres appeared in Britain shortly after the invasion of the island in 43 CE by the troops of Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE). Tacitus mentions that the theatre was established in the Roman colony of Camulodunum, the first Roman capital in Britain. According to researchers, construction was completed in the 50s of the 1st century CE.

In the 2nd century CE, there were many theatres in Britain in the 1900s, which shows how popular theatrical performances were among both the local community and the colonists. There were stone theatres in Canterbury, Verulamium, Colchester, Gosbecks Farm, Leicester and possibly London and Cirencester. Theatres were often located near temples, which proves that rituals were also performed on theatre stages. It should be noted that the preserved traces of theatres indicate that they were built mainly in the southern parts of the province. The northern areas of Britain, due to strong militarization, ruled out the need for such buildings.

The best-preserved theatre in Britain is at Verulamium, southwest of St Albans in East Anglia. Verulamium was the third largest Roman city in Britain, and the theatre itself was built in the mid-2nd century CE. The object was closely related to the temple located next to it. Even several thousand people could sit in the audience; more than the city itself. The theatre had workshops, warehouses and bedrooms – perhaps for actors. In the 4th century CE, the theatre was probably abandoned and forgotten; It was discovered by accident in the 19th century.

Researchers wonder, however, why such important centres as York or Bath do not have traces of stone theatres. According to scientists, wooden theatres could have been popular in Britain, of which no traces naturally remained.

What do we know about actors in Britain? We know only one person by name who practised acting in Roman Britain. It was a certain Verecunda ludia (meaning “Verecunda the actress”), whose name was engraved on a piece of pottery in Leicester. On the same small piece of cloth was inscribed the name of Lucius, who was supposedly a gladiator. According to the researchers, both people known to us by name could have been part of a travelling troupe that entertained subsequent towns with entertainment. The preserved fragment of pottery, in turn, could have been a kind of advertisement.

Acting

Roman figures showing actors in masks.

Roman actors had a bad reputation, and their morals often faced the humble and decadent lifestyle of society. Most often, the actors were slaves or liberators from the East, due to the fact that Roman law did not see any performances of Roman citizens on the stage. The actors’ performances could be lewd, highly sexual and offensive, leading to criticism by the conservative Roman society. Often the actors allowed themselves to criticize the political scene of the state, which caused negative reactions from the emperors. For example, the emperor Julian the Apostate forbade Roman priests from going to theatrical performances, which would also strip the arts of their prestige. The emperor Tiberius did not agree to any contact between the actors and representatives of the upper classes. In the times of the early Republic, women did not have access to the actor’s profession due to the inappropriateness of the profession. In imperial times, many women became famous actresses, which was criticized by the male side of the profession. Of course, there are also popular male actors: a certain Roscius – a comedy actor or Aesopus – a tragic actor. Some actors also had numerous friends in the higher circles, which allowed them to get things done.

In ancient Roman theatre, the colours symbolized the role of the actor in the show. And so the old men were dressed in white, that is, in the colour of mourning, young men – in purple, and thieves and frauds in grey – hence the saying “make someone grey”.

Popular theatre performances remained until the middle of the 4th century CE. During this time, 102 out of 176 ludi publici were devoted to acting.

Famous Roman playwrights

  • Livius Andronicus – Greek took prisoner in 240 BCE. He wrote plays based on Greek tradition. The first Roman playwright.
  • Gnaeus Nevius – author of the first Roman tragedies based on mythological (Romulus) and historical themes (description of the victory over the Gauls – Clastidium). He wrote Bellum Poenicum – an epic about the First Punic War (7 books) which influenced Virgil’s “Aeneid”.
  • Plaut – a playwright from the 3rd century BCE. Plautus’ comedies, which he himself writes about in his prologues, are remakes and adaptations of Greek comedies belonging to the new Attic comedy. The author of most of Plautus’ stories was Menander. The songs are written in blunt language, similar to the colloquial Latin of that period, they present many realistic situations from the life of antiquity. Plautus wrote nearly 130 works, of which only 21 have survived. His plays were performed especially during the Roman holidays.
  • Terentius – wrote between 170 and 160 BCE. The comedy Eunuch was the most successful, while the worst received by the audience was Hecyra, which was managed to play only the third time until the end. The themes of Terentius’ works were dominated by the love experiences and elation of Athenian youth in love with hetter; and the constant motives of the action were: separation, finding and recognition.
  • Gaius Maecenas Melissus – 1st-century author of comedies.
  • Seneca the Younger – 1st-century writer who wrote the famous Medea and Fedra.
  • Ennius – the Roman poet, is considered the father of Roman literature.
  • Pacuvius – a Roman tragedy from the turn of the 3rd and 2nd century BCE. He wrote mainly satires and tragedies, of which 13 titles and a few fragments have survived to our times. In his works, he referred to Greek tragedians, especially Euripides and Sophocles.

The Roman theatre was largely derived from the Greek original. However, what made him different was the variety of entertainment for the crowd and the number of people attending the shows. A huge mass of Romans demanded to constantly invent new forms of entertainment. This, in turn, led to the message being made shallow and more attention being paid to the play element; obscene scenes, filled with profanity and negative messages, were often shown. Some scholars liken Roman theatre to a circus rather than a play.

Theatrical masks

The only ancient source of information about masks that were used in ancient times during theatrical performances is Julius Pollux, a Greek scientist from the 3rd century CE, who wrote the work Onomasticon. In his work, he lists a total of 44 different comic masks that could be used during the performance.

Ancient History Magazine, 42

A large amount of information and a general idea of ​​what theatrical masks looked like in ancient Greece and Rome are provided by the preserved ancient artefacts, on which we find the reconstructed appearance of the actors’ equipment. During the day, we discover oil lamps in the shape of theatrical masks or cameos with engraved masks. No strictly theatrical masks have survived to our times; this is due to the fact that they were made of organic materials that had virtually no chance of surviving.

Antique masks were certainly beautifully decorated and very colourful, which only intensified the perception of the actor’s performance, whose mask reflected daylight. It should be recalled that, unlike contemporary theatres, in ancient times this type of facility was open, and the sun helped in creating the right spectacle.

According to the latest research (including from 2007 by a team of researchers under Dr Amy R. Cohen), in large and open theatres, both the shape of the object and the masks themselves enhanced the actor’s voice. As it turns out, the masked actor had a clearer voice when speaking in a lower pitch. It should also be noted that the size of the mask and the distance from the actor’s face made the voice resonate. What’s more, the mask allowed viewers to better hear the actor’s voice without having to point directly at them. For example, an actor with his back to the audience section, if not wearing a face mask, was barely audible or not heard at all.

Aristotle said that an effective actor is one who has a loud, harmonious and rhythmic voice. As it turns out, the masks were not only visual but also acoustic.

Sources
  • Ball Jo, Drama at the edge of empire. Theatre in Roman Britain, „Ancient History Magazine”, 42
  • Beacham Richard C., The Roman Theatre and Its Audience, 1991
  • Brockett Oscar, Hildy Franklin J., History of the Theatre, 2002
  • Clarke Jessica, The acoustics of the Greek theatre masks. Loud and clear?, "Ancient History Magazine", 42
  • Winniczuk Lidia, Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa

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