Theatre of ancient Rome

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Roman mosaic depicting actors and an aulos player (House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii)

Theatre of ancient Rome refers to the time period of theatrical practice and performance in Rome beginning in the 4th century B.C., following the state’s transition from Monarchy to Republic.[1] Theater of the era is generally separated into the genres of tragedy and comedy. Some works by Plautus, Terence, and Seneca survive to this day.

Origins of Roman theatre

Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E as a monarchy under Etruscan rule, and remained as such throughout the first two and a half centuries of its existence. Following the expulsion of Rome's last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or "Tarquin the Proud," circa 509 B.C.E., Rome became a Republic, and was henceforth led by a group of magistrates elected by the Roman people. It is believed that Roman theatre was born during the first two centuries of the Roman Republic, following the spread of Roman rule into a large area of the Italian peninsula, circa 364 B.C.E.

Following the devastation of widespread plague in 364 B.C.E, Roman citizens began including theatrical games as a supplement to the Lectisternium ceremonies already being performed, in a stronger effort to pacify the gods. In the years following the establishment of these practices, actors began adapting these dances and games into performances by acting out texts set to music and simultaneous movement.

As the era of the Roman Republic progressed, citizens began including professionally performed drama in the eclectic offerings of the ludi (celebrations of public holidays) held throughout each year—the largest of these festivals being the Ludi Romani, held each September in honor of the Roman god Jupiter.[2] It was as a part of the Ludi Romani in 240 B.C.E. that author and playwright Livius Adronicus became the first to produce translations of Greek plays to be performed on the Roman stage.[1][3][4]

Genres of ancient Roman theatre

File:Actor as Papposilen Antikensammlung Berlin.jpg
A Roman actor playing Papposilenus, marble statue, c. 100 AD, after a Greek original from the 4th century BC

The first important works of Roman literature were the tragedies and comedies written by Livius Andronicus beginning in 240 BC. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius, a younger contemporary of Andronicus, also began to write drama, composing in both genres as well. No plays from either writer have survived. By the beginning of the 2nd century BC, drama had become firmly established in Rome and a guild of writers (collegium poetarum) had been formed.[5]

Roman tragedy

No early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three early tragedians—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius.

From the time of the empire, however, the work of two tragedians survives—one is an unknown author, while the other is the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Nine of Seneca's tragedies survive, all of which are fabulae crepidatae (tragedies adapted from Greek originals); his Phaedra, for example, was based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Seneca is well known for composing works which feature a heavy presence of violence and horror. Though there is no definite evidence of this, the possibility exists that Seneca intended his plays to be recited within small, private groups, and not for public consumption onstage.

Seneca appears as a character in the tragedy Octavia, the only extant example of fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects, first created by Naevius), and as a result, the play was mistakenly attributed as having been authored by Seneca himself. However, though historians have since confirmed that the play was not one of Seneca's works, the true author remains unknown.[5]

Roman comedy

All Roman comedies that have survived can be categorized as fabula palliata (comedies based on Greek subjects) and were written by two dramatists: Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus) and Publius Terentius Afer (Terence). No fabula togata (Roman comedy in a Roman setting) has survived.

In adapting Greek plays to be performed for Roman audiences, the Roman comic dramatists made several changes to the structure of the productions. Most notable is the removal of the previously prominent role of the chorus as a means of separating the action into distinct episodes. Additionally, musical accompaniment was added as a simultaneous supplement to the plays' dialogue. The action of all scenes typically took place in the streets outside the dwelling of the main characters, and plot complications were often a result of eavesdropping by a minor character.

Plautus wrote between 205 and 184 B.C. and twenty of his comedies survive to present day, of which his farces are best known. He was admired for the wit of his dialogue and for his varied use of poetic meters. As a result of the growing popularity of Plautus' plays, as well as this new form of written comedy, scenic plays became a more prominent component in Roman festivals of the time, claiming their place in events which had previously only featured races, athletic competitions, and gladiatorial battles.

All six of the comedies that Terence composed between 166 and 160 BC have survived. The complexity of his plots, in which he routinely combined several Greek originals into one production, brought about heavy criticism, including claims that in doing so, he was ruining the original Greek plays, as well as rumors that he had received assistance from high ranking men in composing his material. In fact, these rumors prompted Terence to use the prologues in several of his plays as an opportunity to plead with audiences, asking that they lend an objective eye and ear to his material, and not be swayed by what they may have heard about his practices. This was a stark difference from the written prologues of other known playwrights of the period, who routinely utilized their prologues as a way of prefacing the plot of the play being performed.[6] [5]

A well preserved Roman theater in Bosra (Syria)

Stock characters in Roman comedy

An ivory statuette of a Roman actor of tragedy, 1st century.

The following are examples of stock characters in Roman comedy:

  • The adulescens is an unmarried man, usually in late teens or twenties; his action typically surrounds the pursuit of the love of a prostitute or slave girl, who is later revealed to be a free-born woman, and therefore eligible for marriage. The adulescens character is typically accompanied by a clever slave character, who attempts to solve the adulescens’ problems or shield him from conflict.[7]
  • The senex is primarily concerned with his relationship with his son, the adulescens. Although he often opposes his son's choice of love interest, he sometimes helps him to achieve his desires. He is sometimes in love with the same woman as his son, a woman who is much too young for the senex. He never gets the girl and is often dragged off by his irate wife.[7]
  • The leno is the character of the pimp or 'slave dealer.' Although the activities of the character are portrayed as highly immoral and vile, the leno always acts legally and is always paid in full for his services.[7]
  • The miles gloriosus is an arrogant, braggart soldier character, deriving from Greek Old Comedy. The character’s title is taken from a play of the same name written by Plautus. The miles gloriosus character is typically gullible, cowardly, and boastful.[8]
  • The parasitus (parasite) is often portrayed as a selfish liar. He is typically associated with the miles gloriosus character, and hangs upon his every word. The parasitus is primarily concerned with his own appetite, or from where he will obtain his next free meal.[7]
  • The matrona is the character of the wife and mother, and is usually displayed as an annoyance to her husband, constantly getting in the way of his freedom to pursue other women. After catching her husband with another woman, she typically ends the affair and forgives him. She loves her children, but is often temperamental towards her husband.[7]
  • The virgo (young maiden) is an unmarried young woman, and is the love interest of the adulescens, She is often spoken of, but remains offstage. A typical plot point in the last act of the play reveals her to be of freeborn descent, and therefore eligible for marriage.[7]

Roman theatre in performance

Stage and physical space

Beginning with the first presentation of theatre in Rome in 240 B.C., plays were often presented during public festivals. Since these plays were less popular than the several other types of events (gladiatorial matches, circus events, etc.) held within the same space, theatrical events were performed using temporary wooden structures, which had to be displaced and dismantled for days at a time, whenever other spectacle events were scheduled to take place. The slow process of creating a permanent performance space was due to the staunch objection of high-ranking officials: it was the opinion of the members of the senate that citizens were spending too much time at theatrical events, and that condoning this behavior would lead to corruption of the Roman public. As a result, no permanent stone structure was constructed for the purpose of theatrical performance until 55 B.C.

During the time of these temporary structures, theatrical performances featured a very minimalist atmosphere. This included space for spectators to stand or sit to watch the play, known as a cavea, and a stage, or scaena. The setting for each play was depicted using an elaborate backdrop (scaenae frons), and the actors performed on the stage, in the playing space in front of the scaenae frons, called the proscaenium. These structures were erected in several different places, including temples, arenas, and at times, plays were held in Rome’s central square (the forum).[6][1]

In 55 B.C., the first permanent theatre was constructed. Built by Pompey the Great, the main purpose of this structure was actually not for the performance of drama, but rather, to allow current and future rulers a venue with which they could assemble the public and demonstrate their pomp and authority over the masses. With seating for 20,000 audience members, the grandiose structure held a 300 foot-wide stage, and boasted a three-story scaenae frons flanked with elaborate statues. The Theatre of Pompei is still in existence today.[6][2]


Roman actors.

Though the possibility exists that women may have performed non-speaking roles in Roman theatrical performances, the overwhelming majority of historical evidence dictates that male actors portrayed all speaking roles. The public opinion of actors was very low, placing them within the same social status as criminals and prostitutes, and acting as a profession was considered illegitimate and repulsive. Many Roman actors were slaves, and it was not unusual for a performer to be beaten by his master as punishment for an unsatisfactory performance. These actions and opinions differ greatly from those demonstrated during the time of ancient Greek theatre, a time when actors were regarded as respected professionals, and were granted citizenship in Athens.[7][1]

A sculpture of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, by Puerta de Almodóvar in Córdoba.

Notable Roman playwrights

  • Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave taken to Rome in 240 B.C.E.; wrote plays based on Greek subjects and existing plays. Rome's first playwright
  • Plautus, 3rd century B.C. comedic playwright and author of Miles Gloriosus, Pseudolus, and Menaechmi
  • Terence, wrote between 170 and 160 B.C.
  • Gaius Maecenas Melissus, 1st century playwright of a "comedy of manners"
  • Seneca, 1st century dramatist most famous for Roman adaptations of ancient Greek plays (e.g. Medea and Phaedra)
  • Ennius, contemporary of Plautus who wrote both comedy and tragedy
  • Lucius Accius, tragic poet and literary scholar
  • Pacuvius, Ennius's nephew and tragic playwright

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Moore, Timothy J. (2012). Roman Theatre. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521138185.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Zarrilli, Phillip B.; McConachie, Bruce; Williams, Gary Jay; Fisher Sorgenfrei, Carol (2006). Theatre Histories: An Introduction. Routledge. pp. 102, 106. ISBN 978-0-415-22728-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Banham, Martin (1995). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521434379.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Beacham, Richard C. (1991). The Roman Theatre and Its Audience. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674779143.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Brockett, Oscar; Hildy, Franklin J. (2003). History of the Theatre. Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 9780205358786.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Bieber, Margarete (1961). The History of Greek & Roman Theater. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 151–171.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 Thorburn, John E. (2005). The Facts on File Companion to Classical Drama. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9780816074983.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Hochman, Stanley (1984). McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama. VNR AG. p. 243. ISBN 9780070791695.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links