The Roman Theatre

Ursula Cliff, Dickson College 2009

ANU.gifUrsula Cliff received Clio's 2009 ANU Prize for The Best Essay in Ancient History for 'The Roman Theatre.' The award was judged by Dr Paul Burton of the ANU. Dr Burton presented Ms. Cliff her award at the Dickson College Graduation Night, Llewellyn Hall, December 2009.

Juvenal once said that his fellow Romans were only interested in panem et circenses ‘bread and circuses’, that is, their stomachs and their entertainment. Literary and archaeological sources can give us insight into one aspect of public entertainment, the Roman theatre. This essay considers the roots and development of the Roman theatre, as well as the plays and the playwrights of the time, the actors and characters of the performances, and the physical structure of the surviving theatres, showing the playing space, and auditorium. From this evidence, historians can gain an understanding of some of the features of Roman society. These considerations are based on surviving play texts, particularly those of Plautus, contemporary comments, such as those from Cicero and Juvenal, and on archaeological elements such as surviving artwork such as mosaics, pottery, wall paintings, and sculptures, and surviving architectural structures.

The history of the Roman theatre is intricately linked with that of its greatest influence, the Greek drama. There is both literary and archaeological evidence to suggest that the Roman theatre evolved from its Greek counterpart, possibly occurring when the Roman Empire spread ‘southwards into Greece’ (Hartnoll 1968, p24). From the remnants of surviving early Greek plays, such as those of Menander, and those of two esteemed Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence, historians believe Greek themes and characters influenced the characters and storylines of Roman plays: Plautus and Terence both use the stock characters seen in Greek theatre, such as the ‘irascible old men, the young profligates [and] the officious slaves’ (Hartnoll, p26). The works of Plautus also allude to his own Greek heritage, and then perhaps his influences, such as when he uses the term ‘pergraeci’ – ‘to behave in Greek fashion’ (Watling 1963, p12). A mosaic depicts a scene from what could be either Menander’s play, Synarisotsai, or Plautus’ adaptation, Mostellaria (see figure 1). Roman commentators of the time also commented on the similarities of Greek and Roman theatre, Cicero described Roman comedy as ‘fabellas Latinas ad verbum de Graecis expressas’: ‘plays in Latin literally translated from the Greek’ (Watling, p10). Grecian themes also seem to pervade Plautus’ work: in his play Amphitryo. The god ‘Jupiter’ appears in mortal form to Alcumena’ and conceives a child, ‘Hercules’. An Etruscan vase in the Greek style depicts a very similar theme, of two gods, ‘Zeus’ (‘Jupiter’s’ Greek counterpart) and ‘Hermes’, entering the house of ‘Alkmene’ – the mother of ‘Hercules’ (see figure 2). The similarities between the surviving original Greek texts and parts of Plautus’s own work appear so strong that some historians even speculate whether Plautus wrote his plays himself, or whether he simply translated and made some minor adaptations to them to make them more suitable for the Roman audience.

Archaeological evidence also pertains to the Roman theatre’s Grecian roots. A Greek vase painting from the 4th century BC (see figure 3) depicts a stage very similar to the remains of stages used in later Roman times seen today. The Romans also seem to have incorporated the Greeks’ use of masks and costumes. A surviving wall frieze depicting Menander in his studio clearly shows the use of masks, of a ‘young man, a courtesan and an angry father’ (Hartnoll, p22: see figure 4). Likewise, surviving marble statues depict a dramatic figure with a characteristically wide open mouthed mask. Later Roman mosaics also clearly depict the use of masks, including that of the wide-mouthed character (see figure 5a and b). By dating the various archaeological findings, historians are also able to gain an understanding of the evolution of Roman theatre, stretching from the early dances, to the mimes and pantomimes, to the more highly plotted works of playwrights.

The few surviving copies of Roman plays have enabled further understanding of the aspects of Roman theatre. Of the Roman playwrights, the works of Plautus and Terence are the best preserved and complete: Plautus’ works are considered the earliest complete form of Latin literature discovered (Watling 1963, p7). From studying the works of these playwrights, assuming their works are typical of the time, historians can derive ideas about the basic themes prolific in Roman theatre: those of love, life and misfortune. We can also determine some idea of what Roman audiences would have liked: both Plautus and Terence wrote comedies, suggesting that it was with these that the playwrights found favour with their audience. Surviving play texts indicate four recognised genres in Roman theatre: ‘fabula palliata’, which incorporated Greek dress and mannerisms; ‘fabula atellana’, a comedic genre, which included characters such as clowns; ‘fabula praetextata’, serious plays, with legendary, historical or contemporary events as themes; and ‘fabula togata’, which had a comedic, domestic setting. Some plays also occasionally included the interference of Roman Gods, as seen in Plautus’ work Amphitryo, which supports general ideas of the way the Romans worshipped their divine figures. Following the Greek Dionysus, the patron god of the Roman theatre was Bacchus (figure 5a), whose love of wine and lewdness perhaps alludes to the bawdy nature of many Roman dramatic forms. Many plays appeared to have been connected to the gods – they were often performed during rituals or festivals celebrating a god, and historians and some archaeological evidence suggest that temporary stages were often set up near the god’s temples.

Studying such elements as the characters and actors of Roman plays gives historians insight into Roman society, classes, and social status, and the way the theatre might reflect it. The plays themselves show evidence of a variety of characters, and yet it seems that there are a stock few who keep returning: the tragic female, the clown, and the deceiving or weary slave amongst them. The reappearance of certain characters may mirror features, or even tensions, of Roman society – a scheming slave is a recurring character—perhaps such a figure was a common occurrence in real life, and so was written into plays to evoke emotion and understanding within the audience. Within each role there seemed to be several variations, portrayed by their masks. An excerpt from the writings of Iulius Pollux, in the 2nd century AD, shows the variety of roles: ‘The slave’s comic masks are a grandfather, upper slave, thin-haired behind, bristly slave, curled slave, a middle slave, foppish slave [and] shaking upper slave.’ (Nagler 1952, p14)

Actors, though it appears many came from low-class backgrounds (Nagler, p18), could become famous in Roman society, like the writers of the plays they performed, and could even gain improved social status (and then presumably wealth) through their success on the stage. As evidence of this, Cicero speaks of the actor Roscius:

Do you notice how there is nothing he does which falls short of perfection, or fails to enchant? Everything in fact proves exactly right, speaking straight to the feelings and delighting us all. For this reason it has long stood to his achievement that the most outstanding practitioner in any artistically relative field should be called, in his own line, a Roscius.’ (‘Roman Comedy’ website)

Surviving archaeological evidence suggests that women actors were never a part of later Roman theatre —instead their parts are played by men. There is some evidence to suggest that women played a role in earlier forms of Roman theatre, such as mimes and pantomimes (Hartnoll, p28). In surviving artworks depicting later Roman actors from around the times of plot-driven plays, such a Plautus and Terence, the female roles are seen to be played by men, some perhaps wearing or holding a female mask or costume. This is exemplified in a Roman wall painting from Herculaneum, which depicts a man who seems to have just come off the stage, in a woman’s costume, with a mask of the typical tragic female beside him (figure 7). Also, in the many friezes and statues of actors, none of the figures seem to be female (figure 8); as in Greek tradition. This in turn may indicate the role of women in Roman society, as workers, and not involved in entertainment, if we can take the theatre as a true representation of the society around it.

From architectural evidence, such as the remains of Roman theatre structures, historians can determine how Roman plays were performed, and gain an indication of the size and social status of the audience who attended the theatre. One of the most intact and well-known remnants of a Roman theatre stands in Pompeii (figure 9). Constructed during the 2nd century BC, the structure is the ‘earliest surviving theatre in Italy, outside the Greek colonies’ (Brown 1986, p441). Widespread archaeological evidence suggests that almost every significant town had a theatre of some sort. All were outdoors (unroofed), and some historians speculate that some theatres may have had an awning to protect the audience from the sun. We can gain information about the ways plays were performed from the structural evidence, and also from the architectural texts of the time, such as The Ten Books of Architecture by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, written between 16 and 13 BC, and dedicated to Augustus. He describes the background as:

‘The scaena [scenes or backdrop] itself displays the following scheme. In the center [sic] are double doors, decorated like those of a royal palace. At the right and left are the doors of the guest chambers. Beyond are spaces left for decoration.'

The same writer also described the use of ‘three kinds of scenes...the tragic... the comic...the satyric’ (Nagler, p22). From this we can deduce that the Romans performed a variety of theatrical styles in their theatres.

It is also possible to determine the different classes of the audience from the seating, as some seating is closer to the stage, with a better viewing position, presumably for the upper classes, while other seating is plain, presumably for the lower classes of society. Vitruvius also describes a pattern for tiered seating (Nagler, p24). Bone tokens have been found which may have been used as tickets (figure 10) suggesting an organised system of entry and seating and possibly of payment. It is difficult to determine who went to the theatre, though comments from Juvenal, a writer of the time, may cast some light on this: ‘ the ordinary Roman found great drama less uplifting than a tight-rope walker’ (Unger-Hamilton (ed). 1980, p14). This would seem to correlate with the abundant evidence which suggests the popularity of circuses and with the well documented archaeological and literary evidence of the broader and often violent mass-audience entertainment of the amphitheatres, such as the Colosseum..

Both literary and archaeological evidence has taught historians many things about the theatre in Roman times. Through investigation of contemporary plays and social commentaries, and through the discovery of related artworks and architectural structures we have learned something about the history and development of Roman theatre, the plays and playwright of the time, the actors and characters of the plays, and the theatres themselves. Knowing about the theatre teaches us about Roman society, as this is where the Roman theatre, like all theatre, draws its inspiration.

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  • Also: Brown, Peter The First Roman Literature, chapter 18 of aforementioned book.
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