Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Theater and Amphitheater in the Roman World

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Spectacle was an integral part of life in the Roman world. Some forms of spectacle—triumphal processions, aristocratic funerals, and public banquets, for example—took as their backdrop the city itself. Others were held in purpose-built spectator buildings: theaters for plays and other scenic entertainment, amphitheaters for gladiatorial combats and wild beast shows, stadia for athletic competitions, and circuses for chariot races (59.11.14). As a whole, this pervasive culture of spectacle served both as a vehicle for self-advertisement by the sociopolitical elite and as a means of reinforcing the shared values and institutions of the entire community.


The principal occasions for dramatic spectacles in the Roman world were yearly religious festivals, or ludi, organized by elected magistrates and funded from the state treasury.

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Theater in the Roman World
According to the ancient historian Livy, the earliest theatrical activity at Rome took the form of dances with musical accompaniment, introduced to the city by the Etruscans in 364 B.C. The literary record also indicates that Atellanae, a form of native Italic farce (much like the phlyakes [24.97.104] of southern Italy), were performed at Rome by a relatively early date. In 240 B.C., full-length, scripted plays were introduced to Rome by the playwright Livius Andronicus, a native of the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy. The earliest Latin plays to have survived intact are the comedies of Plautus (active ca. 205-184 B.C.), which were principally adaptations of Greek New Comedy. Latin tragedy also flourished during the second century B.C. While some examples of the genre treated stories from Greek myth, others were concerned with famous episodes from Roman history. After the second century B.C., the composition of both tragedy and comedy declined precipitously at Rome. During the imperial period, the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment were mime (ribald comic productions with sensational plots and sexual innuendo) and pantomime (performances by solo dancers with choral accompaniment, usually recreating tragic myths).

The principal occasions for dramatic spectacles in the Roman world were yearly religious festivals, or ludi, organized by elected magistrates and funded from the state treasury. Temple dedications, military triumphs, and aristocratic funerals also provided opportunities for scenic performances. Until 55 B.C., there was no permanent theater in the city of Rome, and plays were staged in temporary, wooden structures, intended to stand for a few weeks at most. The ancient sources concur that the delay in constructing a permanent theater was due to active senatorial opposition, although the possible reasons for this resistance (concern for Roman morality, fear of popular sedition, competition among the elite) remain a subject of debate. Literary accounts of temporary theaters indicate that they could be quite elaborate. The best documented is a theater erected by the magistrate M. Aemilius Scaurus in 58 B.C., which Pliny reports to have had a stage-building comprised of three stories of columns and ornamented with 3,000 bronze statues.

The first permanent theater in the city of Rome was the Theater of Pompey, dedicated in 55 B.C. by Julius Caesar's rival, Pompey the Great. The theater, of which only the foundations are preserved, was an enormous structure, rising to approximately forty-five meters and capable of holding up to 20,000 spectators. At the rear of the stage-building was a large, colonnaded portico, which housed artworks and gardens. Constructed in the wake of Pompey's spectacular military campaigns of the 60s B.C., the theater functioned in large part as a victory monument. The cavea (seating area) was crowned by a temple to Venus Victrix, Pompey's patron deity, and the theater was decorated with statues of the goddess Victory and personifications of the nations that Pompey had subdued in battle.

Pompey's dedication effectively canonized the form of the Roman theater, providing a prototype that would be replicated across the empire for nearly three centuries. This new building type differed in striking ways from the traditional Greek theater. The latter consisted of two separate structures: a horseshoe-shaped seating area and a freestanding stage-building. The Roman theater, in contrast, was a fully enclosed edifice, unroofed but often covered with awnings on performance days. The seating area in the Greek theater was supported against a natural hillside, whereas the Roman theater was carried at least in part on concrete vaults, which provided access from the exterior of the building to the cavea. In the Hellenistic world, the stage-building was a relatively low structure, ornamented with painted panels but rarely with large-scale sculpture. The Roman theater, on the other hand, was characterized by a tall, wide scaenae frons (stage-front) with multiple stories, articulated by freestanding columns and lavishly ornamented with statues of gods and heroes and portraits of the imperial family and local luminaries.

The architectural differences between the Roman theater and its Greek predecessor are not satisfactorily explained by functional factors such as optics, acoustics, or staging needs. Rather, Rome's adaptation of the Greek theater seems to have been driven largely by social and political forces. The columnar scaenae frons, for example, may have developed to house statuary looted from Greece and Asia Minor by Roman generals and exhibited at triumphal games as evidence of their military prowess. The architecture of the Roman theater also signals Roman concern for social control and hierarchical display. In contrast to the Greek world, where seating in the theater was largely open, Roman audiences were rigorously segregated on the basis of class, gender, nationality, profession, and marital status. This is reflected in both the enclosed form of the Roman theater, which restricted access to the building, and the system of vaulted substructures, which facilitated the routing of spectators to the appropriate sector of seating.

Amphitheater in the Roman World
In contrast to the Roman theater, which evolved from Greek models, the amphitheater had no architectural precedent in the Greek world. Likewise, the spectacles that took place in the amphitheater—gladiatorial combats and venationes (wild beast shows)—were Italic, not Greek, in origin. The earliest secure evidence for gladiatorial contests comes from the painted decoration of a fourth-century B.C. tomb at Paestum in southern Italy. Several ancient authors record that gladiatorial combat was introduced to Rome in 264 B.C., on the occasion of munera (funeral games) in honor of an elite citizen named D. Iunius Brutus Pera. By the mid-first century B.C., gladiatorial contests were staged not only at funerals, but also at state-sponsored festivals (ludi). Throughout the imperial period, they remained an important route to popular favor for emperors and provincial leaders. In 325 A.D., Constantine (26.229), the first Christian emperor, prohibited gladiatorial combat on the grounds that it was too bloodthirsty for peacetime. Literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence indicates, however, that gladiatorial games continued at least until the mid-fifth century A.D.

As in the case of theatrical entertainment, the earliest venues for gladiatorial games at Rome were temporary, wooden structures. As early as 218 B.C., according to Livy, gladiatorial contests were staged in the elongated, open space of the Roman Forum, with wooden stands for spectators. These temporary structures probably provided the prototype for the monumental amphitheater, a building type characterized by an elliptical seating area enclosing a flat performance space. The first securely datable, stone amphitheater is the one at Pompeii, constructed in 80-70 B.C. Like most early amphitheaters, the Pompeian example has an austere, functional appearance, with the seats partially supported on earthen embankments.

The earliest stone amphitheater at Rome was constructed in 29 B.C. by T. Statilius Taurus, one of the most trusted generals of the emperor Augustus. This building burned down during the great fire of 64 A.D. and was replaced by the Colosseum (59.570.426), dedicated by the emperor Titus in 80 A.D. and still one of Rome's most prominent landmarks. Unlike earlier amphitheaters, the Colosseum featured elaborate basement amenities, including animal cages and mechanical elevators, as well as a complex system of vaulted, concrete substructures. The facade consisted of three stories of superimposed arcades flanked by engaged columns of the Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Representations of the building on ancient coins indicate that colossal statues of gods and heroes stood in the upper arcades. The inclusion of Greek columnar orders and copies of Greek statues may reflect a desire to promote the amphitheater, a uniquely Roman building type, to the same level in the architectural hierarchy as the theater, with its venerable Greek precedents.

In addition to gladiatorial contests, the amphitheater provided the venue for venationes, spectacles involving the slaughter of animals by trained hunters called venatores or bestiarii. Venationes were expensive to mount and hence served to advertise the wealth and generosity of the officials who sponsored them. The inclusion of exotic species (lions, panthers, rhinoceri, elephants, etc.) also demonstrated the vast reach of Roman dominion. A third type of spectacle that took place in the amphitheater was the public execution. Condemned criminals were slain by crucifixion, cremation, or attack by wild beasts, and were sometimes forced to reenact gruesome myths.

Laura S. Klar
Bothmer Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Colosseum, Rome, Italy. Extension Detail. Colosseum, Rome, Italy. Colosseum, Rome, Italy. Colosseum, Rome, Italy. Interior Detail. Theater of Marcellus, Rome, Italy, Late 1st century B.C.