The theater in Ancient Rome was an important form of entertainment. With its origins in the plays of Ancient Greece, over time Roman theater found its identity, customs - and grand arenas. Jamil Bakhtawar tells us about Ancient Roman theater.

You can read Jamil’s previous article on the theater in Ancient Greece here.

Ancient Roman playwright Plautus.

Ancient Roman playwright Plautus.

A thriving and diverse form of art which ranged from street performances, acrobatics, and nude dancing to the staging of situational comedies and the elaborately articulated tragedies, the theater of Ancient Rome evolved over time. The Romans drew on the influence of Greek theaters and shared many distinct features. At the time, the neighboring Etruscans were noted for practicing performance arts, many of which were used as part of religious ceremonies. In fact, Romans were later known to hire Etruscan performers to visit Rome during times of famine and crisis.

During the time the Roman Empire was being developed, Roman plays were performed by professional actors at virtually every public and religious festival. From the beginning, they valued all sorts of spectacles and entertainment, and one of the oldest events was an athletic competition in honor of the god Jupiter known as the 'Ludi Romani'. By the 3rd century BCE, this event routinely featured pop-up plays performed by professional actors, funded by a local politician or wealthy businessman. Considering that their calendar contained over 200 days of these events, the Romans had good access to theater.


Adaptations and Inspiration

Most historians associate melodramatic performances, mime, circus and comedies with Ancient Roman theater. The Romans were fond of theatrical spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, dances and stage performances. An earlier Roman theater would have used plots and characters inspired by the Greeks and many concepts would have been adapted to a Roman context. Archetypal characters, stereotypes and clowns were common in those plays. Many provinces were essentially bankrupt by the end of the late Republic period, and plays became more expensive and grand. The fact that most dramas were connected to key features of Roman life such as worshipping the gods, glorifying one’s self, and honoring the dead meant that the dramas likely encouraged the grand displays and expenditures normally associated with these parts of Roman life.

According to the ancient historian Livy, the earliest theatrical activity in Rome took the form of dances with musical support and it was introduced to the city by the Etruscans in 364 B.C. The literary record also indicates that 'Atellanae', a form of native Italic plays, were performed in 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. The earliest Latin plays to have survived were adaptations of the 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 notable episodes from Roman history. After the second century B.C., the composition of both tragedy and comedy declined precipitously in Rome. During the imperial period, the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment were mime and pantomime with choral accompaniment, usually re-creating tragic myths. Mimes were comic productions with sensational plots; where as pantomimes were performed by solo dancers.


Notable Playwrights and Their Plays

Some Roman comedies that have survived are based on Greek subjects (also known as fabula palliata) and come from two exceptional dramatists: Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus) and Publius Terentius Afer (Terence). In adapting the Greek originals, the Roman comic dramatists abolished the role of the chorus in dividing the drama into episodes and introduced musical chorus to the dialogue.

Plautus, the more popular of the two, wrote between 205 and 184 BC and twenty of his comedies have survived. He was admired for the wit of his dialogue and his use of a variety of poetic meters. Plautus was prolific and wrote around 50 plays. Some of the most famous plays which have survived are Amphitryon, Bacchides, The Casket Comedy, Mercator and Persa. An admirable sense of his comedy is probably evident in the modern play and film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Terence produced six comedies in his brief life: The Andrian Girl (166BC), The Mother-in-Law (165BC), The Self-Tormentor (163BC), The Eunuch (161BC), Phormio (161BC), and Adelphi: The Brothers (160BC). All of the six comedies that Terence wrote between 166 and 160 BC have survived. The complexity of his plays, in which he frequently combined several Greek originals, was sometimes denounced, but his double-plots enabled a sophisticated presentation of conflicting human behavior.

The most famous Ancient Roman playwright for tragedy was Seneca (4BC-65AD) and he adapted plays from the Greek playwrights. His plays pushed the boundaries of Ancient Rome and in 65AD he was forced by Nero to commit suicide due to offensive commentary in one of his plays. Seneca agreed to this and slashed his wrists but this proved too slow and painful so Seneca called for poison. This also didn’t kill him, so his servants placed him in a hot copper bath and the steam suffocated him to death. Nine of Seneca's tragedies survive, all of which are tragedies on Greek originals. For example, Phaedra was based on Euripides' Hippolytus.


Tragedies and Comedies

The first significant works of Roman literature consisted of the tragedies and comedies that Livius Andronicus wrote from 240 BC. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius also began writing drama. Unfortunately none of the plays from the writers have survived. While the dramatists composed in both genres, Andronicus was most appreciated for his tragedies and Naevius for his comedies. Their successors tended to specialize in one or the other, which led to a separation of the development of each type of drama. By the beginning of the 2nd century BC, drama was firmly established in Rome and a guild of writers (known as collegium poetarum) had been formed. 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.


Characters in Roman Comedy

Like commedia del arte (which is derived from Ancient Roman Comedy), the comedy of Ancient Rome often used recognizable stereotypes or stock characters. Here are some of the most common from Ancient Roman plays:

Adulescens: the young, love-struck and not too brave lover.

Senex: normally the overly strict father or the miser. He sometimes carries a stick or staff.

Leno: the amoral deviant. Sometimes owns a brothel or house of disrepute.

Miles gloriosus: the braggart is a character that is especially familiar today.

Virgo: (young maiden) is the love interest of the adulescens, but does not get much stage time. She is beautiful and virtuous but sometimes a little dim.


Masks and Costumes

Masks were one of the essential conventions used in Ancient Roman plays. They usually covered the whole head and the designs were quite simple. The masks were made from cheap materials such as linen or cork and had holes for the mouth and eyes. Some masks were large and portrayed exaggerated expressions which could be seen from the back of the theater so the audience could tell how the character was feeling. As such, the masks conveyed simple emotions in its expression such as happiness, sadness, regret and fear. All masks were color coded, brown for men and white for women. Later Ancient Roman Comedy used half-masks for certain characters.

The costumes were simple and colors were the major feature used to distinguish between characters and their types. Purple was used for rich male and female characters; however since women were mostly forbidden from acting, men had performed feminine parts. A red toga was used to represent a poor character and a striped tunic was used for a slave boy since tunics typically showed the character was a slave.


An Architectural Wonder

Probably the first permanent Ancient Roman theater was the Theater of Pompey and most theaters based their structures and design on this stunning example. Roman theaters were traditionally built on their own foundations. The arena was set up quite high so as to avoid the noise of the city and to enclose the performance. However, the audience were seldom quite like modern audiences and, therefore, masks were used to make it easier for people to clearly understand the performance.

As in the case of theatrical entertainment, the earliest venues for gladiatorial games at Rome were temporary wooden structures. According to Livy, as early as 218 B.C., gladiatorial contests were staged in the open elongated 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. For example, the stone amphitheater at Pompeii was constructed in 80–70 B.C., and similar to most amphitheaters, the Pompeian spectacle has an austere, functional appearance, with the seats partially supported on earthen embankments.

The earliest stone amphitheater in Rome was constructed in 29 B.C. by T. Statilius Taurus, one of the most trusted generals of the emperor Augustus. However, the structure burned down during the massive fire of 64 A.D. and was replaced by the Colosseum. The Colosseum remains as one of Rome’s most prominent landmarks. Unlike earlier amphitheaters, the Colosseum featured elaborate basement amenities, animal cages, 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 similar level in the architectural hierarchy as the theater, with its venerable Greek precedents.

In addition to gladiatorial contests, the amphitheater provided the venue for 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, rhinoceroses, 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, cremated, or attacked by wild beasts, and were also forced to re-enact gruesome myths. The final days of the Republic saw the beginning of extensive theater construction. Today, the ruins of these theaters are some of the most magnificent archaeological sites in the world. 

To the people of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, an expected privilege of citizenship was access to free entertainment. Whether it was a gladiatorial combat, a chariot race or a theatrical spectacle, senators, governors, and emperors could always get the people back on their side by paying for a few days of public events. Roman theater borrowed from Greek precedents, but held a unique role in Roman culture. After all, Romans loved a good performance.


What do you think of the theater in Ancient Rome? Let us know below.

Ancient Rome was the center of one of the most powerful empires that the world has ever known. But who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome? Here, Adrian Burrow of explains why he thinks the intriguing Vestal Virgins were the most powerful.

You can see some of Adrian’s past articles for the site on the weapon that conquered Ancient Egypt (here), bizarre World War One body armor (here), and the three most bizarre tanks ever (here).

The Sacrifice of Vestal  by Alessandro Marchesini, 1710s.

The Sacrifice of Vestal by Alessandro Marchesini, 1710s.

How do you define power? That’s a difficult question to answer, certainly within the confines of this thousand-word article. So, for my purposes, power is being able to exert your will and have the maximum amount of people follow your instructions. In Ancient Rome then, there are a great many contenders for the title of ‘Most Powerful’. 

At its peak, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire was vast, covering a jaw-dropping five-million square kilometers. Just to put that in perspective, the Roman Empire was the equivalent of 1.4 billion soccer pitches. They’d have certainly needed a very well inflated pig’s bladder and a team compromising of giants in order to set up a quick game of five-a-side soccer. What is so impressive is this empire was ruled with a communication structure no more advanced than a lot of straight, flat roads.


Emperor Trajan

The ruler of the Empire at its peak was the Emperor - in this case Trajan, soon to be handing over to Hadrian on account of a severe case of premature death* - who was responsible for some sixty five million people. The Emperor had near incomputable and incomparable power then. His will could, quite literally, change the course of history. Yet, did anyone have power over the Emperor? You could argue that both the people and the senate had a degree of influence over the Emperor. After all, an Emperor is still only human and a great many of them received their comeuppance for miffing off the wrong people.** However, I would argue that the group of people who had the most influence over the Emperor were the vestal virgins.


Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins were a group of six hand-picked women who were responsible for the maintaining of the perpetual sacred flame kept in the temple of Vesta. This was an incredibly important duty as it was believed that should the flame be snuffed out then Rome would fall. These sacred maidens had an unparalleled position of power amongst women at this point in history; they did not have to marry, they were not the ‘property’ of any man, and their position enabled them to wield significant religious and political influence. They could also, according to Alexandra Turney of Through Eternity Tours, “own property, vote, and write a will. They had the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves. A condemned man on his way to his execution only had to catch a glimpse of a Vestal Virgin to be freed.”

The extent of their responsibility and influence can be seen by their punishment if something went wrong in Ancient Rome. We can see an example of this in the BBC article ‘Ancient Rome’s Maidens: who were the Vestal Virgins?’ (reference at bottom of article)

“Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on a failure to maintain Vesta's fire.”

Yet, I would argue, that an opposite case could be made. If the failure of a failed military campaign was the fault of the Vestal Virgins, then conversely a military success was due to their influence. To go a step further, if the Vestal Virgins were to decree that a military campaign was destined to fail, then could anyone, even an Emperor, disagree? Let’s take a look at a few examples of this. Pliny the Elder – the Roman naturalist, author and philosopher – wrote in Book 28 of his Natural History:

“At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.”


Vestals as ‘Super-heroes’

The Vestal Virgins had the power to convene with the gods and, even more impressively, the gods would listen to and be influencedby their words. This isn’t just regular Emperor power, this is super hero level power. If Gegania, one of the first Vestals, were to crop up as an Avenger in the next Marvel film then absolutely no-one should be surprised. This was a power that the Vestals would wield to influence and change the political landscape.

The Vestals interceded and saved Julius Caesar from Sulla’s proscriptions. Sulla was, at the time, the ‘dictator’ of Rome and the most powerful man in the city. He had a list of enemies of the state who, through his proscriptions, would be killed or banished. Julius Caesar’s name was on this list – his demise was certain. That was until the Vestal’s stepped up and saw that he was granted pardon. The Vestals had stood up to the most powerful person in Rome, in the midst of his punishing and pretty psychopathic political pruning, and been victorious. 

That’s is not to say the Vestal’s were untouchable however, they, like anyone, could be toppled. This was often done through the aforementioned scapegoating or through the besmirching of their character. The punishments for Vestas put into this position were severe. Rules prevented Vesta’s from being killed or harmed but these restrictions were averted by effectively burying them alive.*** 

Yet, what power comes without severe danger? And what power the Vestal Virgins had. Who else could bend an Emperor, and by proxy 65 million Romans, to their will?


Who do you think the most powerful people in Ancient Rome were? Let us know below.


Adrian is the co-owner of Imagining History School Workshops - an organisation dedicated to bringing the very best history workshops to primary schools across the UK. You can find out more at or follow them on twitter at @imagininghist

If you want to keep up to date with Adrian's writing, including his regular Playing with History video game feature for, then you can do so @adewritesstuff.



*It really was a severe case of premature death. Trajan died of a suspected stroke in the city of Selinus. His adopted son Hadrian took on the mantle of Emperor who, along with his father, is considered one of the ‘good’ Emperors.

**Emperor Caracalla had it pretty bad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards whilst taking a pee at the side of the road. Worst bodyguard ever.

*** In 114 BC the Vestal Mercia was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb – not a good way to go. Though in the historical records the frequency of such a heinous punishment was rare, most Vestals retired after a thirty-year service and enjoyed a rather generous pension.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

The Roman Republic lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC. It started after the period of the Roman Kings and ended with the start of the Roman Empire. Here, Cameron Sweeney explains how government operated in the Roman Republic. It considers the Senate, the Assembly, the Quaestors, Aediles, and Praetors, the Consuls, and the Censors.

a 19th-century depiction of the Roman Senate by Cesare Maccari. The painting is called  Cicero attacks Catiline .

a 19th-century depiction of the Roman Senate by Cesare Maccari. The painting is called Cicero attacks Catiline.

Rome. Surely the best-known empire in the history of mankind. Rome has left behind it a legacy of art, philosophy, literature, and architecture (and a horse Consul, but we will ignore that). People know of the writings of Seneca, or of the story of Aeneid, or even about the aqueducts and Coliseum. Whether it be when Caligula declared war on Neptune or the stories of Julius Caesar, people typically know quite a bit about Rome. But what many people don't know about is their government. The Romans have left a mold in which western civilizations have used in the formation of their government.


Social Divisions During the Republic

Up until Julius Caesar took hold of Rome in 49 BC, Rome was not ruled by an all-powerful individual, but by two elected Consuls. At that time, Rome was considered a Republic, and Rome was the closest it would ever be to a democracy.

The citizens of the Republic were broken up into three main social classes; the Patricians, Plebeians, and Slaves.

The patricians were usually the wealthiest and elite families of Rome. I emphasize families because Rome was a society where even the wealthiest plebeians weren't considered patricians, due to their “gens” or name. Patricians lived in grand villas and had slaves do their work for them. Due to their elite social class, they were allowed to vote and participate in government.

The plebeians were the lower class of Rome. Typically without wealth or slaves, the plebeian class usually had to work for a living (an utterly repulsiveidea, I know). It was not uncommon, however, for a wealthy plebeian to buy their way into the patrician class, if a certain patrician family was in dire need of funds. Regardless of this, Plebeians were still citizens of Rome and thus were also allowed to vote and participate in government.

The slave class of Rome, on the other hand, had no money, no land, and no freedoms. Although slaves, they had some rights and often would occupy important positions such as accountants or physicians. Nonetheless, they were not considered citizens of Rome and were not allowed the right to vote or participate in government.


The Senate

Throughout the history of Rome, the Senate played an important part in Roman politics and government. The Senate consisted of men aged 30 or older, and senators held their office for their entire life!  Senators would advise the Consuls, and even the Emperor later in Roman history, and would often discuss and vote on legislation.

What makes the Senate interesting is that it had no legislative power. That's right, the Senate had no power to create or destroy laws. This didn't make it powerless, as the Senate still held a significant influence over government and acted as a prime advisory body to the Consuls in the time of the Republic.

During the time of the Emperor the Senate naturally lost significant power. Even so, the Senate discussed domestic and foreign policy and supervised relations with foreign powers and governments. The Senate would direct the religious life of Rome and, most importantly, controlled state finances. The ability to control finance was an incredible tool for the Senate's disposal, as that gave them leverage when the Germanic tribes decided they wanted to give taking over Rome just one more try, and the Emperor needed additional funds to wage war.


The Assembly

Throughout Rome, there were several different assemblies that held legislative power. The Senate may have held influence over legislation and policy, but the assemblies had legislative power. The most prominent assembly was the “Concilium Plebis,” or the Council of the Plebeians. This assembly allowed Plebeians to gain a say in Roman law. These assemblies acted as the voice of Rome and portrayed the needs and desires of the general public.

Even more so than the elite Senate, these assemblies represented the voice of the plebeians, and even more, the voice of the ordinary citizens of Rome. By no means was this system fully democratic, but the establishment of these assemblies was one of the first steps to modern democracy, that is used in many nations today. The assemblies’ critical role in Roman government is what gave it a name in their military standard, SPQR - "Senatus Populusque Romanus."


The Quaestors, Aediles, and Praetors

At the very beginning of the Roman Republic, people quickly realized that they would need magistrates to oversee various administrative tasks and positions. Over time, these positions became known to be sort of a “path to consulship.” Each position had a different task and purpose to fulfil.

The first step of the “path to consulship” was the Quaestor. Men 30 years (28 if you were a patrician) or older were eligible to run. Quaestors served in various financial positions throughout the Empire. Quaestors did not possess the power of imperium and were not guarded by Lictors Guild.

The next step was the Aediles. At 36 years old, former Quaestors were allowed to run for Aedile. At any time there were four Aediles, two patricians and two plebeians, each of which were elected by the Council of the Plebeians. They were entrusted with administrative positions, such as caring for public buildings and temples or organizing games. This ability to organize games was critical to boosting any aspiring politicians popularity with the people, and was certainly utilized to its fullest.

The final step to Consulship was the Praetor. After occupying the office of the Aediles or Quaestor, a man of 39 years could run for office. In the absence of either Consul, a Praetor would hold command over the garrison. The main purpose of the Praetor, however, was to act as a judge.


The Consuls

The two consuls of the Roman Republic really represented two main things; an executive branch, and checks and balances. With the establishment of Consulship after the fall of the Roman Kings, this showed the beginning of an executive branch, in the sense that there is one, or two in the case of the Romans, powerful head(s) of a government. What made this system interesting is that there were two Consuls at any given time, and bothcould veto each other.

Giving this executive, the Consul, the power of veto is another addition into Roman checks and balances put in place to keep one man from ruling all of Rome, which is why there was never a Roman Emperor… Oh, wait a second… Anyway… Up until Caesar, Romans kept the Consuls in check through their own system of checks and balances. Since both Consuls could veto each other, and there was an assembly to vote and discuss laws, the Consul was kept from overpowering Roman government. 

The Consul had the power of Imperium,or basically the power to lead the army, presided over the Senate, and represented the state in foreign affairs. That being said, even with checks and balances, each Consul wielded significant power. Once Rome was ruled by Emperors, the office of the Consul dramatically lost its powers to the Emperor, but was still maintained as a sort of symbolic reminder of Rome’s Republican past and where they came from.     


The Censors & Magister Populi

Becoming a Censor in Rome was considered the pinnacleof public office for several reasons. During the time of the Republic, the Censor held an 18 month term, as opposed to the usual 12 month terms. This position was elected every five years and although without the power of imperium, it was still considered a great honor.

Censors not only counted the population, or census, in Rome but had the ability to add and remove Senators from office, as well as construct public buildings. An example of this being Appius Claudius, who sanctioned the first aqueduct. 

The last “public office,” that needs to be brought up is that of the dictator, or Magister Populi.In times of immense danger or crisis, the people would elect one of the sitting Consuls to adopt the title of Magister Populi, or Master of the People. This position served for six months and essentially ruled as an Emperor, with total power. This position continued until Julius Caesar was named dictator for life by the Senate, and the position would never be used again thereafter. Unfortunately in 44 BC, Caesar was stabbed in the back… literally… 23 times… His death ultimately ended the Republic, and began the reign of the Emperors.



The Roman Republic, and SPQR in general had been a civilization that stood the test of time, and ultimately existed for roughly 1800 years.The way they wrote, sculpted, and governed shaped, and continues to shape, the world we live in today. Their ability to govern, reform, and adapt to their growing environment is what ultimately allowed them to exist for almost two millennia, and prove themselves such a successful civilization.


What do you think about Roman Government? Let us know below.


“The Romans - Roman Government.” History, 11 May 2017,

“The Roman Republic.”, Independence Hall Association,

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Roman Republic.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 Apr. 2018,