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.


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