Roman Theaters During The Republic

by Tucker Bohm, Wellington School, Columbus OH


When tragedies and comedies first were performed in Rome, around 240 B.C., they were shown in temporary wooden stages. For the next 200 years they continued to be acted out on these wooden structures. The stages had to be destroyed, for the space was needed for other more popular events to take place. Another reason the stages are thought to have been destroyed was because such a large wooden construct represented a great fire hazard.

These stages were based on the phlyakes stage, often being as primitive as a wooden platform supported by several posts in the ground. However some of these stages were quite complex affairs, involving stairways, doors, columns, and even a second story. However because of its acoustic properties the floor of the stage remained wooden planks no matter how complex the rest of the theater. Plautus' Amphitryon was performed on just such an elaborate temporary wooden stage, having an upper story with windows as well as apartments with separate entrances.

(This kind of temporary wooden STAGE was constructed in 1994 for performances at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Evidence from ancient wall paintings, especially those at OPLONTIS, (view 1, view 2, view 3) influenced the design. Several of these paintings and several views of the Getty stage can be found at the THEATRON home page under the heading of "projects.")

By 80 B.C. there were stages being erected with elaborate painted frescoes, incredibly lifelike backgrounds, and walls with several stories as well as columns. However, no matter how complex the stage was, it still had to be torn down after the play was shown. However the seating for the spectators was not temporary. The wooden stands were often used for later entertainments after the stage had been destroyed.

In southern Italy during this same time period many large permanent stone theaters were built. These buildings took were influenced by the traditional Hellenistic theaters but changed them to suite the Italian tastes in theater. These stone theaters were first seen in southern Italy and Sicily around 230 B.C. and gradually appeared farther and farther north.

The first permanent stone theater in Rome, the THEATER OF POMPEY

(Information can be found under "projects" at the Theatron home page.) was built in 55 B.C. Many others soon followed, such as the THEATER OF MARCELLUS. (view 1, view 2) Much like the stone theaters in Greece these theaters were arranged with a half circle of seating known as the CAVEA and the stage running along the front. The flat area in front of the stage was called the ORCHESTRA and was accessed through the ADITUS MAXIMUS. The stage building or SCAENAE enclosed the stage and all the BACKSTAGE ROOMS AND PASSAGES. The FRONS SCAENAE was the background for the stage, traditionally having THREE ENTRANCES along the back wall, and one entrance on either side of the stage, or wing. The central door was the royal door and those on either side of it along the back wall were guest doors.

Some of the characteristics of these Roman theaters which set them apart from those of the Hellenistic period were the following: the orchestra was a half circle and used to SEAT high ranking spectators such as senators; the STAGE, called the pulpitum, was low (no higher than five feet) and as deep as the orchestra (much deeper than Hellenistic stages); the PROSCENIUM had a closed front decorated with niches; the background was decorated with ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS

such as arches and columns; the seats were divided by parapets for different social classes; and there were separate entrances or VOMITORIA for the different sections of seating. Most of the theaters in Italy were FREE STANDING, rather than being built into a hillside.

Another distinctive attribute of the Roman theater was that the curtain or aulaeum was raised from below by poles, so at the beginning of the performance it would actually drop to reveal the actors. In addition to the covered porticus on the top level, there was sometimes a linen awning over part of the spectators' area to provide shelter from the sun and rain. Often there was a shrine at the top of the theater as well. In the permanent theaters, and even in some temporary wooden ones, a ROOF over the stage was built to reflect sound into the theater, as well as to protect all of the decorations on the stage from the elements. The Roman theaters were riddled with PASSAGES and archways, making them not only functional but beautiful works of art as well.