Roman theatre (structure)

Roman theatre (structure)

The Roman theatre is a theatre building built by the Romans for watching theatrical performances.

Theatre structure

The characteristics of Roman theatres are similar to those of the earlier Greek theatres because the romans took over the Greeks, on which they are based. Much of the architectural influence on the Romans came from the Greeks, and theatre structural design was no different from other buildings. However, Roman theatres have specific differences, such as being built upon their own foundations instead of earthen works or a hillside and being completely enclosed on all sides. Roman theatres derive their basic design from the Theatre of Pompey, the first permanent Roman theatre.

Roman theatres were built in all areas of the empire from modern-day Spain, to the Middle East. Because of the Romans' ability to influence local architecture, we see numerous theatres around the world with uniquely Roman attributes. [ Jones, Mark Wilson "Principles of Roman hiArchitecture." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. ]

There exist similarities between the theatres and amphitheatres of ancient Rome/Italy. They were constructed out of the same material, Roman concrete, and provided a place for the public to go and see numerous events throughout the Empire. However, they are two entirely different structures, with specific layouts that lend to the different events they held. Amphitheatres did not need superior acoustics, unlike those provided by the structure of a Roman theatre. While amphitheatres would feature races and gladiatorial events, theatres hosted events such as plays, pantomimes, choral events, and orations. Their design, with its semicircular form, enhances the natural acoustics, unlike Roman and Greek amphitheatres constructed in the round. [ Jones, Mark Wilson "Principles of Roman Architecture." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. ]

These buildings were semi-circular and possessed certain inherent architectural structures, with minor differences depending on the region in which they were constructed. The "scaenae frons" was a high back wall of the stage floor, supported by columns. The "proscaenium" was a wall that supported the front edge of the stage with ornately decorated niches off to the sides. The Hellenistic influence is seen through the use of the "proscaenium". The Roman theatre also had a "podium", which sometimes supported the columns of the "scaenae frons". The "scaenae" was originally not part of the building itself, constructed only to provide sufficient background for the actors. Eventually, it became a part of the edifice itself, made out of concrete. The theatre itself was divided into the stage (orchestra) and the seating section (auditorium). "Vomitoria" or entrances and exits were made available to the audience. [ Ros, K. E. "The Roman theater at Carthage [the theater's substructures, plan and the identification of architectural elements] ". American Journal of Archaeology v. 100 (July 1996) p. 449-89 ]

The auditorium, the area in which people gathered, was sometimes constructed on a small hill or slope in which stacked seating could be easily made in the tradition of the Greek Theatres. The central part of the auditorium was hollowed out of a hill or slope, while the outer radian seats required structural support and solid retaining walls. This was of course not always the case as Romans tended to build their theatres regardless of the availability of hillsides. All theatres built within the city of Rome were completely man made without the use of earthworks. The auditorium was not roofed; rather, awnings, "vela", could be pulled overhead to provide shelter from rain or sunlight. [ Richard Allan Tomlinson "Theatres (Greek and Roman), structure", The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Northwestern University. 11 May 2007 ]

Some Roman theatres, constructed of wood, were torn down after the festival for which they were erected concluded. This practice was due to a moratorium on permanent theatre structures that lasted until 55 BC when the Theatre of Pompey was built with the addition of a temple to avoid the law. Some Roman theatres show signs of never being completed in the first place. [ Campbell, Constance. "The Uncompleted Theatres of Rome", The Johns Hopkins University Press. Theatre Journal 55.1 (2003) 67-79 10 May 2007 ]

Inside Rome, few theatres have survived the centuries since their construction, providing little evidence about the specific theatres. Arausio, the theatre in modern day Orange, France, is a good example of a classic Roman theatre, with an indented "scaenae frons", reminiscent of Western Roman theatre designs, however missing the more ornamental structure. The Arausio is still standing today and, with its amazing structural acoustics and having had its seating reconstructed, can be seen to be a marvel of Roman architecture. [ Richard Allan Tomlinson "Theatres (Greek and Roman), structure", The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Northwestern University. 11 May 2007 ]

Types of plays

The Roman theatre consisted of many different types of plays. The Romans copied and modified many aspects of Greek culture such as their religion and drama to suit themselves. They tried to take many Greek plays and adapt them for the Roman stage as well as pay for writers such as Andronicus to write poems glorifying and praising Rome. However, most plays were set in Greece and actors wore Greek masks and costumes. At Roman festivals, plays were part of the entertainment.Not much work survives from the Roman theatre with the exception of Plautus and Terence. Both men copied Greek plays and adapted and changed them to suit the Romans. As a result there is no such thing as a 'typical' Roman play, like in Greek Tragedies, except for the later comedies. The Romans did not take theatre or drama as seriously as the Greeks and seemed to be mocking them..

Mime plays:

The Romans preferred comedies, especially exaggerated crude ones. Rather than challenge and explore the deep questions raised by Greek plays, the Romans wanted pure entertainment, lots of laughs and excitement. Mime, or performing without speaking, was popular with the audiences. Such mimes recreated and made fun of middle class citizens, as well as famous myths. Features included drunkenness, obscenity, adultery, semi-naked dances, greed, acrobatics and jokes! As a result of the crudeness on stage, actors were seen as an inferior group whereas they had been respected in Greece. By the end of the Roman Empire, a particular type of mime began to emerge. One actor played all the parts in the performance (wearing masks), danced and mimed while a chorus narrated or told the story he was acting out to music. This became known as pantomime, and still survives today in children's plays.

Bloodthirsty Entertainment:

Unfortunately, the Roman need for excitement and action seemed to know no limits, causing problems for the future of theatre in their society. More and more people, especially the Christian Church began to attack the theatre because of the shocking acts taking place on stage. Obscene language and actions were applauded, real bloody violence was acceptable, criminals were killed on stage, sexual acts were performed by prostitutes, and gladiators fought to their bloody deaths. Watching performances was like watching sport for the Roman audiences. Other popular entertainments of the time included chariot races, horse racing, battles, acrobatics, wrestling, animal fights and fights between people and animals such as lions. In the Colosseum amphitheatre, seating fifty thousand spectators, thousand of animals were killed, and people enjoyed watching Christians being eaten by lions. Needless to say, the theatre had lost its way for a time.

Partial list


* Djemila - listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with other Roman buildings of the city
* Guelma
* Khamissa
* Timgad - also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site


*The Plovdiv (ancient Philipoppolis) Roman theatre is still used.
*Sofia (ancient Serdica)
*Stara Zagora (ancient Augusta Trajana)


* Arles - listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with other Roman buildings of the city
* Autun
* Lyon - Antique theatre of Fourvière
* Lillebonne in Normandy
* Orange, the Théâtre Antique d'Orange is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with other Roman buildings of the city
* Vienne


* Mainz, Theatrum Mogontiacensium


* Fiesole, Tuscany,

* Pompeii
* Suasa, Marche
* Taormina, Sicily (Greek theatre)
* Verona
* Theatre of Marcellus, in Rome
* Theatre of Pompey, in Rome
* Ostia Antica


* Caesarea Maritima
* Scythopolis (Beit Shean)


* Roman theatre, Amman
* Gadara (2)
* Gerasa (2)
* Pella
* Petra


* Leptis Magna
* Sabratha


* Zaragoza
* Medellín
* Segobriga
* Cartagena
* Regina
* Mérida
* Málaga
* Sagunto


* Augusta Raurica
* Aventicum
* Lenzburg


* Apamea
* Bosra
* Palmyra
* Shahba
* Jableh


* Aspendos
* Ephesus
* Miletus
* Side
* Myra
* Pergamon
* Hierapolis

United Kingdom

* Verulamium (modern day St Albans) []


ee also

* Roman architecture
* Amphitheatre
* Theatre of ancient Rome
* Theatre of Marcellus
* Théâtre Antique d'Orange

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