Ancient Roman Theater

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Roman theater in Bosra ( Syria )

The Roman culture made big loans from the Hellenistic period , which mainly affected the educational ideals. Thus, in the 1st century BC Also plays, which made up an essential part of Greek literature, became more and more popular in the Roman sphere of influence. The first theater performances in Rome took place as early as 364 BC. At public games ( ludi publici ) in honor of the gods. Due to the originally religious character , the theater plays were played in the immediate vicinity of a god temple. The reason for the theater performances had been a previous epidemic and the games were now supposed to represent an offering to the gods. This new form of entertainment quickly became very popular with the Romans and was soon able to establish itself. 240 BC Greek tragedies and comedies were first translated into Latin (and adapted to Roman public tastes). Since then, a distinction has been made between the ludi Graeci ("Greek games" based on the Greek model) and the ludi Romani ("Roman games").

Comfort and equipment of the theater systems

Ancient Roman Theater

Until the middle of the 3rd century BC The Roman “theater complexes” were limited to simple wooden buildings that were removed immediately after they were used. This included a podium, benches for the spectators and occasionally a grandstand.

In the middle of the 2nd century BC As a result of a senate resolution, one even had to be content with the stage for actors while the viewer had to stand. This unusual decision was based on the fear of the senators that the Romans could become softer (for the fight and the imagination of a true Roman) with too much relaxation (since they only sit in the theater) at the public games. So the official statement of the Senate.

The main reason, however, was the critical attitude of many senators towards the events, who viewed this form of entertainment due to its Greek origin and its often obscene content (especially the mimus and atellane ) as immoral and morally reprehensible and tried to abolish it.

The reputation of the Greeks in Rome has been improving since the campaigns of conquest (1st century BC) . Many Greek philosophers , speech teachers and other artists, including actors and theater poets , went to Rome.

The desire for Greek luxury was particularly evident among the young Romans. In this, however, the politicians saw a contradiction with the old virtues: obedience and celibacy (corresponding to the mores maiorum ), which represent the power base of the Roman aristocracy . The senators saw morality and discipline as well as their own power base threatened. As long as this opinion was widespread, building a theater in Rome was simply unthinkable.

Nevertheless, there were also many people in all Roman population groups who admired and supported Greek culture almost fanatically, so that the number of festival days on which plays were staged increased steadily.

It is known that 55 BC Chr. Pompey had the first permanent stage set up. This Pompey Theater , named after him, was part of a large complex near the Tiber , which also contained a shrine to the goddess Venus .


Theater in Merida , Spain

The auditorium ( cavea ) consisted of semicircular, rising rows of seats with several entrances ( vomitoria , singular vomitorium , von vomere , `` spit out '', because seen from the stage it looks as if the vomitoria is spitting out the audience ). One could move to the individual seats through corridors ( praecinctiones ) and stairs. The individual audience blocks ( cunei , singular cuneus , 'wedge') were separated from one another by corridors. At the upper end of the auditorium there was often a covered gallery or a portico (porticus) . In very hot weather it was also possible to attach a sun sail (velarium) over the rows of seats with anchors on the outer wall at the height of the gallery.

The seats were allocated according to the political or economic, i.e. social status of the visitor: Senators or other high-ranking members of the government either sat in the orchestra , the semicircular level directly in front of the stage, or found space in raised boxes (tribunalia) on the sides of the cavea . They even had special entrances: aditus maximi , which ran right along the stage complex and flowed into the orchestra from two sides . The following 14 rows of the stands were reserved for the equites . For the remaining rows of seats there was free choice of seat for the common citizen.

The stage complex consisted of the stage house (scaena) and the actual stage (pulpitum) . Below that there were various lifting and lowering machines in another room. There was a roof over the stage to protect it from the weather; it was often three stories high and was splendidly decorated with columns , windows and niches . Everything else necessary for the theater was in the stage house.

To this day, a large number of Roman theaters, in various states, can be seen all over the Mediterranean. The theaters in Merida ( Spain ), Orange ( France ), Aspendos ( Turkey ), Bosra ( Syria ), Amman ( Jordan ), Caesarea ( Israel ), Thugga ( Tunisia ), Leptis Magna and Sabrata in Libya and are particularly well preserved in Rome .

Theatrical genres

Genres of Comedy

The earliest forms of Roman comedy included mimus and atellane. Typical for these two genres are vulgar and obscene content without a dramatic plot: love affairs, adultery , the stupid country folk, shipwreck, murder and cheating, slaps, kicks, fights, silly grimaces and chases form the usual standard repertoire of both genres. The older research assumed that striptease scenes by the actresses (before and after the staging ) were also added to the mimus . These striptease scenes are likely to have been carried out by professional prostitutes as part of the Flora Festival in Rome.

Mimus (since the 2nd century BC)

The typical language of the mimus sometimes made use of a certain licentia verborum , a linguistic exuberance, and was composed of a direct and popular vocabulary , to which obscene and crude expressions were added. From the mime poet Publilius Syrus , whose mimes have all been lost, a collection of around 700 one-liners has survived, the so-called sententiae, which, on the other hand, were written in iambic or trochaic meter.

The topics could be summarized well under the modern collective term "sex and crime": Often it was about love affairs, marriage and adultery, but also about "tragic" such as shipwrecks, death , poisoning and various frauds, so that it sometimes led to chases, fights and silly grimaces came. Allusions to current political issues and people are attested in the mimus fragments. Especially the mime poet Decimus Laberius took up the middle of the 1st century BC. Chr. Repeated ordinances and deeds of the famous Gaius Julius Caesar on the grain. Was also popular myths travesty that (especially Jupiter) and the love affairs of gods heroes parodied. Successful poets in this direction were Lentulus and Hostilius .

Since the pieces hardly differed in terms of content, the actors were able to perform them routinely and quite professionally and enabled many spontaneous interludes and improvisations . Today only fragments of the Latin mimus are known, while entire scenes of the Greek mimus - preserved on papyri from the Egyptian Oxyrhynchos - have been handed down.

These half to one hour antics could be brought onto the stage with relatively little effort, since an ensemble only consisted of a few actors. Mime actors of the second, third and fourth rank ( secundarum , tertiarum , quartarum ) are attested in inscriptions and literature . Two of them were character actors , the other represented the type of stupidus (the dumbbell , recognizable by the shaved skull). The parasite known from the Roman comedy of Plautus and Terentius can also be found in the mimus. Depending on the financial possibilities, other actors as well as extras and batch actors could be added.

The main actor of the mimus demanded complete submission from his colleagues, so that they might even have to play worse in order not to steal the show. The mimi (actors of the mimus) did not wear masks, which made even greater demands on their artistic qualities in facial expressions and gestures . A mimus also included prose parts , song numbers and dance interludes .

Since the 1st century BC There are also mimic actresses (mimae) attested to in literature, but it can be assumed that mime actresses appeared before this time.

Atellans (atellana fabula)

This form of comedy , which originally came from Campania , was closely related to the Doric folk bosom of the Phlyaks in southern Greece and probably got its name because it is said to have been performed for the first time by actors from the Oscar city of Atella .

The ensemble consisted of fixed types who were characterized by distinctive masks . An exact identification of the masks that have come down to us with individual types of the atellans must remain speculation, however, as these masks are not labeled and no descriptions have been preserved in Roman literature.

  • Maccus , the stupid, is repeatedly betrayed and ridiculed by the others. In modern research, his mask has been characterized by a hooked nose, a bald head, a half-open mouth with only a few teeth and a dumb facial expression.
  • Bucco (from bucca = cheek) is not much smarter . He is a plump and chubby "mouth hero" and therefore often has to take slaps in the face to the amusement of the audience.
  • Manducus , "the eater" (also dossen (n) us ) is characterized by forgetfulness, but also by a certain peasant cunning .
  • Even Pappus , a lustful and stingy old man, is not much smarter than his cronies.

The language of the atellane is also distinguished by its linguistic coarseness. In addition, there is increased gesticulation in order to exaggerate everything and thus make it ridiculous. Again only parts are preserved, but also a few titles that can provide information about the content.

The subjects of the atellane are often everyday situations, with the different fixed types slipping into the most varied of professions, but also erotic content and family events such as weddings and deaths with disputes about the inheritance are on the agenda. As with mimus, the myth travesty is also very popular here. Often the poets resorted to the urban-rural contrast, whereby the whole rural life was ridiculed and ridiculed and the townspeople could feel far superior. This becomes clear through the coarse, often vulgar "peasant" dialect used by the actors.

After the flowering period between 100 and 80 BC The popularity of the atellane gradually declined, while the mimus became more and more popular and - together with the dance theater of pantomime - dominated the theater stage until late antiquity .

Fabula palliata and fabula togata

In the 3rd century BC The Greek art drama became known in Rome :

The fabula palliata was a comedy based on the Greek model. Greek models of the “New Attic Comedy” were simply translated into Latin and adapted to the tastes of the Roman audience. The themes and locations, however, remained Greek settings with Greek material - joys and sorrows of a petty-bourgeois world. With the fabula palliata , the Roman theater reached its artistic peak.

A special form of Roman comedy is the fabula togata , in which the location and subject matter of the comedy are relocated to Italian territory and which - apart from the style - was not based on any direct Greek models (fabula togata, = "comedy in Roman garb" by toga / fabula palliata = "Comedy in Greek garb" from pallium = coat).

Twenty comedies have survived by Plautus (250 to 184 BC) and six from Terence (around 195–159 BC).

Genera of tragedy

The classical Roman tragedy was based on the Greek art drama , but featured a special Roman form: fabula praetexta (= tragedy in Roman state garb), in which the actors appeared as Roman heroes in the purple- lined toga praetexta .

The traditional tragedy based on the Greek model was perceived as strange and old-fashioned in the imperial era , which is mainly due to the peculiar costumes and the grim and ugly masks with large mouths.

The contents of the dramas, which lasted several hours, were also too demanding and difficult to digest and were therefore strongly endangered by the competition from gladiator fights and chariot races and popular lighter comedy.

It is questionable whether Seneca's tragedies (4 BC – 65 AD) were still written for the stage or conceived as pure reading dramas, since many passages could also be recited in isolation.

In order to remain competitive, the tragedy relied on particularly extensive and elaborate equipment to attract the audience. Horses and carts, even entire ships, appeared on the stage, so that the focus was shifted more and more from the content to the sight of the performance. In the long run, however, such expensive companies could not be maintained, so it is hardly surprising that the classical tragedy completely disappeared from the theater programs in Rome in the first half of the 1st century AD.

That was the end of the ludi Graeci , while the ludi Romani were able to continue their triumphant advance. Atellans, and especially mimus , continued to be popular. In a radical reform, which should make the tragedy shallower and therefore more “palatable”, and also offer more for the eye, more tension and surprises, the pantomime (also: saltica fabula ) arose .


In 22 BC The actor Iulius Orpheus Pyladis made a decisive change by separating the lecture from the movement in the tragedy. A single actor, each masked and costumed differently, who took on all the roles, played historical or mythological material in a sequence of solo scenes with dance interludes .

He did not speak a word ( pantomimus = "one who imitates everything"), but was accompanied by a choir , which recited the text, and an orchestra , to whose story the pantomime "danced", as it were. (This is why this form of representation was also called saltare = to dance).

In order to avoid boredom, one climax followed the other. The originally long dialogues of the tragedy were radically shortened and "boring" passages left out entirely, leaving a series of scenes that were full of dramatic tension and extremely emotional. Since one limited oneself to the spectacular and the already known or accepted by the audience, the same songs (cantica) appeared again and again , which gradually advanced to folk songs . It was less about a fancy text than about a catchy melody with “catchy tunes”.

The poets of these libretti therefore did not have a particularly good reputation among their poet colleagues. Nevertheless, many epics such as B. Lucan or Statius downgraded to it because of lack of money, as the pay was very good.

The themes mostly came from Greek mythology and world history and were spiced with as much blood and drama as possible.

Requirements for the pantomime: In contrast to the clowning of the colleagues from the mimus , the pantomime was always subject to the sharp criticism of its audience. He had to be extremely flexible and be able to improvise at any time, as he usually had to play several completely opposite roles at the same time. To do this, he only changed the mask on the outside.

The external stature of the dancer was also important, his body had to correspond to the “golden mean” so that he could flexibly take on all roles and was not already determined by his body. That is why the mimes kept a strict diet and occasionally used emetics in order not to gain weight. To do this, they regularly completed intensive movement training. But also a good intellectual talent was a prerequisite, an excellent memory, judgment, as well as a sense of poetry and harmony and solid mythological knowledge to be able to interpret the material correctly. So it was the high artistic level of pantomime, which told the story with only a few tools through its performance, gestures and sign language , which made this genre so attractive.


The common actors and their rights

Acting troops are mostly made up of citizens of foreign cities, slaves or freedmen , i. H. made up of people who either had no or only partial Roman civil rights. Occasionally, however, free-born Roman citizens can also be proven as actors. Their lives were modest, calm and were marked by a clear gap between representing and being, which the philosopher Seneca made abundantly clear: the proud, daring heroes on the stage are in reality slaves and starving.

Due to the composition of the theater groups and the sometimes obscene content of the stage plays, the actor's status was generally not particularly respected. In ancient Rome, actors were often equated with dishonorable dismissed soldiers , couplers , thieves and swindlers - actresses with prostitutes and hetaerae - and had to reckon with more severe punishment than "ordinary" people for a crime, because their civil rights were severely restricted.

The law lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis authorized z. B. a Roman citizen who caught his wife in bed with an actor to kill him immediately without waiting for a judicial investigation afterwards. The prerequisite, however, was that the husband was sui iuris , i.e. H. was no longer under "paternal authority". If this was not the case, the husband faced a murder trial.

Officials were allowed to chastise actors anytime, anywhere. This old regulation was only somewhat restricted by Augustus . From then on, the punishments could only be carried out during the seasons and within the theater.

It was even more difficult for the actresses, who were often compared to simple prostitutes. The fact that a woman condescended to obscene acts, as they were (sometimes wrongly) ascribed to the content of the mime pieces, was considered to be definitely reprehensible. Christian authors and church fathers in particular (such as John Chrysostom ) railed against Miminnen and saw in them a danger to the family life of good Christians.


Nonetheless, there was sometimes great, occasionally even fanatical admiration of individual actors: Sometimes an actor was even honored by being granted civil rights, by a statue, an inscription or a large amount of money.

Occasionally, the mime performers of the imperial era achieved a real star cult , who were able to distinguish themselves without competition in their solo appearances in front of a large audience. A good pantomime could and would ask for maximum wages. Pyladis , the inventor of pantomime , let himself be paid so dearly that in old age he was so rich that he could organize plays himself and finance the next generation of artists.

Nero , who himself liked to recite tragedies, spent a lot of money promoting the arts and gave away over two billion sesterces to his favorites, including a. many actors. However, his successor Galba demanded nine tenths of this back from the recipients, since the state treasury had gone bankrupt through Nero's expenses. Nevertheless, the subsequent emperors remained quite permissive towards the actors for reasons of publicity, only Marcus Aurelius pulled the brakes by limiting the actors' fees.

So the leading actors were generally not doing badly. Although they belonged to a marginalized group with a generally poor reputation, they had no financial worries, nor did they have to fear personal ostracism. This is also proven by the grave inscription of the mime actor Vitalis from the 2nd century BC. Chr .:

"Thanks to his art, he was known worldwide and had earned a beautiful house and a large fortune in this way."

The great pantomimes were real stars in today's sense, who were adored by all classes and were popular even in the highest circles. This is especially true of the pantomimes, because this art was considered more serious and demanding and was therefore more respected in the higher classes than mimus , which in turn drew its largest following from the lower classes, but not exclusively. The audience was always mixed at all performances.


Sometimes the actors (and their supporters) were violently over the ropes, so that Tiberius felt compelled in 23 AD to expel all pantomimes from Rome because of unrest and riots. His successor Caligula , who was himself an enthusiastic pantomime dancer, brought the artists back to Rome.

At theatrical performances there was often aggression and fights between fans . The reason for these "theater scandals" was the formation of theater parties or "fan clubs" that loudly cheered on their respective favorites.

Nero hired large groups of applauseers for his own performances, who should give him applause and support him in his singing so that he would not embarrass himself, which was very expensive. Because he himself liked to watch the riots between the theater fans from his honorary lied and got involved, the officers and soldiers responsible for peace remained powerless.

Owning actors and jokers for their own amusement may have been a status symbol in the higher classes. Those who could afford it, like Ummidia Quadratilla , a wealthy lady from a noble family (died around 110 AD), kept a whole cast of actors.

Married women from higher classes were sometimes said to have affairs with actors. One of these admired pantomimes was the beautiful and scandalous Mnester . Caligula is said to have had a homosexual relationship with him, which he also lived out in public. The accusation of a relationship with an actor or actress is a standing topos in ancient Roman literature , which should serve to denigrate the person concerned and therefore always treat it with certain reservations. In addition, Mnester secretly had several relationships with married women from the upper class, including Poppaea Sabina (according to Tacitus the “most beautiful woman in Rome”), with whom he secretly met at night in the house of someone who knew. When the adultery of the two was exposed, the new emperor Claudius had the helper killed. Mnester himself emerged from the affair without harm and entered into a new liaison with Valeria Messalina , the Emperor's wife, of all people. Apparently he was forced to do so by her. The relationship between the two was well known but was initially ignored by the emperor. Mnester was not the only lover of Messalina, however, and when Claudius finally broke his collar, he had all of his wife's former lovers, including Mnester, executed in years 46 and 47, despite his pledges of innocence. Messalina herself was killed by intrigue only a short time later.

In Domitian's time , the similarly scandalous pantomime Paris lived, who also entered into a relationship with the Empress. Domitian had him murdered on the street in 83 AD. When his fans spontaneously distributed flowers and fragrances at the place of his death as a sign of admiration, the emperor threatened to execute them too, but remained powerless against a grave inscription that Martial wrote in honor of the dead artist.

The alignment of the games

The Ludi publici were an integral part of the Roman calendar of events and were held on public holidays and financed by emperors or wealthy officials. Of the 77 regular days of the festival calendar at the time of Augustus , 56 were reserved for stage performances in the theater. The number of feast days increased more and more, so that in the middle of the 4th century AD 102 of 176 feast days fell to the theater. There were also some irregular spectacula , which were mostly financed by private individuals, but were mainly limited to chariot races and gladiator fights . Nevertheless, the number of theater performances remained in first place. The reason for this was u. a. the comparatively low financial cost of a theatrical performance compared to the astronomical sums devoured by animal baiting and gladiator fights in the Colosseum .

The ludi publici were there for everyone and were therefore free of charge. But the ludi event not only included performances on the stage or in the arena, but also taking care of the physical well-being of the audience: Caligula in particular made himself popular by distributing free meals. The Roman theater was characterized primarily by its varied play. This is due to the fact that, in contrast to classical Athens, there was a wide range of amusements in Rome. A lot of people also had to be entertained. Theatrical performances have become increasingly one-sided in their efforts to attract audiences. Often they were nothing more than shoddy farces that only promised quick, vulgar entertainment.

See also


  • Richard C. Beacham: The Roman theater and its audience . Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1992, ISBN 0-674-77913-4 .
  • Peter Connolly , Hazel Dodge: The Ancient City. Life in Athens and Rome . Könemann Verlag, Cologne 1998, ISBN 3-8290-1104-0 .
  • Florence Dupont, Aristotle or the vampire of western theater. German by Kerstin Beyerlein. Alexander Verlag , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-89581-456-3
  • Evelyn Fertl: Of muses, mimes and light girls ... The actress in Roman antiquity . Braumüller, Vienna 2005, ISBN 3-7003-1516-3 ( Blickpunkte 9).
  • Alexander Puk: The Roman Games in Late Antiquity. de Gruyter, Berlin 2014, ISBN 978-3-11-033745-7 ( Millennium Studies 48 ).
  • Jürgen Söring (Ed.): Le théâtre antique et sa réception . Homage to Walter Spoerri . Lang, Frankfurt am Main a. a. 1994, ISBN 3-631-47280-3 .
  • Carl W. Weber : bread and games. Mass entertainment as politics in ancient Rome. License issue 1989 for Manfred Pawlak Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Herrsching. ISBN 3-88199-639-7 .
  • Magnus Wistrand: Entertainment and violence in Ancient Rome. The attitudes of Roman writers of the first century AD Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg 1992, ISBN 91-7346-255-1 ( Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis - Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 56).

Web links

Commons : Antique theater  album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Weber (1989): Bread and Games , p. 160f