Theatre The Etruscans brought dances with music to Rome in 364 B.C., according to the historian Livy. Atellanae, a native Italic farce was also played in Rome. Livius Andronicus, a native of Tarentum, introduced full-length scripted plays to Rome about 240 B.C. Plautus’ comedies (active 205–184 B.C.) were the oldest Latin plays to survive intact. Latin tragedy thrived in the 2nd century B.C. Some of the genre’s examples dealt with Greek mythology, while others focused on Roman history. Rome’s composition of tragedy and comedy deteriorated after the 2nd century B.C. During the imperial time, mime and pantomime were the most popular theatrical entertainment (performances by solo dancers with choral accompaniment, usually re-creating tragic myths).
Roman religious festivals, or Ludi, were the main venues for theatrical spectacles, arranged by elected magistrates and subsidized by the state. Temple dedications, military victories, and aristocratic funerals all presented scenic prospects. Rome had no permanent theatre until 55 B.C., so plays were produced in temporary wooden constructions that lasted only a few weeks. However, this resistance (conscience about Roman morality, fear of public uprising, and competitiveness among the elite) is still debated. Temporary theatres are described as being highly elaborate in literature. The best-known is the 58 B.C. theatre built by the magistrate M. Aemilius Scaurus, which Pliny says featured a stage made of three stories of columns and 3,000 bronze figures.
Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar’s adversary, dedicated the first permanent theatre in Rome, the Theater of Pompey, in 55 B.C. The theatre, whose foundations remain, had a height of 45 meters and could seat 20,000 people. A massive colonnaded portico contained artworks and gardens behind the stage. The theatre was built as a victory monument after Pompey’s magnificent military exploits in the 60s B.C. There was a temple to Pompey’s patron goddess Venus Victrix atop the caves, and the theatre was adorned with statues of the goddess Victory and personifications of the kingdoms Pompey conquered.
A pattern for nearly three centuries, Pompey’s dedication effectively codified the Roman theatre form. This new construction type was unlike the Greek theatre. This one had two parts: a horseshoe-shaped seating area and a freestanding stage. But the Roman theatre was an enclosed structure with no roof but with awnings for show days. The Greek theater’s seating area was supported by a natural slope, whereas the Roman theatre was partly supported by concrete vaults, which allowed access to the caves from the outside. The Hellenistic stage was a low structure with painted panels but rarely large-scale sculpture. The Roman theatre was adorned with portraits of the imperial family and local luminaries with freestanding columns and statues of gods and heroes.
Functional elements like optics, acoustics and staging needs cannot explain the architectural differences between the Roman and Greek theatres. Rather, social and political reasons seem to have influenced Rome’s adaption of Greek drama. The Roman theatre’s design reflects the Roman desire for social control and hierarchy. Roman audiences were segregated by class, gender, nationality, occupation, and marital status, unlike in Greece. The Roman theatre’s enclosed shape restricted entry to the building, while the system of vaulted substructures helped direct spectators to their seats.