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History of the Theater


The Theater in Antiquity - I

The Theater in Antiquity - II

The Theater in the Middle Ages

The Theater in the Early Modern Era

The Theater in the Modern Era

The Theater in Antiquity

By James Packer

The Theater of Pompey, restored  model by Italo Gismondi  in  the Museum of Roman civilization, Rome

Dedicated in 55 B.C., the Theater of Pompey the Great,  Rome’s first permanent theater, was an extraordinary monument. Perfected earlier in local warehouses and amphitheaters, its impressive new concrete and stone technology – the inspiration for its original design – allowed Pompey’s architect(s) to locate it on a flat, marshy plain rather than on a more conventional sloping hill. Of  rectangular blocks of tufa and travertine, its massive walls were conventional; its concrete vaults, ramping and horizontal, highly innovational.  Combining Hellenistic eastern models with Italic fashions, its vast size awed its contemporaries.

Aerial view of the Pio Palace from  Piazza del Biscione (semi-circular building, upper l.,)  to Via dei dei Chiavari (long, dark, vertical street to r.)

Stretching south from Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Via Giubbonari and west from Largo Argentina to Campo dei Fiori,  an entire neighborhood occupies the site today. A velarium, like that of the later Amphitheatrum Flavianum (the Colosseum) shaded the cavea (the auditorium), and, in addition to the axially situated Temple of Venus Victrix that crowned  the top of the semi-circular seating area (the cavea), three smaller shrines to Honor and Virtue, Luck, and Victory stood in the theater precincts.


Interior of the portico behind the Theater of Pompey, looking NW toward the rear facade of the scaenae frons (G. Gatteschi, Restauri di Roma imperiale (Rome: Comitato di Azione Patriotica, 1924, p. 87)

Behind the scaenae frons (the stage building), a peristyle with brocaded awnings enclosed lavishly laid out gardens with avenues of plane trees and a fountain with mythological statues. At its end, facing the Temple of Venus Victrix, behind the peristyle colonnade, the  Curia Pompeia (guarded by a statue of Pompey himself) provided the Senate with an elegant new meeting hall. Pompey’s structures thus served a variety of purposes. The theater hosted exhibitions, concerts and other musical presentations, plays, mimes, and quasi-sacred state ceremonies. The colonnades of the peristyle offered shelter in case of rain and served as a gallery for paintings and sculpture. The garden was also a city park, a meeting place for  public and private functions;  the curia was a government center.

Significantly, the Theater lay on the southern Campus Martius beyond Rome’s  pomerium (the sacred boundary around the city). Setting aside the ancient republican strictures against a permanent theater, Pompey constructed there a prototypical imperial monument. By its unprecedented design, size, and expensive fittings, it initially celebrated his fame. Ultimately, after his defeat and murder, it commemorated his vast personal, political, and military power.  After Caesar’s assassination, the people burned the Curia Pompeia where he had been murdered. Augustus definitively closed what was left and moved Pompey’s statue across the gardens to a spot just behind the main door of the scaenae frons. Thereafter, until the fall of the Roman Empire, Augustus and his successors scrupulously maintained the Theater and its dependencies. Only after the end of the Ostrogothic Kingdom (when, between 507 and 511, Cassiodorus again repaired the Theater), was it abandoned to slow decay.

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