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History of the Theater - Antiquity


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 Richard Beacham

Excerpt from Richard C. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, (Yale, 1999), pp. 61-71.

The role of theatre in Roman political life appears to have become more important both during Pompey's absence abroad on military campaigns, and subsequently in the period following his great triumph of 61. Both its dangers and opportunities were formidable. Traditionally the provision of a permanent theatre at Rome had been vehemently opposed on moral, political and security grounds. The nobility had resisted a permanent site perhaps primarily because its existence would compromise their ability to manipulate patronage to their advantage. "Retention of the old system entailed annual decisions to purchase plays, mount productions, and construct makeshift stages and accoutrements that reaffirmed senatorial control of popular entertainment" (Gruen 1992, 222). Now, in the increasingly volatile conditions of the late Republic, earlier rhetorical objections to the supposed danger posed by a permanent structure to public order acquired greater legitimacy and force. As Cicero pointed out in 59 B.C., such venues in Greece had frequently been the site of destructive events "when in the theatre, untried men, quite inexperienced and ignorant, brought on harmful wars, put subversive men in charge of public affairs, and expelled men of merit from the city"(Pro. Flac. 16). Recent events in Rome offered plenty of examples of unruly proceedings in the temporary sites. But now as the Republican government and its institutions were wracked by factional struggles, what had been feared as perilous might be seen as desirable by one who knew how to benefit from it.

As Pompey contemplated his maligned dignitas and loss of prestige, the provision of a permanent theatre was distinctly attractive. By tradition, returning triumphators had used some of their war booty to build religious shrines as a lasting memorial to their achievements. Pompey himself had dedicated a temple to Hercules in 70, and erected one to Minerva in 61, probably on the Campus Martius, together with the dedication to the goddess of a large sum of money (Palmer 1990, 236; Diod. Sic. 40.4; Pliny N.H. 7.97). But, as we have seen, by the mid first century the surest way to secure the greatest (though transient) popularity was through the provision of games. In providing a permanent theatre Pompey could assert in a most graphic manner his political pre-eminence by in effect "co-opting" for himself alone a prominent form of display and patronage and an important means through which to assert aristocratic control of cultural activity, which, by venerable tradition and collective will, the political elite had reserved for themselves. A theatre could raise Pompey's prestige by in effect providing a continuous "triumph". The actual stagings, as Cicero's account cited below of the style of the two inaugural tragedies suggests, could be used deliberately to remind an audience of Pompey's own spectacular triumph, and the building itself could permanently display such evocative trophies as the fourteen allegorical statues representing the nations conquered on his eastern campaign (Pliny N.H. 36.41) which may eventually have adorned the piers of the theatre's exterior arcade. But beyond that it "would associate his name permanently with pleasure and detract from the glory of whoever happened to put on a show there. For the beauty of a theatre was that it could bear his own name" (Greenhalgh 1980, 175-6). Pompey would in effect "corner the market" in memorable monuments.

The establishment of a theatre, particularly one of the size and sumptuousness which Pompey had in mind, could (as events demonstrated) accommodate a great variety of entertainment. It might even provide an outlet for the type of "rough" theatre which was probably not represented among the limited activities customarily allowed to take place in the temporary constructions provided by individual politicians and dedicated to a particular festival; entertainments whose banishment from the popular street festivals had caused such embitterment and reaction. While perhaps easing such resentment by providing a new "civic" venue for such popular expressions to take place, a permanent facility offered a place of display and celebration which, unlike those in the streets, could be both "stage-managed" and more easily controlled in any volatile situation.

Pompey moreover, had the means to realize his audacious plans. In addition to some fourteen houses and estates, and a considerable inheritance from his parents and freedmen, he had accumulated a vast war booty, much of which had been invested lucratively in the East. Apart from the glory accumulating from such conspicuous and extravagant munificence, (which might raise him in contemporaries' eyes to the status of a Hellenistic monarch), the provision of a theatre may also have appealed to Pompey on an intellectual level. He was well trained in Greek and Latin literature, and had a circle of artists and intellectuals as friends. Foremost among these was Terentius Varro, the greatest of all Roman scholars, who had written extensively about theatrical art. Pompey had fashioned himself as a successor to Alexander and the master of the Hellenistic East. For generations, prominent Roman statesmen and commanders had freely "demonstrated not only enthusiasm for Greek culture, but confiscation of it" (Gruen 1992, 248). What grander gesture, or more extravagant demonstration of Pompey's status and ability to exploit Hellenic culture for the greater glory of the Roman people (and himself) could there be, than to adorn the City with the most striking and venerable "icon" of all, a magnificent and permanent theatre?

In September of 55, exactly six years after his triumph, and some eighteen months after the fateful conference at Lucca which had enabled Crassus and Pompey to share the consulship of that year, Pompey held games dedicating the theatre, which may have been substantially complete by this time, although the temple associated with it was apparently not finished for another three years, and was consecrated during Pompey's third consulship in 52 (Aul. Gell. 10.1.7; cf. Vell. Paterculus 2.48.2).

The games were keenly anticipated, as Cicero reveals in a speech in which, as an aside, he dared a political opponent to show himself at them. "We are close upon the celebration of the most elaborate and magnificent games in the memory of man, which have no equivalent in the past, and which it is difficult to imagine can ever be seen on such a scale in the future." (In Piso. 65) The shows were, of course, meant to be commensurate with Pompey's achievements at Rome and abroad. In addition to a variety of dramatic performances, there were athletic contests, music, gladiators, races and hunting of wild beasts in the Circus. The last were not performed merely to delight the public by displaying exotic creatures. The menagerie had a message; it graphically represented the distant lands which Pompey had subdued. Together with greater numbers of traditional animals than had ever before been seen at Rome -- six hundred lions (three hundred and fifteen with manes), four hundred and ten leopards and panthers, and eighteen elephants -- Pompey displayed such novelties as baboons, a lynx (possibly a gift from Caesar in Gaul), and, for the first time on any stage, an Indian rhinoceros!

Although Pompey's popularity and acclaim undoubtedly soared with the mass of spectators whose favour and taste were his chief concern, Cicero's more fastidious (but private) opinion as expressed to his friend Marcus Marius, must have been shared by a portion of the audience.

“As for the Greek and Oscan plays, I don't suppose you were sad to miss them... and, as for the athletes -- I can't conceive you regret foregoing them -- you who scorned the gladiators... all that's left is the hunts; twice a day over five days. Magnificent to be sure; who can deny it? But what pleasure can a man of culture derive from seeing some poor mortal torn to pieces by a mighty beast, or some fine animal impaled on a spear? And even if such things were worth seeing, you've seen it all before. I certainly saw nothing new” (Ad Fam. 7.1).

Cicero's adds that "the last day was for the elephants, which greatly impressed the crowd and rabble, but gave them no pleasure. In fact there was a degree of compassion, and a kind of feeling that this huge beast has a fellowship with the human race". His account is echoed by others, including Dio who records that the elephants at first refused to fight in the battle staged in the Circus protesting as they "walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven" (39.38.3), while Seneca describes how one of them put up an extraordinary fight, attacking its javelin-throwing opponents and tossing their shields in the air (De Brev. Vit. 13.6) . Some of the beasts attempted to break through the iron fence separating them from the spectators, who were so moved by their pitiful trumpeting that they burst into tears, and cursed Pompey (Pliny N.H. 8.21).

This undoubtedly militated against the aim of the festivities, which was of course to glorify Pompey and ingratiate the masses. The case highlights an important aspect of the potential and limitations of the games as public relations exercises. Comparing Caesar and Pompey, Yavetz comments (1983, 55)

“It is apparent that concern for the physical well-being of the masses was only one factor. All Roman rulers bribed the people with bread and circuses, and yet the one was popular and the other hated. Seneca provided the answer: the giving is not the decisive factor but the manner of its giving. The people were more easily swayed by how a ruler did than by what he did, and respected the one who at least took the trouble to appear popular”. (cf. Seneca De Benef.).

Pompey, in attempting to secure popularity entirely by over-awing the spectators, while remaining aloof from any expression of "the common touch", had only limited success. Cicero recorded how in the Clytaemestra of Accius a parade of six hundred mules carried the plunder of Agamemnon as he returned from Troy and, amidst hundreds of performers, some three thousand bowls were used in the Equus Troianus (of Naevius?) to display booty upon the stage. Evidently both the themes and staging were fashioned to flatter Pompey's own triumphal militarism through mythological associations. Cicero indicates that although the approach did not entirely please the spectators, it did impress them, which may suggest the extent to which "cross-fertilization" between the art of the theatre and that of the public spectacle conditioned audience reaction as it viewed the variety show laid on for the dedication.

But soon there was more to see and experience: the great theatre itself, and its complex of public amenities, gardens, and displays of art; hailed as Rome's most magnificent building. According to Pliny (N. H. 36.115), Pompey's theatre could seat forty thousand spectators, a figure which has long been doubted, but which more recent work has shown may not be too greatly exaggerated, for what is believed to have been the largest Roman theatre ever built. The diameter of the auditorium was almost five hundred feet, while the stage itself was nearly three hundred feet in width; equivalent to the length of an American football field. Behind it the great facade of the scaenae frons, which may initially have been constructed of wood, probably rose to the full height of the upper tiers of the auditorium opposite: three stories. The outer semi-circular wall was composed of three tiers of engaged columns carved from red granite, possibly with the fourteen statues of Pompey's conquered nations placed around the perimeter (circa Pompeium, Pliny N.H. 36.41). Although nothing of the external structure of Pompey's theatre remains visible above ground, it was probably similar to that surviving from the theatre of Marcellus, erected forty-four years later. If so, then the engaged columns of the ground level were Tuscan, the second level Ionic, and the third Corinthian. This impressive facade was adorned with stone and stucco and embellished with numerous statues of stone and bronze (cf. Pliny N.H. 7.34). Hinting at the sumptuous architecture and spectacle within, it formed a series of forty four huge vaulted arches at street level, from which a system of passages and staircases efficiently conducted spectators to their seats above, using tickets precisely organized according to entrance, section, level, etc.. This helped to ensure public order by eliminating competition for seats or confusion and congestion in locating them.

The most striking element in Pompey's edifice (although probably not completed or formally inscribed until 52) was the provision of a temple to Venus Victrix crowning the top and rear of the auditorium and placed directly opposite the stage and scaenae frons. It was the largest of several shrines along the upper rim of the cavea in honor of Honos, Virtus, Felicitas and Victoria (Pliny N.H. 8.20; cf. Suet. Claud. 21.1), "a small pantheon of the political rallying cries of the Sullan period" (Richardson 1992, 411).

Apparently this temple was constructed so that the monumental ramp of steps leading up to it formed the central bank of seats in the auditorium. It was said that when Pompey's political rivals objected to a permanent theatre, he claimed that in fact he was building a temple beneath which steps would be provided for watching the games (cf. Tertullian De Spect. 10). Allowing for the sophistry which was the privilege of a powerful man, the circumstances do indicate the continuing integration of theatrical performance and religious rites, and the custom of close physical proximity between theatre buildings and religious shrines. Indeed, according to Vitruvius, temples should be so arranged that "the images of the gods may seem to rise up and gaze upon those who make vows and sacrifices" of the sort customarily performed in the theatre and their altars should always be placed lower than the statues in the temples so "those sacrificing may look upwards toward the divinity" (4.5.1; 4.9). By sanctifying his theatre with a temple dedicated to the goddess to whom he credited his military victories, Pompey both avoided any quibble about whether the provision of such a building was an appropriate benefaction from a triumphator, and helped to ensure the survival of a "private" monument glorifying an individual in a manner never before practiced at Rome.

Curving outward from either side of the temple was a covered and colonnaded gallery that extended around the top of the auditorium to connect with the two large lateral wings of the scene building, the versurae, which formed the recess for the (possibly temporary and wooden) scenic facade and framed the stage (Fig. 13). At regular intervals around the external perimeter of this colonnade were attached the vertical masts from which projecting horizontal booms suspended a huge brightly colored linen awning, the vela, that shaded the auditorium. According to Valerius Maximus (2.4.6), writing three quarters of a century later, the structure even was provided with a form of air-conditioning; "Pompey was the first to have water flowing down the aisles [of the theatre] to cool the summer heat". The permanent provision of such luxuries, which included as well the use of a fine saffron-scented spray (sparsio), was undoubtedly a particular attraction intended to please and flatter the Roman audience.

In addition to the theatre itself, Pompey's architectural complex -- which was designed as a single integrated unit -- included an assembly room or curia; a new meeting place for the Senate which was dominated by a statue of Pompey himself, provided, according to Plutarch, (Brut. 14) by the Roman people to demonstrate its gratitude. Its prominent position was an unsubtle reminder of Pompey's own political eminence before a Senate which had too often displayed scant regard for it (cf. Steinby 1993, 334-5). Pompey also provided himself with a new residence conveniently at hand a short distance away. Since, like the theatre itself, its location in the Campus Martius was outside the formal boundaries of the City (pomerium), proconsuls and other officials holding military authority (including Pompey himself) could attend while retaining their imperium; their formal right of command. Pompey's showmanship had earlier been displayed in the design of his first house, the vestibule of which he prominently decorated with ships' prows captured from the Cilician pirates (Suet. Gramm. 15.1; Cicero Phil. 2.68; S.H.A. Gord. 3). Now adjacent to his theatre, he constructed an even finer house, fashioned so that, in relation to that massive edifice, it appeared according to Plutarch "like a boat being towed behind a great ship" (Pomp. 40.5.; 40.9).

The house and curia were located within a spacious park extending several hundred feet behind the theatre; the Porticus Pompeii, which quickly became one of the most popular places in Rome to stroll (Cicero De Fat. 8; Catullus 55.6; Ovid Ars Amat. 1.67; Martial 11.1.11). Within were rows of trees, shaded streams, and numerous fountains. It formed a rectangle, framed on each side by the columnar facade of different buildings. The side extending along the back wall of the theatre itself probably had three great ceremonial doors (corresponding to those opening into the interior of the theatre from the scaena), the middle one of which was aligned along the central axis of the park, and was balanced by the curia at the other end, which in turn was flanked by two secondary structures to echo the tripartite arrangement of doors opposite. Along the north side was the Hecatostylon, "the portico of the hundred pillars." This great colonnade was festooned with heavy golden curtains from Pergamum, and displayed a collection of statues and paintings, some hundreds of years old, and all works of outstanding merit and elegance (Pliny N.H. 35.59). One of these represented Pompey's "role-model", Alexander the Great, painted by Nicias the younger in the fourth century B.C.. Adjacent to the colonnade was a grove of plane trees, and ranged along the south side opposite were possibly markets and shops. The large central court in between was evidently composed of a double grove of trees (nemus) either running alongside an arcade, or with rows of statues spaced between the trees (Martial 2.14.10; Propertius 2.32.11-12). This park was used on the days of performance as a place for the audience to promenade between the entertainments without leaving the theatre complex or causing disruption in the streets, while at other times it provided a splendid recreational site for the Roman citizenry to enjoy whether for relaxation and escape from the summer heat, or for amorous assignation. As Vitruvius noted (5.9), it could also be used to provide space for preparing the stage sets and machinery.

Pompey's complex was an amenity with message. To walk through the central court of the park, along the sides of which trees and possibly monuments were placed at regular intervals to emphasize the perspective, "was processional in character, perhaps intended to recall Pompey's own triumphal procession" (Gleason 1990, 10). Moreover, the layout of the buildings, and in particular the placing of the theatre and the curia at opposite ends of the site's central axis, tended to raise the status of the former (crowned by its temple) to that of a formal political space when faced from the front porch of the curia which was also itself a sacred precinct (Aul. Gell. 14.7.7). The entrance to the latter was dominated by a huge painting of a warrior by the fifth-century painter Polygnotus, which may have served to remind visitors of the famed military prowess of its builder (Pliny N.H. 35.59). The political/religious nature of the building dominating each pole of the axis was therefore visually emphasized by being mirrored in its opposite. Moreover, because the complex was located in the Campus Martius, which -- in addition to its venerable military connection -- had long been a place where voters were impressed by monumental architecture (and from time to time bribed with largess or hand-outs), in effect it extended and refined associations which this area already had. But, beyond that, the site comprised Rome's first "leisure complex", providing an alternative focus for public life to that traditionally centred on the Forum. In that sense it anticipated imperial practice, when such entertainments virtually displaced the Republican electoral procedures and venues -- as well as their by then obsolete political function.

After its construction and for many decades to come, architecturally speaking, Pompey's theatre was "the only show in town". Temporary stages continued to be built well into the imperial period, and other politicians still sought to exceed one another in the lavishness and ingenuity of their games, but nothing would surpass Pompey's great edifice for over a century, until the Colosseum was built.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources Cited

Gleason, K.L., “The Garden Portico of Pompey the Great”, Expedition 32, no. 2 (1990), 4-13.

Greenhalgh, P., Pompey: The Roman Alexander, (Weidenfeld, 1980).

Gruen, E., Cultural and National Identify in Republican Rome, (Cornell, 1992).

Richardson, L. A., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, (Johns Hopkins, 1992).

Steinby, E. M., ed., Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, Vol. 1, (J. Paul Getty Trust, 1995).

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