History, Facts and Information about Roman Theatre
Much of the architecture, structure, design, buildings and the plays shown in the Roman theatre were influenced by the Greek theatre. The semicircular design of the building enhanced the natural acoustics of the theatre. The entertainment available in the Roman Theatre included mime, orations, dance, choral events and different types of plays including farce, tragedy and comedy. The content of this article provides interesting history, facts and information about life in Ancient Rome including the Roman Theatre.
Different types of Roman Theatres and Amphitheatres
The Roman theatres and amphitheatres were two different sorts of buildings. The Roman Theatre being built in the shape of a semicircle and the amphitheatre was generally oval. The purpose for which each type of theatre was designed was also quite different.
The Roman theatres were designed for for stage plays
The Amphitheatres were designed for the greater spectacles and shows of gladiators and wild animals
The Circuses (circi) such as the famous Circus Maximus which was built on a much bigger scale and designed to stage chariot races
The Naumachiae where places for the shows of sea battles
The stadia were places in the form of the circus designed for the running of men and horses
The Xysti were places constructed like porticos in which the wrestlers exercised
The Odeon was a small Roman Theatre, often roofed, used for smaller entertainment venues such as performed music poetry readings, debates, or lectures
There were, however, some similarities between the different types of Roman theatres such as the seating arrangements, styles of stage scenery and props and awnings.
Roman Theatre History
Roman theatres derive their basic design from the Theatre of Pompey, the first permanent Roman theatre. Pompey the Great was the first who undertook the building of a fixed theatre, which was built of square stone. Roman Theatres, in the first ages of the commonwealth, were only temporary, and composed of wood.
Roman Theatre History - The Wooden Temporary Theatre of Marcus Scaurus
The most celebrated wooden temporary Roman theatre was that of Marcus Scaurus (c. 163-88 B.C.) and was built to celebrate his position of Aedile. This temporary theatre was to be used for barely a month! The scenes of this temporary theatre were divided into three partitions, one above another, the first consisting of one hundred and twenty imported pillars of marble; the next, of the like number of pillars, curiously wrought in glass. The top of all had the same number of pillars adorned with gilded tablets. Between the pillars were set three thousand statues and images of brass. 360 marble columns were imported for the stage of a temporary theatre to be used for barely a month. Some of the marble pillars were sold and the remaining used in the house of Marcus Scaurus. The cavea (the audience seating portion of the Roman theatre) would hold up to eighty thousand.
Roman Theatre Buildings
The Roman Theatre buildings were designed in the shape of a half circle and built on level ground with stadium-style seating where the audience was raised. The Roman Theatre buildings were large and could hold up to 15,000 people. The theatre itself was divided into the stage (orchestra) and the seating section (auditorium). The auditorium was occasionally constructed on a small hill or slope in which stacked seating could be easily made mimicking the tradition of the Greek Theatres. Organising the entrances to the Roman Theatre was important in order to safely handle the number of Romans in attendance. According to Vitruvius, "The entrances (aditus) should be numerous and spacious; those above ought to be unconnected with those below, in a continued line wherever they are, and without turnings; so that when the people are dismissed from the shows, they may not press on one another, but have separate outlets free from obstruction in all parts." The surrounding Roman corridor (praecinctio) separated the galleries of a theatre were used for the walkways, concentric with the rows of seats, between the upper and lower seating tiers in a Roman theatre. The Roman theatre did not have a roof instead an awning was pulled over the audience to protect them from the sun or rain. Another innovation was introduced to the Roman Theatre c 78 B.C - a cooling system which was provided by air blowing over streams of water.
Roman Theatre Seating
The audience seating portion of the Roman theatre was called the Cavea and arrange in wedge-shaped seating sections. According to Vitruvius the gradus, "are not to be less than twenty inches in height, nor more than twenty-two. Their width must not be more than two feet and a half, nor less than two feet." There was a threefold distinction of the seats, according to the ordinary division of the people into senators, knights (equites) and the commons. The first range was called orchestra because in that part of the Greek theatres the dances were performed; the second range of seating was called the equestria and the third range of seats were called the popularia.
Roman Theatre - The Stage
The stage in the Roman Theatre was raised to about five feet high. The Roman theatre stage measured 20-40 feet deep and 100-300 feet long. The stage was covered with a roof. There was a stage house, or building, behind the stage. The stage wall was called the ' Frons Scenae '. There were doorways to the left and right and a curtained central doorway from which the actors made their entrances in the Roman Theatre. The two doors on either side of the central door in the Roman scaenae frons were called the portae hospitales. The door on right reserved for second actor, the left door for person of less importance. In addition there were 3-5 doors in the rear wall of the stage. The stage wall included columns, niches, porticoes, statues all of which were brightly painted. The dressing rooms were located in the side wings. The portico or passageway behind the scaenae (scene building) of a Roman theatre was called the portus post scaenas.
Roman drama was highly influenced by Greek drama. Roman playwrights included Seneca for tragedy and Plautus and Terence for comedy. For details of other Roman authors please see Roman Literature. Two of the most famous plays of the Roman Theatre were the Menaechmi by Plautus and Oedipus by Seneca. Roman dramas had two sets of actors. There was an actor who spoke the character's lines and a different actor mimed the part on stage. The gestures used were also stylized to emphasize the lines as were the masks that they wore.
Roman Theatre Stage Settings
The stage of the Roman Theatre had a curtain that could be lowered into the stage to reveal a scene - aulaea premuniuntur, "the curtain is lowered," when the play begins and aulaeum tollitur, "the curtain is raised," when the play is ended. Trap doors were common. The height of the stage was five feet - so the area beneath the stage was easily big enough to hold both actors and props. Some props could therefore be 'entranced' or 'exited' via the trap doors.
Roman Theatre Props
Roman Theatre props would have included easily moveable objects such as weapons including swords and daggers, goblets and plates, stools, torches, blood soaked clothing, wine or ale containers, whips, helmets, armor, false jewels, crowns and wreaths, skulls and bones, animal furs, standards and banners, caskets and containers and flowers and petals. Larger props might include larger items of furniture, statues, exotic plants and even trees. The scena was a partition reaching across the theatre and was made either to turn round or draw up, to present a new prospect to the spectators.
Roman Theatre Costumes
Roman costumes mirrored traditional Greek clothing in the Roman Theatre. Roman Theatre costumes had a standard design which was a long robe, called a Chiton which was derived from the Greek word meaning tunic. A himation was usually worn over a chiton, but was made of heavier drape and played the role of a cloak. The chiton and himation were often colored to denote character, sex and rank. In the early Roman theatre the female characters were originally played by men (although eventually women slaves took the roles of women in plays). The audience recognised the characters and their status from the colors that they wore:
A purple costume identified a rich man
Boys wore striped togas
Soldiers wore short cloaks
Red costumes indicated a poor man
A yellow robe meant the character was a woman
Short tunics indicated a slave
A yellow tassel meant the character was a god
Roman actors wore a cheap and simple sandal called the Baxa. This Roman sandal was made from vegetable leaves, twigs, and fibers. Woven palm leaves were used to make the bottom of the shoe. The strap of the baxa was made from palm leaves and vegetable leaves in a style similar to modern day flip-flops.
Roman Theatre Gods
The first Roman stage plays were mounted as part of both political and religious celebrations and followed on from earlier Greek culture. Roman drama was acted out on stage during the ludi or festival games. Because the ludi were religious in nature, it was appropriate for the Romans to set up temporary stages close to the temple of the deity being celebrated . The Roman theatre is therefore often associated with religious festivals of pagan gods.
The ludi Romani (Roman Games) were a religious festival in ancient Rome held annually during September. This festival first introduced drama to Rome based on Greek drama. The ludi Romani honored the god Jupiter
The ludi Apollinares honored god Apollo
The ludi Megalenses Cybele honored the Mother Goddess
The Roman god Bacchus was the patron god of Roman theatre. Bacchus is synonymous with the Greek Dionysus. He is typically shown as the god of harvest, grapes, fertility and the theatre. This Roman god is associated with the festival of Bacchanalia which is infamous for the Roman orgies and the highest degree immoral and licentious behaviour. It might be added that Roman mime was especially lewd as were some of the plays and were thoroughly enjoyed by the Romans.
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