A thriving and diverse form of art which ranged from street performances, acrobatics, and nude dancing to the staging of the situational comedies of Plautus and the elaborately articulated tragedies by Seneca, the theater of Ancient Rome evolved over time. Roman theater and drama did not remain stagnant but went through a whole cycle of development which included three phases: Early Native Italian Drama (pre-240 BCE) including such things such as Atellan farces, phlyakes and the Fescennine verses, Literary Drama (240 BCE – ca. 100 BCE) featuring the Roman adaptation of Greek plays and a period of Popular Renaissance (ca. 100 BCE – 476 CE) where more traditional Roman entertainment such as circuses, spectacles and mime were popular.

It is oversimplified but not entirely inaccurate to say that there was a divide between those who preferred entertainment with lines that were read and those who preferred visual spectacles. The upper class (patricians), by and large, focused on the former and the lower class (plebeians) on the latter.

Native Italian Drama (before 240 BCE)

roman laughing theatre maskRomans were likely first introduced to public entertainment by the northern Etruscans. From 599–400 BCE, Etruscans enjoyed shows that included dancing, athletic events, and singing. These Etruscan preferences were never outgrown, as seen in the circuses, horse racing, wrestling, boxing, and so forth that were popular in the later Roman period. Latin vocabulary of Etruscan origin confirms this theory. The Latin histrio is from the Etruscan ister (“performer”) and the Latin persona is from the Etruscan phersu (“mask, masked dancer”). Nevertheless, Latin has more words of Greek origin than of Etruscan origin, showing that Greek influences on Rome were stronger than any Etruscan influence. In the final analysis, however, it is impossible to determine how much the Etruscans influenced the Romans. Even classical historians from the first century BCE could not determine the earliest history of Roman drama with precision.

Classical Latin authors such as Horace and Livy suggest that Roman drama originated at such things as country festivals, harvests, and weddings. They mention the Fescennine verses which were improvised performances by clowns that included obscenities, poetic meter, mocking, and more. It seems, however, that much of their information reflects an attempt to invent a history for Roman drama that parallels the history of Greek drama.

Archaeological data demonstrates the existence of hilarotragoedia (“funny tragedy”) or phlyax plays (“gossip-plays,” pl. phlyakes) during the early Republic period (500–250 BCE). Comedy of Greek origin was appealing to Italian audiences as early as the fourth century BC.

roman theatre maskThe Oscans took the Greek settlements near Naples during the 300s BC and introduced a special Oscan form of drama to the Romans, the Atellan farce (Atellana), named after the Oscan town of Atella. This comedy form featured humor mocking the people of Atella and a repeating cast of characters from play to play. Atellan farce closely resembles the commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy and Europe.

The popularity of Atellan farce endured until the fabulae palliatae, dramas that featured characters in Greek dress, became dominant for a short time beginning in 240 BC.

In 120 BC, the Romans returned to Atellan farce. During this second phase of Atellan farce dominance, the dramatists Novius and Pomponius took center stage. Their popular works such as Sargeant Maccus and The Brothers Macci have not survived, but quotes from various plays are extant.

The Atellan farce waxed and waned in popularity after this period, fading about a generation after 120 BCE, until the Pax Romana, and then appearing later during the reigns of Domitian (81–96 CE) and Hadrian (117–138CE) before disappearing forever.

Roman Theater Buildings

Prior to 55 BCE, we have no archaeological evidence for a permanent theater in Rome, and the few plays that we do have cannot corroborate or rule out any speculations. There is not much choice but to cautiously assume that Roman Imperial theater structures resemble those of the pre-Imperial period. The best we can do is make educated guesses based on the constraints of drama because of our lack of physical evidence.

ancient outdoor roman theatre

The Roman theaters we have uncovered generally share the following features:

  • scaena – a roofed house at the back of the stage.
  • scaenae frons – front wall of the scaena that could be up to three stories high and often featured a balcony as well as three doors on the ground level.
  • pulpitum – The actual stage.
  • versurae – Wings of the stage that each feature an entrance.
  • orchestra – The area where dignitaries sat and where musicians and dancers sometimes performed.
  • cavea – large auditorium, round in shape, where all the commoners sat when they attended the theater.

Roman theaters were typically constructed in large, open, public areas. They were usually built in areas with a larger population so that many could attend performances. Because of the height of the scaena frons, these theaters had to be high-rise buildings of sort, and these could be built because of one of Rome’s greatest inventions: concrete. The skill of Roman builders and large size of its structures are plainly seen in the Colosseum, which held 50,000 attendees, far more than any Greek theater.

Roman Theater and Drama

Despite the lack of archaeological evidence for early Roman theater buildings, we learn some things from the dramas that are surviving. The staging revealed in these plays points to different features that would have had to have been present in Roman theaters in order to perform these plays. Scene and prop minimalism indicate that early Roman theaters likely had little stage décor. Many believe that the dramatic texts also indicate that no curtains were present.

The Romans adopted the features of Greek theater as they adapted Greek dramas to their own culture. For example, in keeping with Greek practice, wing exits were likely the paths to the town and harbor or country and market in most plays. Additionally, since the Roman dramas that do survive describe the scenery and other features of each act of a play, this suggests that there was much that was not shown on stage. Such a practice would later be used by William Shakespeare.

Having said all this, there is one aspect of early Roman theaters that was likely visible. Roman comedies often feature an altar that is used by the characters as a shelter. This happens, for instance, in Plautus’ drama Mostellaria. Further support for an altar structure is found in the fact that most Roman comedies featured a funeral or other religious festival where an altar would be prominent.

Producers, Directors and Actors

Even though the scripts themselves do not suggest Roman theatrical production was expensive, other evidence paints a different picture. In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate wrote laws to get producers to control their spending on games and plays known as ludi. Ambitious politicians often used lavish dramas to increase their number of votes from the poor and win office, and they would then levy high taxes on provinces to pay for these dramas. Apparently, the Roman Senate was trying to keep such corruption at bay, but it does not seem that it was successful.

Many provinces were essentially bankrupt by the end of the late Republic period, and plays became more expensive and grand. The fact that most dramas were connected to key features of Roman life such as worshipping the gods, glorifying one’s self, and honoring the dead meant that the dramas likely encouraged the grand displays and expenditures normally associated with these parts of Roman life.

From the beginning, acting was the job of professionals in Rome, often slaves. Indentured performers traveled in a grex, which was troupe that featured a leader known as the dominus. These actors likely wore masks, although there is no agreement on the degree to which this occurred. Roman plays were more likely to feature many different actors than the same actor playing multiple parts, which would have made masks rarer at any rate in Roman theater. The best argument for the inclusion of masks is their appearance in Atellan farce, which exercised its influence on Roman drama for centuries.

A Roman Theater

The final days of the Republic saw the beginning of extensive theater construction. General Pompey oversaw the construction of the city’s first permanent theater, likely because he had seen so many theaters overseas and wanted one for the capital of the newest world power. This Theater of Pompey was approved by the Roman Senate under the guise of a temple to the Roman goddess of love, Venus. By the time anyone noticed it was actually a theater, it was too late, and a theater stood in Rome. Within a generation, Rome had two additional theaters and theaters began to be built all over the world. Today, the ruins of these theaters are some of the most important archaeological sites in the world.