Roman Theater architecture

May 22, 2016
Theater and Amphitheater in

Ancient Roman Theaters

Roman theatres derive their basic design from the Theatre of Pompey, the first permanent Roman theatre. The characteristics of Roman to those of the earlier Greek theatres due in large part to its influence on the Roman triumvir Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Much of the architectural influence on the Romans came from the Greeks, and theatre structural design was no different from other buildings. However, Roman theatres have specific differences, such as being built upon their own foundations instead of earthen works or a hillside and being completely enclosed on all sides.

The Roman theatre was shaped with a half circle or orchestra space in front of the stage. Most often the audience sat here in comfortable chairs. Occasionally, however, the actors would perform in this space. To solve the problem of lighting and sound - the theaters were outdoors.

The Romans built theaters anywhere, even on flat plains, by raising the whole structure off the ground. As a result, the whole structure was more integrated and entrances/exits could be built into the cave, as is done in large theaters and sports arenas today. The arena was as high as the rest of the structure, so the audience could not look out beyond the stage. It also created more of an enclosed atmosphere and may have helped keep out the noises of the city. A tarp could be rigged and moved over the top of the theater to create shade.

The huge amount of people present still held problems for the sound as the audience would not always stay quiet. To solve this problem, costumes and mask were worn to show the type of person on stage. Different symbols were worked out. The actors wore masks - brown for men, white for women, smiling or sad depending on the type of play. The costumes showed the audience who the person was - a purple gown for a rich man, a striped toga for a boy, a short cloak for a soldier, a red toga for a poor man, a short tunic for a slave etc. Women were not allowed to act, so their parts were normally played by a man or young boys wearing a white mask.

The actors spoke the lines, but a second actor mimed the gestures to fit the lines, along with background music. Some things were represented by a series of gestures, which are recognized by the audience to mean something, such as feeling a pulse to show a sick person, making the shape of a lyre with fingers to show music. The audience was often more interested in their favorite actors than the play itself. The actors would try to win over the audience's praise with decorative masks, costumes, dancing and mime.

If the play scripted an actor's dying, a condemned man would take the place of the actor at the last moment and actually be killed on stage. The Romans loved the bloodthirsty spectacles. Emperors such as Nero used the theatre as a way of showing their own talents - good or otherwise. Nero actually used to sing and would not let anyone leave until he was finished.

Most theaters still standing date from the Hellenistic period, which dates from the 4th century BC and later. It's possible to assume much of the features were preserved, but not definitely. This is due to the fact that most plays completely lacked staging directions. Those directions found in modern translations were merely added by the translator. Some plays, however, do sometimes contain scenic requirements.

Pompeii's large theatre underwent a structural change from the Hellenistic style to a more Greco-Roman style. The traditional Hellenistic theatres had the scene section moved forward into the orchestra area, reducing it to a semicircle. The front portion of the scene converted into a 'proskeniontogeion' (high raised stage). The stage was 8-12 feet, 45-140 feet in width, and 6.5-14 feet in depth. The back wall of the stage had 1-3 doors that opened onto the stage but later the number of doors increased to 1-7, depending on the theatre. The stage was supported in front by open columns.

Triangular wooden prisms with a different scene painted on each side (periaktoi) were created and located near the side entrance of the stage. This allowed for a more realistic show. The higher stage gave way to better acting which later attracted actors and popularity.

After the Romans moved into the area and built the odium, Pompeii's theatre underwent complete changes and in 65 A.D, the theatre transformed away from the Hellenistic style into the Greco-Roman style of theatre. A porticos was added in the back of the theatre. The ends of the scene building were removed.

Rows of seats were added for honored guests. The stage was lowered and 2 short flights of steps leading down to the stairs were added. These changes were important because the intent of the theatre was to replace the temporary wooden stages that the Romans were using to house their tragedies and comedies. The new look of the theatre is what was left to the world after Vesuvius's fatal eruption.

The earliest known Italian drama, is known to come from the region of Campania, which is located in the Southern half of Italy. It was in the town of Atella where the Atellan Farces became popular. These were originally written in the language of Oscan, and later translated into Latin as these farces caught on in Rome. What allowed theses plays to catch on, however, was actually due to the Etruscans from the North, as well as Greek colonies located on the Eastern side of the Peninsula to whom the Romans have given the credit of introducing the many forms of music and dance.

In 364 B.C., the Romans specifically introduced the Etruscan form of the ballet as a dance so as to appease the gods, so that they might remove a plague from the empire. Livius Andronicus, who is thought to be a freed slave during the 3rd century B.C., is credited for translating the first Greek plays into Latin as well as producing them (Butler 79). Many of the performances were associated with important holidays as well as with religious festivals.

Roman theatres were built in all areas of the empire from medieval-day Spain, to the Middle East. Because of the Romans' ability to influence local architecture, we see numerous theatres around the world with uniquely Roman attributes.

Lecture 1 - Introduction to Roman Architecture
Lecture 1 - Introduction to Roman Architecture
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