Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Roman Theater


Roman Theater

  • Roman theater was performed as part of civic festivals called ludi.
  • Roman festivals (ludi Romani) honored Jupiter the chief among the gods as opposed to Greek festivals, which honored Dionysus, a lesser god than Zeus.
  • Most early Roman tragedies were adaptations of Greek plays introduced in 240 b.c.e.

Roman Comedy

  • Comedy flourished in the form of Atellan farce, which was based on stock characters and improvisation.
  • Plautus (ca. 254–184 b.c.e.) and Terence (ca. 190–159 b.c.e.) the early Roman comedy playwrights removed the chorus and expanded the use of music in their plays.

Empire and Spectacle

  • The Punic Wars (264–146 b.c.e.) expanded Rome's dominion outside Italy and Greece, and this expansion permitted more lavish spectacles such as chariot races that made drama less significant.

Closet Tragedy

  • Closet tragedies evolved for private or small-audience performances as drama lost entertainment value compared to more lavish spectacles.
  • Seneca (4 b.c.e.–65 c.e.) wrote closet tragedies exclusively; his intricate Latin style was imitated by later writers.
  • Although private readings and recitations dominated closet tragedies, violence was often more directly presented to the audience, which in Greek Tragedy took place offstage.

The Roman Stage

  • The first permanent Roman theater was built in Pompeii in 55 b.c.e. to replace temporary stages.
  • The Greek orchestra was used for the chorus; the Roman orchestra was reserved for privileged seating.
  • The action of the play took place on a raised stage, or pulpitum, located in front of the scene building, which was significantly larger and more elaborate than its Greek predecessor, the skene.
  • As special-effects masters, Romans invented stage curtains, sliding panels, three-dimensional stage decorations, elaborate props, and an elevator to lift actors and animals.
  • The actors, called histriones in Latin, were theater professionals (including some slaves), whereas in Greece actors were talented citizen amateurs.

The Decline and Influence of Roman Theater

  • Roman theater declined significantly in 313 c.e. as Christianity grew to dominate the Roman Empire and condemned theater as immoral.
  • Horace (65–8 b.c.e.) wrote the Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry), discussing the origins, forms, and ends of drama.
  • Horace recommended that a play be divided into five acts, have a moral purpose, and educate the audience by being both useful (utilis) and pleasing (dulce).
  • Vitruvius'first-century b.c.e. work De Architectura (On Architecture) described theater technology, and greatly influenced theater design during the Renaissance.
  • Plautus, Terence, and Seneca are the foremost Roman playwrights.