see it clearly

Roman Theaters

The small number of theatres in Rome, and the absence of any that could be considered fine, is a surprise to the student of Roman architecture, especially when the importance and beauty of Greek theatres is considered in connection with the fact that the Greeks were the artistic models of the Romans. The estimation of those who worked for money, either with brain or hands, was so far from honorable, that actors, singers, etc., were denounced, and were incapable of voting in the burgess assembly or serving in the burgess army. Moreover, the police magistrates were especially severe against them, and the urban magistrates could legally imprison or inflict bodily punishment upon actors at any time, and wherever found. Thus, three and a half centuries before the Christian era, and about four centuries after the foundation of Rome, everything connected with the theatre was held in perfect contempt by Romans of position.

Roman Theaters

The presentation of plays--all such entertainments being free--was essentially confined to the national festivals, when they made a part of the public shows and were held in buildings that were little more than wooden sheds; a scaffolding made the stage, with an apology of a scene at the back; there was no provision for seating the audience, and no decoration of any sort. It is curious that while it was entirely reputable to perform in the masked farces,--in which the characters of Maccus, Bucco, Pappus, and Dossennus, personating the harlequin, the glutton, the good papa, and the wise counselor, may have been the ancestors of the actors in Pulcinello,--the paid actors of the theatre, who wore no masks, were esteemed as distinctly infamous, and not at all above the rope-dancers and buffoons.

When we consider this condition of things at this period, and take into account the stubborn conservatism of the ancient Romans, we are surprised to find that a century later the guild of actors was allowed a place of worship in the Aventine Temple of Minerva, and that Roman plays were presented on a Roman stage, though written by the Greek Livius. The theatres, however, remained as before, and as late as 155 B. C. there were still no seats provided; those who did not bring chairs stood, reclined, or sat on the ground. The women were separated from the men and relegated to the worst places. In 194 B. C. the best places were given to the senators, which shows that the most reputable men attended, although these officials may have regarded it as a public duty, rather than a pleasure.

The audiences were not select, and probably resembled those of more recent days who flock to free entertainments. Children were freely admitted with their mothers; and both the women and children were noisy, expressing any emotion excited by the play in a boisterous manner, and, on the whole, the proceedings were disorderly.

Late in the second century before our era, the equites, or equestrian order,--now essentially wealthy people to whom money had brought rank and position,--had fourteen benches reserved for their use at the theatres and all burgess entertainments; this indicates the better consideration that was gradually accorded to the theatre in Rome.

It is not possible to make here a detailed statement of the advance of the drama; many circumstances prove that more permanent and commodious theatres were needed, and in various provincial towns good stone theatres had been built while there were still none in the capital. When, in 155 B. C., a stone theatre in Rome had been contracted for, its erection was prohibited by the Senate.

Ten years later, after the conquest of Corinth, things were made a little more favorable for those engaged in dramatic ventures. The stage was more permanently constructed and its still scanty scenery was provided at the public expense, whereas this cost had previously devolved upon the manager of the theatre, and was paid out of the meager allowance devoted by the city fathers to these entertainments.

About 78 B. C., the custom of stretching canvas above the theatre was introduced, thus protecting both actors and audience from sun, wind, and rain; and, in fact, vast sums of money were spent in erecting and re-erecting wooden theatres, which if applied to permanent edifices would have made a great public economy. But not until 55 B. C. was a stone theatre built. Pompey the Great took this decided step; and he moreover celebrated its dedication with a magnificence which surpassed any like ceremony which had before taken place in Rome.

Thus it resulted that in the history of Roman architecture but three theatres of importance can be mentioned, those of Pompey, of Balbus, and of Marcellus; the last two were completed in 13 B. C. That of Marcellus is also called the Theatre of Augustus, as Marcellus died before its dedication, which was conducted by the Emperor. In addition to these were the theatres in the great baths.

The study of Roman theatres can be most advantageously prosecuted outside of Rome itself. There was a theatre at Herculaneum and two at Pompeii, but perhaps the most satisfactory one remaining is at Orange, in Southern France. The great wall at the back of this theatre may well be ranked among the important massive works of the Romans. It is one hundred and sixteen feet high and three hundred and forty long, broken only by the corbels, which supported masts that held the awnings, and a row of blank arches about midway of its height above the basement. When speaking of this theatre, Fergusson says:--

"Nowhere does the architecture of the Romans shine so much as when their gigantic buildings are left to tell their own tale by the imposing grandeur of their masses. Whenever ornament is attempted, their bad taste comes out. The size of their edifices, and the solidity of their construction, were only surpassed by the Egyptians, and not always by them; and when, as here, the mass of material heaped up stands unadorned in all its native grandeur, criticism is disarmed, and the spectator stands awe-struck by its majesty, and turns away convinced that truly 'there were giants in those days.'"