Roman Theaters, Playwrights, and Actors

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Editors: Edward I. Bleiberg , James Allan Evans , Kristen Mossler Figg , Philip M. Soergel , and John Block Friedman
Date: 2005
Arts and Humanities Through the Eras
From: Arts and Humanities Through the Eras(Vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 B.C.E.-476 C.E.. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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The Romans did not construct a permanent theater until Pompey sponsored one in 55 B.C.E. Instead, as the Roman architect, engineer, and writer Vitruvius (last half of first century B.C.E.) described, the Romans built temporary wooden structures as performance spaces, and continued to do so even after the advent of permanent theaters. There may have been several political reasons for this. Conservatives argued that theater promoted immoral behavior and fought to prevent the building of permanent structures. As class divisions and personal sponsorship of occasions for performance arose, such as the annual Ludi Romani ("Roman Games"), circuses and other spectacles, and funeral celebrations for the wealthy and notable, the building of provisional theater spaces allowed for luxury seating and elaborate decorative elements. There was also a fear of seditious behavior, again due to the growing divide between the aristocracy and the plebs or common people, and permanent theaters provided a made-to-order space for public assemblies and mass communication. As needed for festivals and other celebrations, theaters could be erected in public spaces like the Forum, the Campus Martius, or the Circus. These wooden edifices affected the development of the Roman theater as much as the theatrical influences of the Greeks, Etruscans, and early Roman displays and rituals. The ephemeral nature of these wooden theaters allowed the Romans to modify the buildings as needed rather than blindly follow the Greek and Hellenistic models, resulting in a performance space that diverged in distinct ways from its Greek predecessors. Theaters in Magna Graecia and on Sicily seem to have followed models from Greece, as might be expected: built into a hillside for ready-made tiered seating, for the most part with a raised stage, an orchestra dividing the acting platform from the spectators, and side entrances. There were also the phlyax stages depicted on painted vases—elevated and covered platforms with scenery and accouterments added as needed for individual plays. No remains of the temporary wooden theaters survive, but based on the stage directions implicit in the comedies of Plautus and Terence as well as Pompeian wall paintings and references to the stage in other works, modern scholars can postulate what these Roman performance spaces might have looked like. There was a raised stage with a roofed structure at the rear and usually a public byway running in the front of the stage building. No space for a chorus was necessary. This building could be adapted to suit specific plays, with an altar in front to serve as a temple, or rocks in front of a cave, or a separation between two citizens' homes. The stage building probably had at least three doors and an off-stage back alley to allow for unseen action and to accommodate the frenetic entrances and exits required in a chaotic comedy. Roman audiences included all strata of society, from aristocrats in special and secluded seats to common folk and slaves. Some playwrights lamented the short attention spans of their spectators, who could easily lose interest in a performance if sidetracked by a high-energy display of physical skill or combat.


Even though Roman theaters were not permanent until 55 B.C.E. actors were amassed into solid unions and groups by the late third century, something that did not occur until late in the history of Greek theater. In 207 B.C.E., Livius Andronicus—who produced the first plays adapted from Greek originals at the Ludi Romani in 240 B.C.E.—oversaw the Page 368  |  Top of Article
Roman theater at Hierapolis in Turkey, built in 2nd century C.E. and restored by the emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 C.E.) and again by Constantius II (337–361 C.E.). COURTESY OF JAMES ALLAN EVANS. Roman theater at Hierapolis in Turkey, built in 2nd century C.E. and restored by the emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 C.E.) and again by Constantius II (337–361 C.E.). COURTESY OF JAMES ALLAN EVANS. establishment of the first performers' union in Rome, called the Collegium Scribarum Histrionumque, or the Association of Theatrical Authors and Actors. This union was probably modeled closely on the "Artists of Dionysus," the theatrical association formed in Greece in the third century B.C.E., which was treated as a religious organization exempt from political or military service. This Roman union was associated with the goddess Minerva (Athena in the Greek pantheon), whose temple on the Aventine Hill housed their headquarters. It seems that early on in Roman theatrical history, actors and writers of drama may have had a certain amount of respectability in society that was lost altogether later on. The legal status of actors has been a subject of much debate among scholars. They may have been slaves owned by the company manager, foreigners, freedmen, or even freeborn Romans. At any rate, in the later Republic and Roman Empire, all stage performers, along with gladiators and workers in the sex industry, were deprived of civil rights and designated by the term infamia, which indicated legal disenfranchisement. The Romans may have had a choragus who supported an acting troupe, much like the choregia system in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens (the different spelling comes from the Doric-dialect spoken in the Greek colonies of southern Italy). The magistrates who organized the Roman Games and other opportunities for performance may also have assumed financial responsibilities for some of the dramatic shows held at the annual festival. Many troupes had a dominus gregis or "company manager," an actor-director who staged the dramas in conjunction with the playwright himself. Lucius Ambivius Turpio acted in and directed many of the Roman comic playwright Terence's plays in the 160s B.C.E. In the Greek tradition, Roman actors on the formal stage of tragedy and comedy were probably all male, and wore masks and costumes suitable for their roles. The obscene costumes of Old Comedy were long gone, however.


Although the Romans did not hold full-fledged dramatic competitions as in Greece, there is some evidence that individual actors may have participated in contests with prizes. One of the most famous actors in the first century B.C.E. was Quintus Roscius Gallus. Roscius was born to an equestrian family in Latium and was a close friend of Cicero, who defended Page 369  |  Top of Article
Roman stone relief of actors wearing masks from Sabrata (in modern day Libya), post 4th-century B.C.E. THE ART ARCHIVE. Roman stone relief of actors wearing masks from Sabrata (in modern day Libya), post 4th-century B.C.E. THE ART ARCHIVE. Roscius in court on a charge of business fraud around 69 B.C.E. It seems that women were allowed to perform in mimes, and various other productions, such as pantomime, private parties, and festivals. Some famous mime actresses are known, like Lycoris, the stage name of Volumnia Cytheris, who was the mistress of some of Rome's most prominent citizens in the first century B.C.E. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, women were known to perform in revivals of Roman comedy as well as in mimes and other skits, sometimes wearing scandalously scanty clothes. Theodora, a sixth-century C.E. mime actress in the eastern Roman Empire, was described as an especially outrageous and lewd woman by her contemporary Procopius in his Secret History. She was raised by theater folk, became a prostitute early in her life (it was a common conceit that mime actresses were also prostitutes), and was something like a modern-day "performance artist"; she paraded through the streets of Constantinople wearing see-through clothing and allowed birds to eat seeds nestled between her thighs. When she married the emperor Justinian in 525 C.E. and became empress of the Eastern Empire, it caused a terrific scandal.

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Mosaic of Roman theatrical masks from the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli, outside Rome. 2nd century C.E. THE ART ARCHIVE/MUSEO CAPITOLINO ROME/DAGLI ORTI. Mosaic of Roman theatrical masks from the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli, outside Rome. 2nd century C.E. THE ART ARCHIVE/MUSEO CAPITOLINO ROME/DAGLI ORTI.


Even though playwrights often took a backseat to actors and other spectacles that occurred in Roman theaters, two Roman playwrights that were known throughout the Roman Empire were Plautus and Terence. Titus Maccius Plautus, a comic playwright perhaps originally from Umbria, was the first to make Greek New Comedy a truly Roman genre. His career stretched from the late third to the early second centuries B.C.E., but his legacy and popularity lasted much longer. Playwrights after Plautus' time could ensure the success of a comedy by attaching the name of Plautus to it, and eventually the number of plays attributed to him grew to more than 130 titles. In the first century B.C.E. the Roman scholar Varro limited that number to 21, and most of these still survive. Plautus freely admitted to borrowing titles, plots, and character-types from his Greek New Comedy predecessors, particularly from Diphilus, Philemon, and Menander, but he gleefully modified these plays to suit his Roman audience. Plautus referred to his method of adaptation from Greek originals as vortere barbare ("to turn into another language"), but the adverb barbare also has the connotation of "barbarically, inelegantly, roughly." Plautus took the themes of New Comedy—concerns about marriage, family, citizenship, and disputes—and turned them upside down, relying on the influence of Atellan farce and bawdy harvest rituals as much as on his Greek forerunners. Whereas many Greek New Comedies seem to have ended with a marriage, Plautus overwhelmingly preferred to end with a wild debauch, often in the house of a prostitute. Young men, with the help of their cunning slaves, regularly thwarted their mean-spirited parents and ended up not with the proper and respectable young female citizens, but instead with the prostitutes they have been patronizing. Those who had authority in Roman society or those who exploited the weak—such Page 371  |  Top of Article as fathers, money-lenders, and pimps—were the villains, while the underdogs—those who held little power or social status such as the young man still under his father's control, the slave, and the prostitute—were empowered and made comic heroes. Plautus frequently employed many themes that can be traced back to Old and Middle Comedy, such as "recognition" dramas, amatory mis-adventures, and long-lost children. Plautus' "comedies in Greek dress" could lampoon Roman mores and present a reversal of social structure because they were part of a festival atmosphere, and the fact that they were ostensibly set in Greece (despite the use of purely Roman legal and idiomatic language) helped to displace any sense of Roman impropriety. Plautus' brand of comic chaos remained unfailingly popular for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare used one of Plautus' comedies of recognition, The Twin Brothers Named Menaechmus, as the source for his Comedy of Errors and inspired the Broadway musical and film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Terence, on the other hand, did not aim for such mass appeal, nor did he receive it. A former slave from Africa, Terence rose socially to enter the elite "Scipionic Circle," as the friends and clients of Scipio Africanus (c. 185–129 B.C.E.) were called. The Scipio family was fond of Greek culture, and they stood in opposition to conservatives like Cato the Elder, who promoted traditional Roman values and perceived Hellenism as a bad influence. Terence adapted four of his six plays (all of which survive) from Menander, and overtly adhered much more closely to the form and language of his originals than Plautus did. Terence, too, was aiming to please an audience of elite philhellenes and in

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INTRODUCTION: Titus Maccius Plautus was Rome's favorite comic playwright. He flourished during the late third and early second centuries B.C.E. in Rome, though he may originally have come from Umbria. Plautus freely adapted plots from his Greek New Comedy predecessors for his Roman revels, but since there is very little extant of Greek New Comedy, it is not often that we can compare Plautus' riotous shows with those of his models. In his play Two Sisters Named Bacchis, however, we actually have a significant portion of the Menandrian original, called Double Dealer, which allows us to make an educated guess about the changes Plautus may have included in his adaptation. Plautus amplifies the roles of the marginalized—the female prostitutes and the clever slave—and employs the double-plot technique, often seen in Terence, in this madcap play. The comedy is about two sisters, both prostitutes, who are trying to avoid extended service to a pompous soldier, while a clever slave named Chrysalus ("Goldie") schemes to assist his young master in his relationship with one of the Bacchis sisters while at the same time trying to forestall his old master's lust for the same girl. In this scene, one of the young men tries to resist the wiles of Bacchis I, but at last gives in to her charms. In this scene we can see something of Plautus' love of alliteration, puns, and double entendre (many do not translate from Latin).

Pistoclerus: I'm more afraid of your allure than of being lured to the bed itself. You are an evil creature. A lurking lair is not appropriate for this young man, woman. … Why am I, a young man, afraid, you ask? To enter into a wrestling arena of this sort, where one sweats into debts? Where I should take up debt instead of a discus, disgrace instead of a race?

Bacchis I: You talk beautifully!

Pistoclerus: Where I would take up a turtledove instead of a sword [both slang words for penis], and where someone would put a drinking cup in my hand instead of a boxing glove, a ladies' chamber pot instead of a helmet, a braided wreath instead of military decorations, dice instead of a spear, a soft cloak instead of a breastplate, where I'd be given a bed instead of a horse, and would lie down with a whore instead of a shield? Get away from me, away!

Bacchis I: You are much too rough.

Pistoclerus: I am to myself.

Bacchis I: So make yourself super-soft. … Go on then. By Pollux I don't care, except for your sake. He [the blowhard soldier] will certainly carry her [Bacchis II] off; you don't have to be with me, if it's not what you want.

Pistoclerus: Am I nothing at all, then, can't I control myself?

Bacchis I: What is it you're afraid of?

Pistoclerus: It's nothing, just nonsense. Woman, I put myself in your power. I am yours, command me.

Bacchis I: You're sweet. Now, this is what I want you to do.

SOURCE: Plautus, Bacchides, in T. Macci Plauti Comeoediae. Ed. W. M. Lindsay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903): lines 55–56; 65–73; 91–93. Translated by Lisa Rengo George.

that he may have succeeded, but he certainly failed to please the masses as Plautus did. He complains bitterly in some of his prologues that his Roman audiences were frequently distracted by displays of spectacle, such as gladiatorial fights and acrobats. Terence was also criticized for contaminatio—combining plot elements and characters from more than one play to create something new. The tensions surrounding Terentian drama reflect the contemporary concerns about the possible infestation of Greek culture and its ability to defile Roman purity during a time when Rome had just vanquished Greece and was inundated with Greek art and culture. Terence's tendency to celebrate and honor his Greek originals as works of art in their own right made him less admired than his older contemporary Plautus. Nevertheless, Terence's talent was considerable: his language is fluid and elegant and his philosophical interest in the human condition lends a global appeal to his plays.


Margarete Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961).

John Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

Charles Garton, Personal Aspects of the Roman Theatre (Toronto: Hakkert, 1972).

Timothy J. Moore, The Theater of Plautus: Playing to the Audience (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

John Wright, Dancing in Chains: The Stylistic Unity of the Comoedia Palliata (Rome: American Academy in Rome, Papers and Monographs, 1974).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3427400343