(There is a worksheet for this activity to be done afterwards.)
As early as 240 BC, Romans were enjoying Greek drama held in the open air. Gradually the audience taste eroded to low comedy. Events at the theater were usually associated with the various festivals during which games of all sorts were held. The Ludi were originally held to celebrate the attributes of one or more gods or to ask for the gods assistance at various seasons. In time, the reason for the Ludi took less importance than the activities. The politicians, always seeking voter support, went to great lengths to keep the "head count" happy with grand spectacles.
Roman theater developed gradually from the Greek and Etruscan examples. In the early days, there were only temporary stages with no place for spectators to sit. The state assumed that idle activities led to sloppy behavior1 and would not condone theaters by building them. Actors often lost their audiences when several performances occurred in the same open space simultaneously. There might be other plays or jugglers, musicians or acrobats sharing the same area2. Terence addressed the problem in some lines from his play The Mother-in-Law when he had his actor say: Now please listen politely to my request. I am again introducing...although I have never yet been able to find a quiet, attentive audience for it...The first time...my rivals...were famous boxers and a tight rope walker...The second time... the audience stayed until the second act when rumors of a gladiator display...etc3. Little by little, temporary bleachers were added and dismantled when the play was concluded. By the time of Caesar, temporary theaters, often quite elaborate, were constructed for the several days of any given festival. The first permanent stone theater in Rome4, the Theater of Pompey, was built in 55 BC. The upper classes promoted the idea that frequent attendance at spectacles would produce moral decay but the more generally acceptance for their resistance to building more theaters was the fear of civil disturbances and the loss of their power should the common folk be allowed to gather often. The lower classes loved spectacles of all sorts, not having many other forms of entertainment. Indeed, they also voiced their displeasure at the political scene rather loudly at these events as well. Finally other permanent theaters were constructed, that of Balbus which could seat 7,000 and Marcellus sitting 10,000. Pompey's theater had a capacity of 12,000. Together the three theaters held less than half of those who could sit in the Flavian Amphitheatre.
As with most every aspect of Roman life, Greek influence was followed in the theater as well. The Greek theatre was usually carved out a hillside with a circular area for the orchestra on which the chorus and danced. Behind the orchestra was the skena, a long wooden booth with doors from which actors entered and left the stage. The Romans created a free standing structure that did not rely on the slope of the land. They reduced the orchestra area to a semicircle and reserved it as a seating area for the upper classes who reclined on portable chairs or litters. Others senators and wealthy equites sat in the next seats. Women sat in the back, lest they fall in love with the actors. All around the exterior of theaters were areas selling food and drink and displaying an occasion side show. Some theaters had canvas awnings as on the Flavian Amphitheater to protect the spectator from wind, rain and sun.
Devices were used to make the show more interesting. A curtain was raised from the floor, much as one might raise a sail today. Trapdoors allowed actors to descend to or ascend from the Underworld, cranes had actor-gods descend from Olympus. Heron5 designed a mechanism that dropped a bolt of lightening (a prop) onto the stage. When it bounced back up, a new backdrop descended. Heron also invented a thunder machine that released a stream of bronze balls like an avalanche down a tin chute that had randomly raised areas.
Romans went to various theaters to see plays both in Greek and Latin, watch pantomime, hear music and enjoy ballet. Suetonius writes of Nero's presentation of certificates of citizenship to the Greek performers of ballets. These ballets were said to be more graphic than those we see today. In one, Icarus, trying to fly, crashed near the emperor's box, splattering the emperor with blood.6 The most popular early plays were of two genres: Atellana and Mimus. The Atellana was a farce with an old man (pappus) hunchback (dossennus), a glutton (bucco) and a fool (maccus). The Mimus was a clown vaudeville filled with songs, slapstick, jokes about the gods and upper class. Scenery seemed to have more importance than acting skill. Writers of comedies and tragedies, knowing the limits of the skills of actors, wrote more for recitation.7
The senior aedile was in charge of staging plays as well as races and events in the arena. Rehearsals were often in his home, especially in early days when there were no theaters. When one had the luxury of theaters, sets became elaborate. A curtain was drawn to hide set changes. This was either raised from the floor as in the Greek theaters or drawn from the two sides. It was not dropped from above as sometimes happens today. In the beginning of a play, an actor would read a prologue, a summary of what was to come. Actors were generally freed men (libertus) who wore masks to indicate their role. Masks also served to amplify the speakers' voices. No woman acted until later in the empire at which time the use of masks ceased. The actor dressed in exaggerated clothing and wore raised shoes. As today, some actors were very popular and had fans. Musicians accompanied the performers with pipes, trumpet, flute, tuba, cymbals and tambourines.8
The two playwrights to whom we are indebted for their comedies which portray daily life are Plautus (T. Maccius Plautus c. 254-184 BC) and Terence (P. Terentius c. 195-159 BC) Plautus' Menachmi was the inspiration for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and his Aulularia, for Moliere's Misanthrope. Plautus' plays are marked with satire, farce, exaggerated caricature, dry humor, play upon words and witty repartee. Terence was from Africa, a slave probably purchased from Carthage or a victim of kidnappers. His owner, a senator, Terentius Lucanus gave him his freedom. His writing is produces characters that are more subtle and humane than those of Plautus. He wrote in Latin with a Grecian tone using gentle satire and parodies. Despite his inclusion of musical accompaniments, audiences enjoyed him less than Plautus. His influence continued not amongst audiences but by those who studied his works.
Wealthy Romans were also entertained by more serious works read in their own homes, away from the masses. These presentations influenced the style of the writer, who would use language that made stage props and machinery unnecessary. These Romans still enjoyed the violence of the amphitheater, only now it was on a page, not in an arena9.
1Tacitus Annals 14.20
2 If you visit a public square in Europe today you can witness a similar display esp. on holidays.
3The prologue delivered at the third attempt to produce this play. Shelton p. 340
4Greek influence in the south of Italy probably caused theatres to be built there earlier. Evidence of a theatre from the 2nd century BC is found in Pompeii. Pompey's theatre may not have been finished till 52 BC.
5Heron - Greek mathematician and inventor ca. 62 AD from Alexandria - created steam engine, water organ and mechanical toys.
6p. 334 Shelton, As The Roman's Did
7p 117 Christ, The Romans
8p. 26 Welcome to Ancient Rome-good illustrations of these instruments.
9Sharpley, Essential Latin
Greek drama, in particular, tragedy serves as one of the best sources of information about Greek, and by extension, Roman, mythology. It evolved from rural religious festivals honoring Dionysus. Masks were carried on poles rather than worn. These information presentations became popular and soon moved to large outdoor amphitheaters, places built into the natural slope of the land. The Dionysia was one of the most famous. It was a five day event held each spring and like the Cannes film festival today, both audience and talent came from everywhere. The winning dramatis was awarded a crown of ivy. It was such a gala event that all business ceased, prisoners were even release to view the plays. The first known drama prize in 534 BC was awarded to Thespis. Actors have since been known as thespians. The greates tragic poets were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The word drama comesfrom a Greek word dran meaning to do or to perform. Greek plays had much action. The plays were always outdoors, whether in an amphitheater or in a open field. Initially there was no curtain. Any permanent backdrop would generally be the exterior of a temple. Only men performed in the play, wearing masks and headresses to indicate their role. No more than three characters appeared on the stage at one time. Violence was evident in the dialogue but always occurred offstage, allowing the viewer's imagination to be far more vivid than reality. Plots were short and to the point. There were no sub plots to distract the viewer. Speeches were sometimes sung. A chorus of 12-15 men danced and sang on the stage. This portion of the stage was called the orchestra, a Greek word for dancing place.
The same subject was treated in different ways by different dramatists thus giving us today the variations we see for the various myths. The plots remained the same however and, as today, were familiar to the audience. The story differed only in the ways in which it developed to its inevitable conclusion. The tragic hero could not escape destiny but he could choose his path to that destiny and was responsible for his actions. An audience, watching a tragedy, felt the emotions of the piece. The relief felt at the end of the play was called catharsis.
There are 31 extant plays by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, many of which are still performed today. Many have been adapted into Operas and used as themes for more contemporary literature. The plays all deal with human nature, human emotions and morality. These themes are timeless. The following story of Oedipus was put into a play by Sophocles and demonstrates this facet.
In Oedipus, the Greek belief that man could not escape his fate is demonstrated. Sophocles wrote three dramas about this myth.
Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that his newborn son would be a danger to his throne. He ordered the child to be exposed, his ankles pierced and bound together so he could be left hanging from the branch of a tree. The servant could not perform the task and gave the child to shepherds who brought him to the childless rules of Corinth. They named their adopted son Oedipus meaning "swollen-footed". He grew up assuming his parents to be Poybus and Merope of Corinth. Laius and his wife Jocasta assumed the child had died.
Time passed. Oedipus began to suspect he was adopted and decided to consult the oracle at Delphi. Instead of answering the question, the priestess told him he was fated to kill his father and commit incest with his other. Shocked by this prediction, Oedipus fled Corinth. Unable to escape his fate, his destination was Thebes. En route, he met an arrogant man in a chariot who ordered him to step aside. Oedipus refused, was hit with a whip and retaliated by killing the man and all his attendants save one. The man in the chariot was King Laius.
Continuing his journey, Oedipus met a creature with a body of a lion, the wings of a bird nd the face of a woman. This was the Sphinx. It asked a riddle of all it met and devoured all who could not answer correctly. The riddle was "What goes on four feet in the morning, two at midday and three in the evening?" "Man," responded Oedipus. The sphinx, mortified that someone could solve the riddle, killed itself. Oedipus became an instant hero when he arrived in Thebes, was made king in the place of the now dead Laius and Jocasta became his queen. Thus the oracle's prediction came true. Oedipus was unaware he had killed the king or that Laius and Jocasta were his true parents.
The two had four children, the most famous one, Antigone, was herself a source of much drama. All was well for a short time till famine hit. Creon (brother to Jocasta) was dispatched to Delphi to find out what could be done. The oracle said that the pestilence could not end until the murderer of Laius was punished. Oedipus put the forces to work to find out who had done this deed and as the clues developed, the truth was known. Jocasta, learning the true identity of Oedipus and the heinous sin she had committed, hanged herself. Oedipus blinded himself with one of her brooches and was exiled to a barren site. Creon was consequently named king of Thebes after the banishment of Oedipus.
Welcome to Ancient Rome, NTC Publishing co., 1981
Ancient Inventions, Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ballentine Books, 1994
The Romans, Karl Christ University of California Press, 1984
As The Romans Did, Jo Ann Shelton Oxford University Press 1988
Essential Latin, London: Routledge Publishers, 2000, pp. 104-105
Click here for the Roman & Greek Theater Worksheet.
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