The ancient Romans learned many aspects of art and entertainment from their neighbours, The Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius – Liv 7,2) suggested four stages to the development of ancient Roman Theatre beginning with the Etruscans to the immediate north. The Greeks in the southern Italian colonies were a clear influence, in particular Livius Andronicus a Greek slave is said to have first translated Greek plays into Latin as part of his teaching classes.
This short article explores the
- construction and architecture of ancient Roman theatre &…
- the development of the performances and plays in Roman theater.
Brief overview of the construction and layout of Roman theatres
Perhaps the Ancient Romans are best known for their Amphitheatres rather than their theatres. In fact the Amphitheatre was a double theatre back to back, making it into an oval “arena” such as the Colosseum. In some ways this could reflect a general preference by the broader population for action sports rather than theatrical plays.
Roman theatres were made of wood until 55BC when the first masonry theatre was constructed, much as a stone version of the earlier wooden ones. The Roman writer Vitruvius provides exhaustive description of the construction methods, dimensions and acoustic considerations; also including systems of 13 suitably tuned bronze resonators to amplify and improve the sound quality. (De Architectura 5.5).
The stage was long, in the region of 60m (180ft), which allowed sufficient room for significant antics and vigorous jumping about, as in the plays of Plautus.
The stage would be typically interpreted as a street with a couple of houses, with the stage exits to the left and right being understood as leading to the city centre/forum, or out of town in accordance with the provenance of the characters in the play. This made it easier for the audience to understand the events. An altar to Apollo (god of the arts) stood centre stage.
Roman sun god Apollo became a leading religious symbol, also associated with Christ in the later empire.
The muse of Tragic plays (from a painting in Herculaneum)
The muse of Comedy. It is interesting to note her poor and patched up clothing.
The actors wore standard clothing aligned to role-types, which everyone would recognise. Theater masks were increasingly substituted by make-up but could have an important role, also contributing to sound projection. Slave characters wore red wigs whilst old men white ones.
More important upper class audience would sit directly in front of the stage, the ‘orchestra’, whilst the broader audience would be on the surrounding slopes around the outside known as the ‘cavea’. In case of rain everyone could take refuge in a covered area behind the stage called the ‘scena’. The scena’s construction and materials could also play an important role in sound resonance and projection during performances.
The development of Roman theatre and acting performances
Understanding the development of ancient Roman theatre and the plays within them requires a subdivision of different contexts, for example:
- What audience? learned upper class or broader plebeians?
- The development through time – in hand with the development of writing, as well as the cultural encounter with broader cultures
- Different types of theatrical display available: Speech and dance, Mime, Satire, Improvised verses and Comedies, Pantomimes and full blown dramatic works
- The actors involved, sometimes also including the public
Titus Livius, a Roman historian at the time of Emperor Augustus wrote about the history of Rome within which the development of ancient Roman theatre is also described (Liv 7,2) . In his view there were approximately four stages to it. It is interesting to note Livy’s suggestion that once full development was reached, the words (and music?) were written out. The period described by him spanned over 5 centuries to Livy’s own time around the year 0; and hence worth considering that over such a span of time the ability to actually write and record literature would have also developed.
Hence an important consideration is that the development of Ancient Roman Theatre was also a period over which music as well as written literature developed. Consequently the forms of ancient Roman theatre and dramatic arts also developed to contain various degrees of orally transmitted stories, music, improvisation and planned/written plots.
Livy’s stages of Roman Theatre included
- Etruscan dancers moving to flute music and dancing “in the Tuscan fashion”. They were invited in an effort to bring the favour of the gods against a plague.
- Romans imitated this and added words in time with the dancing, often vulgar, sometimes also associated with events such as weddings.
- “fescennini versus” Fescennine Verses developed as possibly the earliest form of Dramatic Arts known to the Romans.
- The vulgarity of Fescennine verses was eliminated and often repressed by the authorities, the words written, and placed in good harmony with the music (ie theatre)
Early forms of ancient Roman Theatre
Fescennine verses were from the border regions between Rome and Etruria. In ancient times these could be of two types: Scenic, like theatrical displays, or Free form as might be required at an event like a wedding. In later times only the free form survived.
They probably developed as part of social interaction during harvesting, linked with phallic and irreverent references of abundance and openly and jestingly exchanged by people involved, be they on the stage or in the public alike. It is worthwhile noting that in this archaic period literacy was extremely low and limited. Hence it is probable that the content would have been either learned through oral tradition or improvised on the spot.
It is unclear whether Fescennine works actually reached a level of development as to be regarded theatrical works in the true sense. However they are certainly a significant element in the development of theatre and continued to be a significant element in Roman staged shows during the Republic. Roman authorities often had to intervene against their vulgarity and open satirical abuse. The Senate is known to have abolished them but the coarse and satirical nature of the broader population kept them alive.
Roman Satire or Satura – A separate page has been written regarding Roman Satire.
Taking a broader view we should consider a variety of forms and influences over this period.
A form of improvisational commedy. They are thought to have been imported into Rome around 391BC and would have lasted at least into the second century AD. Whilst the Fescennine verses were associated with the Etruscans, the “Fabulae Atellanae” also known as Oscan games were originally linked with the Oscan people of Italy in Campania (ie near Naples).
The Oscan games were preceded by improvised pantomimes or short sketches. Again, as with Fescennine verses, these stage shows developed in an archaic period of time when written records were limited particularly for the common folk, and this type of performance would have been either improvised or transmitted by oral tradition. Records are therefore very scarce, including a few written lines and some depictions on vases. They are however mentioned and discussed by later Roman authors such as Tacitus and Livy (again 7, 2)
We know there were a number of well known stock characters, rather like those in a punch and judy show or in the Italian commedia dell’arte. Four regular characters were
- Bucco (full of himself and talking made-up rubbish)
- Dossennus (a clever hunch-back)
- Maccus (foolish and always eating)
- Pappus (foolish and old )
In the first century BC, at the time of Julius Caesar they declined for a brief period in favour of Roman mime, but subsequently came back into fashion
Roman mime did not involve a plot but rather the telling of a given episode within real life or mythology. The actors did not wear masks and as such had to rely on strong facial expressions and less on their voices. Nor did they wear shoes to heighten their stature. There may have been roles taken by women rather than men and it is possible that in some cases public success might have been sought through nakedness, which was upsetting for the upper class in defense of Roman morals or “mos maiorum”.
They were initially associated with the Floralia feasts (the writer Martial wrote an epigram about this). They became increasingly popular in later times. Roman mime continued to flourish into the Empire and is possibly an interesting comparative theme of investigation with other periods in history. As the empire evolved so too did public taste:
- The richer, more literate upper class developed taste and elitist needs which traditional theatre had trouble keeping up with.
- The broader base of plebeans had grown to an enormous population size but culturally weakened. It sought forms of entertainment which were increasingly low in content and literary value.
Roman Satire or ‘Satura’
Roman Satura has leant its name to the modern term of ‘Satire’. It was born out of the playful Roman desire for lively variety and developed into a full blown artistic genre.
Well before the discovery of Greek literature; Roman satire, slap-stick, vulgar comedy, vitriolic jibe and public ridicule of personal traits or collective habits was a Roman favorite.
Satirical commentary was regarded as salubrious for society as a whole and generally harsh-but-fair, rather than gratuitous.
Showing annoyance could only be expected to attract even more attention and sniggering and no-one was spared irrespective of status, as Julius Caesar himself found out: His own soldiers would jokingly shout things like “Romans, hide your wives away – the great adulterer returns!“
Caesar soon gave up fighting back as a lost cause and perhaps it isn’t any chance that he later used the propaganda machinery to associate himself and his lineage to the Roman Goddess Venus as closely as possible.
The ancient Romans ascribed the earliest origins of Satire to the populations of Faleria and Fescennium on the borderlands between Latium and Etruria, just to the north of Rome. The addition of other influences from around Italy, including Greek plots and theatrical structure absorbed from the colonies in the south of the peninsula gave rise to a strictly Latin-Roman genre.
Satire was therefore a sort of hotchpotch of acts and displays spiced up with a good deal of relatively basic obscenities and jokes which poked fun at public figures, society, politics and whatever else might strike the righter worthy of interest: A simple basic structure of poetry spiced up with double entendre, song and dance. The word itself “satira” is thought to come from the word “Satura” which was a kind of Minestrone soup of the day made with a large variety of ingredients all thrown into a single melting pot.
The Romans themselves placed the formal beginnings of satire around the 2nd century BC. Presumably it was about then that the art began to jell into a specific, repeatable genre under which one could place a number of notable and highly respected writers.
A brilliant and enjoyable example of it in prose form is Petronius’ “Satiricon” which looks at society of the day. It satirizes the relationship between the emerging nouveau riche and the weakening upper-crust Patricians who, through necessity, had to put up with them.
Horace gives us an idea of the public sparring which often went on:
Epode VI “Against Cassius Severus – An ill-natured and abusive Poet” (from Odes and Epodes)
“Why, good for nothing dog, do you thus bark at harmless strangers, but turn tail at the approach of a wolf? Turn, wretch, if you dare, your vain threats against me, who know how to bite again. ….”
Interestingly for us Horace brings up two references to the (destructive) power of satire – interesting because he himself was a pretty good satirist:
“…for I am always ready to fall with triple fury upon the Wicked, as that despised Son-in-Law, who took so severe a Revenge upon the perfidious Lycambe, or Hipponax, the mortal Enemy of Bupalus….”
The story of Archilochus and Lycambe: The first was a poet (commonly believed to have invented Iambic verses) and the latter to have promised him his daughter in marriage. When Lycambe broke his promise Archilochus took terrible revenge by writing a satirical poem against him (in Iambic verse of course). To cut the story short both men ended up hanging themselves.
The story of Hipponax and Bupalus: Bupalus and Anthermus were two brothers. They also happened to be artists and painted a rather unflattering portrait of the poet Hipponax. The poet happened to have a poor sense of humor it seems and stung back with a satirical poem about the artists. Surprise surprise it all ended in tears.
Such was the power of satire. Or should we say, “the pen is mightier than the sword!”
There were many other Satirists of course and a special mention is deserved by Juvenal and Martial. A passage by Juvenal I often remember (dare I admit it) denounces the way in which married women and their daughters have come to prefer an ugly Gladiator and his sword to their husbands….
The Romans would likely have considered their Satirical work as a development not of Horace or Juvenal but of Lucilius’ (perhaps to be more closely associated with the Juvenalian sharp tongued attack). They too would have been well aware of a third “type” ie the Menippean satire, of which the Satyricon Trimalchio dinner party seems a valid example> a wonderful and masterful example but as the name says, was a genre associated with the work of the cynic Menippus (Syrian) who also inspired the likes of Varro and Lucian. ie a foreign seed.
Having said that, the Menippean case seems to confirm the “genre” point: it is also interesting to note that Strabo and Stephanus refer to him more in his use of jest in a philosophical context -ie to take a stab at the Epicureans and Stoics. ie it was a method particular to him within philosophical discussion as opposed to a form of literature in its own right which might be used for a variety of purposes and a variety of writers.
Greek influence and the Commoedia Palliata
Ancient Roman ‘classical’ theatre was very much learned when the Romans came into contact with Greek culture during their invasion of southern Italian city states. The influx of Greek slaves who might have been actors or even playwrights gradually brought an appreciation for drama to Roman culture, although it could hardly beat the appeal of the Circus and Amphitheatres such as the Colosseum.
The Greek poet, playwright and actor Livius Andronicus lived 280-200BC
The Roman playwright Plautus lived a little after Livius Andronicus, took on the theatrical form of “Commoedia Palliata” and proceeded to write some 130 plays and commedies of which around 20 survive nowadays. Given the period he lived in his works were in Old Latin or Archaic Latin rather than the later Classical Latin. What has survived is thanks to a Palimpsest – an ancient manuscript was rubbed out and written over, but is still legible underneath. Plautus’ plays tell us much about society in the republican period of around 200BC.
According to Greek tradition, actors on the stage would wear large masks which often had large wide-open mouths: probably to project their voices better as well as to render their character’s features most easily seen.
Was Satire also a Roman development on a Greek invention?
As a result of the above considerations we inserted “Satire” amongst the inventions of Ancient Rome, until one of our readers wrote in with a question and forced us to consider its origins more deeply:
‘Roman “satire” is not satire. They use the word Satire, but in no way is it similar to what we mean by satire.’
An excellent observation which deserves further consideration….
The Greeks had good examples of satirical literature/plays. I dare say there were even earlier examples in ancient Egypt and elsewhere. The brilliant sparkles weren’t brought together and developed into a singular form of literature until a variety of Romans, with a common environment had their way, particularly from the neighbouring areas.
The genre made its greatest progress and took its most stable form during the Roman period. Quintilian for example, fully aware and well learned in Greek literature, perhaps even more so than we are today, expressed the view that it was a Roman genre; whilst for many others “inventions” the Roman’s had certainly no problem in recognising what was of local or foreign provenance. I believe Quintilian coined the name we now use for it (it would be interesting to place the exact reference here!) and from this small perspective could be considered to have been the one who actually recognised that a form of literature existed around him which hadn’t otherwise been described as an entity (the name-word itself derived from the Roman dish “satura” – a sort of minestrone dish made of a mixed variety of ingredients).
We might also give some thought as to what we are considering as “satire”: what would Quintilian have seen about him when he decided there was a genre in its own right?
We shouldn’t forget that satire in Rome wasn’t only literature or the classical staged performances, but rather included the lower class public shows, more akin to a cabaret with a variety of ingredients: itself a product of local habits and popular customs. Possibly influenced by Etruscan, Latin, Greek presence but nevertheless as local and basically “Roman” as you could get.
In parallel with the above we should consider that within Greek literature there was no particular name for the genre> you might have considered it within the cynical approach perhaps or simply as “parody” (as in Aristophanes) but it wasn’t as yet a genre in its own right, as the Romans made it and from whence we have what is considered the body of satire known to us today.
This last point might be supported by the fact that satire is nowadays commonly broken down into two, or three, main branches> Horatian and Juvenalian> interestingly the modern division refers to Roman, rather than Greek, examples.
Antique etching from masks found at Herculaneum: