Theater performance

In the early days of Roman theater, Greek tragedies and comedies were very popular. Roman theater included farce and pantomime. Nudity and live acts of violence drew large audiences. As Roman theaters grew larger and less intimate and the spoken word became more difficult to hear, dialogue was replaced with songs, which transformed soloists into major stars.

The art of pantomime---the solo performance of a dramatic narrative in which a dancer or performer portray all characters---was developed by dancers for performances in the great Roman arenas. The performers used movements and gestures that had a clear meaning to the spectators. Pantomimists became famous for their ability to relate entire stories with gestures and postures. They sometimes wore masks and avish costumes and jewelry.

Dramas are still performed in Roman amphitheaters in Verona, Italy, Carthage, Tunisia, Arles France and other places. Some of the theaters had huge walls on which actors and performers cast long, intriguing shadows. Describing the effect with a modern production at a theater in Orange in France, Elaine Sciolino wrote in the New York Times, “As the performers began to move, their shadows rose 100 feet and danced across the imposing backdrop of a yellow limestone wall. A marble statue of Caesar Augustus stood ghostly white upon his perch in the wall, his right arm raised as if he had just commanded the singers to begin their performance."

Roman theater was mainly a copy of Greek drama and not a very good one that. Not very Roman plays are produced today. Actors were regarded as just one rung above prostitutes. Romans appear to have been more interested in gladiator battles, chariot races and large spectacles and less interested in drama and Olympic-style sports as was the case with ancient Greeks. The Olympics, however, continued through the Roman era as a pagan festival, with Nero among those that attended, until they were shut down by the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I, who ordered the closure of all pagan events in 393.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Spectacles and Theater Entertainment in the Roman World

actor playing the slave Massimo

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Spectacle was an integral part of life in the Roman world. Some forms of spectacle—triumphal processions, aristocratic funerals, and public banquets, for example—took as their backdrop the city itself. Others were held in purpose-built spectator buildings: theaters for plays and other scenic entertainment, amphitheaters for gladiatorial combats and wild beast shows, stadia for athletic competitions, and circuses for chariot races. As a whole, this pervasive culture of spectacle served both as a vehicle for self-advertisement by the sociopolitical elite and as a means of reinforcing the shared values and institutions of the entire community. [Source: Laura S. Klar, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2006, \^/]

“The principal occasions for dramatic spectacles in the Roman world were yearly religious festivals, or ludi, organized by elected magistrates and funded from the state treasury. Temple dedications, military triumphs, and aristocratic funerals also provided opportunities for scenic performances. Until 55 B.C., there was no permanent theater in the city of Rome, and plays were staged in temporary, wooden structures, intended to stand for a few weeks at most. The ancient sources concur that the delay in constructing a permanent theater was due to active senatorial opposition, although the possible reasons for this resistance (concern for Roman morality, fear of popular sedition, competition among the elite) remain a subject of debate. Literary accounts of temporary theaters indicate that they could be quite elaborate. The best documented is a theater erected by the magistrate M. Aemilius Scaurus in 58 B.C., which Pliny reports to have had a stage-building comprised of three stories of columns and ornamented with 3,000 bronze statues. \^/

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Of other games that were sometimes given in the amphitheaters something has been said in connection with the circus. The most important were the venationes, hunts of wild beasts. These were sometimes killed by men trained to hunt them, sometimes made to kill one another. As the amphitheater was primarily intended for the butchery of men, the venationes given in it gradually became fights of men against beasts. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

The victims were condemned criminals, some of them guilty of crimes that deserved death, some of them sentenced on trumped-up charges, some of them (among these were women and children) condemned “to the lions” for political or religious convictions. Sometimes they were supplied with weapons; sometimes they were exposed unarmed, even fettered or bound to stakes; sometimes the ingenuity of their executioners found additional torments for them by making them play the parts of the sufferers in the tragedies of mythology. The arena could be adapted, too, for the maneuvering of boats, when it had been flooded with water. Naval battles (naumachiae) were often fought, as desperate and as bloody as some of those that have given a new turn to the history of the world. The very earliest exhibitions of this sort were given in artificial lakes, also called naumachiae. The first of these was dug by Caesar, for a single exhibition, in 46 B.C. Augustus had a permanent basin constructed in 2 B.C., measuring 1800 by 1200 feet, and four others at least were built by later emperors.” |+|

Dramatic Performances

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The history of the development of the drama at Rome belongs, of course, to the history of Latin literature. In classical times dramatic performances consisted of comedies (comoediae), tragedies (tragoediae), farces (mimi), and pantomimes (pantomimi). The farces and pantomimes were used chiefly as interludes and after-pieces, though with the common people they were the most popular of all and outlived the others. Tragedy never had any real hold at Rome, and only the liveliest comedies gained favor on the stage. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

20120227-Mosaic Pompeii Casa_del_Fauno_-_Mask_-_MAN.jpg
Pompeii Casa del Fauno Mask mosaic

“The only complete Roman comedies that have come down to us are those of Plautus and Terence, all adaptations from Greek originals, all depicting Greek life, and represented in Greek costumes (fabulae palliatae). They were a good deal more like our comic operas than our comedies; large parts were recited to the accompaniment of music and other parts were sung while the actors danced. Since Roman theaters were not provided with any means of lighting, the plays were always presented in the daytime. In the early period they were given after the noon meal, but by Plautus’s time they had come to be given in the morning. The average comedy must have required about two hours for its performance, if we make allowances for the occasional music between the scenes. |+|

“The play, as well as the other sports, was under the supervision of the state officials in charge of the games at which it was given. They contracted for the production of the play with some recognized manager (dominus gregis), who was usually an actor of acknowledged ability and had associated with him a troupe (grex) of others inferior only to himself. The actors were all slaves, and men took the parts of women. There was no fixed limit to the number of actors, but motives of economy would lead the dominus to produce each play with the smallest number possible, and two or even more parts were often assigned to one actor. The characters in the comedies mentioned above, the fabulae palliatae, wore the ordinary Greek dress of daily life, and the costumes were, therefore, not expensive. The only make-up required in the days of Plautus and Terence was paint for the face, especially for the actors who took women’s parts, and wigs that were used conventionally to represent different characters, gray for old men, black for young men, red for slaves, etc. These and the few properties (ornamenta) necessary were furnished by the dominus. It seems to have been customary also for him to feast the actors at his expense if their efforts to entertain were unusually successful. |+|

Plautus — the Flatfoot Clown — Rome’s First Noteworthy Writer?

Titus Maccius Plautus (died 184 B.C.) Dr. Rich Prior of the Furman University Classics faculty wrote: “ In the year 254 B.C. in a tiny backwater town of north-central Italy named Sarsina was born a certain Titus. That was his name. Just plain Titus. As a young man, Titus was dissatisfied with his rural lot, so he decided to seek his fortune in the big city. When Titus arrived in Rome he found work first as a stage hand, then as an actor. At this point the Roman stage was occupied by a native Italian dramatic form called the fabula Atellana, a sort of variety show featuring singers, dancers, clowns, magicians, and skits with a generous amount of slapstick. Our boy Titus found his niche as a clown (maccus in Latin). He also acquired a nickname 'Flatfoot' (Plautus). When he became a citizen and had to pick a full and proper legal name by Roman custom, he stitched these together to become Titus Maccius Plautus, or Titus the Clown Flatfoot.

“Eventually Titus saved some cash, left the stage, and tried his hand at commerce. The venture failed miserably. Driven to desperation, he worked as a common laborer at a flour mill while studying Greek on the side. Greece had only recently been swept into the Roman world, and with Greece came all kinds of Greek goodies, including new dramatic forms. The Greek "New Comedy" was different. A single continuous story, all with the same stage set -- 2 or 3 houses on a street. The Greek plays were funny enough, but the jokes were about Greek manners and ways. Titus thought Romans would enjoy them too, but only if they were adapted to a Roman context. The only catch was that the Romans were real fuddyduddies. Fine if the plays made fun of Greeks, but no one should poke fun at Romans. So, starting when he was about 40 years old, Titus found a way to reconcile it all. In a brilliant Victor/Victoria-esque manoeuvre, he replaced the Greeks in the plays with Romans, but dressed them up as Greeks, put them in Greek cities, and gave them Greek names. The veneer was thick enough to satisfy the curmudgeons, but thin eough to let the essential Romanness shine through. He added some innovations of his own as well, such as audience involvement and saucy, clever slaves who always come up smelling like roses.


“We know that Plautus wrote over a hundred plays before he died in 184 B.C.. Unfortunately only 20 survive intact, and these represent the oldest complete works of Roman literature.” Brothers Menaechmus is one of his better known plays. “Very little tinkering was necessary to make the play work on the modern stage, so, language difference aside, what you see... is what Romans enjoyed 2200 years ago.”

The characters in “Brothers Menaechmus“ are: 1) Prologa, speaker of the prologue; 2) Peniculus, a parasite; 2) Menaechmus I, a twin; 3) Erotium, a courtesan; 4) Cylindra, a cook; 5) Menaechmus II, a twin; 6) Messenio, his slave; 7) Matrona, wife to Menaechmus I; 8) Ancilla, slave to Erotium; 9) Senex, Matrona's father; 10) Medicus, a physician; 11) Ruffiana, a slave; 12) Decia, another slave; 13) Thalia, yet another slave; and 14 ) Dulcia, still one more slave.

Early Roman Theaters

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “During the period when the best plays were being written (200-160 B.C.) by Plautus and Terence, very little was done for the accommodation of the actors or the audience. The stage was merely a temporary platform, the width of which was much greater than its depth; it was built at the foot of a hill or a grass-covered slope. There were few of the things that we are accustomed to associate with a stage; there were no curtains, no flies, no scenery that could be changed, not even a sounding board to aid the actor’s voice. There was no way to represent the interior of a house. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“For a comedy the stage represented a street. At the back of the stage were shown, usually, the fronts of two or three houses with windows and doors that could be opened; sometimes there was an alley or passageway between two of the houses. This was the regular setting for the play, and consequently the dramatist was forced to place there scenes and conversations that might normally be expected to take place indoors. |+|

“An altar stood on the stage, we are told, to remind the people of the religious origin of the games. No better provision was made for the audience than for the actors. The people took their places on the slope before the stage, some reclining on the grass, some standing, some, perhaps, sitting on stools which they had brought from home. There were always din and confusion to try the actor’s voice, pushing and crowding; disputing and quarreling, wailing of children; and in the very midst of the play the report of something livelier to be seen elsewhere might draw the whole audience away.” |+|

Early Theater in the Roman World

scene from Plautus's Cistellaria

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “According to the ancient historian Livy, the earliest theatrical activity at Rome took the form of dances with musical accompaniment, introduced to the city by the Etruscans in 364 B.C. The literary record also indicates that Atellanae, a form of native Italic farce (much like the phlyakes of southern Italy), were performed at Rome by a relatively early date. In 240 B.C., full-length, scripted plays were introduced to Rome by the playwright Livius Andronicus, a native of the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy. [Source: Laura S. Klar, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2006, \^/]

“The earliest Latin plays to have survived intact are the comedies of Plautus (active ca. 205-184 B.C.), which were principally adaptations of Greek New Comedy. Latin tragedy also flourished during the second century B.C. While some examples of the genre treated stories from Greek myth, others were concerned with famous episodes from Roman history. After the second century B.C., the composition of both tragedy and comedy declined precipitously at Rome. During the imperial period, the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment were mime (ribald comic productions with sensational plots and sexual innuendo) and pantomime (performances by solo dancers with choral accompaniment, usually recreating tragic myths).

“The first permanent theater in the city of Rome was the Theater of Pompey, dedicated in 55 B.C. by Julius Caesar's rival, Pompey the Great. The theater, of which only the foundations are preserved, was an enormous structure, rising to approximately forty-five meters and capable of holding up to 20,000 spectators. At the rear of the stage-building was a large, colonnaded portico, which housed artworks and gardens. Constructed in the wake of Pompey's spectacular military campaigns of the 60s B.C., the theater functioned in large part as a victory monument. The cavea (seating area) was crowned by a temple to Venus Victrix, Pompey's patron deity, and the theater was decorated with statues of the goddess Victory and personifications of the nations that Pompey had subdued in battle. \^/

Later Roman Theaters

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ Beginning about 145 B.C., however, efforts were made to improve upon this poor apology for a theater, in spite of the opposition of those who considered the plays ruinous to morals. In that year a wooden theater provided with seats was erected on Greek lines, but the senate caused it to be pulled down as soon as the games were over.3 It became a fixed custom, however, for such a temporary theater (with special and separate seats for senators and, much later, for the knights) to be erected as often as plays were given at public games, until in 55 B.C. Pompeius Magnus erected the first permanent theater at Rome. It was built of stone after the plans of one he had seen at Mytilene and could probably seat seventeen thousand people; Pliny the Elder says forty thousand.4 This theater showed two noteworthy divergences from its Greek model. The Greek theaters were excavated out of the side of the hill, while the Roman theater was erected on level ground (that of Pompeius was erected in the Campus Martius) and gave, therefore, a better opportunity for exterior magnificence. The Greek theater had a space, usually circular, or larger than a semicircle, called the orchestra, before the scaena or scene building; this orchestra or dancing-place gave room for the choruses of the Greek drama. |+|

“In the Roman theater the orchestra was not used for the chorus (there was seldom a chorus in a Roman play); the orchestra in a Roman theater was therefore reduced in size until it became an exact semicircle. The seats nearest the orchestra were assigned at Rome to the senators, in the country towns to the magistrates and town council. The first fourteen rows of seats rising immediately behind them were reserved at Rome for the knights. The seats back of these were occupied indiscriminately by the people, on the principle, apparently, of first come, first served. No other permanent theaters were erected at Rome until 13 B.C., when two were constructed. The smaller, that of Balbus,5 is said to have had room for eleven thousand spectators, the larger, erected in honor of Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus, for twenty thousand.5 These improved playhouses made possible spectacular elements in the performances that the rude scaffolding of early days had not permitted, and these spectacles proved the ruin of the legitimate drama. To make realistic the scenes representing the pillaging of a city, Pompeius is said to have furnished troops of cavalry and bodies of infantry, hundreds of mules laden with real spoils of war, and three thousand mixing bowls. In comparison with these three thousand mixing bowls, the avalanches, runaway locomotives, airplane crashes, and cathedral scenes of modern times seem poor indeed. |+|

Roman theater in Pompeii

Roman Theaters

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Pompey's dedication effectively canonized the form of the Roman theater, providing a prototype that would be replicated across the empire for nearly three centuries. This new building type differed in striking ways from the traditional Greek theater. The latter consisted of two separate structures: a horseshoe-shaped seating area and a freestanding stage-building. The Roman theater, in contrast, was a fully enclosed edifice, unroofed but often covered with awnings on performance days. [Source: Laura S. Klar, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2006, \^/]

“The seating area in the Greek theater was supported against a natural hillside, whereas the Roman theater was carried at least in part on concrete vaults, which provided access from the exterior of the building to the cavea. In the Hellenistic world, the stage-building was a relatively low structure, ornamented with painted panels but rarely with large-scale sculpture. The Roman theater, on the other hand, was characterized by a tall, wide scaenae frons (stage-front) with multiple stories, articulated by freestanding columns and lavishly ornamented with statues of gods and heroes and portraits of the imperial family and local luminaries. \^/

“The architectural differences between the Roman theater and its Greek predecessor are not satisfactorily explained by functional factors such as optics, acoustics, or staging needs. Rather, Rome's adaptation of the Greek theater seems to have been driven largely by social and political forces. The columnar scaenae frons, for example, may have developed to house statuary looted from Greece and Asia Minor by Roman generals and exhibited at triumphal games as evidence of their military prowess. The architecture of the Roman theater also signals Roman concern for social control and hierarchical display. In contrast to the Greek world, where seating in the theater was largely open, Roman audiences were rigorously segregated on the basis of class, gender, nationality, profession, and marital status. This is reflected in both the enclosed form of the Roman theater, which restricted access to the building, and the system of vaulted substructures, which facilitated the routing of spectators to the appropriate sector of seating.” \^/

Parts of a Roman Theater

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The general appearance of these theaters, the type of many erected later throughout the Roman world, the plan of a theater on lines laid down by Vitruvius is the back line of the stage (proscaenium); between GH and CD is the scaena, devoted to the actors; beyond CD is the cavea, devoted to the spectators. Opposite IKL are the positions of three doors. The first four rows of seats closest to the stage, in the semicircular orchestra CMD, constitute the part appropriated to the senators. The seats behind these front rows, rising in concentric semicircles, are divided by five passageways into six portions (cunei); in a similar way the seats above the semicircular passage (praecinctio) are divided by eleven passageways into twelve cunei. Access to the seats of the senators was afforded by passageways under the seats at the right and the left of the stage, which represents a part of the smaller of the two theaters uncovered at Pompeii, built about 80 B.C. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

theater in Merida

“Over the vaulted passage will be noticed what must have been the best seats in the theater, which correspond in some degree to the boxes of modern times. Those on one side were reserved for the emperor, if he should be present, or for the officials who superintended the games; those on the other side were reserved for Vestals. These reserved seats were reached only by private staircases on the stage side of the auditorium. Access to the upper tiers of the cavea was given by passageways constructed under the seats and running up to the passageways between the cunei. Above the highest seats were broad colonnades, affording shelter in case of rain, and above them were tall masts from which awnings (vela) were spread to protect the people from the sun. |+|

“The great width of the Roman stage, sometimes forty or sixty yards, made practicable certain dramatic devices that seem forced or unnatural on the modern stage, such as asides and dialogues on one part of the stage unheard at another, and the length of time sometimes allowed for crossing the stage. In the later theater changes in scenery were possible; the extant Roman plays, however, seldom require change of scenery. It should be noticed that the stage was connected with the auditorium by the seats over the vaulted passages to the orchestra, and that the curtain was raised from the bottom, to hide the stage, not lowered from the top as ours is now. The slot through which the curtain was dropped can still be seen in some theaters, as at Pompeii. Vitruvius suggested that rooms and porticos be built behind the stage, like the colonnades that have been mentioned, to afford space for the actors and properties, and shelter for the people in case of rain. |+|

Amphitheaters in the Roman World

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In contrast to the Roman theater, which evolved from Greek models, the amphitheater had no architectural precedent in the Greek world. Likewise, the spectacles that took place in the amphitheater—gladiatorial combats and venationes (wild beast shows)—were Italic, not Greek, in origin. The earliest secure evidence for gladiatorial contests comes from the painted decoration of a fourth-century B.C. tomb at Paestum in southern Italy. Several ancient authors record that gladiatorial combat was introduced to Rome in 264 B.C., on the occasion of munera (funeral games) in honor of an elite citizen named D. Iunius Brutus Pera. By the mid-first century B.C., gladiatorial contests were staged not only at funerals, but also at state-sponsored festivals (ludi). Throughout the imperial period, they remained an important route to popular favor for emperors and provincial leaders. In 325 A.D., Constantine, the first Christian emperor, prohibited gladiatorial combat on the grounds that it was too bloodthirsty for peacetime. Literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence indicates, however, that gladiatorial games continued at least until the mid-fifth century A.D. [Source: Laura S. Klar, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2006, \^/]

“As in the case of theatrical entertainment, the earliest venues for gladiatorial games at Rome were temporary, wooden structures. As early as 218 B.C., according to Livy, gladiatorial contests were staged in the elongated, open space of the Roman Forum, with wooden stands for spectators. These temporary structures probably provided the prototype for the monumental amphitheater, a building type characterized by an elliptical seating area enclosing a flat performance space. The first securely datable, stone amphitheater is the one at Pompeii, constructed in 80-70 B.C. Like most early amphitheaters, the Pompeian example has an austere, functional appearance, with the seats partially supported on earthen embankments. \^/

outside the amphitheater in Pompeii

“The earliest stone amphitheater at Rome was constructed in 29 B.C. by T. Statilius Taurus, one of the most trusted generals of the emperor Augustus. This building burned down during the great fire of 64 A.D. and was replaced by the Colosseum, dedicated by the emperor Titus in 80 A.D. and still one of Rome's most prominent landmarks. Unlike earlier amphitheaters, the Colosseum featured elaborate basement amenities, including animal cages and mechanical elevators, as well as a complex system of vaulted, concrete substructures. The facade consisted of three stories of superimposed arcades flanked by engaged columns of the Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Representations of the building on ancient coins indicate that colossal statues of gods and heroes stood in the upper arcades. The inclusion of Greek columnar orders and copies of Greek statues may reflect a desire to promote the amphitheater, a uniquely Roman building type, to the same level in the architectural hierarchy as the theater, with its venerable Greek precedents. \^/

In a review of the book: The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, Nigel Spivey wrote The Guardian, “To Romans it was the amphitheatre - a model for imitation throughout the provinces. From north Africa to south Wales, essentially similar structures were raised. El Djem, Verona, Nimes, Arles, Caerleon - these are among the hundreds of Colosseum-clones that appeared. Only in the eastern Mediterranean did problems arise. For in these parts, where Greek cultural values still prevailed under Roman rule, most cities already had institutional spaces of public entertainment. Such areas primarily took the form of the stadium, where athletes strove for glory; or the semi-circular theatre. In both locations there was contest, but contest pitched as virtual reality. Wrestling was a sweated mimicry of war, tragedy the shadow-play of mortal disaster. But what was to be done with the spectacle of sheer violence -men and animals fighting to the death? [Source: Nigel Spivey, The Guardian, March 12, 2005]

Amphitheaters in Pompeii and Tunisia

Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “The amphitheatre at Pompeii is the earliest known permanent stone amphitheatre in Italy (and the rest of the Roman world). It was constructed after 70 B.C., and belongs to the period of the Roman conquest and colonisation of the town. [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“An inscription tells us that two local officials, Quinctius Valgus and Marcius Porcius built the amphitheatre at private expense. These men would have expected this act to enhance their personal power and prestige, and we know from graffiti found throughout the town that gladiatorial games were extremely popular. |::|

“The amphitheatre could seat around 20,000 people, and served not only Pompeii but also the inhabitants of surrounding towns. In A.D. 59, there was a riot in the amphitheatre, in which spectators from Pompeii and the nearby town of Nuceria fought each other, with the result that the Emperor Nero banned games at Pompeii for a period of ten years. |::|

On El Jem in Tunisia, Florence Fabricant wrote in the New York Times, “The amphitheater, in better shape than the Roman Colosseum and considered more advanced in its engineering, is now used for a summer music and theater festival. But in Roman times, this third century arena, an oval nearly 500 feet long that could hold 30,000 spectators on many tiers of seats, is thought to have been used for more bloodthirsty events, involving not only gladiatorial combat to the death but also throwing prisoners and slaves to the lions. [Source: Florence Fabricant, New York Times, October 18, 1998]

Amphitheatre of El Djem

Amphitheatre of El Djem: Gladiatorial Arena of Tunisia

The amphitheatre in the Tunisian city of El Djem is considered one of the most impressive Roman remains in all of Africa and was used as the setting for the gladiator battles in the Hollywood film ‘Gladiator’. In fact, there are two amphitheatrer in El Djem. The smaller one is much less famous than the large one, and is not as well preserved. [Source: Ancient Origins, June 25, 2018]

According to to UNESCO: “This amphitheatre is built entirely of stone blocks, with no foundations and free-standing. In this respect it is modelled on the Coliseum of Rome without being an exact copy of the Flavian construction. Its size (big axis of 148 metres and small axis 122 metres) and its capacity (judged to be 35,000 spectators) make it without a doubt among the largest amphitheatres in the world. Its facade comprises three levels of arcades of Corinthian or composite style. Inside, the monument has conserved most of the supporting infrastructure for the tiered seating. The wall of the podium, the arena and the underground passages are practically intact. This architectural and artistic creation built around 238 AD, constitutes an important milestone in the comprehension of the history of Roman Africa. The Amphitheatre of El Jem also bears witness to the prosperity of the small city of Thysdrus (current El Jem) at the time of the Roman Empire.

According to Ancient Origins: “Whilst the exact date of the amphitheatre’s construction is uncertain, it has been speculated that work began in A.D. 238. This year is also known as the ‘Year of the Six Emperors’, as there were six people recognised as emperors of Rome during this year. The amphitheatre may have been commissioned by one of these emperors, Gordian I or his grandson (also one of the six emperors), Gordian III. The year A.D. 238 was not exactly a peaceful year for the Roman Empire, and it was an uprising in the Roman-ruled areas of Africa that made Gordian I, who incidentally was nearly 80 years old at that time, the emperor of Rome. [Source: Ancient Origins, June 25, 2018]

Colosseum Spectacles

In Roman times, spectators gathered in the Colosseum to watch gladiators battle each other to the death and unarmed men duel starved lions. In the latter the odds were tipped in favor of the lions, which were more difficult to replace than people. The wooden floor of the Colosseum was covered with sand so the combatants wouldn't slip on the blood. Contrary to the popular misconception almost all of the men who perished in the bloody battles were pagan slaves not Christians.

Sometimes the floor of the Colosseum was filled with wild animals for staged hunts or was flooded for mock sea battles complete with galleys and navies. One grand 100-day celebration in A.D. 2nd century left 5,000 wild animals dead. When Rome became christianized around the A.D. 5th century bloody spectacles were banned and replaced with church dramas and passion plays.

Some scholars have said that descriptions of a flooded Colosseum for these mock battles were exaggerations because no evidence of large waterworks capable of bringing enough water to stage such events had been discovered. Then in 2003, archeologists and spelunkers found that below the simple drains used to drain off rain water that predated the Colosseum were large conduits constructed by Emperor Nero to change the water in the artificial lake in his gardens. The conduits bore signs of having been originally used at the Colosseum, perhaps to pipe large quantities of water in and out for water spectacle like mock naval battles.

20120227-Mosaic Pompeii  actors_MAN_Napoli_Inv9986.jpg
mosaic Pompeii actors

Intermissions and Executions at the Colosseum Shows

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “During the intermezzos between hunts, spectators were treated to a range of sensory delights. Handsome stewards passed through the crowd carrying trays of cakes, pastries, dates and other sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine. Snacks also fell from the sky as abundantly as hail, one observer noted, along with wooden balls containing tokens for prizes---food, money or even the title to an apartment---which sometimes set off violent scuffles among spectators struggling to grab them. On hot days, the audience might enjoy sparsiones (“prinklings”), mist scented with balsam or saffron, or the shade of the vela, an enormous cloth awning drawn over the Colosseum roof by sailors from the Roman naval headquarters at Misenum, near Naples. [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

“At the ludi meridiani, or midday games, criminals, barbarians, prisoners of war and other unfortunates, called damnati, or “condemned," were executed. (Despite numerous accounts of saints’ lives written in the Renaissance and later, there is no reliable evidence that Christians were killed in the Colosseum for their faith.) Some damnati were released in the arena to be slaughtered by fierce animals such as lions, and some were forced to fight one another with swords. Others were dispatched in what a modern scholar has called “fatal charades," executions staged to resemble scenes from mythology. The Roman poet Martial, who attended the inaugural games, describes a criminal dressed as Orpheus playing a lyre amid wild animals; a bear ripped him apart. Another suffered the fate of Hercules, who burned to death before becoming a god.

“Here, too, the hypogeum's powerful lifts, hidden ramps and other mechanisms were critical to the illusion-making. “Rocks have crept along," Martial wrote, “and, marvelous sight! A wood, such as the grove of the Hesperides [nymphs who guarded the mythical golden apples] is believed to have been, has run."”

Violent Spectacles

In a review of the book: The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, Nigel Spivey wrote The Guardian, “Archaeological evidence shows that some athletic stadia were converted for use as amphitheatres, and a number of Greek theatres were adapted - high nets rigged around the stage, for instance, to prevent big cats leaping into the audience. Yet there are records of strident Greek protests, if only on behalf of those front-row onlookers who did not care to be sprayed with blood. And this categorical distinction between theatre and amphitheatre points us to the principal fascination of approaching the Roman Colosseum as a "wonder of the world": the wonder lies not with the elegance or substance of the building as it survives, but rather with the question of what the Romans thought they were doing. [Source: Nigel Spivey, The Guardian, March 12, 2005 ^^]

“As Keith Hopkins has pointed out before, Roman enjoyment of spectacular violence is not a matter of "individual sadistic psychopathology", but seems to betray "a deep cultural difference". How much Hopkins contributed to the present book before he died last year is not easy to estimate, because Mary Beard (a Cambridge colleague) has so sympathetically overlaid it with her own voice. But it was characteristic of Hopkins to begin answering the puzzle of a peculiar Roman "taste" for violence by sceptically probing its extent.^^

“Quite how this ingenious mode of human sacrifice originated is left implicit by Hopkins and Beard. They dismiss without reason the notion that gladiatorial combat developed out of archaic Etruscan funerary rites, and offer no plausible alternative. So what was the Colosseum all about? The applications of capital punishment within the amphitheatre were conducted at midday, as a lull in proceedings, deemed a diversion only for the chronically bored. So connoisseurs of bloodshed came for more than the sight of exemplary justice. Protagonists of good entertainment were marked not by damnation but chance; made brave or furious by freedom from blame, how much more fiercely they would fight. ^^

“Some ancient observers - notably St Augustine - deplored the addictive magnetism of witnessing this sort of death. Others were complacent about its habituating and homeopathic effect: so death was, as it were, domesticated. But in the end it is impossible to explain the Colosseum unless one concedes that its principal sponsors - the emperors of Rome - all of them, even "good" ones such as Trajan, ultimately ruled by terror. This arena by the Palatine, the hill on which Romulus founded his city, was the looming and central emblem of their power to "play God" - to allocate life or death.” ^^

Violent Spectacles at the Colosseum: How Accurate Where the Reports

Gordon Gora wrote in Listverse: “Starting with the infamous Caligula and the later famed bestiarii Carpophorus, the gladiator games became an excuse to showcase the brutality of man and the world. The bestiarii’s job was to train animals for the shows such as training an eagle to eat the exposed organs of a thrashing fighter. Carpophorus was the most famous bestiarii of all and not only trained his beasts to kill the poor souls in the colosseum in the most graphic manner possible but fought many of them himself. The most shocking act Carpophorus trained his animals to do, however, was rape human prisoners on command for the shock and awe of those in the Colosseum. [Source: Gordon Gora Listverse, September 16, 2016]

Nigel Spivey wrote The Guardian, “The inauguration of the Colosseum was allegedly celebrated by hunting shows involving the deaths of 9,000 exotic animals. But how feasible was it to capture elephants and rhinoceroses without sedative darts, transport them long distances, and finally cajole them to ferocity in front of a large crowd? Documentary evidence of the laborious zoological kidnap of a single hippotamus from the Upper Nile to Regent's Park in 1850 suggests that supplying the Colosseum with large quantities of interesting animals was a logistical challenge beyond even the Romans. Further and more complex calculations about gladiatorial death-rates similarly indicate a strong tendency to exaggerate, and not only by ancient writers. Christian martyrologists piously inflated the number of casualties among the faithful. (In an unsually candid reflection, one persecuted Christian witness, Origen, wondered if the total tally of Christian martyrs at Rome actually reached double figures.) There is, in fact, no firm evidence to prove that any Christian was ever torn apart by lions inside the Colosseum. [Source: Nigel Spivey, The Guardian, March 12, 2005 ^^]

“Another type of spectacle that took place was the public execution. Condemned criminals were slain by crucifixion, cremation, or attack by wild beasts, and were sometimes forced to reenact gruesome myths. “Even when stripped of its mythology, the amphitheatre subsists as an enclosure designed to give a maximum number of onlookers the closest possible view of a kill. Academic demonstrations of human anatomy used to be compassed in such steep-sided, eye-goggling spaces. The old bullring of Mexico City relies, to this day, on the same telescopic principle. We may agree that the daily pabulum of the Roman populace was bread, not circuses. Still the circus existed all the same; and no one went there for some harmless fun. The closest to slapstick at the Colosseum came from the so-called "fatal charades", when some myth was enacted for real: the flight of Icarus, done like a bungee jump without the bungee; or else a wretched criminal dressed up as Orpheus -given a lyre, and pushed out to charm with melodies the animals prowling around the arena. Too bad if the bears were tone deaf.” ^^

Book: “The Colosseum” by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard (Profile, 2005)

Naumachiae: Sea Battles Staged in Flooded Arena

Edward Brooke-Hitching wrote in “Fox Tossing: And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games”: “In 46 B.C., on the orders of Julius Caesar, an enormous basin was dug in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) outside the walls of Rome and filled with water. For this event (to celebrate the emperor’s recent Gallic, Alexandrian, Pontic, and African triumphs), two fleets of biremes, triremes, and quadremes, representing Tyre and Egypt, clashed in a battle of epic scale involving more than 6,000 prisoners who played the parts of soldiers and rowers. Also on record is the staged aquatic battle organized in 40 B.C. by Sextus Pompey for the entertainment of his troops that featured prisoners of war fighting to the death to celebrate his victory over Salvidienus Rufus and the occupation of Sicily. [Source: “Fox Tossing: And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games” by Edward Brooke-Hitching, Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, 2015]

“These naumachiae were giant sea battles re-enacted in flooded Roman arenas. Condemned criminals and captured prisoners of war fought to the death as they played out famous naval campaigns for the entertainment of a crowd. The events required sophisticated planning and execution, and as such were only performed with the approval of the emperor to mark special occasions. Cassius Dio wrote: “Titus filled the theater with water and brought in horses and bulls ... that have been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land.”

“Naumachiae are thought to date back to the third century B.C., when the Roman Gen. Scipio Africanus staged the re-enactments using his own troops, as mentioned by Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and by Cassius Dio in his Roman History. Together with his favored general, Marcus Agrippa, Emperor Augustus developed large areas of the Campus Martius for the sport, which included the Baths of Agrippa and also the Stagnum Agrippae (Lake of Agrippa), an ornamental body of water considerably larger than that dug by Julius Caesar, possessing dimensions of 1,800 by 1,200 (Roman) feet and located beside the River Tiber, with water piped in via a newly completed aqueduct. One of the grandest naumachiae ever mounted, though, was that of Claudius in A.D. 52. To mark the opening of a canal that was to later dry the Fucine Lake, a naval battle between Rhodes and Sicily was staged, consisting of 19,000 soldiers manning 100 ships.

“Little is known about the specifics of how the sea battles were conducted. Aquatic displays as a whole were popular at the time and included exhibitions of captured marine curiosities, water ballets, and pantomimes, so it is possible that the events were entirely theatrical. It is thought that two opposing fleets would face off, but as it is unclear how much of the action was pre-orchestrated, the events are categorized somewhere between sport and theatrical recreation. How fierce the battles were is also a mystery, although the fact that participants were usually facing imminent execution either way must have meant there was little motivation to participate enthusiastically. Indeed, Tacitus writes about Claudius being forced to dispatch the imperial guard on rafts during a naumachia in A.D. 52 to impel the two sides into fighting. Fox Tossing.

“In terms of venue, as well as the aforementioned basins, natural settings such as lakes and the Rhegium coast were used, but there is also evidence to suggest that the battles were hosted in amphitheaters. For years archaeologists have debated whether the dual-level labyrinth of chambers beneath the Colosseum arena known as the hypogea support or disprove the notion that aquatic displays were staged in the arena. The existing walls of the hypogea were first thought to disprove the idea, as they would obstruct such a thing from happening, but it has since been shown that the walls were added much later, possibly as late as the Middle Ages, and therefore the early form of the amphitheater would have been capable of holding the events. This is further supported by the discovery that the drains were built as part of the original foundation.

“While excavations have still failed to turn up specific evidence of the naumachiae being staged in the Colosseum, such as remnants of ships or weapons used, ancient sources indicate that naumachiae did indeed take place. It is thought that for this to have been successful the ships involved must have been smaller in scale. The Colosseum is thought to have housed these spectacles on its launch. The construction was initiated by Vespasian around A.D. 73 on the site of an artificial lake built by Nero, and, for its two inauguration ceremonies, aquatic displays were performed each time, according to Martial, who writes in his Liber Spectaculorum about witnessing fleets, land animals in a naval environment, and carts running upon the water. Despite living much later than the events he describes, and therefore being a slightly less reliable source, Cassius Dio (ca. 164–235) wrote about the inauguration of Titus and describes a naumachia in the amphitheater:

“For [Titus] suddenly filled this same theater with water and brought in horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that have been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land. He also brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians; and others gave a similar exhibition outside the city in the grove of Gaius and Lucius, a place Augustus had once excavated for this very purpose. The naumachiae were clearly used more as demonstrations of imperial might than anything else, designed to inspire awe with the sheer scale of the spectacle. Literary evidence suggests that naumachiae only took place in Rome and declined in popularity after the first century, the last one being recorded in” A.D. 89.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

Gabucci, Ada, ed. The Colosseum. Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2001 .

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