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Romans, to the Stage Please!

Jennifer has worked in the performing arts community for several years. She obtained her BA from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

The Roman Empire

"File:Extent of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire between 218 BC and 117 AD.png" by Varana is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

"File:Extent of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire between 218 BC and 117 AD.png" by Varana is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

While the Greeks were, quite possibly the first group of people, to take the first steps towards theatre as we know it today. They cannot take all of the credit for the start of all of the elements of modern theatre and the forms of drama. All of the ancient civilizations had a hand or two in the shaping of modern theatre, and that includes the Romans. While Ancient Rome is predominantly known for the expansion of the empire, gladiators, and their senate; they too added to theatre, arts, and dramatic forms.

Forms of Drama & Their Evolution

While the Romans at first borrowed theatre and other performing arts forms from their neighbors, particularly the Greeks. In the first centuries of the Republic the people of Rome were content with very primitive plays. Unlike the people in Greek controlled Southern Italy, who enjoyed tragedy and comedy in the form of farce. These primitive plays, that the Romans enjoyed, were called versus Fescennine; named after Fescennium in the territory of the Falisci, located between Latium and Etruria. Throughout the territories in this region many different types of drama and performances were enjoyed. To honor Silvanus and Tellus, two Ancient Roman gods, at the harvest festival coarse improvised jokes and personal satire were often performed. Eventually they became overdone and immoral to the point that they would need to be kept in line by law. Around this time in Etruria music and dance flourished and were presented at funerals and festivals dedicated to the gods. Based on evidence found in Etruscan tomb paintings and on funeral urns, these dances were alternated with athletic contests. Though we have their art the Etruscan literature is completely lost to us as a result of them being conquered and absorbed by the Romans.

Although their literature is lost to us it is believed that their early works were most likely not scripted, thus the works are only known through hearsay. Their works eventually developed into two forms of entertainment. The first is Fescennine verses, and it was taken from their border town of Fescennium. This form was a ritual of sorts that was an enactment with gestures of raucous poems. They were performed by the actors that were usually masked clowns. These verses were performed at birth celebrations or marriages, and were considered appropriately erotic in their content. If they were performed at the harvest season, they were possibly obscene and abusive exchanges, as “humor of insult”. It is believed and alluded to by Horace (65-8 BC) that the Fescennine verses is likely the predecessor of Roman farce. As time passed the Fescennine verses were formalized, thus gaining a traditional shape with professional speakers and skilled performers that were hired for the occasions. The other form of genre from the Etruscan folks’ farce that was less defined than satura. They were skits with early plots but more music and dancing; often they were prose with assortments of obscene jests and indecent illustrative gestures. Although some scholars state that they were in verse instead of prose. When satura was introduced in Rome the audiences quickly welcomed this form of entertainment. Its first introduction was during the sixth century BC by the elder Farquin to honor the god Jupiter. That holy day slowly became secularized to be a holiday with all sorts of entertainment like juggling, acrobatics, and even boxing matches for the restless, loud crowds. The Fabulae Satura came into existence with the blending of Fescennine verses and the Etruscan mimetic dancers (histriones). The Saturnian verse had a definite meter and were written to present little scenes from daily life. The satura consists of a mixture of various elements without continuity of context that would compose of little dramatic sketches. This form of drama was replaced by translations of Greek tragedies and comedies during the second half of the third century BC. At first the Romans did not turn to theatrical amusements to fill up time during their festivals or even to distract themselves from the concerns of life; but in response to a desolating pestilence. They tried all manner of “remedies” all seeming insufficient so, to appease the angry gods they turned to theatre. The histriones from Etruria, that had been sent for, most likely did not attempt any pantomimic movement but instead attempted to delight the audience with a display of bodily activity.

The Romans appropriated the Fabulae Atellana, the oldest spoken plays, from the Osci the indigenous inhabitants of Italy. At first these satura were merely improvisatory farces without dramatic connection. The Atellan farce is believed to be partly impromptu and possibly a development from both Fescennine verse and satura. Although because the beginnings of Roman comedy is unclear some scholars believe that the Atellan works came before the satura instead of growing out of it. The Atellan farce was similar to the Greek forerunners by incorporating both parody and political comment using the domestic intrigue and mythology; in addition to that the players of Atellan farce wore masks. It would be like this until Livius Andronicus began translating Greek plays. Through the Etrurians the Romans gained the idea for plays; then through the Oscians they infused the idea of sportive humor. From the Greeks and the people who translated the plays into Latin they moved onto less crude and more thought provoking forms of drama. Although they obtained both tragedy and comedy from the Greeks, the Romans showed more originality in comedy than in tragedy.

Mime (ribald comic productions with sensational plots and sexual innuendo) and pantomime (performances by solo dancers with choral accompaniment) were the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment from 27 BC to AD 284 (the imperial period). Mime was one of the few forms that would allow women to participate, thus showing their skills as dancers and acrobats. Pantomime, the last type of ancient drama, also called Fabula Saltica was produced during the Augustan period (27 BC – AD 14). It continued to be performed until the Byzantine period (330 AD – 1453). Unlike the older mime that belonged to more in the sphere of comedy, this new genre belonged in the sphere of tragedy. From this distinction some see the pantomime as the substitute for tragedy as it declined in popularity. The public called the Roman mimes Sanniones, “face makers”, this name would survive into the Commedia dell’ Arte clown Zanni.

The first translator in literary history was Livius Andronicus from Tarentum. When he was a child Rome conquered Tarentum, leading to his enslavement in 272 BC. He would later become the tutor and freedman of a certain Livius in Rome. With his command of both Greek and Latin he spent from 240-207 BC translating the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, and some Greek comedies into Latin. It was in 240 BC that Livius Andronicus introduced Rome to full-length, scripted plays. Not only did he translate and adapt works but he was also an actor and singer in these festivals. His works were staged in Athenian fashion instead of Roman. Through encouragement he translated many more Greek scripts, keeping to the orthodox metrical patterns. The tragedies that were preserved were: Achilles, Ajax, The Trojan Horse, Aegisthus, Hermiona, Andromeda, Danae, Ino, and Tereus. In 240 BC at the Ludi Romani Livius Andronicus gave the first presentation of tragedy and comedy in Rome.

Livius Andronicus’ younger contemporary was Gnaeus Naevius, a Roman citizen born in Campania, who flourished between 235 BC and 204 BC (possibly until his death in 201 BC). Before he began writing he had been a solider, that had served in the First Punic War, through his service he came to fight in many places and observed the many different mistakes and failures of military leaders. He was deeply dedicated to the principles of the Republic, and was thus highly angered by the corruption that he saw on all sides in those in power. Naevius’ first presentation in Rome was in the year 235 BC, this piece was an epic poem dealing with the First Punic War. Of the nine tragedies that he rewrote it is possible that they were taken from Euripides. These nine include Danae, The Trojan Horse, Hector, Hesione, and Iphigenia. Greek dramas such as these were named Fabulae Palliatae, after the Greek mantle pallium. Naevius’ works were still played in Rome during the time of Cicero. Naevius created the Fabulae Praetexta, the Roman national drama, named after the participants’ togas that were adorned with purple stripes. These tragedies used native Roman subjects such as Romulus. It is possible that these were originally composed for special occasions like triumphs or funeral games, as these events had scenic plays taking place. This is believed to have been the case until the demand for them continuously increased.

The comedies written by Naevius were considered contaminations because they were often the result of two Greek New Comedies blended together to make one play; one example is Acontizomenos. Naevius is considered the third greatest comedy writer after Titus Maccius Plautus and Caecilius Statius. He used both Attic comedies of citizen life and motives from native farce. An example can be found in the heroine from his comedy Tarentilla who was a courtesan from Tarentum. Agitatoria (the Politician), Ariolus (the Sun), Carbonaria (the Charcoal Burner), Corollaria (the Dealer in Flowers or Wreaths), and Figulus (the Potter) all had portrayed the lower classes.

Along side these Graeco-Roman tragedies and comedies the mime appeared, and from 173 BC on it was presented at Rome on the Floralia as the chief play. The mime came from the simple plays that were presented with improvised jests, parodies, and dances in the market place. During the first century BC the Fabulae Tabernariae arose alongside the Fabulae Togatae. The Fabulae Tabernariae were scenes from business life or the life of artisans, especially in a small town. The Oscans, Volscians, and other provincials would appear on stage in the dress of their regions. This variety of play was originated by T. Quinctius Atta and L. Afranius.

The last type of dramatic performance is the pantomime. Pantomime developed from the love of the art of acting and the boredom from the repeated subjects in the tragedies. Pantomime is an outgrowth of mimetic art that Livius Andronicus paved the way for which was separating from the declamations, recitations, or songs in the drama. There are two small pictures, dating from the early period of Augustus in a Roman villa, that renders such declamations. A literary example of these declamations can be found in the battle with the Telobans in the Amphitryon by Plautus. Such monologues, single arts, and even dialogues were then being taken out of context and presented on stage or at other occasions by a single actor in full costume, mask, expressive gestures, and differentiated movements.

At the end of the Republic of Rome both tragedy and comedy were at the top among the scenic plays. Then during the days of the Roman Empire, they were eventually pushed into the background by the later forms of drama. After interest in comedy and tragedy almost completely died out the interest and popularity of the games in the amphitheater and the circus continued to rise. A similar situation exists today with the interest in serious drama and refined comedy declining and the interest in athletic events and different types of races is inclining.

Like majority of Roman theatre, their poetry too was an imitation from other cultures. Its imitation of the Greeks originally carried the marks of great violence and constraint. With that it had a clumsy intermingling of the two languages. As time passed the poetical style softened down from its original harshness, although that harshness can still be seen in Catullus’ works. Being composed of both Latin and Greek there were some constructions and compound words that had such a variance with the internal structure of the Latin that in time those sections were removed. It would not be until the age of Augustus that poets had more success at finding an agreeable combination of the peculiarities of both languages. It was not until this balance had been obtained that it gained the sanction of public approbation. Latin poetry flourished for only a short time between its formation and its death.

Most commonly Roman comedy appeared in Grecian dress and used Grecian manners. The comedies of Plautus and Terence are prime examples of this. Other Roman comedies were done in Roman dress and thus called comedia togata. One of the principle writers of comedia togata was Afranius. As there are no remains of him at all and there are so few accounts of his works that it cannot be accurately be determined if the togatae were original comedies of an entirely new invention or Greek comedies that were adapted to Roman men.

Grecian theatre, particularly tragedy, faced many challenges when first introduced into Rome. Many compare some of the difficulties faced by Grecian tragedy to that of a plant being replanted in a different soil type. While the Roman religion was similar in some manner to the Greek religion, they are not so similar that they shared the same lore. The Greeks simply introduced their heroic mythology to Rome through the poets. The Greek tragedies and other tragic attempts al but died out after the age of Augustus. It cannot accurately be estimated the total loss of works from these times, but based off of appearances it does not seem that it was an overly large loss. It is shown that Greek tragedy represented “the struggle of man in a state of freedom with destiny.” Following this line of thought it could be said that a “true” Roman tragedy should have shown “the subjection of human impulse to the holy and binding force of religion, and the visible presence of that religion in all earthly things.” Some believe that we might see what the Latin heroic tales could have become if they had some earlier development, in some of the works of Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid.

The comedies of Plautus (active from 205 – 184 BC), primarily adaptations of Greek New Comedy, are the earliest surviving Latin plays. While it seemed that Latin comedy flourished instantly, Latin tragedy flourished during the second century BC. While some of the works in this genre are from Greek myth there were some that came from well-known parts of Roman history. The composition of both tragedy and comedy declined very rapidly in Rome after the second century BC.

Playwrights & Their Works

Roman republican literature had its greatest period during the second century with the tragic poets Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius; and the comic poets Caecilius and Terence Ennius (239-169 BC) was a Messapian that spoke both Greek and Oscan. He wrote twenty Latin tragedies, many of which borrowed their subjects from Euripides or The Iliad. Achilles, Ajax, Alexandros, Andromache Aichmalotis, Hectoris Lytra, Cresphontes, Alcmeon, and Phoenix are the tragedies with borrowed subjects. In addition to those he wrote Roman historical plays titled: Sabines (The Sabine Women) and Ambracia. Pacuvius (ca. 220 BC – ca. 130 BC) wrote roughly twelve tragedies and one Fabula Praetexta. His tragedies were mostly modeled after Euripides; but his Fabula Praetexta (Paullus) is believed to have been written in honor of L. Aemilius Paullus following his victory at Pydna in 168 BC.

The most important of the Roman tragedy writers was Accius (170 BC – ca. 130 BC). Along side of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles he was used as an authoritative model. It is believed that his first drama Atreus was inspired by Aeschylus. His Fabula Praetextae Brutus featured Tarquinius Superbus. In the year 140 BC it is recorded that there was a contest between Pacuvius and Accius.

Statius Caecilius wrote forty comedies, but only about three hundred versus have survived the passage of time. His works had both Greek and Latin titles, and their subject matter was related to Attic New Comedy. Of the Attic New Comedy poets, it was Menander that Caecilius imitated. Some of the titles of his works are Andria, Synephebi, The Substituted Child, and The Money-Lender.

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Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC) is considered the most successful Roman adaptor of Greek New Comedies. Prior to his writing career he had been a solider and an actor, it is believed that he acted with a troupe of Atellan players. After he had little to no success on the stage, he tried his hands at being a merchant, which ending with him losing what little he possessed. He then began grinding and peddling flour as an occupation, during which he wrote two plays Addictus and Saturio. Neither piece was received well, his third attempt in 204 BC was a success. This success was brought to him from borrowing material from Greek authors like Menander, Diphilus, and many others. It is believed that he wrote approximately 130 plays, but of these only 21 of the scripts survived the passage of time. The simple meters used by the Greek poets he changed this into a more expanded and complex meter. He would have lines to indicated changes of mood, new and bawdier jokes, combine multiple scenes to create new works, even at times completely remove the chorus. After he gained popularity, he was granted honorary citizenship and even the honor of bearing three names. “Plautus” from his nickname meaning “Flat-footed”, “Maccius” indicating him as a “Clown”. In AD 1429 in Mainz, Germany 12 of his scripts was found by Nicholas of Cusa (a graduate law student), thus bringing interest back to Plautus.

P. Terentius Afer (Terence) also imitated Menander, but he also imitated other Attic New Comedy poets. He is often placed and discussed in the history of Hellenistic literature, although he should be placed and discussed with Caecilius as a Roman comedic poet. Terence was born around 190 BC in Africa. He came to Rome as a slave of Terentius Lucanus, who would later set him free. He composed imitations and contaminations of Greek Comedies for Scipio Africanus and his highly cultured circle. Naevius, Plautus, and Ennius were playwrights like Terence that combined the subjects of multiple Greek works. His six preserved comedies all belong to the time period between 166 – 160 BC. Andria (The Maiden of Andros) belongs to 166 BC. Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) belongs to 163 BC. Eunuchs and Phormio belong to 161 BC. And the final two works; Adelphi (The Brothers) and Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) belong to 160 BC. The first three were presented at the Ludi Megalenses, Adelphi was presented at the funeral games (Ludi Funebres) of Aemilius Paullus, and Phormio and Hecyra were presented at the Ludi Romani. Terence passed away in Greece in 159 BC.

In the history of Roman tragic literature there are two notable points. The first point in history is marked by the works of Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, and Lucius Accius. The second point is the Augustan age. The first period only produced translations and imitations of Grecian works. With many of their works as well as some of the works of Plautus and Terence, there are not many if any fragments of the Greek originals left to give us the ability to accurately judge the accuracy of the copies. The contemporaries of the Augustan age had the ambition to measure their works against the Greeks in more original manners. Although their labors were not always met with equal success. There were many amateur playwrights that wished to shine in tragedy. One of the most celebrated tragic poets of this age was Asinius Pollio, who was a man of an impassioned disposition. He brought the well-known group of Farnese Bull from Rhodes to Rome. Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) is another well-known poet of the Augustan age and he is the author of Medea.

Stage & Technical Elements

The oldest purely Roman theatre preserved is located to the south-east of Pompeii. The large theatre there had been built during the Hellenistic period. The small building could hold 1,500 spectators was built after the refoundation of Pompeii by Sulla in 80 BC. The orchestra was turned into a semi-circle and made smaller by the addition of several rows of flat steps for the seats of honor to be placed. These added rows were correspondingly shorter on the side as the semi-circle of the cavea is trimmed to fit into a rectangle.

Until the late Republic there were no stone theatres in Rome. Prior to the stone theatres being built the many performances were done on mobile stages that were designed after the South Italian phlyakes’ wooden stages. In Etruscan tomb there are paintings that show the platforms for the plays at the festivals were surrounded by grandstands for the audience similar to the sports stadiums; but these were not permanent structures. A pulpitum, temporary stage, would be set up for plays on public grounds in front of temples or in buildings that were used for athletic events, races, and gladiatorial fights. The selection process for the sites of these temporary structures depended upon things like what was being celebrated, for example they would be set up at different temples to celebrate different gods. It has been suggested that these wooden stages were rectangular in shape and had a plain curtain that was used to close off the back. Another scholar suggests that the platforms were supported on either square posts or narrow columns. There are some ancient sources that state that the delay in building a permanent theatre was caused by active senatorial opposition, but any of the possible reasons for this opposition is uncertain. In 155 BC a censor, Cassius Longinus, had a stage built with visibly decorated columns to make the scaenae frons more appealing; unfortunately, after the ludi had ended the Senate had the columns taken down. Then in 145 BC Lucius Mummius erected a costly wooden theatre to celebrate his victory over Corinth; this theatre housed some plays for the triumph and it set precedents for later theatres because it had seating for all of the spectators, unfortunately it was also ordered taken down by the Senate. In 55 BC the first permanent stone theatre in Rome was dedicated by Pompey the Great. What remains of the Theatre of Pompey is the foundations, though based off of that it is estimated to have been an enormous structure. It stood at an estimated forty-five meters (147 feet) and could hold up to roughly 20,000 spectators. This theatre was constructed in honor of Pompey’s spectacular military campaigns during the 60s BC; and its larger function was as a victory monument. In this theatre the cavea (seating area) had been crowned with a temple dedicated to Pompey’s patron deity, Venus Victrix (goddess of victory). The theatre had been decorated with statues of the goddess and personifications of the nations that had been conquered by Pompey. At the back of the stage building was a large portico that was columned which housed artworks and gardens.

Both the Theatre of Pompey and the Theatre of Marcellus served as models for other similar buildings across the Roman Empire for centuries. The influence that the Theatre of Marcellus had on the exterior of the amphitheater is best seen by looking at the Colosseum. These new building types have striking differences from the traditional Greek theatres. Greek theatres were two separate structures; those being a horseshoe shaped area for seating and the free-standing stage building. Whereas Roman theatres were fully enclosed, unroofed spaces; and they often used awnings during performance days. With the Greek theatres being outdoors their seating areas were supported by the natural hillside. The Roman theatres were partially built on concrete vaults, that gave access from the outside of the building to the cavea. For the Greeks the stage building was a low structure that was decorated with painted panels and rarely with large scale sculptures. Whereas the Roman stage buildings were known for a tall, wide stage front (scaenae frons) that had many stories that were connected by freestanding columns. These buildings were lavishly decorated with statues of gods and heroes, as well as portraits of the imperial family and local luminaries. Where the Greek seating was largely open, the Roman audiences were stringently segregated upon the basis of class, gender, nationality, profession, and marital status. This segregation was seen in the restricted access to the building and the system of the vaulted substructures that expedited the movement of the spectators to their appointed section of seating.

Unlike the Roman theatre that evolved from Greek models; there were no architectural models in the Greek world for the amphitheater. Also, the events that took place in the amphitheaters such as gladiatorial combat and venationes (“animal hunts”) were Italic in their origin. One of the earliest stone amphitheaters is in Pompeii and it was constructed around 80 BC. Like other early amphitheaters this one has a strictly, functional look and part of the seating area is supported on earthen embankments. Whereas the earliest one built in Rome was not constructed until 29 BC by T. Statilius Taurus (one of Emperor Augustus’ most trusted generals). This amphitheater would stand until the great fire of 64 AD, when the building burnt down. This amphitheater was later replaced by the Colosseum, and it was dedicated by Emperor Titus in 80 AD. Upon its completion the Colosseum had several differences from earlier amphitheaters. It had elaborate basement equipment, such as animal cages and mechanical elevators, and it featured a complex system of vaulted, concrete substructures. The Colosseum’s exterior incorporated three stories of superimposed arcades bordered by engaged columns of Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian styles. The auleum (front curtain) became part of the stage machinery during this time, although it was different from the front curtains of today, this difference comes from how it opens and closes. Instead of the curtain come from above or even opening sided to side, it would sink into a recess by the end for the forestage. After the second century AD the way the curtain operated changed from sinking into the recess it was changed to what we are more familiar with in modern theatre, that being that it was hung above the stage and was brought in and out with a system of pulleys backstage. On ancient coins the buildings depiction shows that massive statues of gods and heroes were placed in the upper arcades. It is believed that the use of Greek columns and copies of Greek statues was done from a desire to promote the uniquely Roman amphitheater to a similar standing in architectural hierarchy as the theater. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote about the vast and splendid structures of the theatres as well as what he envisioned as the ideal one in his ten-volume book titles De Architecture. In the way of how the sets could have looked there is not much information given. In many cases only content is given or only merely indicated with regards to the stage scenery. Despite that rotating periaktoi as well as painted curtains were used to depict the scenery, these periaktoi were three dimensional representations of places that could be moved about as needed for the play. Mostly the single scenes in full costume were given as interest in the actors outweighed the interest in literature or other technical elements.

The Roman costumes varied depending on the diversity of the play being presented. For tragedies the costumes took on a Greek style of dress with long robes with sleeves and cothurnus shoes. Then around 100 BC onwards they also used the masks and developed from slight exaggerations to stronger exaggerations. The sleeved robes of these characters had broad girdles (a belt or cord round the waist) and they would fall in deep folds. Their closed shoes had high soles. Children wore short garments that had sleeves, and high little boots that did not have high soles. Not only did Roman comedy adopt the themes from Attic New Comedy but also the costumes. Attic New Comedy costumes were designed after the dressing style of the common people. These everyday clothes were then worn over the required tights taken from the costumes of Old Comedy. The shoes worn in Roman comedy was the soccus, a low closed toe shoe that did not have raised soles. These types of footwear became the symbol of their respective genre of plays with in Roman theatre. The Atellan farce costume did not change, thus keeping its masks and farcical, burlesque styled look. The costumes in mime would vary throughout the years, there are some early documentation that had early mimes wondering the streets of Sicily and Southern Italy in rags. The later they would be dressed in ordinary clothing of the city that they were performing in. Berthold gave the description “The fool wore a motley dress of patchwork (centumculus), such as harlequin still wears today, and a pointed hat (apex; hence the later expression apiciosus). The mime work only a light sole footwear, and his sandal, which differed from the cothurnus of the tragic actor and the soccus of the comedian, earned him the nickname plainpedes in Rome. The grammarian Donatus, however, has a less charitable explanation; the mimus, according to him, were called planipedia because its subjects were so flat and its players so low that it pleased only libertines and adulterers (Freund, 2003).” Another symbol within Roman theatre was that the speaker of the prologue would carry a branch in his hands. Similarly, to their Greek counterparts both the garments and the shoes were colorful; particularly those designed for young people. Among the young men and soldiers the color purple was well liked, with the young men in purple tunics and the soldiers in purple chlamys. An ordinary shade of red was worn by the poor. Young girls were often dressed in foreign fashions; while courtesans would be in yellow, which was considered the mark of greed. Then for the Fabula Togatae and Praetexta, purely Roman national dramas, would be costumed in Roman tunics and togas. Both the comedy and tragedy togas were white, but the tragedy one had a purple border. The tragedy togas were like those worn by high officials in their public lives; the deeds of these officials were often the subject matter for the dramas. Then for shoes they would wear sandals. It is believed that one of the reasons that mime was preferred during the first century BC was that it was performed without a mask; whereas tragedy, comedy, and Oscan Fabulae Atellana were all performed with masks. The dress for mime was that of daily life, like the comedies. As it never adopted masks the art of mime was well developed and from the first century BC onwards enjoyed a higher level of popularity than the genres with masks. In the third century, between 235 BC and 206 BC, Naevius had attempted to introduce the Greek masks; then in the second century the masks were seen in the comedies of Terence. Before the masks caught on, they would use makeup and wigs; examples of the wigs would be red wigs for the slave, black ones for youths, and white ones for old men. These wigs also helped particularly the men cast into female roles. Then around 100 BC Cincius Faliscus introduced masks to tragedy and Minucius Prothymos introduced them in comedy. Despite these introductions they were not permanently introduced until the time of Cicero by Roscius. In the way of how the sets could have looked there is not much information given. In many cases only content is given or only merely indicated with regards to the stage scenery. Mostly the single scenes in full costume were given as interest in the actors outweighed the interest in literature or other technical elements.

Theatre of Pompey

"File:Theatre of Pompey Sketch up model.png" by Lasha Tskhondia - L.VII.C. (model creator) from a screen capture by Mark Miller is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

"File:Theatre of Pompey Sketch up model.png" by Lasha Tskhondia - L.VII.C. (model creator) from a screen capture by Mark Miller is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Roman Actors, Techniques, & Performances

In the early days of the Republic actors were forced to give up their citizenship and lived as outcasts. Being a thespian was looked down upon, to the point where is a soldier wanted to perform on stage, they faced execution.

Some of the early celebrations of the native inhabitants of the Italian peninsula had to do with things like the spring sowing rites, invocations to fertility, and the harvest festivals. Livy, the ancient historian, has stated that the earliest theatrical presentations in Rome were introduced by the Etruscans in 364 BC; these presentations took the form of dances accompanied by music. Literary records also state that Atellana, a form of native Italian farce, were presented in Rome at a relatively early date. Ludi, yearly religious festivals, were the primary occasions for dramatic presentations in the Roman world. These were organized by elected officials and were funded by the state treasury. Although in the beginning two high ranking officials, aediles, would be selected from the patrician class, it would later be open to plebeians. These officials would be responsible for keeping order at the festivals, monitoring the games, licensing, and supervising the construction of the temporary buildings. With these aediles the cost for costumes, actors’ and directors’ wages would come from their own money, this would later be subsidized by the state as part of the Roman policy “breed and circuses”. While that policy was in place it did make the events restrictive to the lower classes. Temple dedications, military triumphs, and upper-class funerals were other occasions for performances. Scholars have stated that among the Romans the art of acting was highly developed. It has been noted that the Italian natives have a gift for mimicry, born improvisors, lively and expressive gestures, and great skills using languages. Livius Andronicus was the first tragic poet and actor of Rome in the monodies (a lyrical piece sung by one person), separated the singing from the mimetic dancing. By doing this the actor only had to focus on the dancing; and a boy would stand next to the flute player and would vocally accompany him. In the Greek times the tragic singing and the rhythmic gestures were simple enough that one person could do it ate the same time do justice to both. Although the Romans preferred to separate the skills to achieve a harmonious unity.

While one actor would sing or speak another would perform the appropriate gestures. It was necessary for the attitudes and gestures to precisely match the words being spoken or sung; this skill would have a greater value placed upon it as time passed. Clarity of voice and expression were demanded and developed due to the Romans not using masks until roughly 100 BC. The gestures were clearly differentiated depending upon the type of play, the age and profession of each character within the play. The age and profession of the character also determined the attitude used. For example, a slave’s movements had to be quick and lively. The attitudes described in the plays would usually correspond with the Hellenistic and Roman marble and terracotta statuettes of the comic actors. Many of the gestures of the slave characters are believed to have been adopted with the comedies and further developed by the Roman actors. It is later that Quintilian gives rules on the gestures for a public speaker, which he partially borrowed from the art of acting.

During the first century BC in Rome the art of acting obtained its height. It came after Roman dramatic poetry reached its highest development during the third and second centuries BC. Just as in Athens acting reached its peak in the fourth century after the pinnacle of classic tragedy and old comedy had been reached in the fifth century. Some actors would specialize in a particular role type so as to have specialists, and example would be the roles of women, gods, youths, and parasites (a selfish liar of any station in society). The gestures did not have to match each word but it did have to match the meaning of the entire sentence. While depicting a character they needed to use their entire body, not just their heads to express the meaning.

Close to the beginning of Roman theatre the actors would be chosen from among the slaves, and they would be beaten if they performed poorly. One of the most famous actors was Quintus Roscius (126-62 BC), had been born a slave. It is estimated that his annual income was approximately 50,000 Sestertius (about $2 million), and with this earning he bought his freedom from slavery. After buying his freedom it is said that because of his wealth he performed for several seasons without receiving payment. His great art would be defended in an oration by Cicero. While the Greeks emphasized the ensemble; the Romans emphasized the principal and prominent actors and had a high value on brilliant individual accomplishments. The rules from Quintilian are believed to go back to either Roscius or even Cicero. As time passed the actors were no longer only chosen from slaves but also from the citizens as well. A few examples of non-slave actors are Roscius, who would eventually play without a fee, and Decimus Laberius, the knight and writer of mimes. Chief actors would be surrounded by many supernumeraries, who would represent the followers of the heroine and they would only wear the garb of every day life. The supernumeraries took the place of the chorus and they would sympathetically accompany the fate and action of the main character with their gestures. Guilds would develop from groups of Greek craftsmen and Roman acting troupes that would travel to festivals in different countries.

As time passed the number of official holidays (ludi) steadily grew. Some of the known ludi were the Ludi Plebeii (the plebeian games), the Ludi Romani (the Roman games), the Ludi Apollionares (in honor of Apollo), and the Ludi Megalenses (the Megalensian festival). At the Ludi Romani from 214 BC onwards theatrical representations that took four days were performed at this ludi. There were some instances during the Ludi Romani in the early days that the siparium, white curtain at the back of the stage, would be open and pantomimists would come forward and project humor between acts. Around 200 BC there were 48 days for official scenic presentations in Rome. To these 48 days and previously mentioned ludi, the Ludi Funelres (funeral games) and the Ludi Votivi (plays shown at dedications and triumphs) were added. It was after the Punic Wars (240 BC) that the number of days increased to 55 holidays that incorporated theatrical offerings as well as the other offerings at the various festivities. Around 175 BC at the Ludi Florales was extended by several days and was in its entirety given to mime. Romans had so much passion, that continuously grew, for plays of all sorts that in the year AD 354, there were 175 festival days recorded; quite the increase from the 77 days for plays at the end of the Republic. Of those 77 days only 55 of them were for scenic plays; whereas of the 175 days there were 101 dedicated to the theatre plays. At the time only detached scenes or songs were presented, particularly at private festive occasions and funeral games. It was free to get into the plays, all could attend but slaves had to stand and women were to remain to the rear. The playwrights were obligated to present plays of a wide diversity in order to satisfy the novelty-loving patrons of the Empire. These plays were handled by a theatre director and the players performed without masks, using wigs instead. Then unlike the Greek masked plays the number of actors was not restricted. These games originated in Etruria as well as from Campania; they came around the same time as the scenic plays but they held more popularity. Because tragedies were presented at funerals would explain why tragic scenes can be found on the tomb monument of Numitorius Hilarus. They have also been found in a columbarium discovered in the Villa Doria Pamphili at Rome; it was transferred in 1932 to Museo delle Tereme. Often times it is rather difficult to determine if the original Greek plays or the Roman adaptations are the inspiration behind the monuments of Hellenistic times found in South Italy.

While majority of the ancient, sacred, often religious plays were borrowed from the Hellenistic Greeks, the Romans still found different methods to perform and present them. They further developed the performing arts in ways that suited their audiences. Just because they borrowed material and rearranged it does not mean that the Romans copied everything from others and deserve their own recognition for their contributions and changes. From the Italian-Hellenistic players things such as pantomime, mime, and Atellan farce flourished until the end of antiquity instead of fading from performing arts history.

Works Cited

Bieber, M. (1939). The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Freund, P. (2003). Chapter 7 Rome: Sock and Buskin. In P. Freund, Stage by Stage: The Birth of Theatre (pp. 715-780). London: Peter Owen.

Klar, L. S. (2006, October). Theater and Amphitheater in the Roman World. Retrieved from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Schlegel, A. W. (1815). Lecture VIII. In A. W. Schlegel, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (pp. 271-317). London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy.

Simon, E. (1982). The Ancient Theatre. New York: Methune & Co. Ltd.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jennifer Beineke

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