Back on Stage

Mask from mosaic found in the Villa Tivoli of Hadrianus, between 117-138. Photo: Wikipedia. Musei Capitolini Rome.

Theaters, amphitheaters, circuses and other buildings for spectacle played a prominent role in the Roman Empire. The Middle Ages had Cathedrals across the European continent, the Roman Empire had Roman theatres all over Europe. The theatre building was deliberately and conspicuously extravagant and wasteful. The Roman Empire was in many ways a highly ‘theatricalized’ society, in which the devising and provision of visual display of status, dignity and (political) power was an important form of communication and cultural signification. Monumental buildings and the performance of spectacles were the means for such display. Today, politicians use internet and television, Cathedrals were the means of communication and symbols of power in the Middle Ages, (city) palaces took that place by the time of the rise of the big monarchies and city oligarchies. The theatre was the place to see and to be seen in the first century of the Roman Empire.

Amphitheatres became the most relevant buildings for spectacle with the rise of the Flavian dynasty in 69AD. The Colloseum in Rome was the model to be copied throughout the Empire. Rome acquired the firs stone theatre in 55 BC. The Theatre of Pompey. The triumphal general Pompey had emerged from his military campaigns with sufficient power and money to dazzle the Roman people and his competitors. It was the largest stone theatre the Romans ever built, anywhere, and it was the model to be copied in all major cities of the Empire, from Corduba (Cordoba) till Alexandria, from Lutetia (Paris) to Carthago Nova (Cartagena). It was the first major example of the imperial architecture to come after the foundation of the Principaat by August in 27 BC. It was an audacious example of performing architecture, providing a venue so vast, grand and luxuous, that (like the Colloseum later) it appears to have embodied and signified for its audience some fundamental sense of what it meant to be Roman. Not only the provision of such theatres, but indeed a great many of their specific details in design, building techniques, fresco’s, mosaics, vases, statues and decoration were soon widely imitated throughout the Roman world. Together with the amphitheatre, these monuments were viewed by both the political elite, as the citizens as an important and binding example of Romanitas, the sense of being part of one single culture.

This intangible, but crucial and highly permanent aspect of Roman identity and ideology led to the widespread construction of theatres broadly based upon the same prototype in Rome, the theatre of Pompey and later also the theatre of Marcellus, inaugurated in 13 BC. Enabling grandeur, participation of vast audiences (with capacities up to 40 000 spectators) according strict hierarchical seating places, these venues were places in which, in effect, the Romans performed themselves. All in the Empire, and surely those guaranteed citizens rights, felt Roman. The visual imagery played a prominent role as well. Statues, decorations, wall paintings, painted vases and other attributes put the Gods and rulers in the centre of the attention. The theatre was a propaganda tool, a mixture of the omnipresent religion, political power and self representation of the imperial and local elite. It was one of the mechanisms which kept the social cohesion in the very hierarchical organized Roman society with a very small group of wealthy aristocrats and nouveau rich, a small middle class and an immense proletariat (plebs) and slaves.

It is not a coincidence that the Cathedral of Cartagena, the Santa María La Vieja, was built on the ruins of a former Roman Theatre. In 1936, the notorious German Condor Legion destroyed the cathedral from the thirteenth century. Out of the ruins appeared the theatre however. The medieval cathedral had the same political meaning as the Roman theatre and the same building location is not a coincidence. Today, the Cathedral is gone, but the Roman theatre is back in the centre of the town and public attention. (Source: M. McDonald, J. Walton, Greek and Roman Theatre (Cambridge 2007).