Roman Theatres and Gothic Cathedrals

Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Cathedral of Rouen. Photo: Wikipedia. Collection Museum Quai d' Orsay, Paris.

Around the year 1250, the map of Europe showed the great, though decreasing expanse of Islamic states on the South, the large but fragile Byzantine empire to the East, the Holy Roman Empire in the Centre and the kingdoms of France and England to the West. Western- and Central Europe were divided into an infinity of sub states, duchies, church controlled territories, and city-states. Almost every city in the medieval West was dominated by the cathedral, at first the site of power of the bishop, but as power shifted to the emerging bourgeois class of merchants, bankers and city officials as a great collective artefact to the citizens.

The cathedrals symbolized religious power, hierarchical and rational order and secular self-representation of the city. The towers rose higher and higher and the sky (refrained by architectural possibilities) was the limit. The courtly culture of the international Gothic style spread all over Europe and cathedrals were the main objects of (self) presentation. Hundreds of new towns followed a rigid composition, structured on grid planning, leaving a space in the centre for public and religious buildings. The Cathedral and Town halls were the most significant buildings in Europe. The city magistrates competed and cooperated with the ecclesiastical authorities to maintain the hierarchy and social system coherence.

One thousand years before, the cities knew a similar development. Grid planning, religious and civic buildings dominated the cities. The goals were the same: exhibiting the strict hierarchical and social order, maintaining social coherence and confirming the status of cities and local elites. Theatres, amphitheatres, basilica’s, forums, temples and other religious and civic buildings dominated the city centre. The first Roman emperors already realized that Rome could not sustain its sovereignty over about two thousand cities, stretching from the Atlantic up to the Nile, from the Mediterranean up to the North Sea, by military force and Roman officials.

It has been estimated that a small imperial bureaucracy of around 350 elite officials oversaw the central government and 400 000 soldiers protected the empire from internal and external enemies. The Pax Romana was a reality for hundreds of years and only a balanced and subtle system of power sharing could have accomplished this astonishing result. The history of the Roman empire is marked by an interplay of merciless military force, if necessary, on the one hand, and cohesion and persuasion of the local elite on the other hand.

Local elites and city planning played a key role in this policy. The merchants and bankers of the 13th and 14th centuries were the local aristocracies of the cities in the Roman Empire. The acknowledgement of the supremacy of the semi-divine emperor was the religious factor. The imperial cult was a mixture of religious and secular presentation of the hierarchical order. This relation does not differ fundamentally from the religious and secular relations between sovereigns, local city elites and church in medieval times and building activities and city planning were the hallmark of the power play. The emperor as pater patriae supported local elites and cities by patronage and benefactions, ad hoc tax reductions and other imperial favours.

The construction of theatres is one of the most significant corner stones of this policy. August as first emperor (27 BC-14 AD) had built magnificent theatres in Rome in the first years of his reign. These theatres were the cathedrals of medieval times. Afterwards, all major cities built magnificent marble theatres and  the theatres in Rome were the model. Big, bigger, biggest was the adagium, to compete with other cities and to impress the emperor, who often supported and encouraged these activities. The courtly Gothic style of the medieval cathedrals was the successor of the imperial model of theatres and later amphitheatres. Skyscrapers dominate the capitals.  It remains to be seen, however, whether these new symbols of power, (financial) ideology and globalization will survive thousands of years. (Source: Mary. T. Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire, Princeton 2000).