BMCR 2005.09.04

Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama: A Study in Regional Development and Religious Interchange Between East and West in Antiquity

, Cultic theatres and ritual drama : a study in regional development and religious interchange between East and West in antiquity. Aarhus studies in Mediterranean antiquity ; 4. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2002. 395 pages, 40 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps, plans ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8772888792 $59.95.

Periodically I have wished for a book that would supplant J.A. Hanson’s Roman Theater-Temples 1 — a study that would inquire further into the nature of the drama that took place in sanctuaries around the Greco-Roman world from the Bronze Age to late antiquity. Inge Nielsen has sought to answer this need and also to examine the workings and theories of ancient Mediterranean drama. The reader will come away well informed about not only the relevant archaeological sites but also the history of Greco-Roman religious stagecraft. This book sifts and catalogs all the architectural evidence the author can find, considering important and marginal exempla alike and registering a wealth of ambiguous evidence for good measure. It includes illustrations for nearly every site it discusses and some photos as well.

Nielsen proposes that most theater-like spaces in cultic contexts of the ancient Mediterranean world were principally devoted not to the staging of literary theater (comedy, tragedy, satyr play, etc.) but to the older, and (for us) more poorly understood, usages of ritual drama — the enactment of the life, death, and rebirth stories of gods, heroes, and heroines from oral traditions that often extended back to the cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and the Aegean Bronze Age. The author accommodates related kinds of performance too, such as dithyrambic choruses, hymns, dances, and masked thiasoi. While some of these forms must have required skill and training, few professional actors participated in ritual dramas — only priests, cultic officers, initiates, and even privileged children.

The evidence for ritual drama is mostly accidental. It is especially strong for eastern great-goddess cults such as those of Isis, Cybele, Atargatis, and the syncretisms of Astarte (including various regional Hera, Artemis, Demeter, and Aphrodite cults). But many other popular cults embraced the tradition too, such as those of Apollo, Dionysus, Asclepius, and Serapis. Unlike its literary counterpart, each ritual drama was bound inextricably to a particular cult and festival; indeed, as Nielsen formulates it, as often as possible the action should have been visible to the god from his or her temple as well as to an audience of a few hundred people. Her task, then, has been to survey the sanctuaries of the Greco-Roman world, from the Bronze Age to the Roman period, seeking archaeological evidence for performative spaces that conform to these simple criteria. She excludes from her study secular theaters (odeia, bouleuteria, most other places of political assembly, and theaters attached to no known sanctuary) as well as sanctuary theaters, such as those at the Panhellenic sites, which were verifiably intended for literary drama — unless there is independent evidence of ritual drama taking place on the site. Indeed her standards for including a site are not rigorous; Isthmia, for example, hosted no known ritual dramas, but it had a theater and a foundation myth, which taken together, she suggests, betoken the likelihood of cultic reenactments. The circular “ekklesiasterion” of Metapontum is not demonstrably attached to a temenos, but its proximity to at least two temene and its sheer functional versatility gain it inclusion.

“Since I am neither a historian of religion nor a philologist, this means intruding into unfamiliar areas of research, with all the dangers attendant upon such a course,” Nielsen says (10). She steers a cautious course, careful never to second-guess the work of specialists. This topic has been almost the exclusive province of historians of ancient religion and drama, most of whom have ignored the archaeological evidence. Hanson’s book, the only exception to this trend, is compromised by an equally provincial approach that excludes any substantive discussion of the function of the theaters. Nielsen’s objective is to forge a broad consensus view by compiling information from both sides of the disciplinary divide, augmenting this labor with the occasional gentle argument to match form with function where others simply have avoided the issue or argued for alternative kinds of spectacle, such as initiation ceremonies or literary drama.

In line with her broad geographic scope, Nielsen begins the book with chapters on pre-Hellenized Egypt, the Near East (including Phoenician colonies), and Anatolia. In each case she analyzes the evidence for ritual drama in the surviving textual and pictorial sources as well as in the archaeological sites. Within these regions the particularly important narrative types that developed into ritual drama are the hieros gamos, or sacred wedding of the goddess to a lesser male counterpart, and variants on the death and rebirth of the male consort (e.g., Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et al.). Most early sanctuaries leave no obvious imprint of an architectural arrangement of space to accommodate spectators. But the mere presence of unobstructed open space, often in close proximity to the main temple or altar, at least ensures that ritual drama could have been performed in these places without difficulty. With the possible exception of the sacred pools that may have been used for the reenactment of the Osiris myth in Egyptian sanctuaries, the adaptation of architecture to accommodate ritual drama — and in particular, multiple tiers of spectators — seems to be an invention of the Aegean Bronze Age, exemplified most famously in the stepped “theatral areas” of Knossos and Phaistos.

Chapter 4 moves quickly through the Minoan evidence to the history of Greek theater, with particular emphasis on ritual drama as it developed both before and in parallel with literary drama. The balance of the chapter is devoted to archaeological evidence for cultic theaters in the Greek world from the Archaic period through Hellenistic times. Nielsen’s minimum criterion for identifying possible cultic theaters — simply the presence of a few steps or seating banks in front of an open space — provokes skepticism at times. A tiny seating area carved into a slope of the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Acrocorinth, for example, is postulated to be for this purpose, yet it cannot even accommodate as many people as the numerous dining halls in the sanctuary.

Chapter 5 dwells mostly on Italy, itself a cultural mélange of Etruscan, Phoenician, Greek, and “native” religious traditions. After some unfruitful speculations about early Rome, Nielsen launches into a prolonged introduction to drama in Italy, Sicily, and Magna Graecia, encapsulating the scholarship of anthropologists, historians of religion, and philologists. Modifying a model proposed by Oswald Szemerényi, she reads the history of Italic drama in three consecutive phases: dramatic ritual (loosely organized, plotless performances, mainly of song and dance, in which ritual dominates over dramatic form), ritual drama (in which the form has developed into coherent storytelling, as in Atellan farce, mime, satura, and fabula), and finally literary drama. The second and third phases, she contends, each begin with a historical landmark: in 364 BC, ludi scaenici were introduced into Rome from Etruria; and from 240 BC, literary dramas derived from Greek prototypes were performed in Rome (Livy 7.2).

Here a difficulty arises. By throwing the division of the nonliterary phases into focus through the lens of Rome’s historical development, Nielsen creates two separate and asymmetrical histories of drama in Italy. If her scope is truly ancient Italy, and not strictly Roman Italy, then why establish 364 as the date of the beginnings of ritual drama? The sources imply that ludi scaenici already existed in Etruria, and Nielsen herself allows that Greek ritual dramas could have been introduced to Italy in the sixth century BC or even earlier. She observes, for example, that elaborate stagings on mythological themes were depicted on south-Italian vases already in the fifth century. Regarding the date of 240 BC, when Livius Andronicus introduced Latin translations of Greek literary drama into the Ludi Romani, it would be more accurate to speak of the origins of Latin, rather than Italian, literary drama, for the Greek prototypes had been present on the peninsula for two centuries or more. Upon reflection it becomes very hard to identify what, if anything, was distinctively Italian about either of the developments chronicled by Livy, other than the adaptation of existing forms into Latin. Given the well-attested Republican Roman aversion to drama in general, it seems likely that other Italian peoples, such as the Oscan-speakers, were well ahead of Rome in assimilating sophisticated drama into their languages and customs.

The star attractions of this chapter are the theater-temples of central Italy (the best known are at Tivoli and Palestrina), all of them built between about 200 and 100 BC, and several with connections to eastern cults. Here the limitations of archaeology are the most keenly felt, for despite close attention to these sites little to nothing is known about the dramas staged at them. The theaters were probably not intended either for literary drama or for public sacrifices, for generally they lack permanent stage structures and the altar is often set behind the cavea. Scholars have traditionally sought the architectural origins of these sanctuaries in the Greek world, but Nielsen offers a promising, if still untested, alternative proposal. Two Etruscan sites, Castelsecco and Caere, seem to provide early evidence for curved theaters roughly aligned with temples. Etruria, already steeped in the tradition of ritual drama, may have provided the basic model of temple-forecourt-theater, later refined within a Hellenistic aesthetic of symmetry and axiality.

The final three chapters return to the gods of Egypt, the Syro-Phoenician region, and Anatolia, but in the maturity of their diaspora in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The focus here is on the sanctuaries of gods that retained their eastern identities, the majority of them in or near major trading centers. Again the reader may support Nielsen’s general approach while disagreeing with her interpretation of some sites. It is hard to argue with the evidence, say, at the Sanctuary of the Syrian Gods at Delos with its Tivoli-like theater-without-stage. Much less persuasive is Nielsen’s contention that the theater at the sanctuary of Diana at Nemi was used for Isiac ritual drama, or that the D-shaped colonnade at the southern end of the Iseum Campense in Rome, known only from fragments of the Severan marble plan, was a performative space. In an uncharacteristic flight of fancy, Nielsen even suggests that this very sanctuary is depicted on the famous relief from Aricia in the Palazzo Altemps, which features Isiac dancers, musicians, and animals set within an architectural framework.

In surveying the vast corpus of ancient Mediterranean sanctuaries Nielsen has sought out patterns that would conform easily to her typology. I am not troubled by her unwillingness to essay large parts of the Roman world that were subject to religious assimilation of non-Greek, but perhaps just as “dramatic,” cultic traditions. But has she left out any categories of evidence that might have enriched her study as she defines it? I would tentatively suggest two other lines of inquiry. First, the cult of heroes: a tradition that certainly falls within the geographic and cultural scope of Nielsen’s quest. If ever there was a class of gods that depended on the collective memory of their achievements, and the concomitant need to bring their stories alive to worshipers, this would be it. And in fact a few heroa seem to have had small audience halls for reciting or performing the aretalogies that developed around their dedicatees. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the first-century-BC Heroon/Diodoreion at Pergamon, which has a form reminiscent of some of the small Syro-Phoenician temples Nielsen surveys. It comprises an apsed cult room with altar flanked by a small odeion, both opening onto a transverse forecourt that could have been used for small dramatic presentations.2

Another underrepresented category, to my mind, is the fringe element, the abundant topography of weirdness that so often trumps the ordinary in our memories of a site. This is the stuff that we reluctantly consign to the vague category of “ritual space,” where initiates and initiands — and, often enough, larger audiences as well — must have witnessed esoteric performances. It is true that Nielsen has analyzed some strange and unique sanctuaries, trying hard — sometimes too hard (as with the temple of the Syrian Gods on the Janiculum in Rome) — to find a place within them for dramatic performance. But she has not canvassed the evidence from the other end, so to speak: looking for evidence of ritual drama where the presence of a cult site has not been well established.

Nobody would suggest that Nielsen should have rushed headlong into the murk of mystery rituals. But while bypassing the more claustrophobic, house-of-mirrors quality of bothroi, abata, telesteria, and other presumed venues for abstruse rites, she could have identified decidedly performative spaces in zones of contested or ambiguous identity, in places of unique disposition and uncertain assignation. For example, she omits from consideration the huge rectangular piscina north of the forum at Paestum, a tantalizing feature in the city’s landscape. Nielsen’s knowledge of pools as performative spaces in Egypt and of sacred pools in the Levant should at least have invited her to investigate this strange feature, and especially the large stone platform within it. It is commonly thought to be part of a gymnasium, not a sanctuary — hence the omission. On the other hand, dominant scholarly opinion recognizes this pool to be the locus of a bathing ritual and hieros gamos similar to the one celebrated at the Heraion of Samos, perhaps in this case honoring the regnant gods of the Piscina Publica in Rome, Fortuna Virilis and Venus Verticordia.3 The platform could be interpreted not simply as a venue for displaying the bathed and adorned goddess (the standard scholarly interpretation), but as a perfect place for the staging of ritual drama.

Despite its weaknesses of interpretation, and occasional lapses of English, Latin, and Greek grammar or syntax, this is a genuinely useful work to be consulted both for its sheer information value and for its fond embrace of a richly interdisciplinary topic.


1. J.A. Hanson, Roman Theater-Temples. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.

2. M.N. Filgis, and W. Radt, “Das Heroon: Baugeschichtiliche Untersuchung und Rekonstruktion,” AvP 15 (1986) 1.7-70, 107; W. Radt, Pergamon: Geschichte und Bauten, Fund und Erforschung einer antiken Metropole (Cologne: DuMont, 1988) 281-xx; C. Meyer-Schlichtmann, “Neue Erkenntnisse zum heroon des Diodorus Pasparos in Pergamon: Keramik aus datierenden Befunden,” IstMitt 42 (1992) 287-306; I. Kader, “Heroa und Memorialbauten,” in M. Wörrle and P. Zanker, eds., Stadtbild und Bürgerbild im Hellenismus: Kolloquium München 1993 (Munich: Beck, 1995) 211-12.

3. E. Greco and D. Theodorescu, Poseidonia-Paestum III: Forum nord (Rome: Ecole française de Rome, 1987), 60-62.