BMCR 2007.02.16

Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study

, Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xxxix, 465; tables 25, plans 451, maps 7, figs. 34, pls. 144. $360.00.

Table of Contents

The ancient theater in its many aspects has attracted a great deal of interest in recent years. Frank Sear’s book addresses this interest by presenting in a single, elegantly produced volume interpretative discussion, factual information, and illustration of virtually all Greek and Roman theaters. Sear’s handsome book is divided into two parts: essays on aspects of the Roman theater and a catalogue that includes Greek and Roman phases of theaters, bouleuteria, and odeia. The illustrations alone, which are of excellent quality and include maps, tables, plans, many figures and photographs, make this book indispensable for study of the ancient theater.

Nine chapters treat subjects concerned only with the Roman theater, thus justifying the book’s title: theater and audience; finance and building; Roman theater design; theaters and related buildings; Republican theaters in Italy; theaters of Rome; cavea and orchestra; scene building; and provincial theaters. The book also includes indices of ancient authors, inscriptions, place names, a general index, and one of persons and peoples. The book’s bibliography ends about 1996, with a few later additions. Most site bibliographies are brought up to the late 1990s, some to 2003. Sear’s book includes more theaters, and more detail and analysis than its four-volume predecessor by P. Ciancio Rossetto and G. Pisani Sartorio, Teatri greci e romani (Rome 1994).

In Chapter 1, Theatre and Audience, Sear examines the ancient use of terms for building sections. Women were seated separately by 94 BC (Capua), and Augustus established segregation of the sexes in theater and amphitheater. Certain citizens sat in tribal units (Stobi), and reserved seating for groups occurred: copper-beaters, wineskin makers, jewelers (Bostra). Some theater tickets contain indication of section, row and seat. Central seats of honor probably derive from the Hellenistic period and ruler cult, but are rare in the west. Tribunalia, boxes for praetor and magistrates for the games, perch above side corridors. In Rome Vestal Virgins sat in the tribunal opposite the praetors. Romans were interested in acoustic devices, such as the wooden roof over the stage, wooden stage and doors, and sounding vessels to amplify voices. Mummius even took to Rome the bronze sounding vessels from Corinth. When Alexander wanted the architect at Pella to make the proskenion of bronze, he refused, to avoid spoiling the sound of the actors’ voices.

Finance and building are treated in Chapter 2. The theater was advantageous for public benefactors, as the gift had great visibility. Construction, maintenance, and repairs were so expensive that theaters were rarely financed by one individual. Building inscriptions from Delos, which name contractors, amounts paid, and payment settled at completion, attest to a 60-year construction time and separately contracted segments there.

In Republican Italy, contracts were awarded competitively each year (Capua theater, 108-94 BC, 14 years for the cavea). Imperial benefactions began with Hellenistic monarchs; Augustus soon realized the theater’s potential for propaganda. As a meeting place it provided a dignified setting, stratified seating by status, and the audience’s gaze focused on the wealthy and the colonnaded scaenae frons.

Private benefaction typically resulted in the donor’s inscribed dedication and statue prominently displayed, making the theater desirable for status advertisements and political activities. Funding by the public or by subscription was more common in the east (in Palaia Epidauros at least 1000 donations are recorded on the seats). Theaters were often used for several hundred years and thus required regular maintenance, repairs, and additions to serve growing populations. Repairs were needed after earthquakes, fires, or collapse from age or lack of solid support.

The question of building costs and how to estimate them is analyzed extensively. Others use elemental analysis, work units, or inscriptions, but Sear sensibly advocates a costing method that combines area and volume. Modern house building costs are estimated by floor area; Sear uses volumetric cost analysis, which incorporates the cavea’s substructures. Thus, a known gift for part of the cuneus at Gerasa is close to Sear’s estimate. Theaters could be built quickly if funding was available — Pompey’s was built from 63-52 — but others took 150 years.

Chapter 3, on Roman theater design, is masterful in its treatment of each segment: cavea slope, porticus; outer arcade, scene building, stage, stage height and width, columnatio; tables illustrate relative measurements. Theaters differ from related buildings (odea, bouleuteria, cult theaters, small private theaters) and by region. Sear distinguishes a western, indented type from the rectangular/straight faade that is popular in Greece/Asia Minor/Levant. Designs involve many factors: orientation, terrain, town planning, position (against a slope or free-standing). Stability was a major concern, and advantage was taken of available slopes.

Regionary Catalogues of Rome state length of seating, not number of seats. Thus, the cavea did not have individual seats, but a designated locus. Sear analyzes methods of calculating capacity, noting differences between east and west in theaters of the same diameter, due to varied shapes of the cavea. He reasonably determines first the length of the seating, then the capacity. The difference between his method and others can be as much as 868. Theaters in Greece and Asia generally have larger capacities, Ephesus being one of the largest (17,200-21,500), although its diameter is less than that of Pompey’s theater.

For proportions, Vitruvius specifies that the scaena length should be twice the orchestra diameter, but it could be three or four times that in the east. Sear notes overlooked discrepancies between the Vitruvian design method and archaeological evidence. Misunderstandings are revealed in Renaissance and later plans that insert the scaenae frons more deeply into the orchestra. Vitruvius is conservative, reflects Late Republican building practice, and is critical of contemporary fashion. He wrote in the early Augustan period, 27-25 BC, and thus early Augustan theaters (Alba Fucens, Ostia) come closest to his model. His model soon became unfashionable, as the scene building changed the most under Augustus. This was a period of experimentation and increase in monumental effects.

Chapter 4 treats theaters and related buildings. Sear includes at least a brief notation for theatrally shaped buildings (odea, bouleuteria), but excludes ecclesiasteria and comitia. Some towns have several theater-type buildings, but functions could be mixed. Gerasa’s north theater resembles an odeum, but tribal names on the seats indicate it was also a political meeting place. Theater-temples are common in Republican Latium. Conversions to hunting theaters are popular in North Africa and the east.

On the Odeum of Herodes Atticus at Athens, Sear finds the theory it was roofed incredible due to its size (diam. c. 81 m; span from stage building to cavea back 49 m), but sources describe it as roofed, with cedar (Philostratus). Pittakis found a meter-thick layer of wood ash over the orchestra and lower cavea, and the outer walls are thick. As the Odeum of Agrippa’s roof with a 25 m span collapsed, Sear thinks the sources refer to a roof over the porticus, but finds the ash a mystery. The wood ash, thick walls, windows, and sources seem to indicate a roof, as well as the iron rings and rooftiles, which Sear does not mention. The collapse noted above and the Diribitorium roof, whose 100 foot beam Pliny considers a wonder, are 100 years earlier. A kind of suspended dome might be envisioned, as Dinsmoor had suggested. See J. Tobin ( Herodes Attikos and the City of Athens, Amsterdam 1997, 185-92) for discussion.

Chapter 5 presents important analysis of Republican theaters in Italy. The oldest surviving is Morgantina’s rectilinear phase, ca. 325 BC. Metapontum, late 4th c, is innovative and forward-looking due to its flat site. The cavea, supported on earth fill within polygonal walls and external Doric columns foreshadow the Roman theater. Tarentum’s proximity and early 3rd c capture by Rome support a connection.

Most Sicilian theaters retained their converging analemmata, but Segesta has analemmata parallel to the stage, so it is a possible model for the Roman theater. Segesta and Tyndaris both appear to be transitional points leading to the Roman theater, due to paraskenia and three doors flanked by columns.

On Syracuse, Sear does not believe the rectilinear cuttings in the orchestra belong to an Archaic theater and survived the Hellenistic phase. He also rejects the theory of a porticus around the upper cavea, because Rizzo had noted that the columns had a rectilinear entablature. Polacco and Anti include this porticus on their plan and use it as evidence of Sicilian influence on Roman theaters. Recent studies help resolve these problems.

Stone theaters in Campania and Samnium comprise the main 2nd c activity. Striking similarities are noted between theaters in Campania and Sicily in the late 3rd/2nd c (Sarno, Pompeii’s Large Theater). The third phase at Ietas reveals an attempt to roof the parodoi. This innovation, linked to Pietrabbondante, c. 100 BC, marks “a crucial step towards the development of a unified and closed theatre of the Roman type” (50).

A free-standing cavea begins to develop in the late 2nd C. Earlier theaters were built against a slope, but many cavea ends were unstable. Late 2nd-century experiments use concrete in high barrel vaults of tufa opus incertum for supports (Cales). A better solution is achieved in the late 2nd c at Teanum Sidicinum, where two superimposed tiers of barrel vaults support the seats, a vaulting system resembling the 2nd c Porticus Aemilia. By the mid 1st c, seats rested on two superimposed sets of barrel vaults, and vault height was not extreme. The theater of Marcellus is a result of this experimentation.

A single story scaenae frons is typical until the third quarter of the 1st c BC, when a second appears. Sear speculates that the columnar scaenae frons originated in the east, where the earliest dated example is Aphrodisias’ two-story theater (38-27), but Italian scaenae frontes do not survive. Vitruvius describes both two and three-story facades, so this feature is well established by the early Augustan period. The scaenae frons and its side rooms may provide the necessary stability for the cavea ends.

Theaters in Rome are discussed in Chapter 6. Early theaters were temporary and built of wood, at first for the ludi (from 364). In 99 BC crows tried to alight on the roof of a painted scene building, as it was so realistic. Pliny’s number of columns in Scaurus’ theater appears exaggerated, but clearly ostentation of the scaenae frons had begun. Two revolving theaters set up by Scribonius Curio in 53 BC emphasize the danger of wooden stands, evident much earlier in Athens. At Fidenae, the wooden amphitheater collapsed in AD 27. Thus, Tacitus believed permanent theaters were economical, as they did not require annual rebuilding. Sear suggests senators rejected stone theaters for political reasons, to keep the assembly from gathering. In Greece, the theater was a symbol of democracy, but the Republic was aristocratic. Pompey wanted the favor of the people; hence he built a theater.

Plutarch says Pompey got the idea for his theater in Mytilene, a comment that has long seemed perplexing. Does this refer to the hillside setting, a temple on top, the bouleuterion, or just the scene building? Pompey paid for his theater, supplemented by funds from a freedman, and was strongly criticized for it, so he put it under the protection of Venus Victrix in a temple above.

L. Richardson believes the squares on the Marble Plan identified as the temple represent trees leading to Pompey’s house, as theaters inspired by this one (Vienne, Leptis) do not have a temple projecting beyond the cavea. Sear objects because the temple should be large, as it is the justification for the theater, and related theaters have projecting temples (Iol, Calama). If these are trees, then the temple is not shown at all. This would be odd, and an apsed projection survives in the modern buildings.

The theater of Marcellus was built in 44, 23-13/11 BC. The available site contained other buildings, but as Caesar was competing with Pompey, he razed houses and the Temple of Pietas, for which he was heavily criticized. The diameter is smaller than Pompey’s, but the theater probably had a greater seating capacity. There is no evidence for niches in the scaenae frons, though they are restored by Fidenzoni; Peruzzi’s plan was made before this part of the Marble Plan was found. Thus the scaenae frons was probably straight.

The theater of Balbus (19-13 BC) is seldom referred to in ancient sources. The site was identified in 1960 by joining two pieces of the Marble Plan, on which the well-preserved porticus and large exedra also appears.

The cavea and orchestra are analyzed in Chapter 7. The semicircular cavea first appears in Greece in the second half of the 4th C. Epidaurus is the classic example, with full circle orchestra and converging analemmata. The most important innovations result from making the cavea ends parallel to the stage. Oblique analemmata resulted in smaller stages, often no basilicas, and open parodoi. The horseshoe-shaped cavea is popular in Syria, Arabia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Sicily. Cavea types are classified by type of support.

The orchestra was usually of beaten earth in Italy and Sicily before the 1st c BC. Marble paving first appears under Augustus and is common in the 1st and 2nd c AD. Opus sectile paving occurs in Spain, while Athens adopted a polychrome floor under Nero. Other treatments include polychrome marble, brick paving, hexagonal and heart-shaped brick, painted plaster, and mosaic.

Chapter 8 charts the scene building’s development. The scaenae frons originates in Sicilian theaters in the 3rd-2nd c BC. In some theaters this wall is indented by the third quarter of the 1st c BC, with the central door (regia) in a semicircle, the side doors (hospitalia) in rectangular niches. This type is fully established by the late Augustan period, but the rectilinear, straight scaenae frons type continues. In the late 1st c AD a new indented type with semicircular side niches appears. Sear argues that this type is inspired by the rebuilt theater of Pompey of the late 1st c AD, depicted on the Severan Marble Plan which he believes represents the Domitianic rebuilding after the AD 80 fire. The rectilinear format is common in Italy, Spain, Cyrenaica, possibly Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor, but rare in North Africa. The only example of a facade with three curved niches in Greece occurs at Corinth, a Roman colony. The scaenae frons with four columns on the wall between the regia and hospitalia as at Augusta Emerita represents the orthodox arrangement for 100-150 years.

In the west, the proscaenium wall typically had niches, rectangular alternating with curved. The aulaeum or drop curtain appears first in 133 BC, the slot for it being behind the proscaenium wall. Masts, ropes, and pulleys raised the curtain, but it could only rise as high as the depth of the slot, or 3-5 meters. It would hide most of the stage, actors, periaktoi, and props. Evidence for a roof over the stage occurs in three theaters (Arausio, Aspendus, Bostra), but Vitruvius does not mention it, and it did not necessarily exist everywhere. Aspendus has the simplest, with 18 beam slots, and 18 corresponding slots near the top of the postscaenium. The postscaenium contained choregia, dressing rooms, and props. The most stylish have counter-curves in the wall, as at Corinth. Basilicas, some richly decorated, were used by the audience. The porticus post scaenam, amply treated by Vitruvius, was used for equipment and in case of rain.

Provincial variations are examined in Chapter 9. A historical summary by province sets the architecture in context. Publications on theaters in each region are discussed and links between Levantine and Asia Minor theaters noted. Most Levantine theaters are of the “western,” indented type, like Bostra, and some are associated with ritual functions. In Greece Sear believes that the first seat arrangement was rectangular, a debated point.

The Catalogue is organized geographically by modern region, subdivided by Augustan Regions for Italy and by province for other areas, using boundaries of the 2nd c AD: Britain, Gaul, and Germany; The Balkans; Spain; North Africa; The Levant; Asia Minor; and Greece. The organization is meticulous in detail, and a prefatory note explains the nomenclature for parts of a theater. Each catalogue entry presents consistent information for each part of the structure. Many plans have been redrawn and most photographs are the author’s.

Queries: These are minor quibbles, in light of the comprehensive coverage of the book.

With such a comprehensive study it is not surprising that work on it continued for a long time; editors should have struck the word “recent” from titles of 1982, 1992, etc.

The Index could have usefully included some additional entries, e.g., on archive wall, Graces, reliefs, statues of tufa, sculptures.

A few titles may be added:

M. C. Gagliardo and J. E. Packer, “A New Look at Pompey’s Theater: History, Documentation and Recent Excavation,” AJA 110 (2006), 93-122.

M. Kadioglu, Die scaenae frons des Theaters von Nysa am Mäander, Mainz 2006.

On the new museum at the Theater of Balbus: Museo nazionale romano: Roma, dall’ antichità al medioevo: Crypta Balbi. Milan 2001.

A. Ovadiah and Y. Turnheim, “Peopled” Scrolls in Roman Architectural Decoration in Israel: the Roman Theatre at Beth Shean/Scythopolis, Rome 1994. A. Retzleff. “Evidence for Hydraulic Installations in eastern Roman Theaters,” diss. University of North Carolina 2001.

A. Retzleff, “Near Eastern Theatres in Late Antiquity,” Phoenix 57, 2003, 115-38.

In conclusion, this important book should quickly take its place in college and personal libraries on classical archaeology. The analysis of individual aspects of theater design makes a significant contribution to architectural history, and the catalogue provides detailed information on ancient theaters in a usable format.