BMCR 2024.04.02

Living theatre in the ancient Roman house: theatricalism in the domestic sphere

, , Living theatre in the ancient Roman house: theatricalism in the domestic sphere. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 552. ISBN 9781316510940.



Living Theatre provides the fullest possible resolution of a fundamental question debated by scholars since 1938, when Hendrik Beyen first asked it: To what extent did imagery in the frescoes of Pompeii and Rome take its inspiration from the theater?[1] To answer this question, the authors have cast a wide net, providing in-depth analyses of theater buildings (the scaenae frons or scene facade along with what we know of the painted sets (skenographia). They also analyze visual representations of actors, performances, and theatrical paraphernalia.All of these elements appear in wall paintings of the Second through the Fourth Styles .The authors have asked the right questions about these domestic theatrical representations based on thorough research of ancient texts, and the modern scholarship. Perhaps most importantly, Living Theater is a veritable feast for the eyes, with original and accurate digital reconstructions of theater buildings and the wall paintings derived from the theater. Throughout, the illustrations are of excellent high quality (in black-and-white and in color) and most generously provided.

Chapter 1, “Roman Theatricality and Theatricalism,” defines theatricalism as “the whole range of borrowings . . . which serve as a culturally ubiquitous, collective reservoir of examples, similes and metaphors.” The authors propose that “theatricality” is a subset of theatricalism that draws “attention directly to the domain of the theater itself.” (2) They propose that the Roman triumph, the declamatory techniques employed by both orators and actors, and even the Roman funeral are theatricalized performances that exploited references from different systems of representation: they are “intermedial,” and as such constitute “mixed reality.” Whereas in Greek culture actors could achieve civic honors, in Rome they incurred the status of infamia. Nevertheless, the theater, with its embrace of individuals of all classes and origins, was a microcosm of Roman society that espoused a cultural vernacular, accommodating divergent realities even as it played with the boundaries between the real and the fictional (16-17). The authors’ aim is to explore how theatricality affected Roman domestic life, and they argue that the paintings in a Roman house belonged to a discourse of theatricalism: for example, they were used as prompts encouraging guests to engage in ekphrasis, which sometimes took the form of after-dinner “picture-talk.” (22-24). After offering several examples from ancient literary ekphrases, they propose that wall painting in the Roman house aimed to transport the viewer “between actual, fictive and metafictive spaces” (27) to explore parallels between the theatrical and domestic life.

Chapter 2 investigates the development of the forms of theaters at Pompeii, using the Odeion and the Large Theater in the Augustan and post-Augustan ages as case-studies. Particularly useful, and noteworthy for their accuracy, are the reconstructions (figs. 13-15; 21-22; 23-24). Created within the collaborative framework of the King’s Visualisation Lab by Martin Blazeby and other modelers, the reconstructions bring the research of Beacham and Denard to life, even while serving to test the often-vexed evidence surrounding their form and chronology.

In Chapter 3 the authors investigate Roman theatrical entertainments through the lens of what we know of performance at Pompeii, ranging from popular mime to pantomime, as well as stage machinery (perhaps represented in a fresco from the House of the Four Styles, fig. 27). They propose strong connections between the embodied experience of the domus and the theater in terms of a gradient of physical—and thus visual—access determined by an individual’s social status (74-92).

There were two main visual sources from the theater for wall painters to plumb: the scaenae frons (or stage building) and skenographia (painted scenery). These painted evocations of both built and illusionistic architecture constituted “a potent, intermedial system.” (83) The authors go on to proposed that these aspects of theater decoration were analogous to the creation of imagined spaces in the paintings of the Roman house (83-84). Selected passages from ancient authors reveal the extent to which Roman theatrical practices blended the real and the fictional. The chapter ends with an excellent discussion of the art of pantomime, the silent dancer able to convey the complexities of myth through bodily gestures, situating his performance between painting and poetry (88-92).[2]

Chapter 4 examines politics and patronage at Pompeii beginning with an overview of public offices and duties, including sponsorship of public entertainments. The authors insert a summary description of the Four Styles of Romano-Campanian wall painting before introducing houses attributed to individual politicians, including: the House of the Silver Wedding, the House of the Marine Venus, the House of the Citharist, the House of the Centenary, the House of the Theatrical Panels, and the House of the Golden Cupids. Whereas the section on the House of the Silver Wedding describes painting programs without illustration, the illustration of the painting of the Riot in the Amphitheater does not include the all-important inscription naming D. Lucretius Satrius Valens as editor (fig. 31). The authors accept the attribution of the House of the Marine Venus to the son of this Valens, and frame the famous garden fresco in terms of its theatricalization—this without the aid of a plan to locate the imagery (110-114). Nero’s association with Pompeii brings the reader to a brief discussion of the House of the Citharist, owned by two freedmen supporters of Nero, where “high-status decorations” point to theatrical enactments.[3] They return to the theme of Nero’s theatrical activities in the area and hypothesize that following the earthquake of 62 CE the scaenae frons of the Large Theater was embellished with painted panels (fig. 57). The garden of the House of the Golden Cupids, perhaps owned by a member of the gens Poppaea, with its western rooms raised, like a stage, above a garden populated with Dionysian reliefs and theatrical masks, presents the most convincing analogies to the theatrical fantasies of Nero’s Domus Aurea.

In Chapter 5, “Theatricalism and the Roman House,” the authors propose many parallels between the experience of the built spaces of the theater and the Pompeian house. Their arguments lean heavily on ancient sources and visual analogies between domus and theater: between the fauces and the annular corridors of the theater, the atrium and the scaenae frons, the tablinum and the stage, and the peristyle and grand public spaces. The visual examples adduced are often of very different scale and date, making it difficult to understand these analogies, e.g., the monumental atrium of Oplontis Villa A vs the intimate one of the House of M. Lucretius Fronto.

The term skenographia acts as the organizing term for chapters 6-10, beginning with an examination of what the authors propose as the theatricality of Second-Style frescoes. Much-discussed examples include: oecus H (which the authors argue is a pinacotheca design) and cubiculum M of the Villa of Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale; room 23 of Villa A at Oplontis; room 71 of the House of Fabius Rufus; and oecus 43 of the House of the Labyrinth. The authors convincingly propose that room 13 of Villa 6 at Terzigno constitutes a stronger evocation of theatrical performance than room 5 of the Villa of the Mysteries (215-226). They apply the concept of “intermedial double-vision” to explain the coexistence of the pinacotheca and stage—an art gallery in the style of a thyromata stage (218-219) and vice-versa (235-236). Their thorough discussion of Boscoreale cubiculum M concludes that the comic-, satyric-, and tragic-style panels mentioned by Vitruvius, although portraying only the scenic panel paintings from the scaenae frons, metonymically suggests the whole (246).

Chapter 7, devoted to skenographia at Boscoreale, Oplontis, and Pompeii, showcases digital restorations by Martin Blazeby of important mature Second-Style paintings, giving the reader side-by-side comparisons of actual and restored states of Boscoreale triclinium G (figs. 108-111, 113); Oplontis triclinium 14 (figs. 115b, 116b); Oplontis oecus 15 (fig. 126); Oplontis room 8 (fig. 130b); and Oplontis triclinium 23 (figs. 131a, 131b, 135, 137b, 138b, 139a). Comparison of Boscoreale triclinium G with Oplontis triclinium 14 reveals affinities already noted in the literature pointing to the authorship of the same workshop.[4] The authors’ comparisons of what is known of theatrical scene buildings with these Second-Style representations (including the east wall of the Corinthian oecus of the House of the Labyrinth, fig. 120) adds nuance to the discussion by adducing an intermedial approach that “emphasizes the ludic character of Roman fresco art.” (274) They go on to discuss recurring elements, such as doorways, shrines, porticoes, screen walls, tholoi, and colonnades in perspective as having intermedial relationships to built forms (274-282).

Noticing the vegetal elements in the painting on the east wall of oecus 15 at Oplontis, they adduce Bettina Bergmann’s interpretations of the enfilade of rooms with the Fourth-Style painted garden scenes placed between the three major entertainment spaces of the east wing (289-292). Two fascinating projects reconstructing the built scaenae frons end this chapter. The first of these, the one depicted on the north wall of Oplontis oecus 23, shows structural parallels to a type of three-dimensional stage represented on a South Italian vase (fig. 136).[5] Equally useful for understanding how fresco artists interpreted stage architecture are Martin Blazeby’s 3D models showing the hypothetical spatial elaboration of the west wall of oecus 23 and the east wall of room 3 of the House of Obellius Firmus (figs. 140a-141b). A final comparison, between the reconstruction of the plan of the west wall of Oplontis atrium 5 and that of the Large Theater at Pompeii, adds further evidence of the artists alluding to stage facades.

Chapter 8 extends investigation of skenographia to Rome, focusing on the decorations of the so-called houses of Livia and Augustus. The authors follow T.P. Wiseman in discarding the attribution of these two partially preserved houses on the Palatine to the first imperial couple.[6] Their study of the theatrical elements of the frescoes, particularly in light of the informative experiments in digitally modeling the designs based on the scaenae frons, constitutes a major contribution to the existing scholarship (316-346). The chapter ends with a valuable discussion of perspective systems that advances Tybout’s conclusion that Vitruvius described two different theories of perspective that appear in Second-Style schemes (353-362, fig. 176).

The authors characterize the elaboration of the scaenae frons structures in decorations of the Fourth Style (45-79 CE) as a “renaissance” of the use of similar representations in the Second Style. Citing the scaenae frons decorations of the Domus Aurea, they analyze analogous schemes at Pompeii, often illustrating their points with 3D builds of the 2D paintings.[7] Particularly convincing are the parallels between Drew Baker’s models of the scaenae frons of the Large Theater and the paintings of the Small Palaestra (VIII, 2, 22-23), where fantastic elements inflect structurally-plausible architecture (407-422).

The final chapter, entitled “Triclinium Theatricality,” proposes that “the dinner party was a sort of ‘privatisation’ of elements that had earlier characterised the elite’s role in the patronage and presentation of theatre” (431). Accordingly, the chapter compares the “staging” of elaborate dinner-parties to theatrical munera across five categories: the occasion, the place, the patron, the participants, and the activities that took place. Two views of a 3D model of the room G of the Villa of Fannius Synistor, one looking in at guests arranged in canonical order on couches, the other looking over the shoulders of diners at two actors performing a scene from Pseudolus, suggest what after-dinner theatrical entertainments could have looked like. Notable is the relative darkness of the interior (figs. 231a and b). The authors then analyze center pictures from Pompeian interiors representing diners at convivia, followed by a combination of domestic theaters from large villas elsewhere, including the garden room from the Villa of Livia at Primaporta and Varro’s Bird Theater as well as outdoor triclinia at Pompeii. The final section details the theatrical elements of the House of Marcus Lucretius, its raised garden filled with statuary and waterworks a 3D garden theater.[8]

Living Theatre is an essential volume for theater historians, classicists, historians, art historians, and anyone interested in the myriad experiences—visual, sensual, embodied—of those ancient Roman viewers whom we could describe as “theatricalized.”[9] There are few errors, and the bibliography is extensive and up-to-date.[10] However, it is tough navigating the discussions when numbered plans are not provided. For instance, the authors provide an unnumbered plan of the House of the Centenary, and in many cases fail to provide figure callouts in the text. For example, room 38 of that enormous domus is only described as “a large triclinium located at the northwestern portion of the house” (125), Although, quite happily, Beacham and Denard publish twelve drawings of the now-lost theatrical imagesfrom the atrium of the House of the Centenary, they furnish only three images of the ten theatrical pictures adorning the atrium of the House of the Theatrical Pictures, but once again leave the reader in the dark as to their placement in the atrium. In the same vein I wanted to understand the relative dimensions of the many painted rooms analyzed, a question that could easily have been answered with uniform plans furnished with scale markers.

Aside from these editorial issues, it seems that this excellent book paves the way to expand research on the acculturation of the audiences. What can anaaysis of textual and visual evidence tell us about the attitudes of a fuller cross-section of ancient Roman theater-goers. For example, what attitudes did foreigners, enslaved individuals, and women have toward both the built forms of theaters? How did their “encyclopedia” of visual representations of theatrical forms inform their reactions to the painted interiors of Roman houses? This, of course, is work that Denard and Beacham have laid the groundwork for. One possibility would be to create viewer scenarios to hypothesize the experiences of a widevariety of ancient Roman viewers in terms of class, geographical origin, wealth, and literacy. What would a manumitted former slave working as a cubicularia at Oplontis Villa A have made of the elaborate Second-Style decoration of oecus 15? Or a senator visiting the same villa?[11]



[1] H. G. Beyen, Pompejanische Wanddekoration: vom zweiten bis zum vierten Stil,vol.1 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1938). Beyen returned to this problem through his final publication, Pompejanische Wanddekoration: vom zweiten bis zum vierten Stil, vol.2 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960).

[2] For two images of the pantomime in action, see Miguel Ángel Valero Tévar, “The Late Antique Villa at Noheda (Villar de Domingo García) Near Cuenca and Its Mosaics,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 26 (2013): 307–30.

[3] For which, see John R. Clarke, Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250 (Berkeley: U of California P, 2007) fig. 6.

[4] The authors miss one clue to the common authorship of the Second-Style paintings of Oplontis and Boscoreale: the figure of Artemis-Hecate on the north wall of triclinium 14 is repeated at reduced scale in Boscoreale cubiculum M: John R. Clarke, “Sketching and Scaling in the Second-Style Frescoes of Oplontis and Boscoreale,” Actes du Colloque Internationale ‘Boscoreale’, ed. Annie Verbanck and Alix Barbet (Mariemont: Éditions Errance, 2013) 199–209.

[5] Rolf A. Tybout, Aedificiorum figurae: Untersuchungen zu den Architekturdarstellungen des frühen zweiten Stils (Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1989) pl.94.1.

[6] T.P. Wiseman, The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2019).

[7] House of the Vettii (rooms e and p); House of Siricus (room 10); the Macellum; the Stabian Baths; the House of Apollo; House I, 3, 25; House of the Ara Maxima; House of Pinarius Cerialis; House of the Ancient Hunt; House of the Small Palaestra.

[8] See also

[9] I was unable to understand how the neologism “theatricalism,” as opposed to “theatricality,” subject of chapter 1, added to the book’s overall arguments.

[10] One error that could mislead a reader deserves mention: “Villa of Diomedes, Ins. Occ. 39)” (328-329 figs. 153-154) is actually the House of the Library, Ins. Occ. VI, 17, 41, and the images are from the south wall of cubiculum 17. See 17 41 p4.htm

[11] Gilles Sauron, La pittura allegorica a Pompei: Lo squardo di Cicerone, trans. Marianna Castracane (Lucca: Jaca Book, 2007).