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Part XI – ‘From a city of brick to a city of marble’

Dr Nicholls explores the site of the Theatre of Marcellus and explains how emperors used such buildings to ensure their popularity in ancient Rome
But here’s a great piece of hidden archaeology that gives us a clue to Roman theatre architecture. What we’re looking at here in this curved street is the imprint, the fossil, if you like, of Rome’s first permanent stone built theatre. It was built by Julius Caesar’s colleague and then bitter enemy Pompey the Great, in competition with Caesar to capture the hearts of the Roman people through lavish entertainment architecture. It’s a theatre built on the Greek model of a half-round theatre, but rising up on tiers of arcades with a gleaming temple at the top, and the stage wall somewhere down there.
All of that’s long gone, but what survives is this imprint in the street shape, this curving street shows us that once, and under the foundations of the buildings all around us rose this enormous stone theatre at its date one of the most lavish buildings in Rome.
Unfortunately it’s started to drizzle, but luckily, I know that in the basement of this restaurant there’s something really interesting to see, so let’s duck in out of the rain and take a look.
Now, much of modern Rome, of course, is built up layer on layer on the remains of ancient Rome, and that means when you go downstairs into people’s basements, you might see a trace of the ancient remains of the city. That’s certainly the case here in this restaurant. What we’re going to see now, in fact, are the foundations of that immense theatre built by Julius Caesar’s friend and then enemy Pompey the Great in a piece of showmanship trying to capture the hearts and minds of the Roman people by spectacular architecture. In this case, a theatre for showing theatrical entertainments. Bread and circuses in the very late republic.
This theatre was held up by a series of radial barrel vaults built of concrete, holding the immense weight of the stone steps, the spectators and on top, a temple to the goddess Venus. And what we’re walking down now– although it’s part of the restaurant basement– is one of these long, narrow radial barrel vaults, curving at the top, built of concrete, and holding up the cavea, the theatre seats above us. And at the end wall here, this lovely diamond-shaped masonry we call opus reticulatum is an example of the structural engineering that held it all up. On top, fancy marble, coloured columns and all the rest of it. Down here, the engineering end of the business this massive concrete wall.
What a fantastic thing to find when you’re ducking into a restaurant out of the rain in central Rome.
We’re now in a part of town that today is part of Rome’s Jewish quarter. But in antiquity, towards the end of the first century BC, Rome’s first emperor Augustus adorned, you might say, transformed, this area as part of his programme of turning Rome as he liked to boast from a city of brick into a city of marble. He took old Republican temples, renewed them, put beautiful porticos around them with libraries, columns, and statues, and at the end of the large public square he had paved, a great theatre, another building for entertainment, in the city of Rome.
This is the Theatre of Marcellus. Built by Augustus, dedicated around 13 BC, and named after the young man who at that date was going to be his heir and successor. And here, we can see really clearly how Roman theatre architecture worked, because the superstructure, cleared out by Mussolini, still survives above ground. That row of travertine arches behind me are entranceways and exitways for thousands of spectators to get into the theatre to watch tragedies, comedies, maybe even sometimes the triumphal procession of the emperor returning to Rome in victory.
But they also support the weight of the seats, the half-round bowl of seats we call the cavea, with a stage down in front of the spectators watching from the stone seats raised up on those mighty arches. Now these days, this theatre, like much of Rome, has been repurposed. Up at the top there, you can see extremely posh apartments, and you can’t go inside these days. But we can use a digital model to get a sense of what this theatre looked like in antiquity.

As you’ve heard in previous Steps, the Theatre of Pompey, one of the most lavish buildings in Rome, was built to capture the hearts and minds of the city’s people. It must have been a source of great celebration when it was completed, but it was also the location for a significant and rather grisly event in Rome’s history not long afterwards.

The brutal assassination of Julius Caesar was carried out on the Ides of March 44 BC by a mob of disgruntled senators who believed Caesar was becoming too powerful. The assassination happened at a meeting of the Senate in the curia or audience hall that was part of the Theatre of Pompey complex. You may find it helpful to revisit the potted history of Rome in Step 1.6 to remind yourself about who Pompey was, when Caasar came to power, and who succeeded him.

This week you’ll also visit the Theatre of Marcellus, the building I focus on on for my virtual tour and the walkaround exercise.

As you watch the video, you may like to think about the following:

  • Why did Augustus boast that he turned ‘Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble’?

  • What might a trip to the theatre in ancient Rome have felt like?

We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments area.

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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