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Matthew’s Virtual Tour: circus and theatres

Dr Matthew Nicholls explains more about theatres in ancient Rome through a video tour of his virtual model.
The largest buildings for entertainment in the Roman world were circuses. And although the Circus Maximus itself survives very poorly today, this reconstruction based on literature, reliefs, mosaics can help bring the site back to life. We see the central spina around which the chariot raced, with rich decoration of obelisks, lap counters, and fountains. The seats rising up on every side for a quarter of a million spectators, and the emperor’s pulvinar or box with its commanding view. Moving to other sorts of entertainment building, we can look at theatres, spaces for dramatic entertainments like comedies and tragedies. The southern campus Martius in particular was an area rich in theatres, as you can see here. This is the Theatre of Pompey.
We saw its imprint in the streets and its remains in the restaurant basement, but the reconstruction can show us what it once looked like when it was new. It was built around 55 BC by Caesar’s enemy Pompey, and much restored by later emperors, and it shows many of the hallmarks of Roman theatre design. The cavea or bowl of seats for the audience is freestanding supported on arcades. The orchestra or dancing place for the chorus is semicircular rather than fully round as it would be in a Greek theatre. And perhaps most conspicuous is the stage backdrop, or scaenae frons a large, billboard-sized expanse of marble columns, colourful decoration, and rich, visual material for the audience to look at.
And behind the theatre proper, a porticoed square with colonnades, an audience hall, gardens and statues. Ironically enough, this is where Pompey’s enemy Caesar met his fate on the Ides of March 44 BC, at a Senate meeting called in the assembly hall there. The emperor Augustus took the lead from Pompey’s building, and we’ve already met a couple of Augustan theatres nearby. The Theatre of Balbus, whose winding mazy streets we saw, and the Theatre of Marcellus, whose arcading survived so impressively. If we look at the reconstruction of the Theatre of Marcellus we can see its position at the end of Augustus’s square, the Circus Flaminius. The theatre derived from a Caesarian project. It was eventually completed in 13 or 11 BC.
It could hold 20,000 or so spectators, and it was built by Augustus at a time when he was legislating on where different social classes could sit in the audience in theatres. Posh people at the front, less posh people further back, broadly speaking. So this makes us wonder who was on display in a Roman theatre? Was it the actors on a stage or the audience, in a sense, on display to each other, a microcosm of the Roman social order seated in the theatre? The Theatre of Marcellus sits on the route of the Roman triumph, so it’s in among arches and statues and commemorative buildings. And if we look at its wider architectural context, we can see nearby other Augustan complexes.
Temples, porticoes, libraries, part of a massive Augustan redevelopment of this part of town to put bread and circuses, architecture for entertainment, right up there at the forefront of the imperial architectural and urban agenda.

In this tour, you’ll see some of the specialist buildings the Romans constructed for chariot racing and theatrical entertainment. In the video and in the walkaround in the next Step, try to spot the features they had in common and the features unique to each one.

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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