Theatre and Dance


The Romans were very reluctant to build any permanent structure for holding either gladiatorial games or theatrical shows. Temporary structures, sometimes of great magnificence, were either put up or other public spaces, such as the Forum, were repurposed for the holding of games. Marcus Aemilius Scaurus celebrated games as an aedile in 58 BCE; they were legendary for their extravagance and for the elaborate temporary theatre he built. The gamble paid off as he was elected praetor in 56 BCE.

Wooden Theater of Marcus Scaurus in Rome

Constructed during his term as aedile (and only for a few days’ use), the grandest building ever built by man – and that is counting permanent structures. I refer to his theatre: it had three stories, supported by 360 columns…The lowest level was marble; the next glass – a luxury never heard of since – and the top was fashioned from gilded boards. The lowest columns were 38 feet high and between them were placed three thousand bronze statues…The rest of the equipment, including cloth of gold, painted panels, and various theatrical props, was so lavish that when they took what was suitable for everyday use to Scaurus’ villa at Tusculum and angry slaves burned down the villa, the loss was calculated at thirty million sesterces.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 31.114-115

In 55 BCE Pompey’s stone theatre became the first permanent stone theatre in Rome. This complex not only included a theatre, but a temple to Venus Victrix, a meeting place for the Senate (where Caesar was later assassinated) and gardens with porticos). To get a full sense of its magnificence go to Theatre of Pompey Visualization Project

Let us consider the true nature of theatrical entertainment, beginning with the vice inherent in its setting.  If we view it correctly the theatre is a shrine to Venus. Indeed, this type of building came into the world in the name of Venus. For originally, even the pagan censors destroyed theaters as quickly as they were built because they could see the horrific moral fallout from the immorality of the theatre. This was why when Pompey the Great (only his theater was greater than he!) had built his citadel [his theatre] of every vice and was afraid that because of this people might criticize him later, he added on to his theater a temple to Venus, and when he summoned the people to the dedication, he did not call the structure a theater, but a temple “to which we have added,” he said, “some seating for shows.”

Tertullian, On Spectacles 1.10

Other texts on the theatre fill out our knowledge of it and its opening games. (Also see the letter of Cicero in the previous section.)

In 55 BCE Pompey dedicated the theatre of which we are still proud; at the dedication he put on shows of music and athletics.

Cassius Dio, History 39.38.1

When designing a theater, you should include porticoes behind the stage to house the audience when a sudden downpour disrupts the performances, and to provide some open space for the preparation of stage sets. The Pompeian Portico is an example of this.

Vitruvius, Architecture 5.9.1

Polygnotus also did the painting (now in the Portico of Pompey but formerly in his Curia) in which you cannot be sure whether the man with the shield is climbing or descending.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 35.59

Among the decorations of his theater Pompey the Great placed images of celebrated marvels, made with special elaboration for the purpose by the talent of eminent artists; among them we read of Eutychis who at Tralles was carried to her funeral pyre by 20 children and who had given birth more than 30 times, and Alcippe who gave birth to an elephant, although it is true that the latter case ranks among the portents, for one of the first occurrences of the Marsian War was that a maidservant gave birth to a snake, and also monstrous births of various kinds are recorded among the ominous things that happened. (H. Rackham, trans.)

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.3.34-5

Varro writes that Coponius also created the statues of the 14 nations which are placed around Pompey’s complex.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 36.41

Crassus went out to his province at the end of his year of office as consul. Pompey, however, stayed behind to open his theater, at the dedication of which he held athletic sports and musical contests and provided wild animals in which 500 lions were killed. The most remarkable show of all—indeed a most horrifying spectacle—was an elephant fight.

Plutarch, Pompey 52

The theatre also contained a meeting place for the Senate. It was here Caesar was killed on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. He fell at the foot of the statue of Pompey there, in a moment of supreme historic irony. Of course, this later created problems for Mark Antony and Octavian, who eventually turned the room into a toilet.

The scene itself of Caesar’s death-struggle and assassination later made it clear to all that some supernatural being had taken the event in hand to bring it about. For the meeting-site of the Senate that day contained a statue of Caesar’s late rival Pompey, which Pompey himself had dedicated as one more ornament to his theater…

Because Mark Antony was not only loyal to Caesar but physically powerful as well, the conspirators had arranged for Brutus Albinus to detain him outside in a lengthy conversation. Caesar himself, however, entered, and the Senate rose in his honor. Some of the conspirators then moved into position behind Caesar’s chair, while others, approaching him from the front as if in support of a petition being pleaded by Tillius Cimber on behalf of his exiled brother, gathered closely around Caesar’s chair to argue the case. Sitting down, Caesar tried to brush them off, but they continued to harass him with their request until Caesar was driven to show some violence of temper. It was then that Tillius gave the signal to begin the attack, jerking Caesar’s toga down from both his shoulders. Casca was the first to strike, stabbing Caesar in the neck with his dagger, but because he was understandably nervous about initiating a deed of such daring, the wound was neither deep nor deadly, and Caesar was able to turn around, grab the knife, and hold it away…So the attack began. Those who were ignorant of the plot stood there in shock, neither fleeing nor coming to Caesar’s defense with so much as a shout. Those in the know and intent on murder, however, all drew their knives in a ring around Caesar, so that whichever way he turned he was exposed to blades aimed at his face and eyes, trapped like an animal and struck by every hand. Since all of the conspirators had to take a part in the sacrifice, as it were, and to taste of Caesar’s murder, Brutus also stabbed him once, in the groin. Some say that up until then Caesar was shouting and attempting to deflect and dodge the blows of the others but when he saw that Brutus too had drawn his sword, he pulled his toga over his head and sank down (whether by chance, or pushed there by his killers) at the base of Pompey’s statue, spattering it with blood so that it seemed his former enemy in war stood over him in vengeance, with Caesar laid out at his feet quivering from his multitude of wounds. It is said he had been stabbed twenty-three times in all. Many of his assassins also received stab wounds, having struck one another by accident in their attempt to land so many blows on one body.

Plutarch, Caesar 66.1, 3-7

Consider the case of Caesar. Imagine him knowing by using divination that among the very Senate whose members were largely of his own choosing, in the curia of Pompey’s theater, in front of the statue of Pompey himself, with so many of his own centurions looking on, he should be murdered by Rome’s finest citizens, some of whom owed their success entirely to Caesar, and knowing that when he lay there dead not even one of his slaves, let alone one of his friends, would approach his corpse. Would he not have been tortured all his life, knowing this to be his fate?

Cicero, On Divination 2.23

Augustus moved the statue of Pompey out of the Senate Hall where Caesar was murdered and placed it on a marble arch opposite the main door of the stage.

Suetonius, Augustus 31.5

The triumvirs [Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus, in 42 BCE] first closed the building where Caesar was murdered. Later they had it rebuilt as a toilet.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 47.19

It wasn’t all murder and theatre, though. The poet Propertius writes to his girlfriend, Cynthia, who has left Rome, about the wonders of its gardens.

I suppose you think the Portico of Pompey, with its shady columns and tapestries woven with gold, is squalid – the Portico with its solid rows of plane trees all shaped to an even height, the streams of flowing water that slide off the Slumbering Satyr, and the liquid sounds of splashing around the entire basin when Triton suddenly blows the water from his mouth.

Propertius, Elegies 2.32.11-16

Of course, this being ancient Rome, the theatre burned down every once in a while. Claudius restored it and held a number of lavish shows there to mark that.

Claudius put on a number of extravagant shows.…For the dedication of the Theatre of Pompey, which he had restored after a fire, he presided over the entertainment from a raised platform erected in the orchestra, after first praying at the temples above and descending through the middle of the auditorium while everyone sat in silence.

Suetonius, Claudius 21

Magnificent as it was, the theatre could always be made more luxurious for special occasions:

Claudius’ immediate successor Nero covered the theater of Pompey with gold for one day’s purpose, when he was to display it to Tiridates, King of Armenia. Yet how small was the theater in comparison with Nero’s Golden Palace which covers Rome!

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 33.16.54


Media Attributions



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book