The Ancient Theatre Archive

The Theatre Architecture of Greece and Rome

Sessa Aurunca Theatre Site Description

Translated from the Sessa Aurunca archeological site signage, 2023

The Roman theater of Sessa Aurunca is, together with those of Neapolis and Teano, one of the largest buildings of its kind in ancient Italy. The excavation and restoration of the monument lasted from 1995 to 2005, bringing to light the entire building and adjacent areas. The theatre, probably built under the empire of Augustus, has an auditorium of over 90 m in diameter, almost completely resting on the natural slope, while only some sectors are supported by radial partitions built in opus reticulatum, a technique used for the construction of the vast ambulatory which supported the summa cavea.

The theater underwent a radical transformation during the first half of the second century. A.D. by Matidia Minore, sister of Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian. The building that has come down to us belongs to this period. The bleachers were made with seats made of massive blocks of Campanian limestone, while a temple rose in the center of the summa cavea, in imitation of what happened in the theater of Pompey in Rome. This sacellum, dedicated to the imperial cult, has preserved two of the four colossal statues that once stood there, one representing Livia Augusta and the other Agrippina Major.

The entire ambulatory of the summa cavea was crossed by a portico of Ionic columns with shafts in gray granite and capitals in white marble. The corbels supporting the posts of the velarium, used to protect spectators from the heat of the summer sun, were housed in the annular corridor, located upstream of the summa stairway, while two spectacular stairway ramps allowed access to the lower part of the theatre, made up of the frons scaenae, the side basilicas and the portico post scaenam.

The scene, preceded by the orchestra with opus sectile flooring (in green and red Egyptian porphyry), was a veritable open-air museum. 40 m long and over 20 m high, the scene was spread over three floors of 84 columns made of the most precious marbles of the time: Cipollino, Sciro marble (marble from Settebassi), Giallo antico di Numidia, Portasanta marble of Chios, Gray Granite, Pavonazzetto from Phrygia, Peach Blossom from Calcide, Proconnesio marble from the island of Marmara, Carrara marble, the very precious red Egyptian Porphyry, the green Spartan Serpentine and the Ancient Grey.

The sculptural decoration was also impressive, originally made up of at least 40-50 statues, of which 150 fragments and 7 almost completely reconstructed statues have come down to us. The sculptures included representations of divinities linked to the world of the theatre, such as satyrs, maenads and muses, and iconic statues of the imperial family of the Antonine age, all made in Greek marble by Roman workshops. We must also point out the loricate statues of Hadrian, the one perhaps depicting Trajan, the female ones of Matidia Maggiore and Sabina, and the two-colored one representing Matidia Minore (unique of its kind, it is made with Bigio Morato marble from Asia Minor – for the wide chiton that surrounds the august character – and in white Greek insular marble – for the complexion -).

On either side of the scene were the two basilicas: a smaller one, characterized by a series of niches where a statuary cycle probably dedicated to Apollo and the Satyrs was placed, and another consisting of a vast room covered with cross vaults and decorated with stucco and polychrome marble. This room has a monumental three-apse nymphaeum fountain, which was one of the terminals of the new Matidia aqueduct. In the niches of the nymphaeum, fragments of a marine Venus, a male character in heroic nudity, and the statue representing the personification of the Nile River were found. Finally, the vast gallery (70 m long) of the porticus post scaenam offered access to a monumental public latrine and to the sacellum of the genius theatri, of which a magnificently painted representation has been found. The theatre, abandoned during the 4th century. AD. was stripped in the Romanesque period to make room for the construction of the city cathedral, where numerous architectural elements were reused.

(Translated from Italian, Sessa Aurunca archeological site signage, 2023)

Last Update: 07-21-2023