ca. early 1st cent. CE
Renovations / Excavations
2nd cent. AD, Hadrianic (117-138 CE)
Cavea Width: 104 meters
Orchestra Width: 27 meters
Arausio (modern Orange, France). Cavea width: 103.63 m, ima 20 rows 4 cunei, media 8 rows 8 cunei, suma 3 rows 8 cunei; orchestra width: 29.9 m; 3 story scaenae frons with roof over stage: L 61 x W9 m; capacity: 5,850 / 7,300; cavea. seats. scene building virtually complete; ca. early 1st cent. CE.
The Arausio Roman Theatre
Clara Hardy, Professor and Chair of Classical Language, Carleton College
The Roman colony of Arausio (now Orange) was probably founded around 35 BCE for the veterans of the second Gallic Legion. The town was about 7 kilometers east of the river Rhône, in the northern part of Gallia Narbonensis in southern France. While we know little of the early inhabitants of the city, epigraphical evidence indicates that the inhabitants of the first century CE and later were remarkably mixed in origin: Greek, Italic and Gallic names are all attested. These are the citizens who would have enjoyed performances in the spectacular theater.
Like most of those in southern France and northern Italy, the theater in Arausio conformed to the Vitruvian model used in the theater of Marcellus in Rome, but it is far better-preserved than any other site in Europe. The date of original construction of the theater is contested. Its dimensions and siting in the city both suggest an Augustan date; we know that Augustus was involved in the development of the nearby colony Arelate (Arles) and the building of a costly and elaborate theater there. At Arelate and other Gallic towns including Arausio, the theater was linked to the sanctuary of Imperial cult. It has also been suggested, however, that the semi-circular site to the west of the theater represents a smaller, Augustan theater later transformed into a temple of the Imperial cult, and that the larger theater is later in date. The theater was restored in the second century CE, and proscaenium reliefs are Hadrianic.
The theater is built into the hill that commands the center of Orange, the colline Saint-Eutrope, facing north and aligned with the decumanus. The central part of the cavea rests on the rock of the hill, the outer edges on radial vaults. Two staircases led up to a passage under the media cavea. At the top of two external staircases, there were five doorways through the porticus to the summa cavea. There are three blocks of seats (restored), with twenty, nine, and five ranks respectively. The rows closest to the stage were seats reserved for knights, as the extant inscription indicates: EQ(uitum) Gr(adus) Tres. Estimates for the capacity of the theater range from 5850 to 7300.
The orchestra is just over 19 meters across. The original paving is no longer extant. A low wall (about one meter high) separated the orchestra from the pulpitum, or stage; fragments of this wall are exhibited at the museum. The modern stage platform covers the two ditches that concealed the stage curtain.
There were four steps up from the orchestra to the stage on either side. The stage was 61.07 meters long, 7 meters wide (10.41 from the outer edge of proscaeneum wall to inner edge of regia niche), and 1.12 meters high. Two large rooms stand on either side of the stage, where actors may have waited to make their entrances.
The scene wall (scaenae frons) is 103 meters long and stands to its full original height of 37 meters; it was famously called “la plus belle muraille de mon royaume” by Louis XIV. While it is spectacular now, in antiquity it must have been even more stunning. It was richly decorated with marble and mosaics and contained numerous niches for statuary, as well as many columns (Formigé estimated 76) of varying orders. Three large doors provided entrances for the actors: the “royal” (valva regia) the largest, in the center, and the “guest” (valvae hospitales) on either side. Above the central door was a frieze depicting centaurs, part of which has been restored to its original place; the rest (including Victories, Amazonomachy, and scenes from the life of Dionysus) is in the museum across the street. Some fragments found during Formigé’s excavations also indicated perhaps a dedicatory inscription. In the central niche, high above the “royal door,” stands a monumental statue, double life sized. This piece was discovered by Formigé without a head and arms, and he had it restored to resemble Augustus and replaced in the commanding central position of the stage wall. There were possibly figures on either side of the emperor representing kneeling and defeated enemy Gauls. The rich texture and elaborate ornamentation of the scene wall probably had acoustic, as well as decorative and theatrical, function.
The stage was covered with a roof or sounding board, which slanted down from a higher level in front, so as not to obstruct the view of those sitting in the highest seats. The line of the roof is still evident on the side and back walls of the theater. At some point this wooden structure was destroyed by fire, the evidence for which is still visible on the stone.
Between the scaenae frons and the external wall to the north were eight rooms of varying sizes that opened out onto the portico that fronted the theater. The highest level of the wall contained, on the external face, the apparatus that supported the awning, or velum, that shaded spectators in the cavea.
The wall was preserved largely because of the way it was built into the fabric of the city from the 13th century. Until the 19th century the inside of the theater was filled with small houses, and the external wall was similarly used as support for buildings; these can be seen in the engravings of Auguste Caristie (Monuments antiques à Orange, 1856). In 1835, Caristie undertook extensive restorations of the theater, demolishing all adjacent buildings. In the 1930s, J. Formigé excavated beneath the theater stage and the annexed sites, finding and restoring numerous statues and decorative features of the theater. The cavea seats are now also nicely restored, and the theater is frequently used for festival occasions.
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Formige, J., “Remarques diverses sur les théâtres romains à propos de ceux d’Arles et d’Orange” Mém. Ac. Inscr. 13 (1914).
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