The Ancient Theatre Archive

The Theatre Architecture of Greece and Rome

Balbus, Balbo Theatre (Rome, Italy)


Modern Rome, Mainland Italy

Theatre Type

Roman Theatre

Earliest Date

12 BCE

Renovations / Excavations

Restored after fire of 80 CE; perhaps again between 408 and 423 CE. (Sear)

GPS Coordinates

Seating Capacity

7,000 - 8,460


Cavea Width: 95 meters
Orchestra Width: meters


Theatre of Balbus. Named for L. Cornelius Balbus. Location: Campus Martius, close to the theates of Pompey and Marcellus. Cavea diameter: 95 m (Gatti). facing east. Built on flat ground on radial walls. Construction: brick-faced concrete; Porticus post scaenam: quadriporticus on vaulted crypta behind theatre. Remains: little if any remains above ground; seating structure and scaenae frons details unknown; location not identified until 1960 (Gatti).A series of Gigantomachy reliefs from Flavian period, found in the Capitoline Museum and in the Belvedere Court of the Vatican Museum, from theate; Date: 19-13 BCE, restored after fire of 80 CE; perhaps again between 408 and 423 CE. (Sear)

Excerpt from: Sear, Frank. Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. (pp. 65-67)

The Theatre of Balbus: The theatre, begun by L. Cornelius Balbus after the triumph he celebrated for his victory over the Garamantes in 19 bc and dedicated in 13 bc, was seldom referred to in ancient litera- ture.(236) According to Dio Cassius, during the games held for its dedication Balbus had to enter the theatre by boat because the Tiber had flooded its banks.(237) It was damaged in the fire of ad 80 and was probably restored under Domitian.(238) A series of Gigantomachy reliefs, some now in the Capitoline Museum and others in the Belvedere Court of the Vatican Museum, belonged to the theatre and date to the late Flavian period.(239) The Con- stantinian Regionary catalogues stated that the theatre had 11,510 feet of seating or 8,460 places, making it smaller than either the Theatre of Pompey or the Theatre of Marcellus.(240) Ausonius mentioned it as a functioning theatre in the fourth century ad.(241) An inscription found near by, referring to a restoration by the city prefect, Anicius Acilius Glabrio Faustus, between ad 408 and 423 may refer to the theatre.(242) An inscrip- tion on the tomb of L. Aufidius Aprilis stated that he was a Corinthiarius (a worker in Corinthian bronze) in the Theatre of Balbus.(243) He perhaps sold his bronzes in one of the tabernae of the theatre in the same way as the mantle sellers sold their wares in the Theatre of Marcellus.

The exact location of the building has been the subject of long and, at times, bitter controversy. It was at first thought to stand on Monte Cenci where the Palazzo Cenci and church of S. Tommaso stand, and the radial substructures under Palazzo Mattei di Paganica, now recognized as belonging to the Theatre of Balbus, were thought to be the curve at the west end of the Circus Flaminius.(244) However, in 1960 Gatti joined fragment 39 of the Marble Plan, which shows part of a quadriporticus bear- ing the words Theatrum Balbi, to fragment 399, which shows the double portico of the octastyle temple uncovered on the north side of Via delle Botteghe Oscure.(245) He was thus able to demonstrate that the substructures under Palazzo Mattei in fact belonged to the Theatre of Balbus. Furthermore, by joining fragment 30, which bears the words Circus Flaminius, to frag- ment 31cc, which shows the southern part of the Porticus Octaviae, he established that the Circus Flaminius was adjacent to the Theatre of Marcellus and the Porticus Octaviae.(246)

Gatti calculated that the theatre had an overall diameter of about 95 metres and faced east (Plan 27).(247) Several of the sub- structures and walls which Marchetti Longhi thought belonged to the Circus Flaminius are now seen to belong to the cavea of the theatre (‘a, b, c, d’ on the plan) and the adjacent Crypta Balbi.248 The most important set of substructures to survive (‘a’ on plan) are under Palazzo Mattei di Paganica. Here four radial walls, 8.10 metres long, were discovered whose outer ends erminated in large piers of tufa opus quadratum, 2.40 metres long, similar to those in the contemporary Theatre of Marcellus. At their inner ends they were joined by a curved wall which must be the outer wall of an internal annular passage. The result- ant wedge-shaped spaces were 2.19–2.22 metres wide at their inner end. In the first wedge-shaped space the opus reticulatum facing broke off in a clean line sloping down towards the middle of the theatre. Gatti thought it marked the springing of a sloping vault supporting the seating.(249) He also noted some structures adjoining the outer ends of the four radial walls which suggested that the cavea was enclosed in a rectilinear façade, as at Augusta Praetoria. This idea was made more plausible by Marchetti Longhi’s discovery, in the basement of nos. 32–3 Via delle Botteghe Oscure, of a stretch of rectilinear walling consisting of three courses of squared travertine blocks, 3.84 metres long × 1.85 metres high (‘b’ on plan). Parts of the piers at the end of two other radial walls were found under Palazzo Caetani and another portion of the radial substructures in a cellar off the courtyard of Palazzo Mattei (‘d’ on plan).(250) It was the inner part of another wedge-shaped space and measured 2.21 metres on the curved wall, but only 1.44 metres and 1.50 metres survived of the radial walls. However, part of the inner face of the curved wall survived and this showed the curved wall to have been about 1.50 metres thick. In Via Paganica 7a were found two more radial walls, which formed a wedge-shaped space, 8.19 metres long × 2.22 metres wide at the curved wall (‘c’ on the plan).

Apart from these discoveries very little is known about the structure of the theatre itself, although the perfect opus reticula- tum walling of the surviving substructures suggests that it was built to the highest standards. A portion of mosaic pavement was found 7 metres below ground-level in Palazzo Mattei ai Funari under the entrance arch from Via Michelangelo Caetani.(251) The four onyx columns which Balbus placed in it indicate that it must also have been finely decorated.(252) Nothing is known of the arrangements of the scaenae frons, although Fuchs attributed four reliefs to its decoration.(253)

There was a quadriporticus behind the theatre which stood upon a vaulted crypta, the Crypta Balbi mentioned in the Region- ary catalogues.(254) A stretch of about 40 metres of the north wall of the crypta was found under buildings on the Via delle Botteghe Oscure, parallel to and about 10 metres from the street. The wall, which was built of tufa and travertine opus quadratum, contained a series of rectangular niches, 1.90 metres wide and 0.89 metres deep, on the inner face. A series of wider niches, c.3.60 metres wide, alternating with these on the outer face were filled in with brick-faced concrete at the time of Domitian. The wall was 1.50 metres wide. The parts of the south wall found under houses on Via dei Delfini were less well pre- served, but seem similar to those on Via delle Botteghe Oscure. In the middle of the east side of the quadriporticus was an exedra, 24 metres wide with six supporting piers inside it. This exedra was shown on the Marble Plan and the piers were marked as columns. The rectilinear wall was 0.90 metres wide and con- tained three apertures, perhaps windows. In the centre of the quadriporticus a small building was marked on the Marble Plan, of which a corner survives. Coarelli believed this to have been a small temple, no more than 10 metres wide, perhaps the Temple of Vulcan, mentioned in an inscription found under Palazzo Mattei.(255)


  1. 239  Fuchs, Untersuchungen, 11–13.
  2. 240  Valentini, Codice Topografico, 1. 123. See also Hülsen, ‘Posti degli Arvali’. Rumpf, ‘Entstehung’, calculates 7,673 places at one and a half feet each.

241 Ludus Septem Sapientium 35– 41. 242 CIL 6. 1676.

  1. 243  E. Caronna Lissi and S. Panciera, NSc. (1975), 199–232.
  2. 244  Piranesi saw the ruins of a cavea here. Campus Martius antiquae urbis (Rome, 1762), table xxviii, and p. vii (indice delle rovine).
  3. 245 G. Gatti, ‘Dove erano situati il teatro di Balbo e il Circo Flaminio?’,Capitolium, 35/7 (1960), 3–12.
  4. 246 He still thought the Circus Flaminius was a conventional theatre with carceres, spina, and a curved end, the latter being identified as the ruins Piranesi saw. Wiseman thinks they are to be interpreted as the ruins of the amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus and that the Circus Flaminius was not a circus in the conventional sense. T. P. Wiseman, ‘The Circus Flaminius’, PBSR 42 (1974), 3–26; and ‘Circus Flaminius’ (1976), 44–7.

247 Gatti, ‘Teatro di Balbo’ (1960), 3–12; ‘Nuovi aspetti della topografia . . . Teatro di Balbo?’, MEFRA 82 (1970), 117–58; ‘Il Teatro e la Crypta di Balbo in Roma’, MEFRA, 91 (1979), 237–313.

248 For Marchetti Longhi’s interpretation of the remains and the counter- arguments, see Wiseman, ‘Circus Flaminius’ (1974), 8–11.

249 Gatti, ‘Teatro di Balbo’ (1979), 264–7.
250 Gatti, ‘Teatro di Balbo’ (1979), 271, fig. 22.

251 G. Marchetti Longhi, Mem. Linc. 5th ser. 16 (1922), 757–8.

252 Although they were small they apparently caused a sensation: ‘namque pro miraculo insigni quattuor modicas in theatro suo Cornelius Balbus posuit’, Pliny, NH 36. 60. 253 M. Fuchs, JdI 99 (1984), 215–55. 254 Crypta Balbi is mentioned only by the Regionary catalogues. Valentini, Codice Topografico, 122, 176, 231.

Excerpt from: Sear, Frank. Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. (pp. 65-67)


Last Update: 12-12-2022