Renovations / Excavations
1. Augustus restored parts of the complex in 32 BC, and in AD 21
2. Tiberius initiated a reconstruction of the part of the theatre that had been destroyed by fire in 22 CE (completed during the reign of Caligula but dedicated under Claudius). CE.
3. Claudius rededicated the Temple of Venus Victrix.
4. Nero gilded the interior of the temple.
5. Scene building damaged by fire in 80; restored.
6. Domitian (81-96 CE) and Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) significantly repaired and altered the structure. A catalogue complied at the end of the 4th century recorded that the theatre’s seating capacity was 22,888 persons.
7. Luigi Canina (1795 -1856) was the first to undertake serious research on the Theatre. It was Canina who discovered the representation of the theatre on the Forma Urbis as well as the first study of the existing remains. His are the first reconstruction drawings to be attempted.
8. Victorie Baltard (1805 – 1874) re-evaluated Canina’s work and developed revised reconstruction drawings (1837). Baltard also made two excavations in the surrounding area, uncovering remains of the exterior and scaenae frons.
9. Italo Gismondi (1887 – 1974) was commissioned to build a model of 3rd-century Rome using the Urbis Romae Marble as well as the reconstructions of Canina and Baltard as guides. His model took 35 years to complete; it is at a scale of 1:250; it measures 55 feet by 55 feet, and resides in Museum of Roman Civilization. Pompey’s theatre is among the many public structures represented.
10. Beacham, Richard and James Packer. ( 1999 – 2002) co-directed the Pompey Project that produced a highly detailed computer visualization of the site and Martin Blazeby from KVL modeled 3D and 2D reconstructions by 19th and early 20th century scholars to create a comparative study of earlier interpretations.
Cavea Width: 150 meters
Orchestra Width: 135 meters
Summary: Theatre of Pompey (modern Rome, Italy) Roman Theatre. Cavea width: 150 m; imma ?14 rows in 6 cunei; summa ?16 rows in ?10 cunei; porticus ( at top of summa cavea; semi-circular orchestra width: 95 m; 3-story scaenae frons; wide central stairway leading to temple of Venus (dedicated in 52BCE) at top cavea center; Porticus post scaenam (behind the scaenae frons): 180 meters long and 135 meters wide quadiporticus, park bounded by porticos and backed by a curia (meeting hall large enough for 600 senators); capacity: 20,000; 55 BCE. (Sear, pp. 57-61).
The Theatre of Pompey (theatrum Pompei), Rome
In 55 BCE, Pompey the Great inaugurated the first and largest Roman theatre ever imagined. The building was the amalgamation of Greek Hellenistic theatre design and Roman engineering. Not only was its design to dictate future theatre constructions, but it epitomized all that was Roman. Its construction was audacious, politically motivated, and borderline illegal – Roman law forbade building permanent theatres within the city of Rome.
Pompey’s theare predates the Pantheon and the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre). Its first performance was held during the final days of the Roman Republic and it continued to serve as a theatre throughout the entirety of the Roman Empire. It was the largest building in Rome prior to the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre but dwarfs even this colossus if you include the theatre’s adjoining park with shaded porticos, myriad of temples and statues, and its marble-clad curia (meeting hall large enough for 600 senators). It suffered fires, at least one earthquake, numerous renovations, and scavenging hordes for over 1000 years before slowly dissolving into the urban landscape of Rome. And now, 2100 years following its construction, little if anything remains.
If you travel to Rome today and visit Campo de Fiori, you will discover a vibrant street market but no signs of the theatre nor the temple of Venus Victrix that once dominated the spot where vendors now sell their wares. But, if you know what you’re looking for, you will find recycled bits and pieces of Pompey’s theatre nearby. A cellar vault in a restaurant (Da Pancrazio restaurate) looks suspiciously like a subterranean theatre passageway; a Renaissance-era building (Palazzo della Cancelleria) is clad in travertine marble and decorated with ranks of columns reminiscent of a theatre colonnade. And, you might be surprised to learn that the cat picture you took at Largo di Torre Argentina was photographed in front of the very spot where Brutus murdered Julius Caesar. No, if you want to see a gigantic ruin of a Roman theatre, you are about 1000 years too late.
Pompey’s theatre may no longer exist, but here is what we know:
1. We know it was the first permanent theatre in the city of Rome. The construction violated a 154 BCE law, forbidding permanent theatres within the city of Rome. (Bieber, p. 327). The Roman opposition to permanent theatres had numerous reasons: the practical reason: temporary stages could be disassembled quickly to make room for other festival entertainment as was the case with the traditional Etruscan performance practices the Romans imported as early as 364 BCE (Moore, 1.1). The religious reason: unlike the Greeks, Romans presented plays in honor of many gods, each of whom had his own sacred precinct which made it impossible for one permanent theatre to serve all gods. (Brockett, 66). The moral reason: the moralists objected to the burlesque nature of Roman comedy and didn’t want to dignify the practice by giving actors a permanent home. (Brockett, pp. 65, 79). The political reason: politicians feared the leverage a benefactor could gain by having his name associated with a permanent architectural gift to the city. Especially a gift that provided free entertainment for the masses and created a venue that could be used for propaganda purposes. Those more skeptical might infer that “the nobility resisted a permanent site because its existence compromised their ability to manipulate patronage to their advantage.” (Beacham, p. 62). In short, the law against permanent theatres insured that the nobility had a level playing field when it came to securing and wielding power. (Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, pp. 61-71).
Pompey might have argued that his theatre was not in violation of the law: he claimed this wasn’t a theatre – it was actually a temple to Venus Victrix. And, if that dubious distinction seemed weak, Pompey could argue that his theatre wasn’t even in the city, it was built on the border of Rome’s pomerium (the sacred boundary around the city).
2. We know its design was inspired by the Greek theatre in Mytilene, on the island of Levos. (Plutarch, 42.4).
3. We know it took seven years to build: it was commissioned in 61 BCE by Pompey the Great; dedicated in 55 BCE (Pliny). We know the Venus Victrix Temple was dedicated in 52 BCE. (Platner, pp. 515-517).
4. We know where it was built: It was built just outside Rome’s city boundary (the pomerium, the sacred boundary around the city). Remains of the Portico and Curia have been found beneath the Largo di Torre Argentina, and the housing on the via di Grottapinta follows the curve of the ancient theatre. (Stretching south from Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Via Giubbonari and west from Largo Argentina to Campo de Fiori, an entire neighborhood occupies the site today). (The Pompey Project).
5. We know its approximate size and description: it had a cavea diameter of 150 meters and the adjoining Porticus post scaenam (park behind the stage house that was bounded by porticos and backed by a curia or meeting hall) measured 180 meters long and 135 meters wide, as derived from fragments of the Severan Marble Plan of Rome (Forma Urbis Romae), and imprinted on the curved streets and buildings on the via di Grottapinta. (for details see: (Sear, pp. 57-61) and Denard, Hugh and Richard C. Beacham. “The Pompey Project.”)
Pompey’s theater could seat forty thousand spectators, a figure that has long been doubted, but that more recent work has shown may not be too greatly exaggerated, for what is believed to have been the largest Roman theater ever built. The diameter of the auditorium was almost five hundred feet [150 meters], while the stage itself was nearly three hundred feet [91 meters] in width, equivalent to the length of an American football field. Behind it the great facade of the scaenae frons, which may initially have been constructed of wood, probably rose to the full height of the upper tiers of the auditorium opposite: three stories. The outer semicircular wall was composed of three tiers of columns carved from red granite, possibly with the fourteen statues of Pompey’s conquered nations placed around the perimeter (circa Pompeium, Pliny N.H. 36.41). Although nothing of the external structure of Pompey’s theater remains visible above ground, it was probably similar to that surviving from the theater of Marcellus, erected forty-four years later. If so, then the engaged columns of the ground level were Tuscan, the second level Ionic, and the third Corinthian. This impressive facade was adorned with stone and stucco and embellished with numerous statues of stone and bronze (Beacham, “Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome.”p. 65).
6. We can approximate the building cost of the theatre complex and all related decorations and embellishments: HS 49,680,000 or $540,270,000 in today’s money. [derived from the Thorntons’ principles (Sear, 54) and based on the sestertius (HS) value during the Late Republic and the current minimum hourly wage ($7.50) for U.S. workers in 2022]. (Sear, pp. 20,23), (Ancient Money Calculator)
7. We know the theatre was dedicated in 55 BCE with elaborate ceremonies commemorating the accomplishments and triumphs of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great):
“And, for the first time on any stage, an “Indian Rhinoceros!” For the opening of the theatre, Pompey staged a version of his 61 BCE triple triumph with a reenactment of Agamenon’s triumphal return to Mycenae, encouraging a self-comparison to both Alexander the Great and Agamemon. “Cicero recorded how in the Clytaemestra of Accius, a parade of six hundred mules carried the plunder of Agamemnon as he returned from Troy and, amidst hundreds of performers, some three thousand bowls were used in the Equus Troianus (of Naevius?) to display booty upon the stage.” Cicero continues that the opening theatre performance was accompanied by athletes, gladiatorial combat and animal hunts, “… six hundred lions (three hundred and fifteen with manes), four hundred and ten leopards and panthers, and eighteen elephants — Pompey displayed such novelties as baboons, a lynx (possibly a gift from Caesar in Gaul), and, for the first time on any stage, an Indian rhinoceros!” Compiled from: Beacham, “Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome.” Yale, 1999, (pp. 61-71).
8. We know the history of the theatre’s decline: After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in CE 476, the Theatre of Pompey remained in use, and when the city of Rome came under the dominion of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, the structure was once again renovated. However, this renovation would be its last. Following the destructive Gothic War (535–554) there was no need for a large theatre because the population of Rome had declined drastically. As such, the theatre was abandoned. Its marble cladding and stone substructure was quarried for subsequent building projects and the building was allowed to deteriorate. (Gagliardo and Packer, pp. 129-140).
9. We have identified a few of the theatre’s remains: Little of Pompey’s theatre remains except for the curved outline of a cavea on via di Grottapinta, and some remnants of the theatre’s vaulted, subterranean corridors as found in the current Da Pancrazio restaurant. Bone-colored travertine from the theatre was used to clad the Palazzo della Cancelleria, and the large red and grey columns in the Palazzo’s courtyard are supposedly from the porticoes of the theatre’s upper covered seating. A 2nd century bronze statue of Hericles from the theatre now resides in the Vatican museum, and pieces of the theatre’s décor were repurposed in modern constructions. The largest intact sections of the theatre are found in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which used much of the bone-colored travertine for its exterior from the theatre. The large red and grey columns used in its courtyard are from the porticoes of the theatre’s upper covered seating, however, they were originally taken from the theatre to build the old Basilica of S. Lorenzo.
Research, Excavations, and Artifacts:
We have little physical evidence that a theatre almost as large as Rome’s Colosseum ever existed. All scholarly attempts to reconstruct the theatre begin with a simple etching of a theatre floorplan on a single, broken piece of marble (the Forma Urbis Romae) that was made 200 years after the theatre was built. All reconstruction drawings and models are based on research and speculation. Archeologists and scholars have no above-ground ruins to measure and decode, but, that hasn’t stopped them from approximating restorations.
The reconstructions are as follows:
- Luigi Canina (1795 -1856) was the first to undertake serious research on the Theatre. It was Canina who discovered the representation of the theatre on the Forma Urbis as well as the first study of the existing remains. His are the first reconstruction drawings to be attempted.
- Victorie Baltard (1805 – 1874) re-evaluated Canina’s work and developed revised reconstruction drawings (1837). Baltard also made two excavations in the surrounding area, uncovering remains of the exterior and scaenae frons.
- Italo Gismondi (1887 – 1974) was commissioned to build a model of 3rd-century Rome using the Urbis Romae Marble as well as the reconstructions of Canina and Baltard as guides. His model took 35 years to complete; it is at a scale of 1:250; it measures 55 feet by 55 feet, and resides in Museum of Roman Civilization. Pompey’s theatre is among the many public structures represented.
- Beacham, Richard and James Packer. ( 1999 – 2002) co-directed the Pompey Project that produced a highly detailed computer visualization of the site and Martin Blazeby from KVL modeled 3D and 2D reconstructions by 19th and early 20th century scholars to create a comparative study of earlier interpretations.
- Blazeby, Martin (2005) modeled 2D and 3D reconstructions based on drawings and plans. by 19th and early 20th-century scholars and created a comparative study of earlier interpretations.
Bibliography / Resources:
Beacham, Richard C. “Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome.” Yale, 1999.
Becker, Jeffrey A. “Severan marble plan (Forma Urbis Romae).” Smarthistory, April 19, 2017. Accessed November 29, 2022. https://smarthistory.org/severan-marble-plan/ .
Blazeby, Martin. “The Theatre of Pompey: A 3D Jigsaw Puzzle.” Didakalia, Volume 6, Issue 2. Summer 2005. https://www.didaskalia.net/issues/vol6no2/images/blazeby/blazeby.pdf
Denard, Hugh and Richard C. Beacham. “The Pompey Project: Digital Research and VirtualReconstruction of Rome’s First Theatre.”Proceedings of the ACH/ALLC Conference:“Digital Media and Humanities Research”; Journal of Computersand the Humanities. Vol. 37; 1, 2003, 129-140. https://www.pompey.cch.kcl.ac.uk/.
Gagliardo, M. C., and J. E. Packer. 2006. “A New Look at Pompey’s Theater: History, Documentation, and Recent Excavation.” AJA 110 (1). Archaeological Institute of America: 93–122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40026361.
MacKendrick, Lachlan. “The Mute Stones Speak.” WW Norton & Company, New York, London, 1983, p. 141.
More, Timothy J. “The Origins of Roman Theatre.” Cambridge Universtiy Press, 978-0-521-13818-5 – Roman Theatre. https://assets.cambridge.org/97805211/38185/excerpt/9780521138185_excerpt.pdf
Platner, Samuel Ball (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby). “Theatrum Pompei: A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.” London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
Richardson, L. 1987. “A Note on the Architecture of the Theatrum Pompei in Rome.” AJA 91 (1). Archaeological Institute of America: 123–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/505461.
Sear, F. B. 1993. “The Scaenae Frons of the Theater of Pompey.” AJA 97 (4). Archaeological Institute of America: 687–701. http://www.jstor.org/stable/506718.
Temelini, M. 1993. The Function of Pompey’s Building Complex in the Campus Martius. (master’s thesis) Ottawa: University of Ottawa. http://search.proquest.com/docview/89289599/.