Theatre in the Roman Republic

    Sophie Jackson - Faculty of Law

Since the first indications of its presence in fourth century BC theatre was part of bread and circuses (food and entertainment) of Roman life. Aimed at keeping people from worrying about the affairs of the state, theatre provided Romans with a forum of distraction. The swift expansion of Rome created more room for trade and wealth thereby affording Romans more time for leisure. Bearing this expansion in mind, the Hellenisationof Rome and Etruscan influences of Northern Italy had weighty effects creating leverage for the adaptation of theatre. So much so that contemporary commentators such as Cicero described Roman comedy as 'plays in Latin literally translated from the Greek'.[1] Bearing all in mind we can study the evolution of Roman theatre from its beginning right up until Pompey's theatre, the first permanent stone structure at the end of the republican period.

Contents
1. Performances
1.1 Content and Greek Influences
1.2 Actors
1.3 The Banning of Permanent Theatre
2. Structure
2.1 Roman Structure and Greek Influences
3. Place in Society
Sources

1. Performances


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1.1 Content and Greek Influences

Theatre grew to encapsulate many types of events, from Gladiator fights to religious celebrations and plays. Four main genres of plays can be recognized from the Republican era. These included:Fabula-Atellana a comical genre which was frivolous and included clowns and mimes; fabula togatawhich was a comedy based in a Roman contemporary setting;fabula palliata which contained Greek plays and settings and a more serious fabula praetextatawhich boasted notorious historical events and heroism. Yet what remained most popular were comedies and tragedies. Comedies were the first sign of Roman society using theatre as its main source of entertainment. The few surviving comedies are those of Plautus and Terrence who predominantly based their writings on Greek subjects. Yet what is interesting is that these were not necessarily their own writings but essentially Greek comedies translated and altered.

Unfortunately no tragedy playwrights survive from the Republican period. What is known is that three early writers can be identified as Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius whose plays were initially very popular but declined towards the end of the era.[2]

In terms of actual performance the Romans did manage to make a few significant alterations to their Greek counterparts. Primarily the Romans eliminated the Greek chorus and added in their own musical accompaniment thereby modernizing theatre.[3] Secondly the Romans added more extravagance amidst a cruder and less intellectual performance.

Overall we can see not merely an influence but a reception of Greek theatre. Plays were literally translated and altered to suit the Roman audience. The only main difference was that Greek plays were more religiously associated whilst the Romans altered theirs to purely entertain within festival periods. Despite this difference, Roman plays were only performed during festival periods in dedication to a specific God. The most famous of which was the Ludi Romaini festival encompassing all forms of entertainment from chariot racing to mimes and all in dedication to the God Jupiter.[4]

1.2 Actors

Actors or 'histriones' were not very highly respected members of society. The word 'histrone' can be traced to the Etruscan word 'ister' meaning performer. We can thereby see that it was not only Greece which influenced Roman theatre but also northern contacts. Actors consisted of slaves and 'freed men' and were thereby open to public abuse. To Romans they encompassed moral corruption and soon came to symbolize ill manners, debauchery and a sexualized society. As such spectators did not hesitate to throw objects at them during live performances. Moreover the immorality of theatre can also be reflected in the fact that women were banned from performing. As a result actors were only male and had to play woman who were symbolized by a yellow costume and white mask.

1.3 The Banning of Permanent Theatre

The Roman Senate had a certain antipathy towards theatrical performances, deeming them as an unnecessary display of extravagance and excessive wealth. Yet this opinion is open to much scrutiny. Indeed many of the senatorial elite viewed theatre as a threat to their power. Theatre was meant to be a forum where the ruler and the elite used performances to appease and distract Roman citizens from the worldly affairs of the state. Yet as time went on many actors became very critical of the Roman polity as a whole during their public performances. As a result members of the senate imposed bans or censors on certain performances and actors in order to protect the status quo. This threat can be perfectly illustrated by the imprisonment and eventual banishment of Gnaeus Naevius for his comedy insulting the reigning consuls.[5]

Nevertheless other arguments suggest other reasons for the absence of permanent theatres. Of particular interest is the fact that the state could not finance performances all year round. In fact as theatrical events became more and more excessive, magistrates who funded the performances began to put more pressure on the annexed regions and their people[6]. As a result legislation was imposed to limit events to certain festival intervals throughout the year. Nonetheless it must be recognised that the creation, assembly and disassembly of temporary, fire prone theatres would prove equally, if not more expensive in the long run.

Lastly it is also strongly suggested that no permanent theatre stood because the plays themselves began to threaten and insult public morals. As such the creation of a permanent stone theatre would create a gathering of truancy and depravity. Still there could still be censorship in a permanent theatre. Overall it seems that the most feasible reason for the prohibition of permanent theatres for so long was the threat imposed on the political elite by actor's references. After all they were in control of this prohibition and if they didn't feel so threatened they wouldn't have taken steps to censor specific actors and playwrights in the first place.

2. Structure


2.1 Roman Structure and Greek Influences

As permanent theatres were banned the Republican era was constituent of wooden temporary theatres. Even though these theatres were temporary they were not always minimal and towards the middle of the Republican period became increasingly extravagant[7]. In fact theatre evolved from simple wooden benches into elaborate structures with increasing capacity. The décor also mirrored the temple of the god of which the festival was honouring. Likewise the evolution of this wooden structure was influenced by Greek structure with the stage enclosed by wings and a roof with a large backstage area[8]. Nonetheless, unlike the Greeks, the Romans usually built their temporary theatres into a mountain or hillside to provide extra structural support.

3. Place in Society


As can be observed, theatre in Roman society consistently began to emerge and grow both in popularity and in influence. As a result the capacity and variety of events began to increase respectively. As such we can see that theatre became a substantial part of society as a whole, especially as the Republic saw the wealth of its citizens rising. The influence of Roman theatre can best be seen with retrospect at the constructions that would begin to appear towards the end of the Republican era into the start of the Roman Empire. Pompey's theatre provided a precedent for the rest of Rome as the first permanent theatre, from then on theatre was not just an event arena but a medium for architectural innovation as well as a status symbol.

Sources


  1. 'Plautus' (translated By Watling, E.F.) , (1964), Penguin Books p.10
  2. 'Plautus' (translated By Watling, E.F.) , (1964), Penguin Books p.10.
  3. 'History of the Theatre' , Brockett; Hildy, (2002), Allyn and Bacon p.49.
  4. 'Theatre: The Lively Art', Wilson; Goldfarb, (2012), McGraw-Hill Education p.210.
  5. 'Roman Comedy on Trial in the Republic: The Case of Censorship against Gnaeus Naevius the Playwright', Stambusky, A.A, (1977), Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1. p. 29-30.
  6. 'Roman Republican Theatre', Manuwald, G, (2011), Cambridge University Press, p.51.
  7. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tham/hd_tham.htm viewed 21.11.14
  8. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tham/hd_tham.htm viewed 21.11.14