The Theatre of Pompey

  • Maaike-Anna Hempenius - Faculty of Medicine
  • Sophie Jackson - Faculty of Law
  • Roy Raukema - Faculty of Arts

The theatre of Pompey was completed around 55 BC[1]. Being the first permanent stone theatre in Rome, it played host to a multitude of events, including plays, exhibitions and quasi ceremonial state ceremonies. Likewise the theatre also played host to political gatherings with the curia located at the opposite end. As a result it provided Pompey with the perfect opportunity to propagate himself by accessing an audience consisting of all layers of Roman society.

Since Pompey's theatre's initial use in the Republican era very little now remains. At present only small areas can be accessed in the foundations of existing buildings. Despite this absence we can still draw many conclusions as to the purpose of the theatre on the basis of reconstructions. The current study on the theatre combined with what we already know about Pompey himself will aid us in revealing the exact picture Pompey wanted to create of himself and his reasons for doing so in such an elaborate manner. Likewise we will also unveil what the theatre meant in society, the evolution of theatre and how Pompey's theatre set a new standard for future theatres in Rome.

The theatre of Pompey around 55 BC[2]
1. Pompey
2. Cognitive Perspective: The theatre and its representation
2.1. Political Pressure
2.2. Elements of the theatre
3. Rhetorical perspective: Lasting impression on the audience
4. The history of theatre: from the first contact to the theatre of Pompey
5. Comparative perspective: The theatre of Marcellus
5.1. The background of the theatre of Marcellus
5.2. Comparison between motifs of Marcellus and Pompey
6. Sources

1. Pompey

Pompey was a military and political leader who lived from 106 to 48 BC. He succeeded in many military triumphs, gaining him the title The Great or Magnus. Together with Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus he formed theatreOfPompey.phpthe first Triumvirate in 60 BC.[3] This was a political alliance aimed at restraining the power of the senate. To begin with the alliance functioned harmoniously yet after a while strains began to emerge on the relationship, eventually leading to disintegration and civil war.

2. Cognitive Perspective: The Theatre and its Representation

Following Rome's expansion, Roman theatre sustained influences by Greek territories. [5] Theatre began to represent a prolific part of Roman society, not only in terms of entertainment, but also in terms of social structure. It was here that various plays, exhibitions and ceremonies would take place. Interestingly, these events involved the Roman society as a whole from the poor to the elite, including second class female citizens. As a result theatre functioned as a cohesive force infiltrating all layers of society. The prominence of theatre in society thereby provided Pompey with the perfect medium for self-propagation and charity to society.

Pompey around 55 BC[4]

Yet Pompey was not the first to use elaborate public buildings as a medium for self-propagation. Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, built the Curia Hostilia was adorned with paintings depicting Manius Valerius Maximus Corvinus Messalla's victorious defeat over the Carthaginians. From the beginning of the Republican era to the Imperial era, public buildings were used as a means to self-propagate. As time progressed the extent and level of propaganda elevated with increasing competition between aristocrats and escalating wealth.

Pompey began the construction of his theatre around 59 BC, exactly a year after the formation of the first triumvirate. The theatre was located in the Campus Martius area of the city. This area was significant as it was the place in which soldiers would prepare and march off into battle.[6] Seemingly this was a strategic place for Pompey to place his theatre as it symbolized battle, one of Pompey's virtues. Furthermore this was one of few parts of the city able to provide enough space for a monumental building. Four years later, its completion symbolized the epitome of his power. Yet what is interesting is that Pompey chose to build a theatre instead of an elaborate monument, as was to be expected. Nevertheless this is clarified upon closer inspection. At the time permanent theatres were banned as the elite felt they would undermine their own as well as military power. After some savvy persuasion Pompey managed to gain building permission from the senate, but under the guise of building a temple. Regardless the theatre still played host to a multitude of events including exhibitions, concerts, plays and musical presentations.

2.1. Political Pressure

Pompey had managed to create a miniature community for all of Roman society right under his watchful eye. But why would Pompey go to such lengths? Indeed the first triumvirate was beginning to show internal tensions since its formation thereby creating more room for self-propagation. By having the first stone theatre, Pompey was the first to create something that had never been done before, as well as create a permanent visualization of power for centuries to come. Likewise the theatre meant that Pompey could give back to society in a charitable way, as was to be expected of the elite. The theatre, with a 28,000 person capacity,[7] now served as a constant reminder to the elite and the public of domineering power as well as a charitable legacy.

3D model of the theatre[8]

2.2 Elements of the Theatre

The theatre also consisted of a temple dedicated to Venus. Yet there is much controversy as to whether this was always the case. As such it is rumoured that the temple was originally dedicated to Victoria to reinforce his own military success, and in fact was only dedicated to Venus after Pompey's death.[9] Despite this debate, there was still a religious significance which allowed the overall theatre complex to remain intact for so long. Likewise religious importance acted as an excuse for the senate to grant construction permission. It was advanced that the temples steps may be convenient for spectators of theatrical performances.[10]

Between the curia and the theatre the Porticus of Pompey was housed. This provided a viewing space for great art work obtained on Pompey's military conquests. Likewise the porticus was lined with friezes depicting Pompey's military victories.[11] Furthermore there were shops and gardens for the general public. By creating this forum Pompey was able to attract and thereby influence the minds of the general public in the hope of votes and support in return.

At the rear end of the complex stood the curia for political gatherings, most famously known as the place of Caesar's murder. By strategically placing the curia in his own complex, Pompey was able to keep a watchful eye on what was going on. On a similar note he was also able to place propagating elements around the curia. One interesting piece is the bronze equestrian statue of himself mirroring Alexander the Great placed directly outside the door. The statue managed to illustrate Pompey as a continuation of Alexander the Great with prestigious military titles under his name.[12]

The place where the theatre once stood, drawn on the map of modern Rome[13]

3. Rhetorical perspective: Lasting impression on the audience

Pompey’s theatre accommodated all levels of society and therefore he was able to influence different people in different ways. For the general public it represented a constant reminder of respect and authority, as only someone with that much power and authority could not only afford to construct such a piece, but also gain permission for a permanent stone theatre. By giving the public access to the porticus and gardens they were immediately face to face with great art depicting military victories and were thereby reminded of how Pompey came to be Pompey the Great

Likewise by showcasing arts from annexed lands Pompey managed to evoke a fascination among the public by allowing them something foreign. As a result access to beautiful gardens, shops and exhibitions displaying arts gained from the spoils of war, Pompey reminded everyone of his military strength and unquestionable power. By opening his complex to the public he had served them with an image of respect for a commander who had truly earned his power via military virtues. With the public's respect in hand Pompey could hope for their support in the future.

For the elite a similar message can be portrayed, yet it would take a lot more to impress them. When the elite would enter the curia they would know they were in Pompey's own construction and if not they were to be reminded by the large bronze statute at the front. It was here that the monument mirroring Pompey as Alexander the Great would serve to further any doubts about the strength of Pompey's power.

Overall the whole of Pompey's theatre was carefully crafted to allow the general public and the elite to witness Pompey's own propaganda. Favor would also have been gained from a charitable aspect. It was Pompey who provided all these attractions and organized their events for most of the public. Although the elite may not have been as easily impressed, it is without doubt that anybody could ignore the grandeur and scale of such a complex, not to mention being the only permanent stone theatre at the time.

4. The History of Theatre: From the First Contact to Pompey's Theatre

It is assumed that the Romans took over a lot theatrical traditions from the Etrurians. Since not much is known about the Etruscans, it is almost impossible to determine to what extent they influenced the Romans. It is known, however, that they organized festivals that included acting, dancing, music, acrobatics, juggling and other sports; things that the Romans consequently inherited.[14] Besides being only for entertainment, these festivals were sometimes also a part of funeral festivities.

It was only after the Romans came into contact with the Greeks that drama was introduced. This occurred after the Romans took control of the whole Italian peninsula, including the Greek colonies in the south and the First Punic War with Carthage (261-241 BC). It is said that only after these conquests Greek drama was received in Rome.[15] Roman drama can be divided into two categories: tragedy and comedy. It is assumed that comedy was the most dominant form of theatre as it based itself on contemporary problems whereas tragedy was more about the values of the Republic: loyalty, honour and virtue. [16]

Theatres were usually part of the Roman festivals, called Ludi.[17] These festivals had a religious significance as they honored Roman Gods. The oldest Roman festival known is the Ludi Romani, in honour of Jupiter. Starting in the sixth century B.C. the festival began to include theatrical performances from 364 BC onwards.[18] Nevertheless other festivals were being held to honour Roman military victories.

The first person to mention the creation of a wooden theatre in the Roman Republic was Aemilius Lepidus, who constructed a theatre near the Temple of Apollo in Rome.[19] In 154 BC the first permanent Roman theatre was built at the Palatine for the Ludi Megalenses (festival in honor of the mother of all gods, Cybele).[20] Yet the Roman Senate decided that it had to be demolished despite being almost completed. They were concerned its existence would negatively influence public morals The next permanent theatre to be built was the theatre of Pompey.

Some parts of the foundations are
nowadays used as restaurants.[27]

5. Comparative Perspective: The Theatre of Marcellus

Problems arise when studying the theatre of Pompey as it is no longer visible. Likewise the Roman population during the Middle Ages declined to less than a tenth of its original population, thereby rendering many buildings obsolete. The Romans began to construct new buildings using materials from older buildings; Pompey's theatre would share this fate. This can be seen by the presence of its columns in the Palazzo della Cancelleria. Nevertheless the original foundations of Pompey's theatre still remain intact and can be found in cellars and basements of current buildings.

The curved buildings are built on
the foundations of theatre of Pompey[24]

This can be seen at the Via di Grotta Pinta; the houses are curved, reflecting the curve of the theatre’s foundation. The foundation however can be visited. A restaurant on the Piazza del Biscione, next to the Campo dei Fiori, offers the possibility to view a small part of the foundation. We can only visualize what the theatre might have looked like on the basis of excavations and the Forma Urbis Romae. (a marble map of ancient Rome produces in 200 AD) Nevertheless it is possible to make a comparison between the theatre of Pompey and other theatres of the same period, for instance the theatre of Marcellus or the theatre of Balbus. The theatre of Marcellus still exists nowadays thereby making it easier to visualize and study. Its contemporary function differs from the old function: the theatre has been changed in the Medieval Period into what is now known as the Palazzo Savelli, a palace that is still inhabited.[22] The architecture of the theatre was also replicated during the building of the Colosseum, hence the similarities between both buildings. Thus the theatre of Pompey did influence the architecture of the Colosseum to some extent.[23]

5.1. The background of the theatre of Marcellus

The building of the theatre of Marcellus started during the reign of Julius Caesar after the theatre of Pompey was completed. The construction was finished in 13 BC and inaugurated by the emperor Augustus in 12 BC. The theatre was then named after Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus.[25]

Since Augustus did not have a son, he could not bring an heir to succeed him. So he chose Marcellus as his heir, as he was the closest family he had that could possibly take over the throne. This bond was further strengthened after the marriage between Marcellus and Julia, the daughter of Augustus. Marcellus became an aedile in 25BC, responsible for public buildings and festivals.

The theatre of Marcellus[21]

Despite the bright future that Augustus foresaw for Marcellus, his life ended abruptly. In 25 BC he died at the age of nineteen. Though it is unknown what caused his death, there are two likely assumptions. One is that Marcellus died of a disease affecting many people in Rome that year. Another version is that Livia, the wife of Augustus, did not want Marcellus as the heir since she had two sons of a previous marriage. Since they were Augustus´s stepsons they should have been the first in line instead of Marcellus. In this scenario, Livia was seen as a prime suspect in murdering Marcellus.[28]

5.2. Comparison between the theatre of Pompey and Marcellus

When the theatre of Marcellus was finished, it could hold around 20 000 spectators, 8000 less than that of the theatre of Pompey. The architecture of the theatre of Marcellus was greatly influenced by Pompey, so what we can see today when we look at the enormous theatre at the Via del Teatro di Marcello, is a smaller version of a monumental building. It is a reflection of a unique point in time; the moment of the first permanent stone theatre in Rome.

Both theatres were built for propagation and charity. The theatre of Pompey was about self-propagation, whereas the theatre of Marcellus can be seen as a propagation of Augustus's reign and family or legacy. When Augustusnamed the theatre after his nephew, he accommodated the family over anyone else. By this he might have wanted to show the strength of his family and honourits legacy. Because both the theatres were such prominent buildings in Rome, in size and function, the importance of giving it the name of a person is profound.

So even though the motives for building the theatres were rather personal, the purpose was the same. In the first place it was of course for the entertainment of the people. The festivals, the beautiful gardens, the shops and the plays must have made a theatre a beloved place to go in the spare time of an average Roman citizen. However at the same time the theatre was for Pompey a place to propagate via charity and aesthetics in order to gain more support from the public. It is also possible that Augustus copied this tactic in the theatre of Marcellus. Overall theatre symbolized how influential and powerful a person or a family was. It was to impress people and to earn their respect by showing an impressive building with many architectural masterpieces, thereby creating a lasting impression on the public then, and for centuries to come.

6. Sources

  1. Welch, Katherine E, The Roman Amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum.
  3. Boak, A History of Rome to 565 A.D.,pg. 169.
  4. Pompey, bust c. 60–50 bc; in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Den.Courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
  5. Brockett and Hildy, History of the Theatre, pg 43
  6. Beacham, the Roman theatre and its Audience, pg 160
  7. 'The Theatres', at accessed 20th August 2014.
  8. Made by model maker LashaTskhondia
  9. D. Kent Hill, The Temple Above Pompey's Theatre, TheClassical JournalVol. 39, No.6 (Nov. 1944), 360-366.
  10. ibid.
  11. Longfellow, Brenda (2010). 1.Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes. Cambridge University Press. p. 16.
  12. Beacham, the Roman theatre and its Audience, pg 162.
  14. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, pg 51.
  15. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, pg 53.
  16. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, pg 54.
  17. Welch, Katherine E, The Roman Amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum, pg 59.
  18. Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, pg 54.
  19. Welch, Katherine E, The Roman Amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum, pg 58.
  20. Welch, Katherine E, The Roman Amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum, pg 59.
  21. Own work, photo taken on the 28th of August 2014.
  22. Sheila KathrynDickison, Judith P.Hallett, Rome and Her Monuments: Essays on the City and Literature of Rome in honor of Katherine A. Geffcken, pg 15.
  23. Watkin,David, History of Western Architecture, pg 63.
  24. Own work, photo taken on the 28th of August 2014.
  25. Watkin,David, History of Western Architecture, pg 62.
  26. Southern, Patricia, Augustus, pg 203.
  27. Own work, photo taken on the 28th of August 2014.
  28. Southern, Patricia, Augustus, pg 208.