Roman Theater as Ancient Idea of Entertainment

Roman theatrical art was unique in its kind. It was practically the only one that did not originate from ceremonial and ritual stage actions. The Roman theater was originally professional. The cult of the deity was not at all visible in it. Therefore, it is not surprising that in times of Ancient Rome the theater did not have much influence on the public opinion or perception. In the Roman stage action, the main thing was entertainment and not the deep inner world of a person.

Emergence of Theater in the Roman Republic

The origin of Roman drama and theater go back to the rural harvest festivals that were celebrated in the countryside even when Rome was only a small community of Latium. The participants in these holidays, the mummers, exchanged mocking, rude songs called fessennins. Later, during the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians, social clashes of that period began to be reflected in the Fessennians. According to Horace, the Fessennian ridicule did not spare the nobility. The Roman historian Titus Livy gives interesting information about the further development of these first shoots of drama.

Because of the pestilence, Etruscan actors were invited to Rome (in 364 BC) to perform a propitiatory ceremony. Dancing to the accompaniment of a flute, they produced beautiful body movements, not accompanied by words or gestures. The Etruscan actors were then imitated by the Roman youth who added dialogue and gestures to the dance. This custom, gradually improving, led to the fact that the performers, who received the name histrions (from the Etruscan word ister - actor), no longer threw clumsy and rough impromptu verses at each other, like the Fessennians, but performed satura set to music, and singing was accompanied by playing the flute and corresponding gestures. Obviously, these dramatic satura (literally "mixture", all sorts of things) were small dramatic scenes of everyday and comic nature, including dialogue, singing, music and dancing, and the musical element had to play an essential role in them.

A new period in the development of folk drama in Rome is associated with the folk comedy atellana.

Atellana is related to the Greek mime. Its name comes from the town of Atella, destroyed by the Romans during the war for his transfer to the side of Hannibal. The inhabitants of this town were the object of constant ridicule in Rome.

 A distinctive feature of the atellana was the presence of 4 permanent comic characters-masks: Mack - a glutton, a fool and a simpleton (depicted as bald, with a hooked nose and donkey ears), Bukkon - a smart and talkative glutton (pendulous lips and swollen cheeks were seen in the mask), Papp - a rich, stingy and stupid old man and Dossen - a cunning hunchback, an ignorant and a charlatan.

 The action was based on improvisation. The Atellans were played first by vagrant histrions, then by young Roman citizens, and later by professional actors. Literary adaptations of the atellans appeared only in the 1st century BC. Atellans were also known during the period of the Roman Empire, but not for long. There is a known case when the Emperor Caligula burned the actor Atellana alive right in front of the audience just for the fact that he dared to voice a hint of his royal person.

 All these theatrical experiences in the Roman Republic were extremely primitive, and with the capture of Greece by Rome, the subordination of the Romans to Greek culture, which stood at a higher level, was inevitable. Greek language, literature, philosophy, art became fashionable in Rome.

Another type of folk performance was a mime, which came to the Romans from Greek cities and reproduced scenes from folk life, and sometimes deduced the gods in a clownish form.

Structure of the Roman theater

The Roman theater was not associated with the cult of the deity, as in Greece, so it did not have the same social significance. The actors were not respected but despised people. They were recruited from among slaves and freedmen and could be beaten for poor performance. The performances were staged in honor of public holidays, as well as at any other time at the initiative of any of the noble citizens.

For a long time, there were no permanent theater buildings in Rome.

For the performances, special temporary wooden structures were built, which were broke down at the end of the performance. The stage was a wooden platform raised half a man's height above the ground. Three narrow staircases led to it in several steps - characters who came (according to the plot) from another city climbed along them. The back wall of the booth with a curtain served as a background. Benches were set up for the audience, but sometimes it was only allowed to watch the performances while standing. It was going this way for a long time.

The first permanent stone theater was built around 55 BC and accommodated 17 thousand spectators. By the end of the 1st century. BC two more theaters appeared in Rome accommodating up to 45 thousand spectators. The Roman theater was different from the Greek one. The size of the orchestra decreased by half, it turned into a semicircle. There was no chorus in Roman plays, and noble spectators occupied a place in the orchestra. The Roman theater was bordered by a splendid portico, to which adjoined KURIA - the Senate meeting room (in 44 Caesar was killed in it).

The building became uniform in height - three-story. The amphitheater was aligned in height with the stage. A single motley canvas dome appeared protecting the audience from the rain and the scorching sun - VELARIUS. The stage was covered with a monumental ceiling. The water supply system cooled the spectators. The theater in Rome had a curtain; before the start of the performance, it was lowered in front of the stage. Roman theaters, unlike Greek ones, were built upon a plain surface, and the amphitheater was supported by a powerful foundation with arches. 


The first playwright of Rome is considered to be a freedman from Tarentum, Livy Andronicus. He puts on the Roman Games (in the ritual of the festival to-rykh stage performances were introduced) tragedy and, probably, comedy, reworked by him from the Greek. sample, or perhaps translated from Greek into Latin. This production began a new period in the history of the Roman theater. The tragedies of Livy Andronicus (he wrote up to 14 tragedies, of which only 23 complete verses have come down to us) enjoyed great success with the Roman audience. Although later generations were ironic about the plays of Livy Andronicus for their clumsy language, for his time his works. were an outstanding literary event and contributed to the emergence of new dramatic works.

For example, the comedies of Plautus were a skillful creative combination of a new Attic comedy with elements of the popular Roman drama - the Atellans. Plautus was treating the Greek originals quite casually, sometimes skipping entire scenes, introducing his own, and resorting to contamination in order to make the action more entertaining. From Plautus, we now have 20 complete comedies ("Amphitryon", "Treasure", "Boastful Warrior", "Gemini", "Pseudolus", "Prisoners", etc.) and one in excerpts ("Suitcase").

The characters of Plautus's comedies were old fathers, young men, usually in love but powerless to arrange their own destiny, dexterous and nosy slaves who help their young masters in arranging their love affairs, parasites, hetaeras, pimps and pimps, usurers, bragging warriors, etc. Plautus' plays required 4-6 actors for their performance and were divided into 5 acts. Although Plautus borrowed plots for his plays from the new Attic comedy, he was able to display the features of Roman life in them.

The most important aspect of the new Attic comedy reform, which Plautus carried out, was the introduction of the musical element in his plays. Before him, singing and music played only the role of interludes and were usually performed during intermissions. An important place in Plautus's comedies also belonged to buffoonery, which he learned from the atellana with her constant masks of a glutton, a simpleton, with slaps, fights, and obscene but witty jokes. The dynamism of the action, juicy humor, the abundance of elements of buffoonery (also expressed in the constant violation of the stage illusion and by actors addressing the audience directly), a lively spoken language ensured the success of Plautus's comedies not only among the plebeian audience, but also in the highest circles of the ancient society. The reformer of the new Attic comedy and at the same time the creator of the original Roman comedy, actor, director and organizer of theater affairs, Plautus is an outstanding and unique phenomenon in the history of the ancient Roman theater.

Social contradictions in Rome in the 2nd half of the 2nd century BC (uprisings of slaves, reforms of the brothers Gracchus) influenced the development of the theater. So, in the plays of Aktion, and in his works the Roman tragedy reached its highest peak, there were sciences of uprisings and struggles against tyrants. The performance of the famous tragic actor Aesop contributed to the success of his tragedies as well. The performances of tragedies at that time were distinguished by great pomp, which, according to Cicero, was the main attraction for ordinary spectators. After Aktion's death, the tragedy quickly declined. In the field of comedy, the palliative was replaced by togata depicting the life of free citizens, mainly of the lower and middle classes; the action usually took place in a small Italian town. Female characters (free women, not getters) played important roles in these plays. The largest playwrights of this genre were Titinius, Afranius and Atta who wrote in the 2nd half of the 2nd century - the beginning 1st century BC (about 600 separate lines have survived from their plays to our time).

Performances and Actors

The main quality of theatrical performance in ancient Rome was staginess. It was achieved by bringing on the stage dozens and hundreds of extras in bright colorful costumes, decorated with real precious stones, in real military armor and weapons. It was believed that such naturalness contributes to the success of the performance.

The acting performance was much more primitive than in the Greek theater. The performances, as in the Greek theater, were conditional - women were played by men. However, actors in all genres, except atellana, played without masks. By the 1st century BC they were replaced with makeup and wigs.

The aristocratic Roman youth, having long amused themselves with the performance of the atellana, monopolized the wearing of the mask as a means of removing the dishonor of acting. This is how the principle was established that only an actor who receives a monetary reward for his work can play without masks.

The absence of a mask violated the general conventional style of the performance. In the Roman theater, the most famous actors were the tragic actor Esop and the comic actor Roscius, who fought for a long time to play masked plays. He received permission for this only when he took off the "dishonor" of acting and refused fees.

During the times of the Roman Empire, the theater continued to develop towards entertainment and brightness, neglecting the content of the drama and finally breaking down the connection with cult rituals.

New theatrical structures began to appear - amphitheaters. The Colosseum could seat 90,000 people and the Circus Maximus in Rome - 385,000 people. And the performances became bloody persecutions.

Emperor Octavian Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) strove to revive tragedy on the stage of the Roman theater to educate the morals of citizens. In this endeavor, Augustus was supported by the poet Horace (65 BC -8 BC). But it didn't have the lasting effect.

In the same period, pantomime was widespread - a solo male dramatized dance. The actor performed in a mask and played several roles at once, including female ones. The content of the pantomime was "told" by a choir and accompanied by music. Pyrrhicha, a dance performed by an ensemble of dancers, with a mythological story usually chosen as a plot, was also loved by the Romans.

In the V century AD under the onslaught of German troops, the Roman Empire fell. The ancient theater also perished together with the state. Stage art was revived in new forms at another time, in the era of Christianity.

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