NVCC Logo -- Go to NVCC's Home Page
Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Page last modified: November 16, 2007
Previous Section
Unit III-Page 1
Next Section 
Back to the Course Schedule
Roman Theatre and Drama

Resource: Wilson and Goldfarb, Chapter 10


Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:
Roman History

Roman Theatre

Roman Festivals

Forms of Roman Theatre:

Roman Dramatic Theory

Roman Theatre Design

Roman Actors

Theatre at the End of the Empire

Roman History {Top of Page}

Roman Theatre

Three major influences on Roman theatre:
    1. Greek Drama
    2. Etruscan influences – emphasized circus-like elements
    3. Fabula Atellana – Atellan farces (Atella was near Naples).
Short improvised farces, with stock characters, similar costumes and masks – based on domestic life or mythology – burlesqued, parodied – during the 1st century B.C., then declined

May have influenced commedia dell ‘Arte

Stock characters:

Bucco: braggart, boisterous

Pappas: foolish old man

Dossenus: swindler, drunk, hunchback

Drama flourished under the republic but declined into variety entertainment under the empire{Top of Page}

Roman festivals:

Held in honor of the gods, but much less religious than in Greece.

Ludi Romani – 6th century B.C.

Became theatrical in 364 B.C.

Held in September (the autumn)and honored Jupiter.

By 240 B.C., both comedy and tragedy were performed.

Five others: Ludi Florales (April), Plebeii (November), Apollinares (July), Megalenses (April), Cereales (no particular season).

Under the empire, these festivals afforded "bread and circuses" to the masses – many performances.

Performances at festivals probably paid for by the state a wealthy citizen, had free admission, were lengthy—including a series of plays or events, and probably had prizes awarded to those who put extra money in.

Acting troupes (perhaps several a day) put on theatre events.

Forms of Roman Theatre

Roman Drama – there are only about 200 years that are important:

Livius Andronicus – 240 – 204 B.C. – wrote, translated, or adapted comedies and tragedies, the first important works in Latin. Little is known, but he seems to have been best at tragedy.

Gnaeus Naevius – 270-201 B.C. excelled at comedy, but wrote both

Both helped to "Romanize" the drama by introducing Roman allusions into the Greek originals and using Roman stories.

Comedy and Tragedy followed different paths.

{Top of Page}

Other forms of Roman Theatre:

Pantomime: solo dance, with music (lutes, pipes, cymbals) and a chorus.

Used masks, story-telling, mythology or historical stories, usually serious but sometimes comic

Mime: overtook after 2nd century A.D. Fabula raciniata.

      Usually short

      Sometimes elaborate casts and spectacle
      Serious or comic (satiric)
      No masks

      Had women

      Violence and sex depicted literally (Heliogabalus, ruled 218-222 A.D., ordered realistic sex)
      Scoffed at Christianity
Needless to say, the Church did not look kindly at Mime.

Roman Comedy

Comedy was most popular: Only two playwrights' material survives

Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254-184 B.C.) 21 extant plays, 130 + total.

{Top of Page}

Publius Terenius Afer [Terence] (195 or 185-159 B.C.)


Roman Tragedy:

None survive from the early period, and only one playwright from the later period:

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (5 or 4 B.C. – 65 A.D.)

Characteristics of Roman Tragedy (Senecan):
      five episodes / acts divided by choral odes
      elaborate speeches – forensic influence
      interest in morality – expressed in sententiae (short pithy generalizations about the human condition)

      violence and horror onstage, unlike Greek (Jocasta rips open her womb, for example)
      Characters dominated by a single passion – obsessive (such as revenge) – drives them to doom
      Technical devices:
      Soliloquies,asides, confidants
      interest in supernatural and human connections – was an interest in the Renaissance
{Top of Page}

Roman Dramatic Theory:

Horace – (65-8 B.C.) – a theoretician – Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry)


Roman Theatre Design – Buildings

125 permanent theatres built during the empire.


Click here to learn more about Roman theatres.


{Top of Page}

Other Structures:

Circus Maximus:

Ampitheatres {Top of Page}

Roman Actors

Style of acting Theatre at the End of the Empire

Fall of the Roman Empire

6th Century A.D. – Christianity rising

Emperor Constantine (324-337 A.D.) – made Christianity legal.

Emperor Theodosius – made any other worship illegal

By 400 A.D., many festivals abated, diminished – no gladiators by 404 A.D., and no ventiones (animal fights) by 523, but others continued

Church opposition to Theatre:

    1. association with pagan gods
    2. licentiousness
    3. ridicule of church by mimes (sacrament and baptism)
Also, a decay of Roman empire from within and barbarians from without.

533 A.D. is the last record we have of a performance in the Roman Empire – mentioned in a letter.

The Didaskalia project at Berkeley has a valuable section on ancient Roman Theatre -- I highly recommend that you visit that site.

{Top of Page}
 You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...

The Next Section: Medieval Theatre

Previous Section
Unit III-Page 1


This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

Page last updated : November 16, 2007