The Power of Theater

Actors and Spectators in Ancient Rome

by Miroslaw Kocur (Author)
©2018 Monographs 438 Pages


This book examines performative practices of the ancient Romans, and provides fresh insights into the contexts of the Roman theater. Today the ancient theater is associated more with Greece than with Rome. However, the Romans went to the theater more often than the Athenians. In fact, the entire Eternal City was a vast stage for numerous performances not just by politicians, leaders, orators, and emperors, but also by common citizens. The author suggests that we look at Rome as a theater, one in which everybody, depending on circumstances, could be a performer. This book reconstructs the art of the Roman spectacle, and – based on detailed analyses of rich and varied source materials – extensively discusses the behavior of audiences and the little-known practices of actors, such as the performers of Atellan farces, pantomimes, and mimes. The reader also gains an insight into the most recent research on the Roman theater.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Illustrations
  • A Note on Translations Used
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Totus mundus agit histrionem
  • Chapter One: Rome as Theater
  • Street Theater
  • The Mask
  • Political Theater
  • The Forum Romanum as a Stage
  • The Triumph of the Artist
  • Chapter Two: The Theater of Death
  • Populus Bellicosus
  • Gladiators
  • The Theater of Animals
  • Theatrical Executions
  • Water Battles
  • The Teater of Seneca
  • Chapter Three: The Games
  • The ludi as Ceremony
  • The Holy Procession
  • Making Offerings
  • Ludi publici
  • Ludi Romani
  • Ludi plebeii
  • Ludi Apollinares
  • Ludi Megalenses
  • Ludi Florales
  • Ludi Ceriales
  • Ludi victoriae Sullanae
  • Ludi victoriae Caesaris
  • Ludi saeculares
  • Chapter Four: Theater as Rome
  • Theater without Theaters
  • The Theater of Pompey
  • The Theater of Marcellus
  • The Theater of Balbus
  • Discrimina ordinum
  • Theatralis licentia
  • Acclamation
  • Theater as Symbol
  • Chapter Five: Drama
  • Craft
  • High Expectations
  • Schools
  • The Art of Memory
  • Gestus
  • Voice
  • Mask
  • Costume
  • Props
  • Theater Production
  • The art of Negotiation
  • Teamwork
  • Famous Actors
  • The Chorus
  • Diverbium and canticum
  • Music
  • Instruments
  • Recitals
  • Chapter Six: Atellana
  • Mask
  • The Four Main Masks
  • Other Characters
  • Gestures
  • Performance
  • Chapter Seven: Mimes
  • The Mime as an Actor
  • Key Terminology
  • Comedy
  • The Art of Improvisation
  • Gestures
  • Facial Expression and Voice
  • Costume
  • The Prop
  • The Mime as a Performance
  • The Time and Location of Performances
  • The Curtain
  • The Performers
  • Music
  • The Structure of the Mime
  • The Plot
  • Chapter Eight: Pantomime
  • Craft
  • High Qualifications
  • Training
  • Imitating Nature (mimesis)
  • Showing (epideiksis)
  • Schemata
  • Acting (1hypokrinomai)
  • Mask
  • Costumes
  • Stage Properties
  • Presentation/Performance
  • The Silent Soloist
  • The Accompanying Actor
  • The Singer and the Chorus
  • Orchestra
  • Instruments
  • The Libretto
  • Repertoire
  • Chapter Nine: The Actor’s Status
  • Nobiles
  • A Healthy Beginning
  • Collegium scribarum histrionumque
  • Ancient Law
  • Infamy in Practice
  • Theatromania
  • Sanctions
  • Women as Actors
  • The Actor as Alien
  • The Slave as Actor
  • Actors and Legal Protection
  • Earnings
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


This book was first published in Polish in 2005. For the English translation, I have extensively rewritten, revised, and updated the text. I owe many thanks to a few people for the help and support I have received while working on this project. David Malcolm translated the book so that – in my view – it reads well in English. Andrzej Jarodzki created a series of wonderful drawings specially for this book. Matthew Nicholls granted me permission to use images from his excellent Virtual Rome project. Agata Rutkowska assisted in obtaining permission from the Royal Collection in London to publish Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting The Triumphs by Caesar: 1. The Picture-Bearers. Bartlomiej Sych facilitated licence negotiations with Getty Images. My special thanks go to Dagmara Chojnacka, my beloved wife, for suggesting many insights that improved both the Polish and the English editions.

I dedicate this book to the memory of the late Professor Jerzy Lanowski, who inspired my interest in ancient Greece and Rome. ← 11 | 12 →


1.  Ancient Theater of Taormina, Sicily (photo, author)

2.  Andrea Mantegna, Triumphs of Caesar: 1. The Picture-Bearers (c. 1484-92), tempera on canvas, 266 x 278 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017. Hampton Court Palace, London, RCIN 403958.

3.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Self-Portrait as Nero (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon (fragment).

4.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Gladiators (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

5.  Fresco in Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii (photo, author)

6.  Greek Theatre of Syracuse, Sicily (photo, author)

7.  Theater of Pompey. Image from Virtual Rome, a digital model developed by Dr Matthew Nicholls © 2017 University of Reading. Reproduced with permission.

8.  Mussolini Opens ‘Europe’s Finest Street’, 1932. Thousands of Fascisti stride down the Via Dell ‘Impero on the 10th. Anniversary of the Fascist march on Rome. © Bettman/Getty Images

9.  Theater of Marcellus. Image from Virtual Rome, a digital model developed by Dr Matthew Nicholls © 2017 University of Reading. Reproduced with permission.

10.  Small Theater in Pompeii. Cavea with 16 rows (photo, author)

11.  Public Execution in the Roman Theater in Palmyra, 2015 (stills from ISIS video)

12.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Self-Portrait as Nero (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

13.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Actor (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

14.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Atellana (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

15.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Dossennus (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon (fragment).

16.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Self-Portrait as a Mime (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

17.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Pantomime (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

18.  Ancient Theater of Aspendos, Turkey (photo, author)

19.  Ancient Theater of Taormina, Sicily (photo, author) ← 12 | 13 →

A Note on Translations Used

Appian: H. White (BCiv.); Apuleius: H.E. Butler (Flor.), J.A. Hanson (Met.); Aristophanes: J. Henderson; Aristotle: S. Halliwell (Poet.); Athenaeus: S.D. Olson; Augustine: J. Shaw (De doctrina Christiana); Cicero: W.A. Falconer (Ami., Div.), L.H.G. Greenwood (Div. Caec.), H.M. Hubbell (Orat.), C.W. Keyes (Leg.), J.E. King (Tusc.), W. Miller (Off.), H. Rackham (Acad., Brut., De or.), D.R. Shackelton Bailey (Att., Fam., Phil.), N.H. Watts (Dom., Har. resp., Pis.); Columella: H.B. Ash (Rust.); De sumblime: W. Hamilton Fyfe and D. Russell; Diodorus Siculus: C.H. Oldfather; Dionysius of Halicarnassus: E. Cary (Ant. Rom.); Fronto: C.R. Haines (Principia historiae); Gellius: J.C. Rolfe; Homeric Hymns: M.L. West; Horace: F. Rushton Fairclough (Ep.); Isidore: S.A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach and O. Berghof (Org.); Isocrates: G. Norlin (Antid.); Juvenal: G.G. Ramsay; Libanius: M.E. Molloy; Livy: B.O. Foster (Books 1-10), F.G. Moore (Books 23-25), A.C. Schlesinger (Books 43-45); Lucian: A.M. Harmon (Spect.), M.D. Macleod (Gallus); Martial: D.R. Shackelton Bailey; Cornelius Nepos: J.C. Rolfe; Ovid: F.J. Miller (Met.), J.H. Mozley (Rem. am.); Pacuvius: E.H. Warmington; Petronius: M. Haseltine (Sat.); Phaedrus: B.E. Perry; Plato: R.G. Bury (Leg.); Plautus: W. de Melo; Pliny the Elder: H. Rackham (HN); Pliny the Younger: B. Radice (Ep.); Prudentius: H.J. Thomson (CSym.); Quintilian: D.A. Russell (Inst.); Res gestae divi Augusti: F.W. Shipley; Rhetorica ad Herenniun: H. Caplan; Seneca: J.S. Basore (Ben., Tranq.), J.G. Fitch (Tragedies), R.M. Gummere (Ep.); Seneca the Elder: M. Winterbottom (Contr.); Suetonius: J.C. Rolfe; Tacitus: J. Jackson (Ann.), C.H. Moore (Hist.); Terence: J. Barsby; Tertulian: T.R. Glover (Apol.); Valleius Paterculus: F.W. Shipley; Valerius Maximus: D.R. Shackelton Bailey; Varro: W.D. Hooper (Rust.), L.G. Kent (Lang.); Vitruvius: F. Granger; Xenophon: O.J. Todd (Symp.) ← 13 | 14 →


AE: L’Année épigraphique

AJA: American Journal of Archaeology

AJP: American Journal of Philology

Anfiteatro Flavio: Anfiteatro Flavio: Imagine, Testimonianze, Spettacoli (Roma 1988)

ANRW: Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der neueren Forschung

Ant.Class.: L’Antiquité classique

AP: The Greek Anthology (Loeb), ed. and trans. W.R. Paton (Cambridge, Mass. 2014)

Apodosis: Apodosis: Essays presented to Dr W.W. Cruickshank to mark his eightieth birthday (St Paul’s School 1992)

BCAR: Bullettino della Commissione archeologica comunale di Roma

BCH: Bulletin de Correspondance Hellènique

BGU: Berliner Griechische Urkunden

BICS: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies

BJ: Bonner Jahrbücher

CeM: Classica et Mediaevalia

CGL: Corpus glossariorum Latinorum

CIL: Corpus insriptionum Latinarum

CLE: Anthologia Latina, 2: Carmina Latina Epigraphica

CPh: Classical Philology

CQ: Classical Quarterly

CRF³: Scaenicae Romanorum poesis fragmenta, ed. O. Ribbeck, 3rd ed., 2: Comicorum Romanorum praeter Plautum et Syri quae feruntur sententias fragmenta (Leipzig 1898)

CSEL: Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum

CW: The Classical World

DA: Dialoghi di archeologia

DK: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, ed. H. Diels and W. Kranz, 8th ed. (Berlin 1965) ← 14 | 15 →

DNP: Der Neue Pauly: Enzyklopädie der Antike, ed. H. Cancik and H. Schneider (Stuttgart–Weimar 1996-2003)

FD: Fouilles de Delphes

FIRA: Fontes iuris romani antejustiniani

FLP: The fragmentary Latin poets, ed. E. Courtney (Oxford 1993)

FUR: La pianta marmorea di Roma antica: Forma Urbis Romae, ed. G. Corettoni et al. (Roma 1960)

GB: Grazer Beiträge: Zeitschrift für klassische Altertumwissenschaft

GL: Grammatici latini, ed. H. Keil (Leipzig 1855-1923)

HRR: Historicorum Romanorum reliquiae, ed. H.W. Peter (Stuttgart 1967)

HSCP: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology

IG: Inscriptiones Graecae

IGR: Inscriptiones Graecae ad res Romanas pertinentes

IGUR: Inscriptiones Graecae urbis Romae

ILLRP: Inscriptiones Latinae liberae rei publicae

ILS: Inscriptiones Latinae selectae, ed. H. Dessau (Berlin 1892-1916)

ILTG: Inscriptiones trium Galliarum et Germaniarum Latinae (CIL 13)

Inscr.Ital.: Inscriptiones Italiae

I.Tralleis: Die Inschriften von Tralleis und Nysa, vol. 1: Die Inschriften von Tralleis, ed. F.B. Poljakov (Bonn 1989)

IVO: Die Inschriften von Olympia

JÖByz: Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik

JHS: Journal of Hellenic Studies

JRA: Journal of Roman Archaeology

JRS: Journal of Roman Studies

LSJ: A Greek-English Lexicon, ed. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, rev. H.S. Jones (Oxford 1968, online: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj)

LTUR: Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, ed. E.M. Steinby (Roma 1993-2000)

MDAI(R): Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts: Römische Abteilung

MÉFRA: Mélanges d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’École française de Rome

MH: Museum Helveticum

MNC³: T.B.L. Webster, Monuments Illustrating New Comedy (BICS, Suppl. 50), 3rd ed., rev. and enlarged by J.R. Green and A. Seeberg (London 1995) ← 15 | 16 →

MRR: B.T.R. Shannon, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic, 2nd ed. (Atlanta, Georgia 1986)

NGG: Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaft zu Göttingen

OCD³: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 3rd ed. (Oxford 1996)

OLD: Oxford Latin Ditionary, ed. P.G.W. Glare (Oxford 1982)

OR: Opuscula Romana

PBSR: Papers of the British School at Rome

PCG: Poetae comici Graeci, ed. C. Austin and R. Kassel

RAC: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum: Sachwörterbuch zur Auseinandersetzung des Christentums mi der antiken Welt

RE: Real-Encyclopädie: Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Neue Bearbeitung

REL: Revue des études latines

RGVV: Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten

RhM: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie

RPh: Revue de philology, de littérature et d’histoire anciennes

RRC: M.H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (London 1974)

SCI: Scripta Classica Israelica

SEG: Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum

SHA: Scriptores Historiae Augustae

SIG³: Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum, nunc tertium edita, ed. W. Dittenberger, 3rd ed. (Leipzig 1915-1924)

SO: Symbolae Osloenses: Norwegian Journal of Greek and Latin Studies

SVF: Stoicorum veterum fragmenta, ed. H.F. Arnim (Leipzig 1903-1924)

TAPA: Transactions of the American Philological Association

TGR: Teatri greci e romani alle origini del linguaggio rappresentato, consimento analitico (Roma–Torino 1994/95/96)

TLL: Thesaurus linguae Latinae

TN: Theatre Notebook

ZPE: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik

ZRG RA: Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Romanistische Abteilung ← 16 | 17 →


Totus mundus agit histrionem

1. Totus mundus agit histrionem (All the world plays the part of the actor), was – according to tradition – the motto of the celebrated Globe Theatre in London.1 Jacques, the ironic satirist in As You Like It, develops this metaphor in his famous monolog (2.7.138-139): “All world’s a stage, / And all men and women merely players.” This is an expression of the obsession with the theater in Shakespeare’s day. But life was compared to the theater earlier too, in fact from the very begin ← 17 | 18 → nings of that art.2 Already in the fifth century BCE, Democritus considered that “The world is a stage, life is a performance; you come, you see, you go away.”3 The Platonist Socrates warns the potential Guardians of his ideal state against appearing onstage: a person in his life should not play many roles, as was the custom of the Athenian actors, since he would be unable to attain in all of them the required perfection. One poet, Socrates opines, might write well either comedies or tragedies. Writers of tragedies and of comedies used different actors.4 In the third book of The Republic, Plato introduces, perhaps as the first to do so, the concept of mimesis, a notion that becomes the foundation of all later theories of art, and of the art of theater above all. The consequences of mimesis, that is, the imitation of another person through voice, gesture, and even way of thinking can be pernicious. The imitator is to a degree identified with the person imitated, takes on features of the model, is “infected” by him/her sometimes even outside the theater, in life itself (Resp. 3.395c-d). The Platonic Guardians should not, thus, imitate any unworthy actions, and, above all, they must not play women or slaves. The only permissible role is that of the noble man (Resp. 3.396c-d), but such figures, in Socrates’s view, are considered too uninteresting, theatrically unbearable. So Plato does not develop this line of thinking, and decides to banish the entire theater from his republic.

The Cynics perceived many analogies between life and art. In the third century BCE, Teles5 compared blind fate to a dramatist and asserted that it is necessary to know if one is to play the lead or a supporting part, and that there is no need to change the part once it has been given out. Bion of Borysthenes was of a different opinion. He stressed that each person dons different masks in life. This theory splendidly justifies the ambiguous career of Bion himself. In the course of his long life, he played many roles: from wandering cynic to paid teacher and “court-philosopher.”6 The Stoics, in turn, took from the theater the notion of the mask (in Greek prósōpon). Ariston of Chios, a disciple of Zenon, compared the wise man to a good actor, who could play both the ugly Thersites and the valiant Agamemnon (SVF 1.351). ← 18 | 19 →

In the second century BCE, Panaetius developed the concept of the “four masks,” in order to define the social roles played by one person. The theory was extensively set forth by Cicero (Off. 1.107-121):

2. If the Greeks invented the art of the actor, and were the first to make of it a metaphor for human life,7 the Romans did not only develop and broaden that analogy, but also, above all, applied theatrical practices to construct identity to a degree not previously encountered. Rome was a stage for countless performances.8 Serious and official spectacles/plays graced religious ceremonies; they took place according to the established rhythm of festivals, and they were presented on the great squares, in front of temples, or in specially erected buildings such as wooden theaters. Others were played out on the streets, in front of shops and inns, and still others in the atriums of private homes. Professional actors did not work in a vacuum. Orators and politicians busily observed the performances of artists, and they took from them whatever seemed the most effective practices. In turn, actors learned the art of persuasion from famous orators.

The great religious festivals were usually powerful demonstrations of secular power. During solemn triumphs, the commander, distinguished with this honor, for one day painted his face red and put on a ceremonial costume, transforming himself into a replica of Capitoline Jupiter. Theater penetrated everyday life at every level. When a consul set forth to war, thus crossing the pomerium, the holy borders of the city, he removed his toga with great pomp. Togatus, dressed in a toga, he was not just a civilian, the antithesis of the soldier, but, above all, a citizen of Rome. Virgil (Aen. 1.281-282) hymns the Roman “rulers of the world” (rerum dominos) as a “people clad in togas” (gens togata). This was certainly a ← 19 | 20 → widespread view. Macrobius (Sat. 6.5) suggests that the phrase gens togata was borrowed by Virgil from the author of mimes Decimus Laberius. Donning his toga, each morning the wealthy patron played out a show before his clients, and they, in turn, conducted themselves in accordance with their own script. An orator in court or the Senate had to pay close attention not just to correct pronunciation and use of correct rhetorical figures; equally important was the dramatic development of the configuration of the folds in his toga.

3. Cicero’s “second persona” – so the individual mask, biologically conditioned – was not an easy role; it could not be played out “by copying the personal traits of others and eliminating one’s own” (Off. 1.111). The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius (3.58) even claims that a person’s real nature only emerges in confrontation with opposition, and when “the mask is torn off” (eripitur persona). One can find a similar view in Petronius’s writing, although the text in two places is contradictory (Sat. 80).

Grex agit in scaena mimum: pater ille vocatur,

filius hic, nomen divitis ille tenet.

Mox ubi ridendas inclusit pagina9 partes,

vera redit facies, dum simulata10 perit.

(A company acts a mime on the stage: one is called the father,

one the son, and one is labelled the Rich Man.

Soon the comic parts are shut in a book,

the men’s real faces come back, and the made-up disappear.)11

Is the use of the theatrical metaphor justified, since the art of the actor, fundamentally, consists in the imitation of other people, not himself? Is the actor himself when he plays the Other, or only and also when he removes the mask and stops performing?

Seneca proposes a radical solution to this dilemma (Ep. 78.21): Ipse te specta, ipse te lauda (Be your own spectator! Seek your own applause!). Here it is not only a matter of analogy, but, in fact, of taking theatrical strategies from artists and applying them in life, to construct oneself, as with a role in the theater. In the Roman world, there existed many ready scripts for different roles. However, above all, it was vital to gain complete control over one’s own performance. If ← 20 | 21 → this was an idea indeed taken from the theater, it also expressed the Roman ambition to rule over one’s own life, other people, and, finally, all of nature. The Romans did not have to build theaters on the sides of mountains (as the Greeks did). Already in the third century BCE, they had invented opus caementicium (DNP 8.1274), that is, concrete. Thus, they could erect freestanding structures and demonstrate their superiority over nature. The Roman saw personal identity as an actorly task. Persona is both a “mask” and a “public person.”

4. In the twentieth century, Michel Foucault referred to the practice of Stoics in his program of the “technology of the self.”12 A human being should create him/herself as an artist does; he/she should be his/her own work of art. All is a construct, even sexuality. “For me, what must be produced is not man himself such as nature designed him, or such as his essence prescribes,” Foucault declares in 1978. “What must be produced is something that absolutely does not exist, about which we know nothing [...] the creation of something totally different, an innovation.”13 This radical position led the philosopher to a radical solution. He was one of the first victims of AIDS, and he died when he became the author of his own uninhibited sexuality, infected by a virus in the gay clubs of San Francisco. Daniel Defert, for many years Foucault’s companion, acknowledged after the philosopher’s death that “He took AIDS very seriously; he took it as a limit experience.”14

Death, or rather suicide, possessed a similar dimension for Roman Stoics. “It is with life as it is with a play,” writes Seneca in his moral letters to Lucilius, “it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is.”15 Roman suicide was a spectacle played out before an audience. When Seneca received the Emperor Nero’s command to commit suicide, he spent his last moments discussing philosophy with friends. He criticized Nero. All he said was intended for publication. When the letting of blood did not bring the desired effect, Seneca requested poison from his physician, the same poison as had been used in Athens to carry out sentence of death. Then he commanded libation be made to Jupiter the Liberator, and he died in clouds of steam. In fact, he played out the role of Socrates to the end, Socrates who after drinking the hemlock, ordered that a ← 21 | 22 → cockerel be sacrificed to Asclepius.16 Seneca was the first philosopher who compared life to a mime, the lowest form of the art of the theater (Ep. 80.7): humanae vitae mimus, qui nobis partes, quas male agamus, adsignat (this mime of human life, wherein we are assigned the parts which we are to play so badly).

5. The Greek theater became famous thanks to the great poets who wrote the dramas, but the Roman theater was ruled by the actor. Here is a fundamental difference. As opposed to the dramatist, the actor leaves few traces behind him. The art of the Roman artists of the stage to a large degree was one of improvisation. Even in surviving dramas by Plautus or Terence, one can find strong traces of an oral culture. Many roles, too, have the quality of improvisation, written down after the performance, or literary imitations of these practices.17 Only recently have scholars begun to see Plautus as a writer for the theater, to a large extent because of the groundbreaking studies of the American philologist Niall Slater. His book Plautis in Performance has done much to enliven studies of the art of the Roman actor.

The history of the Roman theater is full of paradoxes. The actor, who during the play exercised undivided power over the members of the audience, was in everyday life despised by those same people. Everyone who went onstage was automatically excluded from the body of the citizens. The differences between Rome and Athens were fundamental. In the theater, the Attic actor, indeed, only repeated the poet’s words, but an appearance at the Festival of Dionysus was itself a great honor, permitted only to those who could document their Athenian citizenship. In the Theater of Dionysus, the best citizens of the city stepped onstage; in Roman theaters, the actors were slaves, freedmen, and foreigners. The Romans themselves were, of course, well aware of this difference.18

We know more or less the shape of the theater in which the Attic poets put on their plays, although much is still unclear on this matter. But there are no traces of the structures erected for the comedies of Plautus and Terence. When permanent theaters began to be built in Rome, the drama ceased to be popular, and mimes and pantomimes celebrated their triumphs. We have texts of plays, but we do not know in what kind of theaters they were performed. We are able to reconstruct stone-built theaters, for fragments of the buildings have survived, ← 22 | 23 → as have the marble plans of Rome. But there is little we can say about the productions that were put on there.

6. In Rome, as in Greece, there was no repertory theater independent of a religious festival. Theater performances took place exclusively within the framework of festivals. The most important of these were, of course, the games – great religious festivals. They began with spectacular processions and the making of offerings. Ceremonies often took place in several places simultaneously, which perhaps distinguishes Roman festivals from Greek ones. Also in Rome, there was no link between a concrete cult or a god and a theme or type of theatrical show. Today we do not know what were the criteria – if they, indeed, existed at all – for the choice of play for the festival program. Comedies were performed both during the ecstatic ceremonies in honor of Cybele the Great Mother, and during the festival of the Greek Apollo and solemn ceremonial funerals. However, the context of these ceremonies certainly influenced the reception of the shows. Renaissance admirers of the ancient world saw a great humanist in Terence, and liked to cite the sentence from the play Heautontimorumenos (77): homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto (I’m human, and I regard no human business as other people’s).19 This particular comedy was put on in 163 BCE during the notorious festivities of the goddess Cybele, whose priests joyfully castrated themselves in honor of the eunuch Attis. The title of the comedy, which is usually rendered in English as Self-Tormentor, takes on new meanings in this context. The shocking rite created a different framework for the play’s reception than the rituals performed in Athens during the Dionysia.

Roman theatrical shows functioned within yet another, equally important, context. In those same sites where the artists of the theater appeared, spectacles of real death were performed. The actors were not only people, but also animals. From the prolog of Terence’s comedy Hecyra, we know that after the comedy the gladiators were to appear. In other words, the next show in the program of the games was to be a show of spectacular slaughter. Gladiators killed each other or butchered beasts en masse. The animals, in turn, threw themselves on each other or devoured convicts, the enemies of Rome. All these shows expressed and strengthened a militaristic ideology. Theaters were simultaneously temples and monuments to Roman glory, especially military glory. The first permanent theater in Rome was dedicated to the Venus of Victory. ← 23 | 24 →

7. In the Roman theater, there were four separate genres of stage art: the drama, the atellan farce, the mime, and the pantomime. They were fundamentally different from each other. Some were completely improvised, and others employed prepared scripts. In some, masks were always used, and in others only sometimes, and in still others never. Some artists went on stage, others in the street. Some most often sang, others were silent, and still others mostly spoke. To grasp the particularity of Roman theatrical practices, it is necessary to use appropriate tools in the descriptions, and every time to use different tools. In the drama, classical actorly craft was most important. In atellan plays, one performed in a mask. In the mime, the art was one of improvisation. In the pantomime, physical ability was most important. If the source of Roman theatrical practice was, as in Athens, the art of imitation, mimesis, then the Romans developed theater as an art of negotiation. Plautus, when he adapted Greek comedy for the Roman stage, broke it into its component parts and onstage demonstrated how comic strategies worked,20 and at once exaggerating and simultaneously questioning theatrical conventions, he invited the audience to take an active part in constructing the meanings of the show.

The Greeks invented theater. The Romans took the idea and adapted it to their own requirements. What most clearly distinguished Roman artists from their Athenian counterparts, was theater practice. Both theaters functioned in completely different contexts. Cicero (Acad. 1.10) writes that Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius, and others non verba, sed vim Graecorum expresserunt poetarum (have reproduced not the words but the meaning [strength, power, thought, art, content] of the Greek poets).21 Roman actors and poets drew inspiration from native, Italic oral traditions, but also from popular, non-literary culture. Aulus Gellius (2.23.12), in a famous comparison of Menander and Caecilius, considers that the Roman author embodies in his comedy many elements that do not exist in the Greek original, for example, improvised mimes.

8. Suetonius (Aug. 70.1) describes a strange banquet of “twelve gods” that took place in Rome around 40 BCE. The diners appeared in the costumes of the twelve canonical gods and goddesses. Among them was the twenty-three-year-old Octa ← 24 | 25 → vian, the future Caesar Augustus, in the costume of Apollo. As great famine then held the city in its grasp, embittered people remarked with sarcasm that “The gods have eaten all the grain.” Suetonius informs us that it was a “private dinner” and that afterwards many other stories (fabulae)22were told of it. These stories, these fabulae, were an important part of the Roman world, always the more lively and colorful, the more they referred to secret, non-public events. Thus, the ordinary Romans co-created and defined the image and functions of the Emperor. He became an actor in this theater. In the library attached to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, Augustus has his own statue erected in the dress and with the attributes of Apollo, including the god’s cithara.23 Conscious of his role in constructing the reality of the new Rome, on his deathbed Caesar asked his friends if it seemed to them that he played the “mime of life” well.24

An excessive fascination with the theater, in time, led to something of a “revaluation of values,” which is most forcibly expressed by Tacitus in his description of the civil wars of the year of the “four emperors” (69 CE): the common people looked on the bloody and fratricidal struggles as on the games, encouraging with their shouts first one side and then the other. Citizens, degraded to the role of a theatrical audience, were not politically involved in the conflict and did not take part in the events – “They gave way to exultation and joy, wholly indifferent to either side, finding pleasure in public misfortune.”25 ← 25 | 26 → ← 26 | 27 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Roman theatre History of theatre Roman comedy Ancient pantomime Ancient mime Mask
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 438 pp., 9 color ill., 10 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Miroslaw Kocur (Author)

Mirosław Kocur is Head of Cultural Studies at the University of Wrocław and Professor at the Academy of Theater Arts. His research focuses on reconstructing the origins of performing practices. He is the author of «On the Origins of Theater» and «The Second Birth of Theatre: Performances of Anglo-Saxon Monks».


Title: The Power of Theater
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440 pages