The Roman Empire: The Rise of the Roman Theater

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The Romans embraced different forms of entertainment including music, theater, and dance. In ancient Roman theater practices, music and dance were often combined as one experience rather than being presented as independent art forms.

Ancient Roman theater at the Jordanian capital of Amman.
Roman theaters were the center of entertainment for Romans. (Image: Ralf Siemieniec/Shutterstock)

Entertainment in Ancient Rome

Roman citizens enjoyed entertainment that was scheduled for them. Occasionally, an emperor would sponsor a special performance. One such performance was known as a naumachia—a naval battle. The naval battle could be held on an existing lake, or an artificial lake might be dug. 

In these battles, squadrons of ships manned by slaves or criminals were pitted against each other. The biggest naumachia ever was held on the Fucine Lake by the emperor Claudius. In this encounter, two complete fleets of ships were manned by 19,000 men. The two sides fought with great enthusiasm.

The Influence of Mythological Stories

A popular spectacle among the Romans was the reenactment of famous historical battles or mythological stories. More creative adaptations included the acting out of mythological stories.

Two sailing ships on the ocean, involved in a naval battle.
Roman citizens loved watching naval battles known as naumachia.
(Image: Melkor3d/Shutterstock)

A favorite story to reenact was the legend of Orpheus, a Greek musician so skilled that wild beasts would passively listen to him play. In the Roman version of these performances, the beasts were only soothed initially, and the spectacle ended with the poor slave dressed as Orpheus being eaten by wild beasts.

Another popular myth to perform was that of Icarus. Foolishly, Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax wings he made melted, causing his wings to fall apart and Icarus to plummet to his death. To re-create this tale, a slave was fitted with wings and then flung off the top of the stadium.

The Romans also liked to portray scenes from their own history. A popular one was the story of the Roman hero Mucius Scaevola, who burned off his own hand in order to demonstrate his bravery.

Occasionally,  in ordinary theatrical performances, rather than using special effects to simulate violence, the Romans would simply insert a slave and inflict real violence. Nero once attended a play called The Fire. A wooden house was constructed onstage and filled with valuable objects. It was then set on fire, and people were told that they could keep whatever they could save from the burning building. Entertainments such as these destroyed the distinction between theater and real life.

Although there were many instances of public spectacles in ancient Rome that involved copious amounts of bloodshed, there were some instances of the less violent forms of Roman entertainment—and there were actually a few that did not end in death. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

How Roman Theater Was Influenced by Greek Theater

From the third century B.C. onwards, plays were performed on the model of Greek theater, with masks and without women actors. Male actors, who were usually slaves or freedmen who had been specially trained for the stage, played the female parts. Roman playwrights such as Plautus are best known today for their comedies, which relied heavily on stock characters, coincidences, and mistaken or hidden identities.

For a long time, the Romans made do with temporary wooden theaters. Some of these could be quite elaborate, incorporating marble columns and statues. The first stone theater at Rome was built in the southern Campus Martius by Pompey the Great in 55 B.C. and it could hold approximately 11,000 spectators. This theater was quickly supplemented in the next 50 years by two others, the Theater of Balbus, and the even larger Theater of Marcellus, which could hold an estimated 15,000 spectators.

View of the ruins of Pompey's Theater in Rome.
Pompey’s Theater was the first big theater constructed in Rome. (Image: Tanya Kramer/Shutterstock)

From the first century B.C. onward, mimes and pantomimes became the most popular genres of theatrical entertainment. Ancient mime was different in style from what is practiced today, since the performers sometimes had speaking roles.

Mime artists sang, danced, and acted without masks, while pantomime actors wore masks, acted, and danced, but didn’t sing, musicians offered musical accompaniment. Women were permitted to act in mimes and pantomimes. The two forms can be distinguished by subject matter: mimes tended to be realistic, comic, and even vulgar, and could deal with any topic. Pantomimes resembled ballet productions of themes and stories from myth, and evolved into impressive spectacles full of elaborate staging, costumes, and special effects.

Mime did not require a special setting; it was often used as entertainment between acts at the theater, so mime artists would perform in front of a linen screen pulled out to hide the stage scenery. Mimes were considered to be more lowbrow than pantomimes, as they were meant to produce laughter by any means, including physical comedy and beatings, while pantomimes were often tragic in character.

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Ancient Roman Dance

Ancient Roman dance was not exactly like dance in the modern sense. It often focused on stylized rhythmic and expressive movements of the head and hands. There are mentions of athletically strenuous and abrupt motions which were intended to help illustrate the story being told. Dance and dramatic performances were accompanied by music, and choral singing and solos existed in ancient times. Poetry was usually set to music played on stringed instruments, and poets were often also musicians who crafted the music for their own poems.

The most popular instruments for artistic musical performances were the flute and the cithara, which resembled a harp without a fretboard. Other instruments were reserved for more specialized uses. Horns and trumpets, such as the cornu and the tuba, were employed by the army for martial music and giving commands. A variety of noisy instruments, such as cymbals, drums, and rattles were used in cult festivals. The hydraulic or water organ was played as popular entertainment and was said to induce strong emotional reactions in the audience.

The Romans had a mixed reaction and contradictory stance toward music and dance. Stern Roman tradition dictated that music, singing, and dancing were morally suspect, improper pursuits for freeborn Roman citizens that should be relegated to slaves and freedmen, who already suffered from lowered status. Over time, attitudes relaxed so that an amateur interest in music was acceptable; even the emperor could indulge in music.

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The Importance of Bloodshed in Theater

There were some nonviolent entertainments in ancient Rome, but bloodshed and death were an essential component of entertainment. Such bloodshed has drawn negative attention and condemnation from critics. The extravagant violence of many Roman spectacles have prompted much debate as to their purpose and morality. Even among the Romans, there were some who questioned them and were disgusted by them. One traditional justification that the Romans offered was that they were a warlike people, and citizens should be accustomed to violent death.

Others critics have suggested that the games served as a symbolic assertion of Roman dominance. Many of the entertainments featured foreigners whose fate was determined by the will of the crowd, representing the Roman people. Another interpretation is that the gladiator games functioned as a way of keeping the masses distracted from social problems and uninterested in politics.  The truth may be a complex mixture of all of these factors, but regardless, gladiator games and over-the-top spectacles remain among the best-known aspects of Roman civilization.

Common Questions about Roman Theater

Q: What was Roman Theater?

Roman Theater included various forms of entertainment that the Roman citizens found entertaining. It included performances of dance, music, and reenactments of various stories.

Q: What was the purpose of Roman Theater?

The Romans adored all types of entertainment and some plays were even performed to honor the Gods.

Q: How did Roman Theater start?

The start of Roman Theater is believed to have been after the widespread plague of 364 B.C. It is believed these plays and art forms were performed to pacify and honor the Gods.

Q: What is a major characteristic of Roman Theater?

The major characteristic of Roman Theater was that each performance was a dramatic spectacle that at times, would include death and bloodshed.

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