The Characteristics of the Roman Theatre

by Walter Johnson
The Trevi Fountain in Rome. There is much about the artistic style shown here reflected in the Roman theater.

The Trevi Fountain in Rome. There is much about the artistic style shown here reflected in the Roman theater.

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The Romans took theater, like all things, from the Greek. The Roman relation to Greek culture is a rarity in history, in that the conqueror took the conquered as its intellectual superior. Therefore, most Roman culture is of Greek origin, suitably rendered Roman through regularization, legality, simplicity and dynamism. These are stereotypical Roman traits imposed on Greek originals.

Religion and Tradition

Greeks performed all drama during religious festivals. "Religion" in both the Greek and Roman cases refers to festivals that celebrate important dates in the development of society in its natural, military or social forms. All aspects of life had their gods and stories, and actors presented these as a sort of liturgy that initiated the public into patriotic activity and loyalty. In this case, the Roman theater was a method of absorbing the public into stories and ideas that gave a religious sanction to the society and its expansion. The Greek drama was often abstract and philosophical, while the Roman tradition was simpler and more "political" in content.

The Stage

The Romans excelled in building, applied science and legal regularity. This was the Roman contribution to civilization and marked an improvement over the Greek. This also went into the theater. The stage was often larger and built for the occasion. The Greek was normally done on a rocky formation that served as a makeshift stage. The Romans used the "pulpitum," an extended stage that jutted out into the audience. They also used a much more elaborate "proscenium," mostly an archway that "framed" the main action on the stage, often flanked by columns.


These physical features all had very important political and social symbols. Since there was no "private" theater, all performances served the state or the religious symbols of society. Therefore, much in the theater reflected these symbolic forms. Arches were omnipresent in the empire, and reflected the role of the emperor as the "keystone" that held the society together. The main, central stone in the arch held the entire structure together, taking on the pressure from all sides. Columns are also important in Roman culture, and, most often, reflected the Senate, whose military leadership supported the empire.


Roman theater could take either dramatic or comedic forms. Both served a social purpose as a way of "Romanizing" the spectators or acting as a catharsis for social pressures and problems. Drama had a tendency to reflect Roman problems and political issues, safely symbolized in dramatic forms. Comedy was more social and less political or military. It featured a group of "stock characters" serving as stereotypes of people within the empire. Performances often featured men as good fathers whose character flaws developed out of devotion rather than ignorance. Slaves were always well treated and usually the smartest and wisest members of the household. It is no accident that slaves were often Greek.

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