Theatre of ancient Rome

Roman mosaic depicting actors and an aulos player (House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii)

Theatre of ancient Rome refers to the time period of theatrical practice and performance in Rome beginning in the 4th century B.C., following the state’s transition from Monarchy to Republic.[1] Theatre of the era is generally separated into the genres of tragedy and comedy. Some works by Plautus, Terence, and Seneca the Younger survive to this day. Eventually, theatre would represent an important aspect of Roman society because it would come to function as the primary means through which the Roman people could express their political emotions during the republican and imperial periods of Rome.[2]

Origins of Roman theatre

Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E as a monarchy under Etruscan rule, and remained as such throughout the first two and a half centuries of its existence. Following the expulsion of Rome's last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or "Tarquin the Proud," circa 509 B.C.E., Rome became a Republic, and was henceforth led by a group of magistrates elected by the Roman people. It is believed that Roman theatre was born during the first two centuries of the Roman Republic, following the spread of Roman rule into a large area of the Italian peninsula, circa 364 B.C.E.

Following the devastation of widespread plague in 364 B.C.E, Roman citizens began including theatrical games as a supplement to the Lectisternium ceremonies already being performed, in a stronger effort to pacify the gods. In the years following the establishment of these practices, actors began adapting these dances and games into performances by acting out texts set to music and simultaneous movement.

As the era of the Roman Republic progressed, citizens began including professionally performed drama in the eclectic offerings of the ludi (celebrations of public holidays) held throughout each year—the largest of these festivals being the Ludi Romani, held each September in honor of the Roman god Jupiter.[3] It was as a part of the Ludi Romani in 240 B.C.E. that author and playwright Livius Adronicus became the first to produce translations of Greek plays to be performed on the Roman stage.[1][4][5]

The early drama that emerged was very similar to the drama in Greece. This was due to extensive contact between the Romans and the Greeks, which allowed the Romans to develop an interest in a new form of expression.[6] Following the conclusion of the Third Macedonian War in 168 B.C.E., the Romans gained even more access to Greek culture, specifically in the arts, allowing for the Romans to further develop a basis for drama in their own society.[7] The development that occurred was first initiated by playwrights that were Greeks or half-Greeks living in Rome.[8] While Greek literary tradition in drama influenced the Romans, the Romans chose to not fully adopt these traditions, and instead the dominant local language of Latin was used.[9] These Roman plays that were beginning to be performed were heavily influenced by the Etruscan traditions, particularly regarding the importance of music and performance.[10]