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Theatre of Pompey
Theatre of Pompey
Theatre of Pompey
Location Regione IX Circus Flaminius
Built in 55 BC
Built by/for Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
Type of structure Roman theatre (structure)
Related articles Roman Republic, Mark Antony, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Assassination of Julius Caesar, Pompey,

Theatre of Pompey, Cicero, First Triumvirate

Blue pog.svg
Theatre of Pompey

The Theatre of Pompey (Latin: Theatrum Pompeium, Italian: Teatro di Pompeo) was a structure in Ancient Rome, built during the later part of the Roman Republican era. It was completed in seven years, starting from 61 BC, and was dedicated early in 55 BC before the structure was fully completed.[1] The theatre was one of the first permanent (non-wooden) theatres in Rome and was considered the world's largest theatre for centuries.

The building is considered the original Roman theatre. It was the first to be entirely built as a free standing stone structure without earthen works, as traditionally constructed since the Hellenistic Greek period. Subsequent theatres built within the Republic and Empire copied its form as a template with few changes other than size. The Theatre of Pompey is considered to have been the largest theatre ever built in ancient or Modern times.

The theatre's history is long, but is infamous as the place of Julius Caesar's murder by the Liberatores of the Roman Senate and elite.



Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus financed his theatre to gain political popularity during his second consulship.[2] It was not only a theatre but had multiple uses. The building had the largest "Crypta" of all of the Roman theatres. This area located behind the stage was used by patrons between acts or productions to stroll and purchase refreshments or just to escape to the covered porticoes from the sun or rain. The Porticus Pompei contained statues of great artists and actors. Long arcades exhibiting collections of paintings and sculpture as well as a large space suitable for holding public gatherings and meetings made the facility an attraction to Romans for many reasons.

The highest point of the structure was the Temple to Venus Victrix, Pompey's personal deity (compared to Julius Caesar's worship of Venus Genetrix as his personal deity). Some modern scholars believe this was not mere piety, but essential in order that the structure should not be seen as a self-promoting extravagance as well as to overcome a moratorium on permanent theatre buildings.[3]

The remains of the east side of the Portico attached to the theatre, and three of four temples from an earlier period often associated with the theatre, can be seen on the Largo di Torre Argentina. The fourth temple remains largely covered by the modern streets of Rome. This archaeological site was excavated by order of Mussolini in the 1920s and 30s. The scarce remains of the theatre itself can be found off the Via di Grotta Pinta underground; vaults from the original theatre can be found in the cellar rooms of restaurants off this street, as well as in the walls of the hotel Albergo Sole al Biscione. This is due in large part to sediment build up over the centuries before the structure began to be disassembled. The foundations of the theatre as well as part of the first level and the cavea remain, however have been built over and added on to a point that what is left is part of the modern structures.

During the theatre's long history, which stretches from 55 BC to approximately 1455 AD, the structure endured several restorations due mainly to fire. Eventually falling into disrepair, it became a quarry for the stone that had made up the large theatre.



Model of the Theatre of Pompey showing much of the detail of the structure, including the garden area behind the stage.

The characteristics of Roman theatres are similar to those of the earlier Greek theatres on which they are based. Much of the architectural influence on the Romans came from the Greeks, and theatre structural design was no different from other buildings in that respect. However, Roman theatres have specific differences, such as being built upon their own foundations instead of earthen works or a hillside and being completely enclosed on all sides. Roman theatres derive their basic design from the Theatre of Pompey, the first permanent Roman theatre.

Until this structure, Rome had a moratorium against theatres within the city walls. Due to mobs of people being whipped into a frenzy by political orators or theatrics, permanent theatres were banned in the city until late in the Republican era. Theaters and even coliseums were temporary wooden structures that could be assembled and disassembled quickly.

Pompey was inspired to build this theatre for several reasons. Politically this allowed for his supporters to meet. It is this structure that began the building of the Imperial Forums. Julius Caesar built his forum as a direct response to Pompey's theatre which was added onto by nearly every emperor since.

During the Roman Kingdom and early Republican period, the areas around Rome had a number of sanctuaries that incorporated both temples or meeting houses with amphitheaters. This as well as Pompey's admiration of the Greek theatre of Mytilene inspired the theatre's design.

For this building, the Romans built concrete foundations from the ground up. Creating vaulted corridors underneath the seating, as access to each section of the auditorium, not only created safer access to upper levels but could fill and empty the theatre in a fast and controlled manner. In doing this a circular exterior was created taking advantage of the Romans innovative use of the arch. This innovation allowed for a much larger edifice with greater structural integrity. This also made the auditorium a structure in itself and not just simple earthen works. This is not to say that all Roman theatres were built in this manner, only that Romans could build their theatres in even the flattest lands.

The stage section of the theatre is attached directly to the auditorium making both a singular structure enclosed all around, where Greek theatres separate the two. This made for both better acoustics and limited the entrance to the building allowing tickets to be collected at central access areas (clay pottery "tickets" being a Roman innovation).

This architecture was copied for nearly all future theatres and amphitheaters within the ancient city of Rome and throughout the empire. Notable structures that used this similar style are the Colosseum and the Theatre of Marcellus, both of which have ruins that still exist in Rome today.


The entire theatre structure was large enough to include multiple uses. Even when performances were not scheduled the theatre was busy with activity with varied purposes. The Temple of Venus as its crown on one side and the more ancient sacred area on the other made the site of religious importance as well. Today nearly all archaeological work is focused at the remains of the theatre section. However, the theatre included a completely enclosed private garden with museum collections and meeting spaces that expanded past the auditorium, orchestra and stage.


In order to build the theatre as a permanent stone structure a number of things were done, including building outside the city walls. By dedicating the theatre to Venus Victrix and building the temple central within the cavea, Pompey makes the structure a large shrine to his personal deity. He also incorporates four Republican temples from an earlier period in a section called the "Sacred Area" in what is today known as Largo di Torre Argentina. The entire complex is built directly off the older section which directs the structure's layout. In this manner the structure had a day to day religious context and incorporates an older series of temples into the newer structure to have real purpose.

the temples in the "Sacred Area"

Temple A was built in the 3rd century BC, and is probably the Temple of Juturna built by Gaius Lutatius Catulus after his victory against the Carthaginians in 241 BC.[4] It was later rebuilt into a church, whose apse is still present.

Temple B, a circular temple with six columns remaining, was built by Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 101 BC to celebrate his victory over Cimbri; it was Aedes Fortunae Huiusce Diei, a temple devoted to the "Luck of the Current Day". The colossal statue found during excavations and now kept in the Capitoline Museums was the statue of the goddess herself. Only the head, the arms, and the legs were of marble: the other parts, covered by the dress, were of bronze.

Temple C is the most ancient of the three, dating back to 4th or 3rd century BC, and was probably devoted to Feronia the ancient Italic goddess of fertility. After the fire of 80 AD, this temple was restored, and the white and black mosaic of the inner temple cell dates back to this restoration.

Temple D is the largest of the four; it dates back to 2nd century BC with Late Republican restorations, and was devoted to Lares Permarini, but only a small part of it has been excavated (a street covers the most of it).

Porticus Pompei

The theatre Complex itself was designed for all the many artistic accomplishments of the time. The theatre also played host to a fully enclosed garden with fountains and sculpture surrounded by long columned porticoes located directly behind the Stage. Inside the surrounding arcades of the garden area were exhibits of art. Large collections of paintings along with great sculptures adorned the entire complex. Many pieces survive in museums throughout Rome today. This area is also referred to as a crypta in other Roman theatres.

Curia, assassination of Caesar

The Death of Caesar (1867), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicts the assassination in the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March

The location of the theatre is of historic significance in large part due to a single murder that took place in the complex, located in the large Porticus Pompei behind the stage. The large garden area had a meeting room or curia in the far end near the sacred area.

On the Ides of March (March 15; see Roman calendar) of 44 BC, Caesar was due to appear at a session of the Senate. Mark Antony, having vaguely learned of the plot the night before from a terrified Liberator named Servilius Casca, and fearing the worst, went to head Caesar off at the steps of the forum. However, the group of senators intercepted Caesar just as he was passing the Theatre of Pompey, and directed him to a room adjoining the east portico.[5]

According to Plutarch, as Caesar arrived Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother.[6] The other conspirators crowded round to offer support. Both Plutarch and Suetonius say that Caesar waved him away, but Cimber grabbed his shoulders and pulled down Caesar's tunic. Caesar then cried to Cimber, "Why, this is violence!" ("Ista quidem vis est!").[7] At the same time, the aforementioned Casca produced his dagger and made a glancing thrust at the dictator's neck. Caesar turned around quickly and caught Casca by the arm, saying in Latin "Casca, you villain, what are you doing?"[8] Casca, frightened, shouted "Help, brother" in Greek ("ἀδελφέ, βοήθει!", "adelphe, boethei!"). Within moments, the entire group, including Brutus, was striking out at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around sixty or more men participated in the assassination. He was stabbed 23 times.[9] According to Suetonius, a physician later established that only one wound, the second one to his chest, had been lethal.[10]

This single violent act was one of the most memorable moments in Roman history and set the stage for the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

While history records this location as the place Caesar fell, it is often confused with other meeting spaces by the senate. The first senate building was The Curia Hostilia built in the 7th century BC by Tullus Hostilius and repaired in 80 BC by Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The Curia Julia was begun by Caesar before his death on a different site after the first curia was destroyed by fire.

Today most of the location of the curia at the Theatre of Pompey is covered by roadway; however, a portion of its wall near the Sacred Area was excavated by Mussolini.

Nero's "Golden Day"

There are many written accounts by the ancients of events that took place within the theatre. The structure stood so long that its history is filled with lavish productions of music, classic Greek tragedies and comedy as well as gladiatorial and animal combat.

One of the more notable events took place in May of 66 A.D. After a long conflict in the kingdom of Armenia, Nero had brokered a political deal in which he allowed the Parthian prince Tiridates of Armenia to rule as king as long as he did so under Roman authority and crowned by Nero Himself.

Tiridates travels to Italy with his family and three thousand horsemen where he arrives in Naples to meet with Nero and travel together to Rome. In the city Nero, seated upon the Rostra, places the diadem of purple silk woven with pearls upon his head.

He was then shown to the newly refurbished Theatre of Pompey, which Nero had had specially decorated for the occasion with lavish amounts of gold gilding on the columns and statues; a purple awning embroidered with the image of the Emperor dressed as Apollo driving a chariot among the stars covered the theater's cavea seating. So impressive was the amount of decoration that it was known as "The Golden Day".

The site today

Graphic of modern Rome in grey and the white overlay of the theatre

Owing in large part to Christian influence and the church's view of theatre,[citation needed] the site fell into disrepair and much was dismantled and carted off to build other structures throughout the city. Part of the building was made into a fortress during medieval times. Much of what is left today is located in cellars of the surrounding neighbourhood of hotels, homes and restaurants.

Pieces from the structure can be located throughout the city of Rome, including sculpture and other archaeological finds. The largest intact sections of the theatre are found in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which used much of the bone colored travertine for its exterior from the theatre. The large red and grey columns used in its courtyard are from the porticoes of the theatres upper covered seating, however they were originally taken from the theatre to build the old Basilica of S. Lorenzo.[11]

Located in the Campus Martius, a dense neighbourhood of later buildings has grown in and around the area. The entire site is now covered by later buildings and streets. However, the shape of the theatre is still distinguishable in an aerial view. In some locations, buildings were built directly on top of the theatre's original foundations from the curved seating. This has resulted in several curved buildings and streets.

Limited archaeological work on the site has taken place over the years. Many early excavations were not documented; however, a few have done some work to estimate the area and map out plans based on the broken marble map that once adorned the Temple of Peace called the Forma Urbis Romae.

Luigi Canina (1795-1856) was the first to undertake serious research on the Theatre. It was Canina who discovered the representation of the theatre on the Forma Urbis as well as the first study of the existing remains. His are the first re-construction drawings to be attempted. It was on these drawings that Martin Blazeby based his recent 3D images.[12]

Newer, more recent studies have been carried out just in the past few years. Because of the modern buildings and streets as well as other factors like plumbing and electrical sources, digging for theatre remains has always been difficult. Recent projects have developed more updated plans of the theatre and its location has been more accurately identified.


The Forma Urbis with cavea of Theatrum Pompei shown.

The site of the theatre has been heavily plundered of nearly all of its stones and columns; however, there still exist basement and sub-basement levels located beneath what was the spectators' seating of the ancient theatre which have all endured centuries of subsequent construction. Roman ruins were built directly onto by subsequent owners of land, using the original Roman structures as foundations, so making their work stronger and cheaper than building new. The Theatre of Marcellus has several apartments still in use from the small fortress built on top of its ruins.

Parts of the structure that had been found in the area during construction work from the Renaissance to the mid-18th century inspired interest in a serious investigation of the theatre.

Luigi Canina began the first study of the Forma Urbis and attempted a reconstruction from known ruins. He recorded descriptions of the building in the early 19th century; these illustrations were then later modified by Victoire Baltard, a French architect, in 1837. Baltard also made two excavations in the surrounding area, uncovering remains of the exterior and scaenae frons.

In 1865, while foundations were being dug for a new building for Pietro Righetti, who owned Palazzo Pio at the time, parts of the Temple of Venus Victrix were discovered.

Not until 1997 was any serious archaeological study made of the area. Directed by Richard Beckham and co-directed by James Packer, a team based at the University of Warwick began a comprehensive survey of the existing state of the remains of the Theatre. In 2002, architect Silenzi and professor Packer began excavation at Palazzo Pio.

The seriously studies undertaken from 2002 by Dr. Antonio Monterroso (EEHAR-CSIC Rome) are very important, that has offered important results with respect to the plant of the building: the temple of Venus Victrix was completely different from how it L. Canina drawing (BCOM 2007, 125-144).

Existing Roman theatres in the same style

Although smaller, the existing structure in Orange could resemble the Theatre of Pompey.

Although the Theatre of Pompey no longer exists as a structure today, many similar buildings do survive throughout Europe and Africa. They help us to understand what the Theatre of Pompey was to the ancients, and how this single theatre had influences all over the empire. The best examples of this type of theatre can be found outside of Italy. One such theatre is in the town of Orange (in the Rhone Valley, France) known as the Théâtre antique d'Orange. The exterior of this theatre remains very well preserved. Unfortunately it was built upon a hillside and does not have the curved front. Instead the theatre is reversed with the curved seating section in the rear. Others theatres exist in Spain and Africa with remains that demonstrate the multiple arched curve of the exterior as well as better preserved stage areas.

While there is a theatre in the remains of the city of Pompeii,[13] which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, the Theatre of Pompey in Rome was much larger in scale. The theatre in Pompeii does however have a similar back garden area enclosed like the one that was in Rome. The theatre in Pompeii is still in use today, as are many remaining Roman theatres.

See also


  1. ^ Boatwright; et al.. The Romans, From Village to Empire. p. 227. ISBN 9780195118766. 
  2. ^ History of the Theatre - Antiquity
  3. ^ Theatrum Pompeii in Platner & Ashby
  4. ^ This identification is preferred over the one as Temple of Iuno Curritis, because Ovidius (Fasti I) says: "Te quoque lux eadem Turni soror aede recepit/Hic, ubi Virginea Campus obitur aqua", thus posing the temple of Juturna near the Aqua Virgo, which ended at the Baths of Agrippa.
  5. ^ "Theatrum Pompei". Oxford University Press.*/Theatrum_Pompei.html. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  6. ^ Plutarch - Life of Brutus
  7. ^ Suetonius, Life of the Caesars, Julius trans. J C Rolfe
  8. ^ Plutarch, Life of Caesar, ch. 66: "ὁ μεν πληγείς, Ῥωμαιστί· 'Μιαρώτατε Κάσκα, τί ποιεῖς;'"
  9. ^ Woolf Greg (2006), Et Tu Brute? - The Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination, 199 pages - ISBN 1-8619-7741-7
  10. ^ Suetonius, Julius, c. 82.
  11. ^ Middleton, John Henry (1892). Remains of Ancient Rome, volume 2. Adamant Media Corporation. p. 69. ISBN 140217473X. 
  12. ^ Site Documentation
  13. ^ "Theatre of Pompeii". AncientWorlds LLC. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 

External links

Coordinates: 41°53′42″N 12°28′26″E / 41.895°N 12.474°E / 41.895; 12.474


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