This week, Ewan C. examines the form and function of Rome’s first permanent theatre and its related complex. The site is home to arguably the most infamous betrayal in political history, as well as other, less perilous dramas, yet was also a centre of arts and horticulture. Let’s take a further look at the Theatre of Pompey!
Built by Pompey the Great (fig. 1a), one of Republican Rome’s most accomplished generals, in 55 BC, the theatre of Pompey and its surrounding building complex (fig. 2) is considered one of Rome’s greatest monuments, both by its contemporaries and modern scholars. Testament to the complex’s significance is the fact that, despite being the location of Caesar’s (fig. 1b) murder on the Ides of March 44 BC, it was restored by his adopted son, Augustus, in 32 BC. The complex underwent numerous repairs, restorations and reconstructions in its life time, remaining in use right up until the 6th century AD (Gagliardo and Packer 2006: 95), always functioning, at least partially, as a ‘public’ space.
Dio Cassius (Cass. Dio. 39.38) and Plutarch (Plut. Pomp. 52) inform us that the building was finished in 55 BC during Pompey’s 2nd consulship. Thanks to Cicero’s oration against Piso (Cic. Pis. 27.65), the opening of the whole complex by Pompey can also be dated to 55 BC (Gagliardo and Packer 2006: 93).
Through a number of different sources, we know exactly where it was located (fig. 3). Thanks to archaeological remains (fig. 4), the shape of the modern city of Rome (fig. 5), and the Severan Marble Plan of Rome (fig. 6), we can deduce that the building was situated on the Campus Martius, a name given to the large area of public land north-west of the geographic centre of the city.
Pompey combined numerous traditional Roman structures within his building complex (fig. 2) (Temelini 1993: 40). These were a temple, a theatre, and a quadriportico.1 The structure was also home to a garden and a curia,2 and faced East; something Vitruvius (Vitr. 4.5.1) tells us was typical for Greek and Roman temples of the time.
Archaeological Remains and other evidence
Besides the written evidence, our understanding of the complex of Pompey is largely derived from the archaeological remains of the structure and the Severan Marble Plan of Rome (Forma Urbis Romae).
The archaeological remains of the complex are mostly underground or have been integrated into the modern city-scape. For instance, remains of the Portico and Curia have been found underneath the Largo di Torre Argentina (fig. 4), and housing on the via di Grottapinta follows the curve of the ancient theatre (fig. 5).
The Forma Urbis Romae is a plan of Rome from the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193 – AD 211) with a scale of 1:240 that was 18.22 m x 12.87 m. Since the first pieces were found in AD 1562, 1,186 fragments have been recovered. The complex of Pompey is preserved in several fragments from Slabs III-11 (fig. 6) and IV-6 of the plan. While some have been lost, they were all documented by Carettoni.
The Theatre of Pompey
Pompey’s theatre was the first stone theatre in Rome, as permanent seating was traditionally banned in the ancient city. Tertullian (Tert. de spect. X) and Pliny the Elder (Plin. NH. 8.7.20) tell us that Pompey legitimised his theatre by dedicating it as a Temple of Venus Victrix,3 with the seating in the Cavea advertised as the steps leading up to the theatre. According to Plutarch (Plut. Pomp. 42.4), Pompey drew inspiration for his theatre from that of Mytilene in Greece, asking for detailed drawings to be made of its plan.
The theatre was 35 m tall and 150 m in diameter (Temelini 1993: 42). It was semi-circular in shape and consisted of five major components:
orchestra (circular space in front of the stage)
scaenae frons (architectural backdrop)
Temple of Venus Victrix.
The cavea is thought to have seated at least 20,000 people (Temelini 1993: 42). Some modern reconstructions, including those by Canina and Blazeby, split the seating in the cavea into two sections, as is seen in the Forma Urbis Romae (fig. 6). However, others, such as Burge, have included three sections of cavea in their reconstructions. These different reconstrcutions illustrate the speculatory nature of modern reconstructions, and the extensive interpretative work involved in them.
Besides the temple, the focus of the theatre was the pulpitum and the scanae frons. The pulpitum was the main stage where the many theatrical performances would have taken place. The scaenae frons was situated right behind it, as a backdrop. The enormous permanent scanae frons seen in the Forma Urbis Romae, and thus most modern reconstructions (e.g. figs. 2 & 7), is from the reign of Septimius Severus. As Gleason notes, it is very possible that the theatre’s original scaenae frons were temporary, constructed primarily from wood (Gleason 1994: 24). Once made permanent however, as argued by Sear, there is evidence that the theatre’s scaenae frons were copied at other sites across the empire (Sear 1993).
Temple of Venus Victrix
Besides the fact that it sat at the top of the cavea and was dedicated to the goddess Venus Victrix, not much is known about the temple in Pompey’s theatrical complex. The common consensus among scholars is that it was very large and ornate, rising above the roof of cavea, and protruding out the back of the theatre (figs. 2 & 7). However, Richardson argues that the size and form of the Temple has been exaggerated, largely due to misinterpretation of the Forma Urbis Romae fragments (Richardson 1987: 124-6). He claims that the rectangular structure protruding from the back of the theatre on the plan is in fact a street (fig. 6), and that the temple was instead of modest architecture, harmonious with the rest of the cavea (Richardson 1987: 124-6). Gagliardo and Packer, who led excavations of the Theatre in 2002 and 2003, critique Richardson, arguing that there is indeed archaeological evidence for its existence (Gagliardo and Packer 2006: 115). This disagreement in modern scholarship again highlights the need for caution when using modern reconstructions.
The Curia of Pompey was located at the eastern end of the quadriportico (figs. 2 & 8). It is thought that the space would have been able to accommodate 600 senators as well as visitors. Plutarch tells us that it was structurally incorporated into the quadriportico itself, and that it housed a statue of Pompey (Plut. Brut. 14).
After the curia in the forum4 was destroyed by a fire in 52 BC, the Curia of Pompey became a place for the senate to hold meetings (Temelini 1993: 74). Suetonius (Suet. Caes. 80, 81) and Plutarch (Plut. Brut. 17-8) tell us that it was here, during one of these senate meetings in 44 BC, that Gaius Julius Caesar was betrayed and brutally assassinated. Suetonius (Suet. Aug. 31.5) and Cassius Dio (Cass. Dio. 47.19) inform us that during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) the space was closed off, and the statue of Pompey was removed upon Augustus’ orders.
The quadriportico (figs. 2 & 8) was an immense enclosed space, approximately 180 m long and 135 m wide (Temelini 1993: 44). The quadriportico consisted of a double colonnade outlining a large open public space, which was most likely a park consisting of a number of gardens (Temelini 1993: 45).
As recorded by Vitruvius (Vitr. 5.9.1), the exterior colonnade was entirely sheltered from the elements, allowing for the space to be used all year-round. There were also a series of rooms connected to this exterior colonnade, with various social, administrative and economic uses. For instance, some rooms were given to local guilds, and others acted as storage units for grain (Temelini 1993: 33).
The interior colonnade surrounded a large peristyle consisting of several gardens. The colonnade was also embellished with a great number of artworks, namely paintings and sculptures. The paintings were typically of mythological or historical figures. For instance, Pliny states that there was a painting of mythological hero Cadmus and his sister Europa (Plin. NH. 35.37), as well as another “very fine” painting of Alexander (Plin. NH. 35.40). The sculptures within the gardens and their surrounding quadriportico depicted similar scenes. Pliny (Plin. NH. 36.4) and Suetonius (Suet. Nero. 46) tell us that within the porticos there were fourteen statues personifying the nations conquered by Rome. A statue of a group of muses has also recently been found in the archaeological record (Gleason 1994: 19; Russell 2011: 131), as well as a gilded bronze statue of Hercules (fig. 9).
We are told by Propertius (Prop. II.32.11‑12) that within the gardens there were densely arranged parallel plane-trees, statues and running water features, effectively imagined in figure 8. The Garden was also the first garden outside the religious boundary of Rome which was opened to the public by a private donor (Pompey) (Russell 2011: 130). As peristyle gardens were a very common feature of private villas and mansions of the period, this public peristyle would have provided the average Roman with a glimpse into the private villas of the elite (Russell 2011: 132).
The quadriportico thus acted as a space where Romans could walk amongst beautiful gardens under the shade of trees and admire the surrounding art, or perhaps choose to socialise, surrounded by greenery and the sound of running water. As Temelini (Temelini 1993: 54) effectively summarises, "The porticus-garden was intended to provide the Roman community with a formal setting for rest, relaxation, and quiet contemplation."
Restorations and alterations
The complex underwent numerous restorations and alterations during its life. For instance, we are told that Augustus (Aug. RG. 20) and Claudius (Suet. Claud. 21) rebuilt sections of the theatre. Additionally, Cassius Dio (Cass. Dio. 62.6.1‑2) claims that Nero gilded the entire theatre and erected purple curtains above the theatre for shade. In typical Nero fashion, these curtains depicted him upon a golden chariot. While Cassius Dio may be reporting events with a level of exaggeration, his account illustrates that the theatre was sometimes shaded. This was not always the case however, for Martial (Mart. xiv.29.1.) writes that, when windy, awnings could not be drawn up, and people had to wear broad-brimmed hats to shade themselves.
The Theatre of Pompey: Home of the performing arts, religion, leisure, politics and murder.
The theatrical complex of Pompey on the Campus Martius was an impressive structure. It incorporated several different buildings and architectural styles to create a multi-purposed and aesthetically pleasing complex. The structure provided a large public space for leisure activities. A Roman could enjoy a walk through its beautiful peristyle gardens, admiring a well-crafted bronze statue of Hercules whilst physically isolated from the clamour of the city. Alternatively, they could take a seat in the cavea along with thousands of others and watch a Greek tragedy under the shade of Nero’s purple curtains. However, what they could not do, was visit the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination.
A good amount of information used in this blog has been sourced from:
Temelini, M. 1993. The Function of Pompey’s Building Complex in the Campus Martius (master’s thesis), Ottawa: University of Ottawa.
Horne, L., and Rowan, C., The Coinage of Julius Caesar, Published online: ACANS, accessed 25.10.2018, provides a great database of coins from the Late Republic housed in the ACANS Gale collection, and demonstrates that numismatic evidence can reveal a lot about the civil wars of the Late Republic.
The ‘Pompey Project’ website, created by King’s Visualisation lab (KVL), provides an expansive overview of the structure. It covers topics such as the theatre’s history and its excavations, as well as providing some 2D and 3D reconstructions.
The surviving fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae are published as part of the ‘Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project’.
A wonderful virtual tour of the complex by Altair4 Multimedia is available for viewing on YouTube.
Gagliardo, M. C., and J. E. Packer. 2006. “A New Look at Pompey’s Theater: History, Documentation, and Recent Excavation.” AJA 110 (1). Archaeological Institute of America: 93–122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40026361.
Gleason, K. L. 1994. “Porticus Pompeiana: A New Perspective on the First Public Park of Ancient Rome.” The Journal of Garden History 14 (1). Routledge: 13–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/01445170.1994.10412494.
Richardson, L. 1987. “A Note on the Architecture of the Theatrum Pompei in Rome.” AJA 91 (1). Archaeological Institute of America: 123–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/505461.
Russell, A. 2011. “The Definition of Public Space in Republican Rome.” University of California: eScholarship. http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/8zr398bq.
Sear, F. B. 1993. “The Scaenae Frons of the Theater of Pompey.” AJA 97 (4). Archaeological Institute of America: 687–701. http://www.jstor.org/stable/506718.
Temelini, M. 1993. The Function of Pompey’s Building Complex in the Campus Martius. (master’s thesis) Ottawa: University of Ottawa. http://search.proquest.com/docview/89289599/.