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What Are the Differences Between Roman and Modern Theater?

Permanent theater buildings were not built until the late Republican period.
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In Rome, theater events were part of the ludi: the religious, and later secular, festivals that included theater performances, wild animal hunts, military reenactments, games and circenses, which included the gladiator competitions. As such, they were free to attend for anyone who could take the time to do so. Because they were part of larger festivities, the audiences at theater productions often would be lured away by other events, with audiences coming and going throughout the performance.Though the ancient dramas and tragedies bear a great deal of similarity to modern plays, the theater in Republican and Imperial Rome was very different from modern theater, from the structures to the content of their performances and the opinions of the theater in general.


Roman theaters were different including in the way they were built. In Republican Rome, theaters were temporary structures with no seating. Politicians wanted to reinforce the idea that theater was a leisure activity and that people should not get used to such things. Sitting down was believed to promote laziness, so it wasn't until the late Republican period that theaters were built with temporary bleachers. The first stone theater in Rome was Pompey's Theater, built in 55 B.C. Because artificial light was poor at best, theaters were open-air venues and performances were always held during the day. In more modern times, theaters have been built with padded seats and are completely enclosed with the exception of amphitheaters that are specifically built in the old style. Performances are held at night with afternoon performances, or matinees, on weekends only, and the artificial lighting is a large part of the design and presentation.

To the Romans, theater events were idle entertainments that had deleterious moral impact. The performances, especially pantomimes where women were allowed to perform, included sex, violence and other licentious behavior. Ostensibly, the upper classes' concerns were for the moral health of the people, but in reality, they feared large gatherings of the lower classes, especially in situations where the populi were allowed to voice complaints. Actors and performers in Roman times were often slaves owned by theater managers or rich patrons. Because of this, actors were considered to be worthy of contempt. This contrasts with modern opinions of actors as professionals whose activities engender interest in the populace and the belief that attending theater is a high-brow form of entertainment suitable for the family.

Types of Performances

Romans attended theater performances of Greek-style dramas and comedies, though these were not nearly as popular as the mimes, pantomimes and vaudeville-type shows. Pantomimes were more similar to modern ballet than plays, and dancers performed mythical scenes with no dialogue. Mime shows included dialogue, often extemporaneous, despite the modern interpretation of the word. Variety shows featuring dancers, music, recitations of poetry and famous speeches and pantomimes also were very popular. In modern times, people think of theater almost exclusively as presentations of dramas and comedies, including musicals. There are dance-based shows that are similar in some ways to the Roman pantomimes, such as "Stomp!," "Tap Dogs" and "Riverdance," where there is no story or plot, but the vaudeville-style variety shows have died out.

Other Uses

Theater events in modern times are mainly passive entertainment. Audiences go to see a show and be entertained. In Roman times, the theater was used as a place where the lower classes could speak their minds, express concerns or voice complaints to their leaders. Emperors would attend theater events to hear their people's complaints and address their concerns in an attempt to appear responsive to the public.

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