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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Theatre of Marcellus

What is the Theatre of Marcellus?

The Theatre of Marcellus is the remains of the ancient theatre built by Rome’s first emperor in honour of his beloved nephew, with a capacity of around 11,000.

Theatre of Marcellus History

Theatres in Republican Rome were places of frenzy. For hundreds of years the Romans made a conscious decision to perform their plays in temporary wooden structures. Allowing the citizens too much time in a theatre, they believed, would lead to public disorder and political breakdown. However, what seemed dangerous to senior statesman of old became desirable to the imperial rulers who emerged at the turn of the millennium.

In 55 BC, Julius Caesar’s rival Pompey the Great inaugurated the city’s first permanent theatre, an enormous cultural centre with a capacity of 17,000, and an elaborate garden complex enclosed by decorated pillars. Pompey’s grand project established the blueprint for Roman theatres that was later transported throughout the empire. The basic form was then consolidated and immortalised by the prominent structure of the Theatre of Marcellus.

Dedicated in 13 BC by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, and named after his beloved nephew, the theatre was tripled-tiered with archways that subsequently inspired the design of buildings like the Colosseum. The bustling crowds would filter in to watch plays performed as part of religious festivals. Since the Romans didn’t have the modern concept of regular time off (like a weekend), these celebrations served as a welcome break from citizens’ daily schedules.

Performances possessed an impressive variety and range, from juggling and acrobatics to pantomime and elegantly written tragedies. Much like the theatres themselves, these Roman tragedies were modelled closely on their Greek equivalents, and in the early years they would consist of translations rather than new material.

Audiences knew the plays so well that they could cue the actors who had forgotten their lines! Rome’s most famous tragedian was Seneca, however his 1st-century AD plays were performed as part of private readings for sophisticated audiences since the general public had no interest in his works.

In contrast, the Romans did enjoy the charming comedies of Plautus and Terence whose plots derive from situations of daily life and make use of many stock characters. Their popular plays provided models for farce and situation comedy that were influential on later writers such as William Shakespeare and Molière.

Unlike their Greek counterparts, Roman theatres allowed women actors, not only as dancing and singing extras, but as principal players with speaking roles. Some of these women were known to achieve great wealth and fame, respected throughout the city for their craft.

Around the 4th century, the theatre fell into disuse. The general popularity of theatrical spectacles was waning, since the Romans had developed a preference for the exhilaration of gladiatorial games and chariot racing. Like many of Rome’s treasures from antiquity, the Theatre of Marcellus was later repurposed, first into a fortress, but eventually as the Palazzo Orsini, the Renaissance palace we see today. The palazzo cleverly incorporates the two tiers of original arches. Few spots in Rome offer a glimpse of such an effortless combination of ancient and (early) modern.

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