Roman Theater

Types of Plays in the Ancient Roman Theater

Learn about the types of performances an ancient Roman might have witnessed and a bit about costumes and the influential author Plautus. However, to refer to this page as information on ancient Roman theater may be somewhat misleading, since

  1. The Romans didn't have fixed, permanent places for watching and performances until late in the Republic -- the time of Pompey the Great, and
  2. Roman theater was developed by non-Romans in the rest of Italy, most notably, Campania (during the Republican period).

Nonetheless, it is called Roman theater.

Roman theater began as a translation of Greek forms, in combination with native song and dance, farce and improvisation. In Roman (well... Italian) hands, the materials of Greek masters were converted to stock characters, plots, and situations that we can recognize in Shakespeare and even modern sit-coms.

Livy's Roman Theater

Aulos Player Vase at the Louvre

Public Domain / Wikipedia.

Livy, who came from the Venetian city of Patavium (modern Padua), in northern Italy, included in his history of Rome a history of the Roman theater. Livy posits 5 stages in the development of Roman drama:

  1. Dances to flute music
  2. Obscene improvisational verse and dances to flute music
  3. Medleys to dances to flute music
  4. Comedies with storylines and sections of lyric poetry to be sung
  5. Comedies with storylines and song, with an added piece at the end

The Making of Theatre History, by Paul Kuritz

Fescennine Verse

Image ID: 1624145 [Roman pantomime actors in masks] (1736)
Image ID: 1624145 [Roman pantomime actors in masks] (1736). NYPL Digital Library

Fescennine verse was a precursor of Roman comedy and was satirical, bawdy, and improvisational, used mainly at festivals or weddings (nuptialia carmina), and as invective.

Fabula Atellana

Image ID: 1624150 Agata Sardonica. [[Roman comic character?]] (1736)
Image ID: 1624150 Agata Sardonica. [[Roman comic character?]] (1736). NYPL Digital Library

Fabulae Atellanae "Atellan Farce" relied on stock characters, masks, earthy humor, and simple plots. They were performed by actors improvising. The Atellan Farce came from the Oscan city of Atella. There were 4 main types of stock characters: the braggart, the greedy blockhead, the clever hunchback, and the stupid old man, like modern Punch and Judy shows.

Kuritz says that when the fabula Atellana was written in the language of Rome, Latin, it replaced the native fabula satura "satire" in popularity.

The Making of Theatre History, by Paul Kuritz

Fabula Palliata

Image ID: 1624158 [Scenes and pantomime actors of Roman comedy] (1925)
Image ID: 1624158 [Scenes and pantomime actors of Roman comedy] (1925). NYPL Digital Library

Fabula palliata refers to a type of ancient Italian comedy where the actors were dressed in Greek garments, the social conventions were Greek, and the stories, heavily influenced by Greek New Comedy.


Image ID: TH-36081 Miles Gloriosus By Plautus
Image ID: TH-36081 Miles Gloriosus By Plautus. NYPL Digital Library

Plautus was one of the two major writers of Roman comedy. Some of the plots of his plays can be recognized in the comedies of Shakespeare. He usually wrote about young men sowing their oats.

Fabula Togata

Image ID: 1624143 [Masked Roman actors] (1736)
Image ID: 1624143 [Masked Roman actors] (1736). NYPL Digital Library

Named for the clothing emblematic of the Roman people, fabula togata had various subtypes. One was the fabula tabernaria, named for the tavern where the comedy's preferred characters, lowlifes might be found. One depicting more middle-class types, and continuing the Roman clothing theme, was the fabula trabeata.

Fabula Praetexta

Image ID: 1624159 [Rehearsal for a theatrical performance] (1869-1870)
Image ID: 1624159 [Rehearsal for a theatrical performance] (1869-1870). NYPL Digital Library

Fabula Praetexta is the name for Roman tragedies on Roman themes, Roman history or current politics. Praetexta refers to the magistrates' toga. The fabula praetexta was less popular than tragedies on Greek themes. During the Golden Age of drama in the Middle Republic, there were four great Roman writers of tragedy, Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius. Of their surviving tragedies, 90 titles remain. Only 7 of them were for tragedy, according to Andrew Feldherr in Spectacle and society in Livy's History.

Ludi Romani

Livius Andronicus, who came to Rome as a prisoner of war, made the first translation of a Greek tragedy into Latin for the Ludi Romani of 240 B.C., following the end of the First Punic War. Other Ludi added theatrical performances to the agenda.

Kuritz says that in 17 B.C. there were almost 100 annual days for theater.


Tragic Actor
Tragic Actor. Public Domain. From The Greek Theater and Its Drama from Baumeister's Denkmaler.

The term palliata indicated that actors wore a variant of the Greek himation, which was known as a pallium when worn by Roman men or a palla when worn by women. Under it was the Greek chiton or Roman tunica. Travelers wore the petasos hat. Tragic actors would wear a soccus (slipper) or crepida (sandal) or go barefoot. The persona was a head covering mask.

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Gill, N.S. "Roman Theater." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Roman Theater. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Roman Theater." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).