The Shocking Aspects of Theater in Ancient Rome

Roman Theater Brought Violence and Gore to New Heights

Ruins of an old Roman theater against a blue sky.
The Arenas Arles Roman amphitheater was built around A.D. 85 in a colony in France.

Krisztian Juhasz/Getty Images

Roman theater began before Roman culture began to emulate the Greeks. However, very little is known of early theater produced by Etruscans and other ancient cultures. The Roman plays that live on in written form were produced in Greek-style amphitheaters, and many of the plays were essentially rewritten versions of Greek stories. In ancient Greece, plays were unlikely to contain graphic violence or sexuality, but the opposite was true in Rome.

The Roman Theater and Violence

The Roman public loved a good spectacle. They loved to watch combat and admired blood sports and gladiator competition. As a result, there was plenty of gore in most Roman theater.

Roman audiences also preferred less subtlety than the Greeks when it came to sexuality on stage. In fact, according to the book "Living Theater" by Edwin Wilson, one Roman emperor ordered an entire troupe of mimes to engage in actual intercourse on stage. The fact that this event was recorded for posterity suggests that it wasn't the norm, but it may not have been an isolated event.

Famous Roman Playwrights

Fewer plays were written in ancient Rome than in Greece. Many of those that were written seemed to be retreads of old Greek myths (transplanted with the very similar Roman Gods). Perhaps the noted exception to this rule would be the domestic comedies of Plautus and Terence. And of course, Seneca — perhaps Rome's best-known tragedian.

There were hundreds more playwrights besides the three mentioned below. The Roman Republic and its subsequent empire greatly enjoyed the arts and entertainment. However, while there were many playwrights in ancient Rome, only a small percentage of their works have survived the passage of time.

Plautus

If you have ever seen Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," then you have experienced a taste, albeit with a corny 1960s flavor, of the Roman comedy master Plautus. A founder of the comedic theater, he created over a hundred plays in his remarkable career, many of which lampooned iconic figures within Roman society: the soldier, the politician, the clever slave, the philandering husband, and the wise but nagging wife.

Terence

Terence's life story is an ancient tale of rags to riches. Terence was the slave of a Roman senator. Apparently, his master was so impressed with young Terence's intellect that he released him from his service and even funded Terence's education. During his adult years, Terence crafted comedies which were primarily Roman-style adaptations of Greek plays by Hellenistic writers, such as Menander.

Seneca

In addition to being a playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a lawyer and a Roman senator. He witnessed some of the darkest days of Rome's empire, as he served under the sadistic Emperor Caligula. The next emperor in line, Claudius, banished Seneca, sending him away from Rome for over eight years.

After returning from exile, Seneca became the advisor to the infamous Emperor Nero. According to dramaturg William S. Turney, Nero ordered the assassination of his own mother and then commissioned Seneca to write a speech that excused Nero's crimes.

During the playwright's lifetime, he wrote tragedies, many of them re-inventions of Greek myths of decadence and self-destruction. For example, his play "Phaedra" details the sensual depravity of Theseus' lonely wife who lusts after her step-son, Hippolytus. Seneca also adapted the Greek myth of Thyestes, a sordid tale of adultery, fratricide, incest, and cannibalism, with enough carnage to make even modern audiences cringe.

Seneca retired from public life assuming that he might spend his elder years writing and relaxing, but the suspicious Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide. Seneca complied, slashing his wrists and arms, slowly bleeding out. Apparently, it was too slow, because according to the ancient historian Tacitus, Seneca called for poison, and when that failed him, he was placed in a hot bath to be suffocated by the steam.

Source

Wilson, Edwin. "Living Theatre: A History of Theatre." Alvin Goldfarb President, 6th Edition, McGraw-Hill Education, January 10, 2011.