What You Should Know About the Theater of Ancient Rome

Roman Theater Brought Sex and Gore to New Heights

Arenas Arles Roman amphitheater built around 80 AD. BC / 90 AD. AD, the most important monument of the ancient Roman colony under extensions flaviennes the city of Arles, FRANCE, EUROPE
P. Eoche/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Roman theater began before Roman culture began to emulate the Greeks. Little, though, is known of 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, however, plays were unlikely to contain graphic violence or sexuality; the opposite was true in Rome.

Romans Theater: No Limits

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 Terrence. And of course, Seneca - perhaps the 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 inancient 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. He created over a hundred plays, 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.

N. S. Gill, About.com's Guide to Ancient History, recounts the remarkable career of one of the founders of comedic theater.

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, he crafted comedies which were primarily Roman-styled 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 the 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 of 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 John Webster 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.