Cities of Vesuvius

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Public Buildings: basilicas, temples, fora, theatres, palaestra, amphitheatres

See: "Attending the Theatre" p.135.

Large Theatre at Pompeii in Pictures
Small Theatre (Odeon) at Pompeii in Pictures


Two theatres at Pompeii.

Large theatre:
  • Seated 5,000 people.
  • Possibly surviving Roman theatre.
  • Built during Hellenic period – 2nd Century BC. Renovated during Augustan period by Marcus Holconius Rufus and Marcus Holconius Celer and by architect Marcus Artorius Primus. Seating capacity increased to 5,000 at this time.
  • Open air
  • Popular entertainment (comedies, tragedies, farces, pantomimes).

Small Theatre or Odeon:
  • Seated 1,000 people.
  • Built early 1st century BC (70s BC) by the duumviri C. Quinctius Valgus and M. Porcius.
  • More serious performances – concerts, poetry recitals, lectures.
  • Roofed
  • Steep cavea and small size provided perfect acoustics.

Next to theatres was quadriporticus for strolling during breaks in performance. After the earthquake of AD 62, this became a gladiators’ barracks.


  • Seated 2,500 people.
  • First building discovered in Herculaneum.
  • Excavated via tunnels and still buried under the lava of the 79 eruption.
  • In perfect condition but raided for its art and marbles.
  • Freestanding with two-storey façade, unlike Greek style Pompeian theatres.
  • On top were gilded figures and statues of emperors and important people.

Features of the theatres and performances
  • Auditorium – Cavea: three areas – ima cavea at the front (important people), media cavea, summa cavea at the top (women).
  • Skene – backdrop for stage – three doors to changing areas. Used curtains, deus ex machine.
  • Tribunalia - a special box above the entrances for the magistrates (Large Theatre, Pompeii).
  • Performances: organised for religious festivals. Magistrates used an impresario. Program advertised with or without velarium (a sunshade) and sparsiones (perfumed water sprayed over the audience).
  • Performances held in daylight
  • Free entry – a token of bone or ivory indicated where to sit. Those which held the image of a bird signified the highest seats.
  • All classes attended but possibly not slaves.
  • Audience brought cushions for comfort.
  • Actors had low social status but were popular. Women took part in some performances.
  • Lowbrow Oscan farces with much slapstick and often obscene humour were most popular – Atellanae.
  • Horace, the Roman Poet (in the time of Augustus) states that audiences always wanted more from the theatres, more thrill and excitement, such as bears or boxers on stage. Fire and special effects were said to arouse great animated appreciation among the people.

360 view of cavea - 360 view of theatre stage left


Theatrical motifs used for decoration in well-to-do houses. For example, the fresco from the House of Menander (I.10.4) in Pompeii of the Greek dramatist Menander (below).
Greek dramatist Menander from the House of Menander
Greek dramatist Menander from the House of Menander

Graffiti written by fans about local and visiting actors. The theatrical troupe of Actius Anicetuswas very popular, as was the actor, Paris.
  • Actius Anicetus, greetings. Horus, greetings. (CIL IV 3891)
  • Actius, master of stage performers. (CIL IV 5399)
  • Paris, pearl of the stage. (CIL IV 3867)

Bust_of_Norbanius_Sorex.jpgBust and inscription of the actor Gaius Norbanus Sorex (right), found in the Temple of Isis (next to the theatre in Pompeii)
(Portrait) of Gaius Norbanus Sorex, actor of second parts; the presidents of the Fortunate Augustan Suburban Country District (set this up). Space given by decree of the town councillors.

Inscriptions. Particularly honoured were the Holconii - most likely two brothers who paid for reconstruction of parts of the theatre. Also honoured was the architect of the project:
  • Marcus Holconius Rufus and Marcus Holconius Celer (built) at their own expense the crypt, boxes and theatre seating. (CIL X 833 and 834)
  • To Marcus Holconius Rufus, duumvir with judicial power four times, quinquennial, military tribune by popular demand, priest of Augustus, by decree of the town councillors. (CIL X 837)
  • Marcus Artorius Primus, freedman of Marcus, architect (CIL X 841)

Over 100 small counters in bone and ivory have been found. It is believed that they were used as theatre tokens.

  • Theatrical form native to Campania (named after the town of Atella)
  • Performed in the Oscan language, a language still spoken in Pompeii and Herculaneum up until the time of the eruption.
  • In a sense was likened to the Greek Old Comedy with characters stock characters including “the hunchback”, “the fool” or “the glutton”.
  • Roles were thought to be played in masks and stock costumes which accentuated aspects stereotypical of the characters.
  • Satire of people and their occupations and buffoonish parodies of serious aspects of theatre, such as tragedy generated humour.
  • Originally farce was staged after tragedy, however it later evolved distinctly.
  • The course and obscene language that was used was the everyday language used on the streets
  • Titles of the plays shed some light for us about the nature of the plays : “The Pregnant Virgin”, “The Soldiers of Campania”, “The Castrated Boar” and “The Women of Brindisi”.

  • Combined Dance and mime alongside musical accompaniment.
  • Performed on public stages and in the private houses of the wealthy.
  • Pantomimus wore splendid costumes as well as a mask. Communication was achieved by means of exaggerated foot-steps, overacted poses and postures as well as a vast range of hand gestures which expressed various meanings.
  • The principal artist was backed by a chorus that sang the story, either comic or tragic, which he acted out. Musicians provided a lively accompaniment with flutes, cymbals, drums and a type of foot-played percussive clacker used to beat time.