With its rows of arches and its more recent, unusually high windows, the Theatre of Marcellus is one of the oldest examples of an entertainment venue that was very popular among ancient Romans. Located in the Campus Martius area, between the Tiber and the Campidoglio, it is a striking example of the kinds of modification and changes of use undergone by ancient Roman monuments over the centuries.
At that time of its construction, the Theatre of Pompey already existed. However, to compete with a rival, Julius Caesar decided to build a new theatre nearby. He annexed a large area and didn't hesitate to demolish existing buildings, including two temples.
Theatrical productions were offered to the general public during election campaigns, and building a theatre proved to be an excellent propaganda tool.
When Caesar died, his successor Augustus continued the project, expanding its scope to include the area around the Circus Flaminus adjacent to the theatre. Responding to its site, the semicircular curve of the theatre was built using the same curve used for the Circus. The project also made allowances for the swampy soil conditions near the river, with a concrete platform being built to reinforce the foundations.
Augustus inaugurated the building with a solemn celebration in 13 B.C., dedicating it to his nephew and son-in-law Marcellus, his designated successor who had died prematurely.
The theatre was impressive. According to sources of the time, it could hold 15,000-20,000 spectators, second in capacity only to the nearby Theatre of Pompey.
It originally had 41 arches for each of the three tiers: Doric for the first two and Ionic for the last. The uppermost portion was decorated with enormous marble theatre masks. The building was fitted with ramps and tunnels that enabled spectators to leave the theatre rapidly.
Although at the time it was taller than a 10-storey palazzo, today it is only about 20 meters high.
According to sources, the setting was sumptuous. The two small temples that Caesar had demolished were rebuilt at the rear. While Romans didn't look down upon entertainment facilities, they often built temples near the theatres, using religion to justify their entertainment habits.
The theatre was restored repeatedly and was still in use in 421. After falling out of use, it became buried halfway up the first tier. As happened in the Middle Ages, the building became a quarry for materials. Then, because of its strategic position near the river, it was converted into a fortified castle. Various families contested ownership of the property over the centuries. In 1200, it went to the Savelli family, who built the Baldassarre Peruzzi Palazzo still visible today above the arcades. The most recent owners of the building were the Orsini.
In the 1930s, the building was annexed. The shops and homes that had sprung up inside the arcades and the surrounding area were removed. Some major excavation work, common practice during that period, was undertaken to free the arcades that had been filled in with masonry.