Pompeii, Italy

Large Theatre

The large theatre was built during 2nd Century BC. A natural recess in the hillside was used to create the horseshoe-shaped stands (known as cavea).

The cavea had 3 distinct zones. Close to the orchestra four steps totally clad in marble were visible: they were reserved for the musicians and the city elite. Beyond them, there were 20 rows of stone seats; unfortunately, only a few fragments of those massive structures are left. On one seat its number is still visible: it is curious to see how only 40 cm per person were allotted!

The upper seating is divided into 7 sectors; it is reinforced by a circular corridor added during the reign of emperor Augustus along with upper platforms above the side entrances, thus increasing the theatre’s capacity to nearly 5,000 spectators.

All the stands were enclosed by a wall supporting an enormous retractable canopy which protected the public from sun and bad weather. The stage and the scenery, decorated with marble and statues, date back to 62 AD when refurbishment works were carried out after the earthquake had hit Pompeii.

Playworks performed in the theatre probably included Atellan Farce (vulgar farces delivered in Oscan, a language spoken in Campania and Abruzzo regions), the comedies of Plautus and of Terentius or mimes and pantomimes with dance and music. Sometimes, during intermissions, spectators were sprinkled with scented water.

When these perfusions were planned, they were announced on posters. Close to the theatre, a huge space enclosed by porticos on all four sides, used as a sort  of foyer. Vitruvius mentions it in De Architectura. Audiences from the two neighboring theaters (the Large Theatre and the Odeon) could stretch their legs during breaks or take shelter there in case of rain. Some weapons as well were recovered there: the building was probably used as gladiator barracks during the last years of the city.