Catania, Italy

Roman Theatre

Standing at street level, looking down where the ancient Roman city once was, you can see little remains of the Theater's original form. Roman buildings often served as the foundations for later structures, which did not always preserve the constructions in their original form.

Built in late antiquity, around 300 B.C. the theatre was rebuilt on an older theatre from the 500 B.C. facing the sea. Covered walkways, corridors, some small stairways and parts of the Cavea (audience seating) and orchestra pit, the latter being paved in marble remains from the ancient theatre. Theatrical productions had an essential role in Roman society.

As entrance was free, every echelon of society mixed from the least to the greatest. A marvellous way to see, be seen and entertained. In this way, it was a place for social cohesion, endorsing a sense of community, regardless of class or rank.

Unlike the Greeks, until 30 B.C., the Romans did not have stone theatres. Their first performance spaces were wooden constructions. Being "collapsable" and portable, they were erected in a variety of chosen spots, such as in a Circus or in front of a temple. Though they were doubtless convenient, the principle problem with these makeshift platforms was their propensity to catch fire, as flaming torches and other such special effects were used in performances.

In the Imperial Age, these wooden stages were replaced with permanent performance spaces. In contrast to the ancient Greek model, the new Roman theatres were no longer built into the hill, but on level ground and enclosed, so that in bad weather a large canvass tarpaulin could be hauled over the entire structure as a temporary roof.

The Cavea (audience seating) curved around the front of the stage, which time was much deeper than the classic Greek version, leaving room for increasingly exciting sets, props and machinery for special effects, and in some theatres a curtain was introduced.

Vitruvio, a roman architect, recounts early scenery being simple in comparison to earlier more stylised and complex Greek productions. However, Roman theatre developed spectacularly on a technical level, imitating the grand manner in which gladiators appeared in sport stadiums and amphitheatres.

In the theatres the gods were presented and portrayed classical style, elsewhere the strongest, bravest mortals were lauded and applauded with equal fervour.

Theatres were the domain of the state. The Latin poet Giovenale's famed maxim «Give the people bread and circus» applied as much to theatres as any other platform. Although many Greek texts were still performed, productions resounded with current "empire ideology" and were used to perpetrate whatever propaganda was considered necessary at the time on public holidays, celebrations of military triumphs and religious days.

One major Roman addition to the original classic Greek performance was the use of mime which, accompanied by music, was used to marvellous effect in representing daily life in a bizarre or fantastic manner. Unfortunately, little remains of the music which accompanied this innovative departure from the spoken word to gesture alone, despite scholarly attempts at its recreation.

Stock characters and "types" were also developed in Roman theatre and were hugely popular.