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First Stone Theater at Rome


The Theater of Pompey usually receives the distinction of being the first stone theater at Rome.  Historically it was, however, the second stone theater to be built there.  The first stone theater encountered fierce opposition through a seemingly small yet vocal clique and was eventually pulled down.  Exactly when, where, and by whom this theater was built is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate.

No remains of this theater have been identified.  A full narrative exposition of its origin and demise, if one ever existed, has not survived.  This theater is preserved entirely through a small number of ancient literary accounts, all of which provide only tantalizing summaries.  These sources further cloud the issue through disparity in their accounts.  These differences apparently arose due to confusion over the identity of the involved parties. In this particular case, we are confronted by a multiplication of Scipios and Cassii Longini.  The pontifex maximus in 154 B.C. was a Scipio Nasica.  One of the consuls in 111 B.C. was also a Scipio Nasica.  During both these dates, there were also prominent Cassii Longini in office.  The most recent attempt to sort out the involved individuals will be that of J. A. North (1992. “Deconstructing Stone Theaters,” Apodosis:  Essays in honor of Dr W. W. Cruikcshank. London: St. Paul's School), which confuses instead of clarifies the issue with some unneccessary duplications.


Ancient Testimony


Livy, Summaries 47:  When a theater, contracted out by the censors, was being built, it was dismantled by a decree of the senate on the authority of Publius Cornelius Nasica because it was injurious and could be harmful to the public interests, and the people for a long stood stood and watched their entertainment [in the theater]. (trans. U. Vestal)

Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome 1.15.3:  About the same time, although the date is questioned by some, colonists were sent to Puteoli, Salernum, and Buxentum, and to Auximum in Picenum, one hundred and eighty-five years ago, three years before Cassius the censor began the building of a theater beginning at the Lupercal and facing the Palatine.  But the remarkable austerity of the state and Scipio the consul successfully opposed him in its building, an incident which I regard as one of the clearest indications of the attitude of the people of that time.  (trans. F. W.  Shipley)

Appian, The Civil Wars 1.28:  At this same time the consul Caepio [some editors read "Scipio" instead of "Caepio"] pulled down the theater which Lucius Cassius had begun, and indeed almost completed, because he believed that this too would be cause of further disturbances, or that it was not in the public interest for Romans to become completely used to Greek luxuries. [Greeks were accustomed to sit during political assemblies, whereas Romans stood.] (trans. J. Carter)

St. Augustine, City of God 1.31:  Moreover, a society is made greedy and luxury-loving by prosperity, the thing that Nasica with the greatest prudence voted to avoid when he refused to let a very large, strong and rich city of the enemy of the city be destroyed.  He intended that lust for power should be repressed by fear, that thus repressed, lust should not live luxuriously, and that, luxury, prevented, avarice should not ruin riot. These vices being barred, virtue would flourish and increase to the advantage of the state, and liberty proportionate to that virtue would endure.

Hence it was, and from such extremely prudent love of country it came that your own chief pontiff, chosen without a dissenting vote by the Senate of his day as the best man, a point worth repeating, when the Senate was setting about the construction of banked seats for a theater, restrained them so as no longer to be so disposed or to desire it.  In a most impressive address he persuaded them not to allow the luxury of the Greeks to overrun the manly practices of the fatherland, and not by favouring foreign frivolity to allow Roman manhood to be undermined and sapped.  His prestige was so great that, moved by his words, the Senate wisely thenceforth prohibited the setting up of even those temporary benches which the citizenry had begun to use at the games.

How zealously would such a man as that have banished from the city of Rome those stage performances themselves, had he dared to oppose the authority of those he believed to be gods! (trans. M. Dods)

St. Augustine, City of God 1.33:  It was this pestilential ruin [attending the theaters], this overthrow of honesty and decency that our Scipio feared for you when he forbade the construction of theaters, when he foresaw that you could easily be corrupted and subverted by prosperity, when he would not have you untroubled by the menace of a foe. (trans. M. Dods)
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