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Theatrum Pompei  (Theatre of Pompey)


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NOTE:  For more recent scholarship on the theater, see our Bibliography.

The first permanent theatre in Rome, built of stone by Pompeius in his second consulship in 55 B.C., and dedicated in that year according to the common version (Asc. in Pis. 1; Vell. 2.48; Chron. Pasch. a.u.c. 697 (foundations laid);Tac. Ann. 14.20; Cass. Dio 39.38, whose story that a freedman of Pompeius furnished the money is to be rejected), when most elaborate games, contests of wild animals, and exhibitions of marvels, were provided (Cic. in Pis. 65; Plin. NH 7.158; 8.20; Plut. Pomp. 52). Besides the usual name, theatrum Pompei, it was called theatrum Pompeianum (Plin. cit. 34.39; 36.114; Mon. Anc. 4.9; Suet. Tib. 47; Claud. 21; Tac. Ann. 6.45; Mart. 6.9; 10.51.11; 14.29.1, 166.1; in plural, Flor. 2.13.8); theatrum marmoreum (Fast. Amit. ad pr. Id. Aug.); theatrum magnum (Plin. cit. 7.158); and sometimes simply theatrum (Hor. Carm. 1.20.3; Suet. Nero 13; Flor. 2.13.8; Cass. Dio 50.8.3), as it was the only stone theatre in Rome until that of Marcellus was built and always the most important (cf. Tac. Ann. 13.54; Plin. cit. 33.54; Cass. Dio 62.8).

The plan of this building Pompeius took from that of Mitylene (Plut. Pomp. 42), and within it he set up many wonderful statues (Plin. cit. 7.34; for the statues of the fourteen nations subdued by Pompeius, see Plin. cit. 36.41; Suet. Nero 46; Serv. Aen. 8.721). To avoid censure for building a permanent theatre, he constructed a temple of VENUS VICTRIX at the top of the central part of the cavea, so that the rows of seats might appear to be the steps leading up to the temple, and dedicated the whole as a temple and not as a theatre (Tert. de spect. 10; Gell. 10.1.7; Plin. cit. 8.20). Tertullian speaks of the dedication of theatre and temple as taking place at the same time, but Gellius (loc. cit.) states that Pompeius, when about to dedicate the temple, was uncertain whether to put consul tertium or tertio in the inscription, and on the advice of Cicero (quoted from a letter of Tiro) compromised on consul tert. This would seem to indicate that the temple was dedicated in 52, not 53 (which is also the statement of Chron. Pasch. a.u.c. 702). Gellius, however, goes on to say (loc. cit.) that the inscription in theatro did not read so in his day. Whatever may have been true of the dedication, the inscription on the temple, or on the temple and scaena both, was evidently put in place in 52 B.C. From the notice in two calendars (Fast. Allif. Amit. ad pr. Id. Aug.; cf. Suet. Claud. 21) it appears that there were shrines or altars to three other deities, Honor Virtus and Felicitias, similarly placed in the theatre, and perhaps a fourth (Fas. Allif.: V . . . . ?).

Augustus restored the theatre at great expense in 32 B.C. (Mon. Anc. iv.9; cf., however, CIL 6.9404, and removed the statue of Pompeius, before which Caesar had been murdered, from the CURIA POMPEI to the theatre itself (Suet. Aug. 31). It was burned in 21 A.D. (Hier. a. Abr. 2038) and since there was no surviving member of the family able to restore it, this was undertaken by Tiberius (Tac. Ann. 3.72; Vell. 2.130; Sen. de cons. ad Marc. 22.4), who set up a bronze statue of Sejanus within the building (Cass. Dio 57.21.3). Tiberius did not complete the work of restoration (Suet. Tib. 47; Cal. 21), or, according to another statement, did not dedicate it (Tac. Ann. 6.45). The completion of the work is ascribed to Caligula (Suet. Cal. 21) or Claudius (Suet. Claud. 21), and the dedication to the latter (Suet. Claud. 21; Cass. Dio 60.6.8), who inscribed the name of Tiberius on the scaena and built a marble arch in his honour near the theatre (Suet. Claud. 11).

In 66 A.D. when Tiridates, king of Armenia, visited Rome, Nero is said to have gilded the scaena and the exterior of the theatre for that one occasion, and to have stretched purple awnings over the cavea (Plin. cit. 33.54; Cass. Dio 62.6.1-2). In 80 the scaena was burned (Cass. Dio 66.24.2), but must have been repaired very soon. Under Severus some restoration must have been carried out, for there are two inscriptions of Q. Acilius Fuscus, who was procurator operis theatri Pompeiani in 209-211 A.D. (CIL 8.1439; 14.154). In 247 the theatre was burned again (Hier. a. Abr. 2263), and probably under Carinus (Hist. Aug. Car. 19), for it was restored by Diocletian and Maximian (Chron. 148). Other restorations are recorded, by Arcadius and Honorius (CIL 6.1191, cf. 1193), and finally by Symmachus at the command of Theodoric between 507 and 511 (Cassiod. Var. 4.51; cf. Sym. Rel. 9.3). Successive restorations probably increased its magnificence, and it is mentioned among the notable monuments of the city by Cassius Dio (39.38) and Ammianus Marcellinus (16.10.14). Immediately outside the south-east side of the scaena was the PORTICUS POMPEI for the use of the spectators in case of rain. Other references to the theatre in ancient literature convey no additional information (Tac. Ann. 13.54; Mart. 6.9; 10.51.11; 14.29.1, 166.1; App. BC 2.115; 5.15; Fest. 188; Plin. cit. 37.19).

The theatre was in the campus Martius (Not. Reg. IX), a little north-east of the circus Flaminius, and is represented on the Marble Plan (frg. 30). Its exact site is determined by the remains in opus reticulatum of the foundations of the cavea (the church of S. Maria de Crypta pincta takes its name from one of the vaults), of the temple of Venus Victrix, discovered under the Palazzo Pio, and of the scaena in the Piazza dei Satiri (which takes its name, not from the two satyrs now in the Capitol, but from a local name Satro). The Piazza di Grottapinta still preserves the name and the form of part of the theatre. The fašade of the semicircular cavea consisted of three series of arcades, adorned with columns, the lowest arcade being of the Doric order, the second Ionic, and the third Corinthian. Of the lower arcade traces of twenty-four arches of peperino have been found, in front of which were columns of red granite. The diameter of the theatre was 150-160 metres, and the length of the scaena about 95 metres. According to Pliny (NH 36.115) the cavea seated 40,000 persons, but this, like other statements of seating capacity in ancient literature, is open to question, and the most careful estimate reduces this number to 10,000.

[Platner, Samuel Ball, and Thomas Ashby. 1929 (rev. ed.). "Theatrum Pompei." A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome: 515-517.  London: Oxford University Press.]

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Images of the Theatrum Pompei


Please see Imagines Monumentorum Cn. Pompei Magni:  An Image Database for Pompey the Great and his Monuments for images of extant remains and reconstructions.

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