Blockbusters in the ancient world – what was on show in Roman theatres?

20120409 Arles Roman theater P1330665
Roman theatre in Arles

The young tourist exclaims something, raises his fist and falls dramatically to the floor. His girlfriend and a few other visitors in the ranks clap their hands; the girlfriend takes a souvenir snapshot. Today the Roman theatre in Arles is not particularly well-visited compared to the nearby amphitheatre. This Roman structure is occasionally still in use – as a bull-fight arena.

Back-slapping entertainment

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Amphitheatre in Nimes

Originally, the Greek and Roman theatres were places to stage serious dramatic plays. Each of them lasted a whole day and conveyed a moral message. But by the time the theatres in Southern France were being built – like thousands of theatres all over the Roman empire – most visitors wanted block-buster excitement rather than serious thoughts. Anyway, most of the inhabitants of the provinces didn’t understand Latin. The old dramatic plays were thus moved to small-scale odeons suitable for chamber music or off-theatre productions. The theatres, we learn in the very good exhibition in the Orange Roman theatre, basically just staged back-slapping entertainment and obscene plays. By around 300 AD only a potpourri of the most obscene scenes of the most obscene plays was left. And yet again, the audience moved on. This time to the round amphitheatres where gladiators, wild animals and a lot of splattering action replaced the actors, pantomimes and dialogues.

Charming Roman theatres around the Mediterranean

No wonder then that there are small and large theatres and amphitheatres left all around the Mediterranean. Some have their stage and back-wall (scenae) still intact, others are almost complete reconstructions in concrete or metal. Also, some had marble seats and columns, others were just a few rows of stone seats from the start. We were very impressed by the stunning setting of the theatre in Termessos / Turkey, and of Leptis Magna and Cyrene in Libya. The theatre in Sabratha, also in Libya, has a huge, almost intact marble scenae and well-preserved marble toilets.  Jordan also had several Roman theatres we could visit.

Roman theatre in Thermessos/ Turkey

The theatre in Bosra/ Syria consists of dark stones, but gives a a fairly good impression of a proper Roman theatre. And so does the theatre in Aspendos/ Turkey.

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