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

Arles Roman theater
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. We are visiting one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in France. Today the Roman theatre in Arles is not particularly well-visited, however, compared to the nearby amphitheatre. That is because this Roman structure is occasionally still in use – as a bull-fight arena.

Back-slapping entertainment

 Amphitheater in Nimes  - a variation of Roman theatres
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 came into being – 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 thus moved on to small-scale odeons suitable for chamber music or off-theatre productions.

The nearby Orange Roman theatre, which has UNESCO World Heritage status, includes a very good exhibition. The theatres, we learn there, 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 even more impressive were the theatres 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.

Ancient theatre with a view in Thermessos
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.

If you like Roman theatres, you may also find our posts about Roman history in Tunisia or whole Roman cities in Jordan and the Baalbek temples in Lebanon interesting.

NB: We had no sponsoring for this post about Roman theatres all around the Mediterranean. We visited them on a number of separate occasions during our travels.

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