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Theatre

The Theatre

One of the first finds at Herculaneum was its theatre, first discovered in 1709 whilst digging a well. The plan and elevation show that it was of a standard Roman layout, complying very much with the definitions specified by Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture (Book V, chapter VI, 'Plan of the Theatre').


The diameter of the exterior circle of the theatre measures 34 m, of which the orchestra measures 9 m.  In height the theatre measures 19.5 m and could hold about 2500 spectators. This is

only about half the size of the theatre in neighbouring Pompeii, but considering the
population of Herculaneum could not have been much more than 5,000, its capacity was more than adequate.

The scaenae frons was adorned with two superimposed rows of pilasters and arcades with niches and doors, painted in red and yellow, with two red marble columns, now in the Church of St. Januarius in Naples, and with two fluted columns. Behind the stage was a narrow room (postscenium) used as a dressing room and entered by a door at the back.
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Round the top of the cavea stood statues of the imperial family and municipal benefactors, all larger than life, and six bronze equestrian statues.

The outside of the theatre was constructed of tufa in opus reticulatum. The walls are faced in part with brick. The lower part was adorned with superimposed rows of eighteen arches, supported on pilasters, and the whole was covered with stucco, painted and decorated with marble cornices. Along the exterior, at the back of the stage, was a portico of Doric order, with fluted columns, coloured red below and white above.
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The orchestra was paved with thick slabs of giallo antico, of which fragments still remain. To the right and left of the orchestra, supported by vaults and approached by stairs near the ends of the stage were the large boxes (tribunalia), probably reserved for the more important magistrates. A similar layout is found in the theatre at Pompeii.

All the seats and stairs are of tufa. The tiers of seats for the spectators (cavea) are divided into six wedges by seven flights of steps radiating from the orchestra and terminated by seven exits (vomitoria). They are divided, parallel to the circumference, by two passages (praccinctiones). The lowest division, the ima cavea
 consists of four rows of somewhat broader seats, 18cm high and 90cm wide. This was the place of honour, and was approached by the orchestra entrances which were closed off by bronze gates.

The vast majority of the spectators sat on the eleven tiers immediately above (media cavea), and reached their seats by stairs connected with the passage dividing the ima cavea from the media. Above the media, and divided from it by a corridor, were three more rows of seats, the summa cavea.
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The theatre was decorated with many kinds of marble. Of these, all have been lost, not so much by the violence of the eruption as by the rapacity of the excavators. Every part of the building, inside and out, was decorated with statuary. When the mud torrent rushed down, it destroyed much beyond recognition. Of the fifteen marble statues of the stage, of the bronze gilt equestrian statues of the cavea, of the bronze chariots and horses over the entrances of the orchestra, we have only broken fragments, except for one magnificent bronze horse, found in sufficiently large fragments to be pieced together (shown above; a second head is pictured left).
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In rather better condition are some of the large bronze statues that crowned the cavea including a those of a Vestal, Nero Drusus as a priest, the ugly and realistic Marcus Calatorius and Tiberius Claudius Drusus, pictured bottom left.
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The building survived the eruption remarkably well. Because of its structural strength, it must have resisted the onslaught of rock and ash until the volcanic flow spilt over the top of the semi-circular drum and poured in, eventually filling it up completely.
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The theatre as seen today, unfortunately, has been stripped of all decoration. Since it remains buried, it can only be reached through a section of the old tunnels, entered on Corso Ercolano. Two staircases, at either end of the lower portico, lead to a corrridor whose walls are covered by graffiti left by visiting patrons.
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There is little else to be seen of the once magnificent decoration, save the remains of the scaenae frons, now devoid of any ornamentation.
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As to the treasures found in the theatre, anything that was moveable and could be hauled up the well, was carried off, in the first instance, by its original discoverer, Prince d'Elboeuf of Austria. Not to be outdone, his successor, Rocque Joaquín de Alcubierre, was even more tenacious, enlarging the original shaft and stripping the place bare.
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For a virtual tour of the theatre (and for that matter the rest of Herculaneum) you should visit the Herculaneum Conservation Project's associate website Herculaneum Panoramas (please note that you will need Quicktime to view the tour).









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