Description of the Theatre (Reg VIII, Ins 7, 20, 21)
The theatre is divided into three main divisions: the
cavea (a), the large outer area containing seats for spectators; the
orchestra (b), the small semi-circular portion enclosed by the cavea with an
entrance on either side and the stage (c), facing the orchestra and cavea.
The overall plan of the theatre conforms, as would be expected,
to the Greek style. In the Roman theatre the
orchestra was in the form of a semi-circle, of which the diameter
represented the stage. In Greek theatres, however, the stage
according to Vitruvius was laid out on one side of a square inscribed
in the circle of the orchestra; the Greek orchestra, as evidenced by
existing remains elsewhere, was in most cases either a complete circle or was so
extended by tangents at the side that a circle could be inscribed in it,
as is the case here.
middle section, the media cavea (coloured pink), was much
deeper, extending from the ima cavea to the vaulted corridor. It
contained twenty rows of marble seats arranged like steps, of which only
a small portion has survived (the original seats are the light coloured
ones in the pictures above, the rest are modern). On a part of one of
places a little less than 400mm wide, are marked off by vertical lines
in front, and numbered; they probably belonged to some corporation which
found it necessary to assign places to its members by number.
upper section, the summa cavea (coloured green), supported by the vault over the corridor,
was too narrow to contain more than four rows of seats. The outer wall at the back of the summa cavea rose to a
considerable height above the last row of seats. On the inside, near the
top, were blocks of basalt containing round holes to hold wooden masts
for the velarium which stretched over the cavea to the roof of the
stage, protecting the spectators from the heat of the sun.
Near the front of the orchestra at the right and left
were small rectangular platforms (d) which were supported by the vaults over the
entrances. They were reached by short stairways near the ends of the
stage. Called tribunals, they were no doubt reserved for the seats of
those to whom special honour was paid (pictured opposite and below).
On the east side these passages (pictured below) were
reached by way of a lane (f) leading up from the Via Stabiana. This lane
(pictured right) retains some of its fresco decoration and
several well preserved examples of graffiti (pictured lower right).
cavea could be entered on the lower side from the passage between it and
the ima cavea which, at the ends, was connected by short flights of
with the passages leading outside; on the upper side six doors opened
onto the media cavea from the upper vaulted corridor, from which flights
descended, dividing the seating into five wedge like blocks, cunei, with
a small oblong block in addition on either side near the ends of the
The vaulted corridor itself was accessible by four doors, one (g) from the
Triangular Forum (pictured above and opposite), another from the open space between this and the
curved exterior of the theatre, a third at the end of an alley east of
the Temple of Isis and a fourth opening from a steep passage (h) leading up
from the Via Stabiana.
In the open space
between the theatre, the Triangular Forum and the Samnite Palaestra is a
small reservoir for water (k), square on the outside and circular within (pictured above). It
was evidently used for the sprinklings, 'sparsiones', with saffron
coloured water, by which on summer days the temperature of the theatre
was mollified. That such sprinklings were in vogue in Pompeii is known
from announcements of gladiatorial combats, painted on walls, in which
they are advertised together with an awning as part of the attraction -
'sparsiones vela erunt'.
The most recent
restoration of the theatre, which has attracted its fair share of
criticism, was approved by the SAP in 1973 and completed in 2010. The
work involved the recreation of the seating in tufa and the removal of
previous invasive restorations. The photograph opposite was taken before
the restoration work commenced and shows the large gaps in the
surviving seating. At the same time some of the supports for the
velarium were relocated in the original sockets.
|The Large Theatre, from the character of its construction, dates in its original form from the end of the 3rd century BC. During
Augustan period the theatre was extensively restored and enlarged under the auspices of the brothers
Marcus Holconius Rufus and Marcus Holconius Celer as testified in the many inscriptions found throughout the building.
employed by the Holconii was a freedman, Marcus Artorius Primus imortalised
in an inscription on the outer wall near the entrance to the orchestra.
The stage, at about 1m above the level of the
orchestra, is lower than the stage of a Roman theatre as specified by Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture (Book V, chapter VI, 'Plan of the Theatre') and much lower than the height specified for the
Greek type (about 3.2m) . The probable reason for the modest height of the stage is that the
orchestra was occupied by the seats of magistrates whose view would be
obstructed if the stage were much higher.
The cavea seated about 5,000 spectators. The greater part
of it, from the orchestra to the vaulted corridor under the summa cavea lies on the slope of a hill; the floor of the vaulted corridor is on a level
with the Triangular Forum.
The seats are arranged in three
main semi circular sections. The lowest, the ima cavea (coloured blue on the plan) lies next to the
orchestra and contains four broad ledges on which, as well as in the
orchestra itself, the members of the city council, the decurions, could
place their chairs.
The stage is long and narrow, measuring approximately 120 by 14 Oscan
feet; the floor of the stage, as previously mentioned is about 1m above the level of the
orchestra. The rear wall, as in ancient theatres generally, was built to
represent the front of a palace, entered by three doors and adorned
with columns and niches for statues (pictured lower left). In each of the short walls at the
end of the stage is a broad doorway, now blocked up (pictured above).
long narrow room (e) behind the
stage was used as a dressing room, and was entered by a door at the
rear. The area under the stage was divided into several parts and
included a space
of the curtain which, as in all Roman theatres, was lowered at the
beginning of the play and raised at the end.
There were several ways for spectators to gain access to their seats. The ima cavea was entered from the orchestra which in turn was entered by way of the vaulted passages under the tribunals.
The summa cavea was entered by several doors from
a narrow vaulted passage running along the outside. This passage did
not extend the whole length of the summa cavea, but stopped where the
outer wall of the theatre joined that of the Triangular Forum. Here a
stairway led to it; there was a second stairway at the rear of the
Samnite Palaestra (j) and a third leading from the alley east of the Temple of
Isis. At the edge of the
Triangular Forum a narrow stairway (i), built into the thick wall, led
directly to the summa cavea.
©Jackie and Bob Dunn
reproduced by permission from their website at
(Su concessione del Ministero per
i Beni e le Attività Culturali:
Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di
Napoli e Pompei)