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The theatre of ancient Rome was a diverse and interesting art form, ranging from festival performances of street theatre and acrobatics, to the staging of Plautus's broadly appealing situation comedies, to the high-style, verbally elaborate tragedies of Seneca. Although Rome had a native tradition of performance, the Hellenization of Roman culture in the 3rd century BC had a profound and energizing effect on Roman theatre and encouraged the development of Latin literature of the highest quality for the stage.
The Roman historian Livy wrote that the Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BC, with a performance by Etruscan actors. Beacham argues that they had been familiar with "pre-theatrical practices" for some time before that recorded contact. Roman drama began in 240 BC with the plays of Livius Andronicus. It remained popular throughout Late Antiquity, by the mid 4th century AD, 102 out of 176 ludi publici being dedicated to theatre, besides a considerably lower number of gladiator and chariot racing events.
Following the expansion of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) into several Greek territories between 270–240 BC, Rome encountered Greek drama. From the later years of the republic and by means of the Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD), theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and reached England; Roman theatre was more varied, extensive and sophisticated than that of any culture before it. While Greek drama continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BC marks the beginning of regular Roman drama. From the beginning of the Roman empire, however, interest in full-length drama declined in favour of a broader variety of theatrical entertainments.
The first important works of Roman literature were the tragedies and comedies that Livius Andronicus wrote from 240 BC. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius also began to write drama. No plays from either writer have survived. While both dramatists composed in both genres, Andronicus was most appreciated for his tragedies and Naevius for his comedies; their successors tended to specialise in one or the other, which led to a separation of the subsequent development of each type of drama. By the beginning of the 2nd century BC, drama was firmly established in Rome and a guild of writers (collegium poetarum) had been formed.
The Roman comedies that have survived are all fabula palliata (comedies based on Greek subjects) and come from two dramatists: Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus) and Publius Terentius Afer (Terence). In re-working the Greek originals, the Roman comic dramatists abolished the role of the chorus in dividing the drama into episodes, and introduced musical accompaniment to its dialogue (between one-third of the dialogue in the comedies of Plautus and two-thirds in those of Terence). The action of all scenes is set in the exterior location of a street and its complications often follow from eavesdropping. Plautus, the more popular of the two, wrote between 205 and 184 BC and twenty of his comedies survive, of which his farces are best known; he was admired for the wit of his dialogue and his use of a variety of poetic meters. All of the six comedies that Terence wrote between 166 and 160 BC have survived; the complexity of his plots, in which he often combined several Greek originals, was sometimes denounced, but his double-plots enabled a sophisticated presentation of contrasting human behaviour.
No early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three early tragedians—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius. From the time of the empire, the work of two tragedians survives—one is an unknown author, while the other is the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Nine of Seneca's tragedies survive, all of which are fabula crepidata (tragedies adapted from Greek originals); his Phaedra, for example, was based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Historians do not know who wrote the only extant example of the fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects), Octavia, but in former times it was mistakenly attributed to Seneca due to his appearance as a character in the tragedy.
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Stock characters in Roman comedy include:
The Roman theatre was laid out like a Greek theatre. There was a backstage area, seating arrangements for the audience, and an orchestra. The Roman stage went through many different stages before reaching the form we all recognize today.
Theatres started out as simple, temporary wooden structures. The layout of the stage was the same as in later stone stages: three doors, opening to the brothel, temple, and hero's house. The stage itself was enclosed by wings at each side, and the scene house had a roof.
The Romans did not have a permanent (stone) theatre until the final years of the Republic; the latest reference to the Romans' building a new theater was in 17 BC. The large stone theatres seated tens of thousands of Romans. There was no front curtain nor were performances done in the orchestra pit (unlike Greek plays). The audiences sat on temporary wooden benches where there was room; ushers would direct the patrons all throughout the performance.
Roman actors had bad reputations and their morals challenged even the decadence of Roman society. Their performances could be lewd, highly sexual and offensive, and they sometimes even appeared naked on stage and engaged in sexual acts. They could also be highly critical of the political status quo. As expected, some emperors were as critical of them and took certain measures in an attempt to counteract their influence: Emperor Julian the Apostate forbade the pagan Roman priests from attending theatrical performances to avoid giving the performances respectability, and the more enlightened Emperor Tiberius would not allow people of the stage to have any contact with the upper classes. Most Roman plays were whimsical, more mimes and pantomimes than drama; the "classics" were in the minority.
In the early Roman Republic (before the emperors emerged after Julius Caesar), women did not enter the profession; it was considered inappropriate for them. However, in the Imperial period, a number of women became famous actresses, and earned reputations as infamous as their male counterparts. Indeed, one of the Emperor Nero’s concubines, Acte, was an actress. According to tradition, Acte was converted by St Paul. Following her conversion, she was banished by Nero, but interestingly enough, after his ignominious death she was the only one who would prepare his body for a decent burial.
Over the years, a number of actors became quite influential, counting among their friends men of high standing within Roman society. Some gifted theatrical artists such as Roscius, in comedy, and Aesopus, in tragedy, earned considerable reputations and were fêted by the Romans. Indeed, the Christian St Genesius had a respectable reputation and was considered a gifted writer, actor and comedian, even by the Emperor Diocletian who was present at the performance in which he was converted.