Theatre of Pompey

The Theatre of Pompey (Latin: Theatrum Pompeium, Italian: Teatro di Pompeo) was a structure in Ancient Rome built during the later part of the Roman Republican era. It was completed in seven years, starting from 55 BC, and was dedicated early in 52 BC before the structure was fully completed. The theatre was one of the first permanent (non-wooden) theatres in Rome.

The building is considered the original Roman theatre. It was the first to be entirely built as a free-standing stone structure without earthen works, as traditionally constructed since the Hellenistic Greek period. Subsequent theatres built within the Republic and Empire copied its form as a template with few changes other than size. The Theatre of Pompey is considered to have been the largest theatre ever built in ancient or modern times.

The theatre's history is long, but is infamous as the place of Julius Caesar's murder by the Liberatores of the Roman Senate and elite.


Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus financed his theatre to gain political popularity during his second consulship. The theatre was inspired after Pompey's visit in 62 BC to a Greek theatre in Mytilene. Construction began in 55 BC but dedicated early in 52 BC. It was the largest theatre the Roman's had ever built at in time or place. It retained Pompey's name throughout its active history of more than 600 years. The theatre was the principle monument of Ancient Rome.

The structure and connecting quadriporticus had multiple uses. The building had the largest "Crypta" of all of the Roman theatres. This area, located behind the stage and within an enclosure, was used by patrons between acts or productions to stroll, purchase refreshments or just to escape to the covered porticoes from the sun or rain.

The Porticus Pompei contained statues of great artists and actors. Long arcades exhibiting collections of paintings and sculpture as well as a large space suitable for holding public gatherings and meetings made the facility an attraction to Romans for many reasons. Lavish fountains were fed by water purchased from a nearby aqueduct and stored. It is unknown if the water supply would have been enough to run the water works for more than a few hours a day or if some other supply allowed the fountains to run nearly nonstop.

The highest point of the structure was the Temple to Venus Victrix, Pompey's personal deity (compared to Julius Caesar's worship of Venus Genetrix as his personal deity). Some modern scholars believe this was not mere piety, but essential in order that the structure should not be seen as a self-promoting extravagance as well as to overcome a moratorium on permanent theatre buildings.

The remains of the east side of the quadriporticus, and three of four temples from an earlier period often associated with the theatre can be seen on the Largo di Torre Argentina. The fourth temple remains largely covered by the modern streets of Rome. This archaeological site was excavated by order of Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s. The scarce remains of the theatre itself can be found off the Via di Grotta Pinta underground. Vaults from the original theatre can be found in the cellar rooms of restaurants off this street, as well as in the walls of the hotel Albergo Sole al Biscione. The foundations of the theatre as well as part of the first level and cavea remain, however, have been built over and added on to. Over building throughout the centuries has resulted in the surviving ruins of the theatre's main structure to become incorporated within modern structures.

During the theatre's long history, which stretches from its dedication to approximately 1455 AD, the structure endured several restorations due mainly to fire. Eventually falling into disrepair, it became a quarry for the stone that had made up the large theatre.


The characteristics of Roman theatres are similar to those of the earlier Greek theatres on which they are based. Much of the architectural influence on the Romans came from the Greeks, and theatre structural design was no different from other buildings in that respect. However, Roman theatres have specific differences, such as being built upon their own foundations instead of earthen works or a hillside and being completely enclosed on all sides. Roman theatres derive their basic design from the Theatre of Pompey, the first permanent Roman theatre.

Until this structure, Rome had a moratorium against theatres within the city walls. Due to mobs of people being whipped into a frenzy by political orators or theatrics, permanent theatres were banned in the city until late in the Republican era. Theaters and amphitheatres were temporary wooden structures that could be assembled and disassembled quickly.

Pompey was inspired to build the theatre for several reasons. Politically, this allowed for his supporters to meet. The completion of this structure also prompted the building of the Imperial Fora. Julius Caesar built his forum as a direct response to Pompey's theatre, which was added onto by nearly every emperor since.

During the Roman Kingdom and early Republican period, the areas around Rome had a number of sanctuaries that incorporated both temples or meeting houses with amphitheaters. This, as well as Pompey's admiration of the Greek theatre of Mytilene, inspired the theatre's design.

For this building, the Romans built concrete foundations from the ground up. Creating vaulted corridors underneath the seating for access to each section of the auditorium not only allowed safer access to upper levels but could fill and empty the theatre in a fast and controlled manner. In doing this, a circular exterior was created taking advantage of the Romans' innovative use of the arch. This innovation allowed for a much larger edifice with greater structural integrity. This also made the auditorium a structure in itself rather than simple earthen works. This is not to say that all Roman theatres were built in this manner, only that Romans could build their theatres in even the flattest lands.

The stage section of the theatre is attached directly to the auditorium, making both a single structure enclosed all around, whereas Greek theatres separate the two. This made for better acoustics and limited the entrance to the building, allowing tickets to be collected at central access areas (clay pottery "tickets" being a Roman innovation).

This architecture was copied for nearly all future theatres and amphitheaters within the ancient city of Rome and throughout the empire. Notable structures that used a similar style are the Colosseum and the Theatre of Marcellus, both of which have ruins that still exist in Rome today.


The entire theatre structure was large enough to include multiple uses. Even when performances were not scheduled the theatre was busy with activity with varied purposes. The Temple of Venus as its crown on one side and the more ancient sacred area on the other made the site of religious importance as well. Today nearly all archaeological work is focused at the remains of the theatre section. However, the theatre included a completely enclosed private garden with museum collections and meeting spaces that expanded past the auditorium, orchestra and stage.


In order to build the theatre as a permanent stone structure a number of things were done, including building outside the city walls. By dedicating the theatre to Venus Victrix and building the temple central within the cavea, Pompeii makes the structure a large shrine to his personal deity. He also incorporates four Republican temples from an earlier period in a section called the "Sacred Area" in what is today known as Largo di Torre Argentina. The entire complex is built directly off the older section which directs the structure's layout. In this manner the structure had a day to day religious context and incorporates an older series of temples into the newer structure to have real purpose.

Temple A was built in the 3rd century BC, and is probably the Temple of Juturna built by Gaius Lutatius Catulus after his victory against the Carthaginians in 241 BC. It was later rebuilt into a church, whose apse is still present.

Temple B, a circular temple with six columns remaining, was built by Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 101 BC to celebrate his victory over Cimbri; it was Aedes Fortunae Huiusce Diei, a temple devoted to the "Luck of the Current Day". The colossal statue found during excavations and now kept in the Capitoline Museums was the statue of the goddess herself. Only the head, the arms, and the legs were of marble: the other parts, covered by the dress, were of bronze.

Temple C is the most ancient of the four, dating back to 4th or 3rd century BC, and was probably devoted to Feronia the ancient Italic goddess of fertility. After the fire of 80 AD, this temple was restored, and the white and black mosaic of the inner temple cell dates back to this restoration.

Temple D is the largest of the four; it dates back to 2nd century BC with Late Republican restorations, and was devoted to Lares Permarini, but only a small part of it has been excavated (a street covers the most of it).

Place of death Curia of Pompeii, Rome

Porticus Pompei

The theatre Complex itself was designed for all the many artistic accomplishments of the time. The theatre also played host to a fully enclosed garden with fountains and sculpture surrounded by long columned porticoes located directly behind the Stage. Inside the surrounding arcades of the garden area were exhibits of art. Large collections of paintings along with great sculptures adorned the entire complex. Many pieces survive in museums throughout Rome today. This area is also referred to as a crypta in other Roman theatres.

The location of the theatre is of historic significance in large part due to a single murder that took place in the complex, located in the large Porticus Pompei behind the stage. The large garden area had a meeting room or curia in the far end near the sacred area.

On the Ides of March (March 15; see Roman calendar) of 44 BC, Caesar was due to appear at a session of the Senate. Mark Antony, having vaguely learned of the plot the night before from a terrified Liberator named Servilius Casca, and fearing the worst, went to head Caesar off at the steps of the forum.

According to Plutarch, as Caesar arrived Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother. The other conspirators crowded round to offer support. Both Plutarch and Suetonius say that Caesar waved him away, but Cimber grabbed his shoulders and pulled down Caesar's tunic. Caesar then cried to Cimber, "Why, this is violence!" ("Ista quidem vis est!"). At the same time, the aforementioned Casca produced his dagger and made a glancing thrust at the dictator's neck. Caesar turned around quickly and caught Casca by the arm, saying in Latin "Casca, you villain, what are you doing?" Casca, frightened, shouted "Help, brother" in Greek ("ἀδελφέ, βοήθει!", "adelphe, boethei!"). Within moments, the entire group, including Brutus, was striking out at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around sixty or more men participated in the assassination. He was stabbed 23 times, but, according to Suetonius, a physician later established that only one wound, the second one to his chest, had been lethal. This single violent act was one of the most memorable moments in Roman history and set the stage for the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

While history records this location as the place Caesar fell, it is often confused with other meeting spaces by the senate. The first senate building was The Curia Hostilia built in the 7th century BC by Tullus Hostilius and repaired in 80 BC by Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The Curia Julia was begun by Caesar before his death on a different site after the first curia was destroyed by fire.

Today most of the location of the curia at the Theatre of Pompey is covered by roadway; however, a portion of its wall near the Sacred Area was excavated by Mussolini.

Nero's "Golden Day"

One elaborate event took place in May of 66 AD. After a long conflict in the kingdom of Armenia, Nero had brokered a political deal in which he allowed the Parthian prince Tiridates of Armenia to rule as king as long as he did so under Roman authority and crowned by Nero himself.

Tiridates travels to Italy with his family and three thousand horsemen where he arrives in Naples to meet with Nero and travel together to Rome. In the city Nero, seated upon the Rostra, places the diadem of purple silk woven with pearls upon his head.

He was then shown to the newly refurbished Theatre of Pompey, which Nero had had specially decorated for the occasion with lavish amounts of gold gilding on the columns and statues; a purple awning embroidered with the image of the Emperor dressed as Apollo driving a chariot among the stars covered the theater's cavea seating. So impressive was the amount of decoration that it was known as "The Golden Day."

The site today

The site fell into disrepair and much was dismantled and carted off to build other structures throughout the city. Part of the building was made into a fortress during medieval times. Much of what is left today is located in cellars of the surrounding neighbourhood of hotels, homes and restaurants.travertine for its exterior from the theatre. The large red and grey columns used in its courtyard are from the porticoes of the theatres upper covered seating, however they were originally taken from the theatre to build the old Basilica of S. Lorenzo.

Pieces from the structure can be located throughout the city of Rome, including sculpture and other archaeological finds. The largest intact sections of the theatre are found in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which used much of the bone colored Located in the Campus Martius, a dense neighbourhood of later buildings has grown in and around the area. The entire site is now covered by later buildings and streets. However, the shape of the theatre is still distinguishable in an aerial view. In some locations, buildings were built directly on top of the theatre's original foundations from the curved seating. This has resulted in several curved buildings and streets.

Limited archaeological work on the site has taken place over the years. Many early excavations were not documented; however, a few have done some work to estimate the area and map out plans based on the broken marble map that once adorned the Temple of Peace called the Forma Urbis Romae.

Luigi Canina (1795–1856) was the first to undertake serious research on the Theatre. It was Canina who discovered the representation of the theatre on the Forma Urbis as well as the first study of the existing remains. His are the first re-construction drawings to be attempted. It was on these drawings that Martin Blazeby based his recent 3D images.

Newer, more recent studies have been carried out just in the past few years. Because of the modern buildings and streets as well as other factors like plumbing and electrical sources, digging for theatre remains has always been difficult. Recent projects have developed more updated plans of the theatre and its location has been more accurately identified.


The site of the theatre has been heavily plundered of nearly all of its stones and columns; however, there still exist basement and sub-basement levels located beneath what was the spectators' seating of the ancient theatre which have all endured centuries of subsequent construction. Roman ruins were built directly onto by subsequent owners of land, using the original Roman structures as foundations, so making their work stronger and cheaper than building new. The Theatre of Marcellus has several apartments still in use from the small fortress built on top of its ruins.

Parts of the structure that had been found in the area during construction work from the Renaissance to the mid-18th century inspired investigation of the theatre.

Luigi Canina began the first study of the Forma Urbis and attempted a reconstruction from known ruins. He recorded descriptions of the building in the early 19th century; these illustrations were then later modified by Victor Baltard, a French architect, in 1837. Baltard also made two excavations in the surrounding area, uncovering remains of the exterior and scaenae frons.

In 1865, while foundations were being dug for a new building for Pietro Righetti, who owned Palazzo Pio at the time, parts of the Temple of Venus Victrix were discovered.

Not until 1997 was any serious archaeological study made of the area. Directed by Richard Beckham and co-directed by James Packer, a team based at the University of Warwick began a comprehensive survey of the existing state of the remains of the Theatre. In 2002, architect Silenzi and professor Packer began excavation at Palazzo Pio.

The serious studies undertaken from 2002 by Dr. Antonio Monterroso (EEHAR-CSIC Rome) have offered important results with respect to the plan of the building: the temple of Venus Victrix was completely different from how it appears in the L. Canina drawing (BCOM 2007, 125-144).

Building Activity

  • removed a media and updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via
  • updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator