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Theater in Ancient Rome


Arenas Arles Roman amphitheater built around 80 AD. BC / 90 AD. AD, the most important monument of the ancient Roman colony under extensions flaviennes the city of Arles, FRANCE, EUROPE
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Roman theater is well known for its decadence and debauchery. Did elements of sex and violence in Roman theater offend its audiences? In comparison to Greek theater, the Romans really took things up a notch. Maybe even three or four notches. Greek plays rarely had violence on stage. Horrific and bloody acts were described through exposition.

Romans and Theater: The Roman public loved a good spectacle. They loved to watch combat, and considering their admiration for blood sports and gladiator competition, we can imagine that the more realistic the violence, the more it would have pleased Roman audiences. (I'm rashly generalizing the Romans, of course. They had their phases of modesty and prudery, but let's face it - when we think Rome we think of the conquering generals such as Caesar and those madmen emperors like Nero.) So, it would seem that, typically, Roman audiences also preferred less subtlety when it came to sexuality on stage. According to Living Theater author Edwin Wilson one Roman emperor ordered an entire troupe of mimes to engage in actual intercourse on stage. That's right, mimes. That image will haunt your dreams tonight. Were the mimes traumatized by the event? They didn't say.

But what is certain is that decadence and spectacle dominated the theater during Rome's empire. Fewer plays were being written, and most of those seemed to be a knock-off of old Greek Myths (transplanted with the very similar Roman Gods). Perhaps the noted exception to this rule would be the domestic comedies of Plautus and Terrence. And of course, Seneca - perhaps the best known tragedian. Now he is a prime example of a playwright who was must have pushed boundaries because one day Emperor Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself. And Seneca obeyed, thus making Nero history's most fearful drama critic.

But aside from that incident, it seems that during the heyday of the Roman Empire, theater wasn't seen as terribly controversial by the Roman citizens. There were too many public executions and legalized brothels going on in real life. Why would retelling Greek myths or light-hearted romantic comedies offend anyone? Theater is just harmless fun, right? Whether its Greece or Rome, it's just about presenting a valuable lesson, and maybe a laugh or a tear along the way. Right?

Famous Roman Playwrights:

Keep in mind, there were hundreds more playwrights besides the three mentioned below. The Roman Republic and its subsequent empire greatly enjoyed the arts and entertainment. However, of the many playwrights of ancient Rome, only a small percentage of plays have survived the passage of time.


If you have ever seen Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then you have experienced a taste, albeit with a corny 1960s flavor, of the Roman comedy master Plautus. He created over a hundred plays, many of which lampooned iconic figures within Roman society: the soldier, the politician, the clever slave, the philandering husband, and the wise but nagging wife.

N. S. Gill, About.com's Guide to Ancient History, recounts the remarkable career of one of the founders of comedic theater.


Terence's life story is an ancient tale of rags to riches. Terence was the slave of a Roman senator. Apparently, his master was so impressed with young Terence's intellect that he released him from his service and even funded Terence's education. During his adult years, he crafted comedies which were primarily Roman-styled adaptations of Greek plays by Hellenistic writers such as Menander.


In addition to being a playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a lawyer and a Roman senator. He witnessed some seriously dark days of the Rome's empire. He served under the sadistic Emperor Caligula. (Learn about him in history books, children but DO NOT watch the movie.) The next emperor in line, Claudius, banished Seneca, sending him away from Rome for over eight years. After returning, Seneca became the advisor of the infamous Emperor Nero.

According to dramaturg William S. Turney, Nero ordered the assassination of his own mother, and then commissioned Seneca to write a speech that excused Nero's crimes. During the playwright's lifetime he wrote tragedies, many of them re-inventions of Greek myths of decadence and self-destruction. For example, his play Phaedra details the sensual depravity of Theseus' lonely wife who lusts after her step-son, Hippolytus. Seneca also adapted the Greek myth of Thyestes, a sordid tale of adultery, fratricide, incest, and cannibalism with enough carnage to make John Webster cringe.

Seneca retired from public life, assuming that he might spend his elder years writing and relaxing, but the suspicious Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide; Seneca complied, slashing his wrists and arms, slowly bleeding out. Apparently it was too slow, because according to the ancient historian Tacitus, Seneca called for poison, and when that failed him, he was placed in a hot bath to be suffocated by the steam.

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