Theaters played a significant role in the cultural and social life of ancient Greece and Rome. Plays were performed regularly at major civic and religious festivals, serving to educate and entertain the people. Both the Greeks and the Romans built specially designed structures to house these events.

Greek drama occurred outdoors. The earliest Greek theaters were rectangular spaces paved with stone. By the 400s B.C., however, theaters had become circular in shape. A large circular space, the orchestra, was the most distinctive feature of Greek theaters. Choruses chanted and danced in this space, surrounded by an audience seated on tiers* of wooden or stone seats. Most theaters were set at the bottom of hills, providing a natural slope for seating that enabled all spectators to observe the action of the play.

* tier one of a series of rows arranged one above the other; as in a stadium

A simple tent or hut was placed along the back of the orchestra circle. Called the skene, it served as a backdrop for the action, a dressing area for actors, and a storage space. A low platform in front of the skene provided the stage on which the actors performed. The skene was raised slightly above the orchestra level to distinguish the actors from the chorus. Actors and choruses used ramps along the stage and skene to make their entrances and exits.

Greek actors wore elaborate costumes and masks with exaggerated features that suggested various emotions. Greek theaters had no stage setting, however. Instead, settings were conveyed through the words of the actors and choruses. The theaters did have simple mechanical devices to facilitate certain actions. A crane called the mechane, for example, was sometimes used to swing characters through the air to suggest flight.

The size of Greek theaters varied greatly. The theaters in the large cities were often enormous. The Theater of Dionysus in Athens, built in the 400s B.C., held about 15,000 spectators. Because the words spoken by the actors were very important, large theaters were carefully situated and constructed to ensure that all the spectators would be able to hear the actors.

During much of Rome’s early history, plays were performed in temporary theaters or on the steps of a temple. The Roman Senate objected to the elaborateness and expense of permanent theaters and, thus, opposed their construction. Nevertheless, by the 100s B.C., theaters were beginning to be built in various parts of Italy. The first permanent stone theater in Rome was constructed in 55 B.C.

Roman theaters differed considerably from Greek ones. The chorus had a very limited role in Roman drama, eliminating the need for a large circular orchestra. The Roman theater was semicircular in shape, with a wide, deep stage along the straight side of the semicircle. The stage was dominated by a massive backdrop consisting of a stone wall with various niches and columns.

As in Greek theaters, the seating for the audience rose in tiers. Roman theaters made use of the natural slope of the hills for seating. But the ability of Roman builders to use concrete enabled them to build theaters with tiered seating on flat land as well. Hallways, tunnels, and stairways built under the seating areas were used by spectators to move about from one area to another. Some Roman theaters were more enclosed than Greek theaters, with a wooden roof or cloth awning above the stage and seating areas. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman.)


Actors portraying deities often appeared in Greek plays, and they had to be represented differently from the human characters. When a god or goddess appeared on stage, the arrival was usually marked in some special way. Many Greek theaters used a crane (mechane) to bring a deity through the air and onto the stage. The Latin phrase deus ex machina (god from a machine) was derived from this. It referred to a playwright's attempt to resolve his plot by introducing a god to settle the human dilemma by miraculous means. Still used today, the phrase refers to a writer's attempt to resolve a plot through improbable or artificial means.

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