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Recreating Pompey for Modern Eyes

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

In 55 B.C.E., Romans applauded the debut of the world's first modern entertainment complex, a mammoth structure constructed by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus--better known as Pompey the Great, military conqueror and rival to Julius Caesar. The showy consul named the theater for himself. Today, using archaeology, three-dimensional modeling, virtual reality technology, and digital research, architecture experts are slowly raising the curtain on the Theater of Pompey. "It's shockingly enormous," says James Packer, a Northwestern University professor. "The scale is just astonishing."

Crowds of between twenty-five and forty thousand people flocked to see the latest spectacles played out on the 260-foot-wide stage. Modern sports fans would recognize the curved stadium seating, the barrel vaults, the VIP balconies--everything but the lack of advertising--and feel right at home.

Pompey also had a curia constructed for meetings of the Senate. It was here that Julius Caesar met his death, assassinated before a statue of the theater's namesake.

The Theater of Pompey became the model for all theaters throughout the Roman Empire, says Packer. The plan for its seating areas and façade served as models for the amphitheaters that inspired the design for many contemporary sports venues.

Packer is directing the excavation of the theater as part of a research project begun in 1996 with Richard Beacham of the University of Warwick (U.K.). In 2002 Packer joined with archaeologist Cristina Gagliardo, architect Dario Silenzi, and engineer Massimo Aristide Giannelli to undertake the first excavation of the theater since 1865.

Until the end of the Roman Empire in the West, the Pompey Theater remained the preferred venue for theatrical representations in the capital. Yet, despite its renown and architectural significance, the Theater of Pompey's structure almost completely disappeared through the centuries.

Today, the façade of a movie theater conceals the entrance to a fortress and the piazza known as the Campo dei Fiori subsumes the remains of the theater. The inner curve of the theater's orchestra survives in the Palazzo Pio's curved façade along the Via di Grotta Pinta. Its outer curve can be seen in the Via dei Giubbonari, the Via Della Biscione, and on the Piazza Pollarola. These outlines hint at what the theater once was. Leisure gardens were enclosed within the Porticus Pomeianae, a rectangular colonnade. An elaborate temple honored Venus Victrix, or Venus the Victorious. Galleries displayed rare works of art from throughout the Roman world. A bronze statue of Hercules--now in the Vatican Museum--probably adorned the stage building or the Porticus Pompeianae. The story goes that the statue was struck by lightning, removed from its original position, and buried next to the south foundation walls of the Temple of Venus Victrix, outside the theater, where it was found.

Built on the marshy "Field of Mars" beyond Rome's seven hills, the theater's design took advantage of new techniques in vaulted concrete architecture with sloping barrel vaults, which supported the internal seats and a curved stone façade. Two imitators--the Theater Marcellus and the Theater Balbus--were quickly constructed, and the design was widely copied throughout the Mediterranean basin. The grandeur of the theater and the sumptuous occasions held there astounded contemporary Romans. Dio Cassius reported on the reception Nero gave the Armenian king, Tiridates I:

Not merely the stage but the whole interior of the theater round about had been gilded, and all the properties that were brought in had been adorned with gold, so that the people gave to the day itself the epithet of "golden." The curtains stretched overhead to keep off the sun were of purple and in the center of them was an embroidered figure of Nero driving a chariot with golden stars gleaming all around him.

After the fall of Rome, the Pompey Theater remained in use until medieval times. It was repaired around 500 C.E. by Theodoric, king of Gothic Italy. In the ninth century C.E., it was included in the Einsiedeln itinerary, a document listing the sights of Rome written for Christian pilgrims during the reign .of Charlemagne. By that time, flooding from the Tiber and continuous occupation had taken its toll, but the structure was still recognizable as an ancient theater.

By the year 1100, two Christian churches had been built on the site, and the transformation of the theater into other structures had begun. The church of Santa Maria in Grotta Pinta was built into one of the vaults under the semi-circular seating area called the cavea, and houses were built into the theater. Beginning about 1150, the powerful Orsini family began buying out and combining these houses, creating a powerful fortress from which they controlled the road to Naples.

The assimilation continued. Pompey's masterpiece was built into and buried under the buildings near the Campo dei Fiori. The structure became integrated into the medieval neighborhood. Archaeological excavations by Victoire Baltard, a French architect working in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and Pietro Righetti, then owner of the Palazzo Pio, cleared and reburied only part of the monument. Their reports detailed the plan of the curved lower section of the façade of the seating area and the circular corridor behind it, and Righetti reported fragments from the upper storeys of the Temple of Venus Victrix.

Most medieval and ancient remains from the theater are unaccounted for. The city is awash in archaeological treasures, and fragments uncovered before today's strict accounting methods often were not tagged or labeled as to their origins. "There are storerooms throughout the city filled with piles of capitals, slews of column shafts, fragments of friezes. In earlier times, all these things were put in storerooms," says Packer. "When they were transferred, no information was transferred with them. So we know that there were pieces from Pompey. They are mentioned in earlier records, both published and unpublished. But we haven't been able to find these things. We don't know what's become of them."

Stripped of their archaeological context, the fragments are reduced to pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. From 1996 through 2001, Packer collaborated with Beacham to document the accessible surviving remains of Pompey's theater.

Choosing new spots to excavate is no easy task. The modern streets that pave over the site present both political and practical problems. Disrupting traffic and rerouting underground electrical and sewer utility services from the neighborhood is not feasible. Cellar rooms under the theater's cavea are accessible from Ristorante Da Pancrazio--the arched barrel vaults of the old theater now make a cool and cozy ceiling for diners enjoying Roman specialties such as roast lamb with potatoes, spaghetti alla carbonara, and ravioli stuffed with artichoke hearts.

But because these cellar rooms were filled with concrete, they cannot now be excavated without damaging foundations and subjecting residents to the sound of the pneumatic drills required to cut through the fill. Extensive excavation could weaken the foundation of centuries-old buildings like the Palazzo Pio, an archaeological and architectural treasure in its own right.

The research in 2002 took place in one of the Palazzo Pio's cellar rooms, a part of the theater's ambulacrum--the walkway, or circular passage immediately behind the façade--adjacent to the foundations of the stairs that led through the cavea to the Temple of Venus Victrix. At the beginning of the excavation, researchers found that the room had been filled with rubble from excavation in 1865 and from post-World War II construction at the adjacent restaurant.

Removal of this detritus cleared the top of the medieval archaeological strata that filled the excavation area and yielded fragments of ancient, medieval, and eighteenth-century pottery. A medieval wall closed one end of the ambulacrum. In a hole cut through it were blocks of stone and an ancient impost block, which the excavators temporarily left in place at the end of their season. Rubble was hand-carried in plastic bags up a steep and narrow staircase. "It was quite a chore," Packer says. He and his colleagues plan to install a small conveyor belt for the next excavation.

Packer is gathering information for a multi-authored monograph. The Pompey Project will feature a computerized online database that spans the entire history of the site. Virtual reality renderings of the theater, acoustical renderings and sight lines, all known textual references, plans of modern structures along with detailed plans of the ancient remains, and digital photographs of all artifacts and remains recovered at the site will be included.

It is the virtual reality modeling that may give the theater an audience undreamed of in ancient times. By rebuilding the theater three-dimensionally in cyberspace, any person on the planet with access to the internet can stroll the gardens, admire the stage, or marvel at the travertine marble-clad grandeur of Pompey's monument. They can examine the ornate temple where Venus received her offerings, or even stand in the portico where Caesar met his end.

About the Author

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

Funding Information

Northwestern University received $35,000 in NEH support for the excavation of the Pompey Theater.