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A Seat on the Isle, Please

HUMANITIES, January/February 2008 | Volume 29, Number 6

From Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome by Gregory S. Aldrete, pages 4-5. Copyright © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Lucius Cornelius Balbus dedicated a magnificent new stone theater in the southern section of the Campus Martius. He had earned a triumph for his victory over the Garamantes while serving as proconsul of Africa in 19 B.C., and the theater that bore his name was probably constructed using spoils of this campaign. It was a prime location, with ties both to Rome’s glorious past and to its vibrant present. . . . The grand inauguration of this theater, only the third in the city, would have been an important civic event, and Balbus accompanied the opening of the theater with spectacular public shows lasting several days. . . .

One note of discord marred Balbus’s moment of triumph, however. The Tiber rose from its banks during this time and inundated part of the city. Among the areas flooded was the site of Balbus’s theater, and indeed, Dio [Roman historian Cassius Dio] records that the waters were of such a considerable depth that Balbus was only able to enter his brand-new theater via boat. We can only imagine the inauguration ceremony that was held in the half-submerged theater, presumably with the celebrants clinging to the upper reaches of the cavea [theater seats given according to social hierarchy] while the boats that brought them bobbed about in the waters covering the stage. This apparently ignominious aspect of the ceremonies does not appear to have greatly detracted from Balbus’s glory, however, and seems to have been accepted by the participants as a matter of course.

Reprinted with permission from The Johns Hopkins University Press.