The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXII
THE SPECTATORS

ALL CLASSES went to the theatre. The show was given by the magistrates. Livy speaks of special places being reserved after 194 B.C. for the senators. The prologue to the Poenulus contains injunctions to married ladies (matronae). nurses with their infant charges, prostitutes, slaves (who are forbidden to occupy seats), lackeys (pedisequi). attendants on the magistrate (lictores). That women were present is stated by Terence also ( Hec.35).1 Admission to the theatre was free; the theatre tickets of Imperial times (which indicated where the holders were to sit) were probably as yet unknown. A tumultuous crowd of every age and condition and of both sexes poured into the theatre in search of fun and excitement, shouting to each other, laughing, quarrelling, fighting for seats. The State, which kept so jealous an car for what was said on the stage, seems to have made little or no attempt to control the behaviour of the audience. The ushers (dissignatotes) may have done something to maintain order; but the playwright and the actors knew that it rested on their joint efforts to secure a hearing for the play, for no one else would come to their assistance.

In the modern theatre we pay for admission, and have a natural inducement to get our money's worth. We enter a building, and forget the outside world. Artificial lighting concentrates our eyes and our thoughts on the stage. It was quite otherwise in the early Roman theatre. The spectators might become aware that there were rival attractions close at hand. The first performance of the Hecyra failed because the public were more interested in a rope-dancer and a pair of boxers. The second, after a promising start, was broken up by a rumour that a gladiatorial display was about to take place.

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1
Vitruvius ( V. iii. i) tells us that 'at the play citizens with their wives and children remain seated in their enjoyment."

-165-

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