The Theatre at Ostia Antica, Italy

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The theatre was built along the Decumanus Maximus. The outline could already be drawn in the early 19th century. The excavation was completed in the years 1880-1881, 1890, and in the early 20th century. The building was restored very extensively.
Fragments of an inscription tell us that a first theatre was built at the end of the first century BC by Agrippa, the right-hand of Augustus (opus reticulatum and large tufa blocks). It could hold 3000 spectators. It was built together with a large square to the north, the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (II,VII,4).
A large inscription from 196 AD (originally bronze letters inserted in a marble slab) tells us that the theatre was re-dedicated by Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Brick stamps however show that this complete rebuilding had been started by Commodus (176-192 AD). The theatre could now hold 4000 people.
The new theatre was made of brick. The facade is turned towards the street. In front are two nymphaea (II,VII,6-7). This area had a travertine pavement and was surrounded by travertine piers, between which were chains. In the facade are sixteen shops with back rooms. Some shops had simple wall-paintings. They were behind a portico, entered through arches. Between the arches were brick pilasters with travertine bases. There were also arches on the second and third level (on the highest level with windows).
The lower level of the seating area (cavea) could be entered from the Decumanus through a central corridor, and through two lateral entrances. The entrance in the centre of the shops had a pavement and wall revetment of marble. The vault was decorated with stucco reliefs. Four staircases between the shops led to the second and third level. The seating area could be shaded by an awning, suspended from poles inserted in travertine blocks. The seats themselves were probably covered with marble. On the third level were marble columns (now re-erected behind the stage).
The area in front of the seating area (orchestra) had a marble floor. In the front of the stage are five semicircular and four rectangular niches, decorated with marble, including a cornice and small columns. Holes in the stage were used to fasten the scenery. The back wall of the stage has disappeared almost completely. On the stage some marble theatrical masks can now be seen, that once decorated the building.
One ancient text probably refers to the Ostian theatre. In 197 AD Septimius Severus addressed the Senate in Rome and said: "For if it was disgraceful for him [Commodus] with his own hands to slay wild beasts, yet at Ostia only the other day one of your number, an old man who had been consul, was publicly sporting with a prostitute who imitated a leopard" (translation Loeb, E. Cary).
At the end of the fourth century AD the building was restored by a prefect of the grain-supply, Ragonius Vincentius Celsus. A statue of Roma was erected outside the theatre. The orchestra and the stage were connected through steps in two of the rectangular niches in the front of the stage. In the central corridor benches and an arch were built with bases from the Piazzale (the square was no longer being used for commercial purposes). The south part of the central entrance corridor and the two flanking shops with back rooms were blocked and converted to cisterns, with hydraulic mortar (opus signinum). The orchestra could now be flooded for aquatic displays. The water reached the orchestra through two holes in the side walls of the northern part of the corridor. The pool was not very deep: 1.40 meters at most. Naval battles were of course not re-enacted. We should imagine a choreography of the gods and goddesses of the sea and lakes, of nymphs and nereids, presumably scarcely dressed.
At a later point in time the arches of the first level were blocked, so that the building could be used as a fortress. This may have been done in the fifth or sixth century, when Goths and others invaded Ostia and especially Portus.
- Author: Jan Theo Bakker, PhD, Leiden, The Netherlands
Also see: . The Internet Group Ostia
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Last Updade: 11/25/03
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