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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 39, No. 6 (Nov. 1944), 360‑366.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p360  The Temple above Pompey's Theater

Rome's first stone theater, built by Pompey in 55 B.C., was crowned by a temple. Tertullian tells us (De Spectaculis 10) that Pompey added the temple to circumvent an old prejudice against permanent theaters, claiming to his critics that he had built a temple whose steps might be convenient as seats for spectators of theatrical performances: Itaque Pompeius Magnus solo theatro suo minor cum illam arcem omnium turpitudinum extruxisset, veritus quandoque memoriae suae censoriam animadversionem Veneris aedem superposuit et ad dedicationem edicto populum vocans non theatrum, sed Veneris templum nuncupavit, cui subiecimus, inquit, gradus spectaculorum. This story, illustrating to us as it did to Tertullian the wiliness and stupidity of the ancients, delights us so much that few of us are willing to question it. Actually, Pompey had good reasons for building this structure whether or not there was prohibition or opposition. Following a fairly familiar architectural model, he might have built a temple whose steps served as a theater and dedicated it to Victory in thankfulness for his phenomenal success as a general.

Structures like Pompey's are so numerous that when I thought I had discovered his model, my friends and colleagues deluged me with references to other examples.1 The earliest was at Cagliari, Sardinia.2 The ground plan of this, a sanctuary of the third century B.C., indicates a quadrangular wall enclosing a temple resting on a retaining wall and approached by a flight of steps forming half (perhaps more) of a circle. The excavators believe that the steps accommodated spectators of religious ceremonies conducted in the center of the circle.

At Gabii there was another such group, fairly well preserved in modern times, though today the temple alone is to be recognized with ease. This temple stood on a huge rectangular platform to which access was had by means of a great circular staircase  p361 which resembles a theater. This whole structure probably was built about 200 B.C. Later, in all certainty, are the stage building and the references to theater and theatricals.3 In Roman imperial times there was a building above Hadrian's odeum at Tivoli (a small round temple), and above the theaters at Fiesole (a rectangular loggia), at Herakleia in Bithynia (a rectangular temple, according to a coin of that city), and at Calama in Algeria (a rectangular temple with an apse at the rear).4

For another architectural prototype we need look only a few miles from Rome to Praeneste (Palestrina), the city which Sulla had destroyed and rebuilt a few years before Pompey planned his theater at Rome.5 Here on a steep hillside Sulla laid out a huge mass of buildings to house the cult of Fortuna, under whose special patronage he considered himself to be. The highest part of the structure, now largely embodied in the Barberini Palace, consisted of a semicircular flight of steps with a colonnade at the top and a small round temple visible against the sky to one approaching via the steps.

All that is now preserved is the semicircular flight of twelve steps, supported by nine vaulted substructures whose ends appear as arches on the street in Palestrina; the low front wall of the curved colonnade with the base of one column; part of the back wall of the colonnade; and half of the substructure of the round temple. The internal parts are all of the opus incertum of the Sullan period.

 p362  The semicircle of steps looked out on a great court at a lower level, a court faced by the supporting arches of the steps. Marucchi6 thought that sacrifices and solemn rites were performed in this court because the lower part of the precinct did not offer sufficient space. If this was the case, the populace could scarcely have resisted the temptation to stand on the steps to watch what went on in the court below, for a structure which now suggests itself as a meeting place, as this one does to the local guides, could hardly have failed to do so in ancient times. Although the bottom of the steps is a full story above the floor of the court, the court was so large that most of it was visible from every point on the steps.

The circular flight of steps at Praeneste could have served a theatrical purpose and this without assuming any sort of stage or stage building. But it is by no means unreasonable to suppose that some connecting member atoned for the lack of these. There may have been a staircase, as some restorers assumed, with a semicircular top which extended the space before the curved steps so as to form a full orchestral circle. Or a series of temporary platforms may have been erected before the seven small supporting arches. But without assuming anything at all, we can see that the semicircular niche could serve as a meeting place for spectators of events in the great court below.7 It is not justifiable to call it a theater in the technical sense of the word.

Now if we compare the plan of this structure with that of Pompey's theater at Rome, we shall be struck by the similarity. The plan of Pompey's theater is known to us from excavations carried on in the fifteenth century and again in the nineteenth, and from the ancient marble plan of the city.8 On the marble plan one  p363 sees again a semicircle of steps, and above it a broad walk, perhaps colonnaded, the foundations of a temple at the top, and an open court before the whole. The details are different. Pompey's temple-foundation is rectangular with a round apse at the back,9 while the temple at Praeneste is round; the steps of Pompey's theater are divided into wedges and they may have been high and undercut at the front;10 and at the front of Pompey's theater in its final state there was an elaborate stage and stage building. These are known to be later restorations of features presumably original (Aulus Gellius X.1.8 f.; Tacitus, Annals VI.45). But the ensemble is the same, and it is easy to believe that Pompey conceived his plan for building a temple whose steps were the seats of a theater when he saw the structure which Sulla had created at Praeneste, or one like it. This does not necessarily discount Plutarch's statement (Pompey 42.4) that Pompey copied the plan of the theater of Mytilene, for that theater may have resembled his in any respect, including the temple.

But if Pompey wanted to build a temple and thought a handsome flight of steps, which could serve as the seats of a theater, would add honor and dignity to it, he made a mistake in locating it on the flats of the Campus Martius. A temple appearing on a hill above a great flight of steps is beautiful, but a temple high above a flight of steps with no natural foundation or reason for  p364 being there is ugly. A temple in this position would look like an afterthought. So Pompey's successors must have realized, and they never built another structure like it. It seems probable to me that the ugliness of the structure was the real cause of the birth of the story which Tertullian recounts.

A key to Pompey's reason for building the temple is the name of the deity to whom it was dedicated. She is usually called Venus Victrix, but Tertullian calls her simply Venus, and Aulus Gellius calls her Victoria. Tertullian may have had a motive for suppressing the Victoria: by calling the goddess Venus he was able to make Pompey, the theater, and the temple appear in as bad a light as possible. But we can think of no reason by Aulus Gellius would have suppressed the title of Venus. Was the temple originally dedicated to Victoria? Some slight confirmation of this comes from Servius' statement (on Aen. I.720) that the worship of Venus Victrix at Rome was founded by Julius Caesar, after Pompey's death. Whether the goddess was originally Victoria or Venus Victrix, it is easy to see why Pompey, the most successful general of the age, should want to do her honor. He had as good reason to build Victory a temple with beautiful steps as Sulla had had to build a temple with beautiful steps for Fortuna.

Permanent theaters had been forbidden by the Roman senate during the second century B.C., and some of the prejudice against them undoubtedly lingered on and made itself felt against Pompey. But no author earlier than Tertullian gives us reason to think that the temple was a hoax and that the opposition would have been sufficient to prevent the building of the theater without it. Tacitus (Annals XIV.20) mentions opposition to the permanent building, quoting a tradition current a century after Pompey's time. Aulus Gellius (X.I.7) tells us simply that Pompey dedicated to Victory a temple whose steps served as a theater, and was vexed over the grammatical problem of how to indicate his consulship — as tertium or tertio! Pliny the elder (VIII.7) records the ceremonies at the dedication of the temple of Venus Victrix, a part of which was an elephant fight in the circus; Cassius Dio (XXXIX.38) tells of what was evidently the same occasion, the dedication of Pompey's theater by a music festival and athletic contests on the spot, as  p365 well as by horse races and contests of wild beasts in the circus; and Cicero in a letter (ad Fam. VII.1) speaks with scorn of the lavishness as well as the inhumanity of these ceremonies. When Claudius dedicated, at Pompey's theater, the new stage building which Tiberius had begun, Suetonius describes (Claudius 21) to us how he mounted to the temple, offered sacrifice, and then descended through the crowd to his seat as chief spectator of the games. Claudius certainly took the temple seriously and used its steps as Pompey had intended. And Suetonius implies no ruse in the dedication.

That there existed theatral areas directly in front of temples is an established fact. I have repeated the archaeological evidence for it here in the hope that, combined with a reasonable interpretation of the literary tradition, it will help to refute an established error — the belief that prejudice against permanent theaters was the sole or even the determining factor in the selection of the plan of Pompey's theater. Instead of considering this structure an exceptional theater which, in order to obviate Roman prejudice, introduced an unnecessary temple, we should consider it a temple whose steps were the seats of a theater, an architectural creation not unique, but new in Rome, ugly to look upon but so convenient that the heretofore conservative and economical Romans ever after built comfortable, permanent stone theaters.

Dorothy Kent Hill

Walters Art Gallery
Baltimore, Md.

The Author's Notes:

1 I am indebted especially to Mr. Oscar Broneer, Miss Eva Sanford, and Mr. Fred Matson.

2 P. Mingazzini, Le Arti II (1939), 59 f., fig. 36.

3 W. Gell, Topography of Rome and its Vicinity2 (London, 1846), 264 f.; G. Pinza, Bul. Com. Rom. XXXI (1903), 330 f.; T. Ashby, B. S. R., Papers I (1902), 182 ff.; R. Delbrueck, Hellenistische Bauten in Latium II (Strassburg, 1912), 5 ff. As long ago as 1846 Gell's editor, E. H. Bunbury, with commendable caution questioned whether temple and theater were contemporary. The perfect unity of the complex with its colonnade and small chambers at back and sides, as established by later visitors who saw less but understood more than Gell and Bunbury, renders this point hardly debatable today.

4 F. Wieseler, Theatergebäude und Denkmäler des Bühnenwesens (Göttingen, 1851), Pl. II, figs. 13 and 17; Pl. III, figs. 11c and 17; Pl. IA, fig. 21.

5 E. Fernique, Étude sur Préneste, ville du Latium (Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 17) (1880), 97 ff.; O. Marucchi, Dissertazione (Atti) della Pontificia Accademia, Ser. IIX (1912), 67‑119 and 149‑190; P. Blondel, Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire (École française de Rome) II, (1882), 168‑198, Pl. IV; H. C. Bradshaw, B. S. R., Papers IX (1920), 233‑262, Pls. XXVII‑XXXIII; CIL I1, 1135.

6 Marucchi, op. cit., 156 ff.

7 The whole structure stood nearly intact throughout the Middle Ages. In 1298 Colonna protested against its partial destruction. See Fernique, op. cit., 99 f., and Bradshaw, op. cit., 243 f., note. The petition states that the palace in the colonnade was approached by more than 100 steps; this must be rhetorical exaggeration unless all the steps above the lowest level of the precinct were included.

8 For the excavations see H. Jordan, Topographie der Stadt Rom in Alterthum I.3 (Berlin, 1907), 529, note 60, containing bibliography; A. Pellegrini, Bull. d. Inst. (1865), 201 ff. The plan as published by Jordan, Forma Urbis Romae (Berlin, 1874), Pl. IV, fig. 30, is from the Codex Vaticanus 3439, a drawing made when the fragments of the plan were first found. This part of the marble plan was subsequently lost. Today one piece of it has been rediscovered and is inserted in the marble plan in the Antiquarium in Rome. This fragment gives the curved back wall of the theater, the final M of theatrum and part of the temple podium with three pilasters. This fragment is sufficient to prove that the Codex Vaticanus copies the marble plan accurately. For a modern restored drawing made from the plan see M. Bieber, Denkmäler zum Theaterwesen (Berlin and Leipzig, 1920), 57, fig. 58; and The History of the Greek and Roman Theater (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1939), 345, fig. 450, copied from Streit, Das Theater, fig. 10.

9 Since the plan is a ground plan, it reproduces not the shape of the temple but the shape of the podium.

10 Except for the height and the undercutting there is no difference between a step and a theater-seat. The steps at Praeneste could have held either standing persons or persons seated on chairs. The front rows in the small theater at Pompeii, built at about the same time, were plain steps to support chairs. See Bieber, History of the Greek and Roman Theater, 321‑331.

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