You are here

Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study

Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study

By Frank Sear. Pp. xxxix + 465, figs. 178, tables 25, plans 451, maps 7. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006. $360. ISBN 0-19-814469-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Sear’s Roman Theatres is a meticulously documented examination of Roman theater architecture throughout the empire that will serve as a fundamental resource for years to come. It is the result of more than 20 years of research on the topic, a fact reflected in the vast quantity of detail for the largest corpus of theaters thus far assembled. It follows the 1994 three-volume work of Ciancio Rossetto and Pisani Sartorio, Teatri greci e romani (Rome 1994), to which he also made contributions; it not only adds more theaters known from both physical and ancient written evidence (those in Teatri greci e romani excluded by Sear are ones without reliable documentation) but also comes in a much more efficiently produced and manageable single volume. The book is clearly a reference work aimed at those seriously interested in the architecture of theaters (esp. given the price tag); however, its value is not limited to architectural or theater historians, as it provides a wealth of epigraphical information useful for social historians interested in the people who funded, built, and used the theaters. The first quarter of the book includes nine chapters dealing with various aspects of theater architecture and use, while the remainder consists of a catalogue of known theaters arranged according to ancient province.

The first chapter discusses the meaning of Latin theater terms that designate parts of the structure, who sat where, and the equipment (e.g., drop curtains, acoustical devices, the vela). The goal is to define parameters for how the terms should be used and to provide supporting evidence for their meaning, largely but not exclusively inscriptional. Next comes a chapter on the financing of theaters, including discussions of contracts, benefactors, and building costs in which Sear proposes a method for determining rough estimates of theater costs based on volumetric measurements. A comparison of figures from written sources and calculations from archaeological remains suggests that the method provides the appropriate range of expense, which then allows for useful quantitative comparisons.

In chapter 3, Sear explores the principles governing various aspects of theater design, emphasizing that capacity must have been the primary starting point for determining size in the specifications. Chapter 4 presents the different types of theaters and the criteria to define them, such as the elements that distinguish bouleuteria from odea. The next two chapters deal with the development of theaters in Republican Italy and in Rome. Sear traces the development from Greek-type theaters in southern Italy and Sicily to the freestanding, enclosed Roman theater represented by the Theater of Marcellus. The following two chapters discuss in detail the formal development of the cavea/orchestra and the scene building, in each case establishing typological groupings. The discussion of the various types of cavea structures anticipating the completely freestanding type gives a particularly enlightening account of the structural and functional difficulties that had to be overcome. The final chapter presents an overview of theater development in the provinces, providing a historical setting and noting cultural and regional characteristics. The discussions are presented region by region with a review of the major excavations of the theaters in each region.

The organization within each chapter into discrete units makes this an easy book to use as a reference for specific questions, though at the same time, this organization sometimes results in lack of synthesis between the units. Particularly in the more detailed sections, such as chapter 3 on theater design, the vast amount of data can sometimes overshadow the larger questions. However, given the in-depth nature of the study, such quibbles are minor.

The catalogue makes up the majority of the book. Each of the more than 450 entries provides basic dimensions, the state of existing remains for various parts of the theater, the date, inscriptional evidence (if any), a bibliography, and a plan of the theater, which in most cases is at a scale of 1:1000, thereby giving an overall sense of scale between all the theaters. A series of maps provides the locations of all the catalogue entries, and five different indices (ancient authors, inscriptions, place-names, persons, and general) aid the reader in negotiating the vast amount of information in the book.

Undertaking a project as massive as this one is a courageous and visionary task, but it is also a thankless one because no single person can conceivably manage so much information to the satisfaction of all who will inevitably use the book. From my own perspective, a subheading for building materials and techniques would have been a welcome addition to the catalogue, as theaters, along with baths and amphitheaters, tend to display the most advanced use of building materials and techniques within a community. In some cases, this information is addressed in the catalogue under other subheadings or within discussions in the chapters, but there is no systematic presentation of the information, though the excellent photographs at the back of the book provide a visual supplement for some of the entries.

As Sear notes in the acknowledgments, most of the research for this project was completed during the 1990s, and the citations and bibliography rarely extend into the new millennium. The project was conceived and largely completed before digital media had become an important academic tool, but it is an ideal candidate to be put into a searchable digital format, and one hopes that Oxford University Press will eventually offer it as an electronic book. The author himself notes the need for an international effort to update individual entries in the catalogue, and indeed it would provide the ideal starting point for an international collaboration to create a theater database that could be made available to libraries. Future projects need to be conceived in new ways if we are truly to take full advantage of the type of diligent and meticulous documentation represented in this important work.

Lynne C. Lancaster
Department of Classics and World Religions
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio 45701

Book Review of Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study, by Frank Sear

Reviewed by Lynne C. Lancaster

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1114.Lancaster

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.