- The theater flourished in ancient Rome for about 800 years,during both the Republic and the Empire. It developed from villageentertainments such as the atellana, and from Greek drama(see Greco-Roman drama).
The earliest Roman drama probably evolved from jolly carnivalsand bawdy fertility rites performed on religious occasions. Its developmentwas influenced greatly by the traditions of Greek colonists livingin southern Italy and Sicily. The first documented Roman playwrightwas Lucius Livius Andronicus (c. 280 - 204 BC),a freed Greek slave who translated Greek works into Latin. The firstrecorded production took place in 240 BC at the Roman Games(Ludi Romani). Unlike their Greek predecessors Roman playwrights,such as Ennius, Naevius, and Andronicus wrote and published non-dramaticpoetry.
Few Roman tragedies survive; most of the plays seem to havebeen adaptations of Greek originals, although Lucius Accius is thoughtto have written some original works. The role of the chorusdiminished, until it functioned as little more than a source of interludemusic during scene changes. At the same time rhetoric grew increasinglyimportant, with plays containing long set speeches. It is not evencertain that the nine gory tragedies of Seneca were writtento be performed on stage.
Roman comedy derived from the Greek New Comedy, withsuch authors as Plautus and Terence basing manyof their works directly on plays by Menander and others. Althoughthe plays were often set in Greece they tended to satirize Roman societyand featured stereotypical Roman characters. Bawdy and brutal mimeand the performances of the pantomimus eventually supersededliterary comedy.
Roman drama was generally performed on festival days, togetherwith gladiatorial contests, circuses, and races; popular actors couldbe very highly paid, one of the most successful being Roscius.Theatre buildings were originally wooden, and took their design fromGreek theaters. The first stone theater was built in Rome in 55 BC.Roman theaters became considerably more elaborate than the originalGreek models; they were built to be freestanding, and had complexarrangements of curtains and scenery. There were even some indoortheaters. The amphitheatres designed as arenas for raceswere also used for theatrical shows. Performances were sometimes givenin private; players could be hired to entertain dinner guests, whilemembers of the literary elite would hold prestigious private readingsof their works.
Roman drama disappeared in the 6th century AD whenChristian opposition to acting resulted in the emperor Justinian closingdown all the theaters.