The Theatres of Pompeii – and a little on social legislation / by Anthony Gibbins

There were two theatres in Pompeii, although there is only the one in the Lego model. It is the larger of the two, essentially Greek in design and believed to be older than any other theatre in Italy. At the time of its destruction (or preservation, dependant on how you see the consequences of the volcanic eruption) it sat an audience of 5000 – it had been renovated and enlarged during the reign of Augustus. Augustus was also responsible for a change in the law that insisted men and women sit separately at the theatre. Such a law seems strange – perhaps even harmful – today. Yet it is consistent with a larger swath of laws pushed through the senate by Augustus, that historians today tend to categorise as social legislation.

Adultery, for example, became a criminal offense. A woman charged by her husband could now be banished and lose her dowry, and half of her lover’s property was confiscated. If she remained in Rome, the woman was forbidden to marry another free-born citizen. Moreover, a husband who did not divorce and prosecute a “guilty” wife could be charged with condoning her offense. Anthony Everitt’s Augustus : The Life of Rome’s First Emperor, contains this reminder – as if we needed one – that those who force their will under the guise of moral defender, often do so with hypocrisy;

On another occasion, when Augustus was sitting as judge, a young man was brought before him who had taken as wife a married woman with whom he had previously committed adultery. This was most embarrassing, for it was exactly how the princeps emperor had behaved when he married [his wife] Livia in 38 B.C. Uncomfortably aware of the coincidence, he recovered his composure only with difficulty. ‘Let us turn our mind to the future,’ he said, ‘so that nothing of this kind can happen again.’ (p. 240)

The second theatre was smaller; it sat about 1500 people, and had a covered roof. It has been suggested that while the larger theatre was used primarily for drama, this was used for concerts, lectures and poetry recitals. The two theatres share a common neighbourhood, and nearby is a large open space surrounded by covered colonnades. It is easy to imaging theatre-goers stretching their legs here between acts. By the time of the eruption, however, this quadriporticus had been taken away from the theatre-goers by conversion into gladiatorial quarters. One wonders if this caused tensions between the fans of competing entertainments, or whether Pompeians enjoyed both activities without prejudice.

Then we hurried to the theatre. For we were wanting to watch the ‘stage story’ (fabulam scaenicam) which the actors were performing there.

The Lego model of Pompeii is housed in the Nicholson Museum of The University of Sydney, Australia. Entry to the museum is entirely free, and you may visit Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 4:30. The Nicholson is Australia’s oldest University museum and contains the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The Pompeii model was commissioned by the Nicholson and constructed by LEGO Professional Builder Ryan McNaught. It is the third such model the museum has exhibited, following the Colosseum and Acropolis.  The Colosseum was returned to McNaught and recently exhibited around Australia. The Acropolis was denoted by the Nicholson to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The Pompeii model is estimated to include 190 000 bricks and took 420 hours to complete.