The Theatre of Verulamium: Britain’s only Roman theatre still visible today. Located in modern-day St Albans, England.
Continuing my series on the Roman town of Verulamium, the next site I will be looking at is the town’s theatre, which was built about 140 AD. Kept in absolutely pristine condition, visiting the archaeological site (which also included the remains of a Roman town house built behind 1st century shops) was reasonably priced at £1.50 for children, £2.50 for adults, and £2 for students or elderly, and certainly worth every cent: definitely a highlight from my time in England. In this article I will be focusing on: the features of the theatre, how such theatres fitted into Roman society, its use for gladiatorial battles and the pantomimes, and how it ended up being used as a 4th century dumping ground.
Roman theatres were not too dissimilar to those built today: with once high auditoriums (Latin cavea) semicircular in shape, facing the stage (proscaenium). Typically, Roman theatres were not roofed, with a shallow stage and an open arena in front of it (the orchestra). Looking out at the Theatre of Verulamium, we can clearly see the 3 gangways (once vaulted over) leading to the large central arena. Visible today is a reconstructed column atop the stage, with the foundations of 2 other columns next to it (photos 2 & 4). Unlike the majority of the theatre, the rear section of the stage would have been roofed over, with its front supported by these columns. Immediately in front of the stage are 2 flint walls parallel to each other (best seen in photo 6), which contained the equipment for lowering and raising the curtain. Near the standing column we can see the remains of what was likely the dressing room (photo 7). The plan of this room is a bit confusing, but it probably had an open area where stage props were stored. This artistic reconstruction gives you an idea about how the theatre as a whole would have once appeared.
There are a few peculiar aspects to the Theatre of Verulamium, which offer us insight into its possible uses. This theatre has an usually large circular arena, and sections of seats facing towards the arena instead of the stage. There was once sturdy wooden gates separating the gangways and the arena, and there seems to have been the necessity to have a 1.5m strong wall, once between the auditorium (holding the spectators) and the arena. Evidently a lot of effort was taken to ensure that the audience were separated from whatever was going on inside the arena. These are not at all common features of Roman theatres, but are of amphitheaters, the latter being where gladiatorial battles took place. It has been suggested that during the 2nd century sword or bullfights may have occasionally taken place here.
The Theatre of Verulamium could have held approximately 7000 spectators during its heyday -this is certainly a lot when we consider that the total population of Verulamium likely never exceeded 8000. These shows probably also attracted people from the surrounding countryside. Being a Roman theatre, the seating was tiered according to rank. The seats in the arena (during plays!) would have been strictly reserved for the local wealthy merchants, rich villa owners and aristocrats, with slaves and poorer townspeople occupying the tiers of benches at the back of the auditorium. In Verulamium, in accordance with the rest of the Roman Empire, the local government was in the hands of 2 magistrates elected annually. These magistrates were expected to finance and organize public entertainment. This would include theatrical performances, gladiatorial shows, and the like, which took place during religious festivals or state occasions. Sacrifices would have kick-started the day at the theatre, ensuring the welfare of the Emperor, or the favor of the gods, which likely took place in the 2 large temples associated with this theatre.
During the catastrophic fire that devastated Verulamium, the theatre seems to have escaped damage. However, with the town’s rebuild in the 2nd half of the 2nd century, a number of alterations were made to the theatre. It seems as though the building was converted to a normal theatre: no longer one that facilitated combat in the arena. As in Rome, theatrical performances were probably popular in the provinces. We don’t really know what performances exactly were staged at Verulamium. While some of the plays by Greek and Latin authors that were favourites in Rome might have been played here, the provincial and largely rural population of Verulamium would probably not know great deals of Greek or Latin overall. It is thought that instead another type of Roman play was more popular here: the pantomimes. Differing from their modern counterpart, Roman pantomimes were essentially ‘dumb shows’, where the actors (wearing masks with sad or happy faces) would mime actions and dance, while being accompanied by a chorus singing the words and music.
Despite the economic and political hardships the Empire faced during the 3rd century, the theatre seems to have been maintained rather well in all. However, by the early 4th century it required some urgent attention, and was subsequently extended. We’re not really sure for how long after these alterations were made that the theatre remained in use, but in certainly wasn’t during the late 4th century, about 380 onwards. At this time the arena was used as the town’s dumping ground: excavations have revealed a thick layer of black earth containing huge amounts of 4th century Roman rubbish. A significant reason behind the decline of the theatre in the end may likely have been the adoption of Christianity as the state religion (first instigated by emperor Constantine in 315), for theatres held a close associated with pagan rites.
Photos taken by myself. AncientArt in Europe 2014/15. See also: The Roman town of Verulamium: a (very) brief introduction. Dr Rosalind Niblett’s information booklet about the theatre was of great use when writing up this post.