Theatre in the Roman Empire

If we could be transported somehow back to the first centuries of the church in a pagan Roman Empire we would be shocked. The Romans incorporated theatre into their culture from the Greeks, as well as much of their religion. If we are to understand theatre in this period it is vital that we realise that both theatre and pagan religion were inextricably entwined. Augustine, the Christian scholar wrote in about AD 410:

The gods ordered theatrical shows to be put on [in Greece] in their honour to allay a plague which attacked the body.

(Augustine, City of God, 1:32)

In other words Greek theatre began publically at the instigation of the pagan gods as an offering to avert plagues, and every time there was a public theatre event the pagan priests were there sacrificing in worship of their gods because it was a religious occasion. Augustine describes such a scene in Rome:

Where and when those initiated in the mysteries of Coeoelestis received any good instructions, we know not. What we do know is, that before her shrine, in which her image is set, and amidst a vast crowd gathering from all quarters, and standing closely packed together, we were intensely interested spectators of the games which were going on, and saw, as we pleased to turn the eye, on this side a grand display of harlots, on the other the virgin goddess; we saw this virgin worshipped with prayer and with obscene rites.

There we saw no shame-faced mimes, no actress over-burdened with modesty; all that the obscene rites demanded was fully complied with. We were plainly shown what was pleasing to the virgin deity, and the matron who witnessed the spectacle returned home from the temple a wiser woman. Some, indeed, of the more prudent women turned their faces from the immodest movements of the players, and learned the art of wickedness by a furtive regard. For they were restrained, by the modest demeanor due to men, from looking boldly at the immodest gestures; but much more were they restrained from condemning with chaste heart the sacred rites of her whom they adored. And yet this licentiousness— which, if practised in one’s home, could only be done there in secret— was practised as a public lesson in the temple; and if any modesty remained in men, it was occupied in marvelling that wickedness which men could not unrestrainedly commit should be part of the religious teaching of the gods, and that to omit its exhibition should incur the anger of the gods.

What spirit can that be, which by a hidden inspiration stirs men’s corruption, and goads them to adultery, and feeds on the full-fledged iniquity, unless it be the same that finds pleasure in such religious ceremonies, sets in the temples images of devils, and loves to see in play the images of vices; that whispers in secret some righteous sayings to deceive the few who are good, and scatters in public invitations to profligacy, to gain possession of the millions who are wicked?

(Augustine, City of God, 2:26)