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Regio II - Insula VII - Teatro (II,VII,2)

The theatre was built on the north side of the Decumanus Maximus. The outline could already be drawn in the early 19th century. It was excavated in the years 1880-1881, 1890, and in the early 20th century. The building was restored very extensively.

Fragments of an inscription tell us that a first theatre was built at the end of the first century BC by Agrippa, the right-hand man of Augustus (opus reticulatum and large tufa blocks). It could hold 3000 spectators. It was built together with a large square to the north, the Square of the Corporations (II,VII,4).

The masonry of the present theatre has been dated to the late second century AD. In that period the theatre was enlarged, and could hold 4000 people. A large inscription from 196 AD (originally bronze letters inserted in a marble slab; found on the remains of the stage) tells us that this rebuilding was the work of Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Brick stamps however show that the work had been started by Commodus (176-192 AD). Commodus associated himself with Hercules, and on the ceiling of the main entrance corridor a stucco relief of Hercules, crowned by Victoria, can be seen.

One ancient text probably refers to the Ostian theatre. In 197 AD Septimius Severus addressed the Senate in Rome and said: "For if it was disgraceful for him [Commodus] with his own hands to slay wild beasts, yet at Ostia only the other day one of your number, an old man who had been consul, was publicly sporting with a prostitute who imitated a leopard". This might be a reference to the inauguration of the new theatre in 196 AD.

Plan of the theatre

Plan of the theatre. After SO I.

The new theatre was made of brick. The facade is turned towards the Decumanus. In front are two nymphae (II,VII,6-7). This area had a travertine pavement and was surrounded by travertine piers, between which were chains.

In the facade are sixteen shops with back-rooms. They were behind a portico, entered through arches. Brick pilasters with travertine bases were set against the arches. There were also arches on the second and third level, on the highest level with windows. Inside the portico, to the right of the main entrance, is a well with a travertine well-head from the period of Commodus. The shops had simple wall-paintings.

The lower level of the seating area (cavea) could be entered from the Decumanus through a central corridor, and through two lateral entrances. The entrance in the centre of the row of shops had a pavement and wall revetment of marble. The vault of the entrance corridor was decorated with stucco reliefs. Four staircases between the shops led to the second and third level.

The seating area could be shaded by an awning, suspended from poles inserted in travertine blocks. The seats themselves were probably covered with marble. The theatre was separated from the Square of the Corporations by a row of marble columns.

The area in front of the seating area (orchestra) had a marble floor. In the front of the stage are five semicircular and four rectangular niches, decorated with marble, including a cornice and small columns. Holes in the stage were used to fasten the scenery. The back wall of the stage has disappeared almost completely. On the stage some marble theatrical masks can now be seen that once decorated the building.

At the end of the fourth century AD the building was restored by a prefect of the grain-supply, Ragonius Vincentius Celsus. A statue of Roma was in this period erected to the south-east of the theatre. The orchestra and the stage were connected through steps in two of the rectangular niches in the front of the stage. The south part of the central entrance corridor and the two flanking shops with back-rooms were blocked and converted to cisterns, with hydraulic mortar (opus signinum). The orchestra could now be flooded for aquatic displays. The water reached the orchestra through two holes in the side walls of the northern part of the corridor. The pool was not very deep, 1.40 meters at most. Naval battles were of course not re-enacted. We should imagine a choreography of the gods and goddesses of the sea and lakes, of nymphs and Nereids, presumably scarcely dressed.

At a later point in time the arches of the first level were blocked, so that the building could be used as a fortress. This may have been done in the fifth or sixth century, when Goths and others invaded Ostia and especially Portus.

Photos and drawings

The exterior of the theatre, from the west. Photo: Klaus Heese.

The central corridor leading from the Decumanus to the orchestra, from the north.
Photo: Daniel González Acuña.

The interior of the theatre, from the south. Photo: Klaus Heese.

The interior of the theatre, from the east. Photo: Klaus Heese.

The interior of the theatre, from the north. Photo: Klaus Heese.

A fragment of the superstructure of the theatre, fallen on Via delle Corporazioni.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

The dedicatory inscription from 196 AD. The white fragments belong to the original inscription.
Photo: Klaus Heese.
Imperator Caesar, son of the divine Marcus Antoninus the pious (= Marcus Aurelius),
brother of the divine Commodus, grandson of the divine Antoninus Pius,
great-grandson of the divine Hadrian, great-great grandson of the divine Trajan,
conqueror of Parthia, great-great-great grandson of the divine Nerva,
Lucius Septimius Severus, the pious, Pertinax Augustus,
conqueror of Arabia, conqueror of Adiabene, father of the fatherland (pater patriae), supreme priest (pontifex maximus),
having the tribunician power for the fourth time, imperator for the eighth time, consul for the second time and
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar (= Caracalla)

Stucco reliefs on the vault of the main entrance. Photo: Gerard Huissen.

Stucco relief on the vault of the main entrance: detail.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

Stucco reliefs on the vault of the main entrance: detail.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

Stucco relief on the vault of the main entrance: Victoria crowning Hercules.
Hercules is presumably to be understood as Hercules-Commodus.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

Theatrical masks, part of the architectural decoration of the theatre.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

Detail of one of the theatrical masks. Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

CELSVS V(ir) C(larissimus) PRAEFECTVS
Ragonius Vincentius
Celsus, most illustrious man, prefect
of the annona of the city of Rome,
to the same city, with the own
money of the city
of Ostia, set up (this statue).
The base for a statue of Roma to the south-east of the theatre
Late fourth century AD. CIL XIV S, 4621 and 4716. Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

Reconstruction drawing of the interior by F.P.P. Andre.
From H. D'Espouy - G. Seure, "Monuments antiques relevés et restaurés
par les architectes pensionnaires de l'Académie de France à Rome",
Paris, no date, ca. 1910-12. Owned and scanned by Craig S. Redler.

Reconstruction drawing of the facade.
From Calza 1927, p. 27.

Plaque from 1927, recording the restoration of the theatre.
Photo: Parco Archeologico di Ostia Antica.

[jthb - 1-May-2022]