PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.1 (2002) 25-43
Walk through the narrow streets from the ancient temples in Largo Argentina to the open-air market in Campo dei Fiori, enjoying the characteristic Roman patchwork of architectural gems and mediocrities as you go. At the near end of the Campo, the seventeenth-century façade of the Palazzo Pio juts out (Plate 1), overshadowing a small courtyard to one side. Entering this courtyard you go past Pancrazio's Restaurant, then follow the dark, covered passageway down a slight incline until you emerge into a sunlit street where the buildings curve around on either side in a wide crescent of faded Renaissance elegance (Plate 2). Taking out your guidebook, you discover that you are standing in the auditorium of the Theatre of Pompey—the largest and one of the most historically important and architecturally influential theatres ever built.
Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar's political ally—later mortal enemy—created this grand triumphal edifice in order to celebrate and commemorate his military conquests in three continents. Completed in 55 B.C. and consisting of a number of discrete zones, it served for several centuries as one of the prime playgrounds for the citizens of Rome (Plate 3). Not only was it a site of performance, it was also performative in its own right: adorned with treasures and costly marbles from around the world, it was an unparalleled display of the military, economic, and technological greatness of Rome, and of Pompey's pre-eminence. A Senate House—or curia—overlooked present-day Largo Argentina. Its portico boasted a massive painting of a warrior by a fifth-century artist, Polygnotus, calculated to remind the viewer of the scope of Pompey's achievements. Pompey would have been even more gratified by his creation had he lived to see Caesar assassinated at the foot of his statue on the Ides of March just eleven years later, in 44 B.C. (Caesar's adopted heir, Augustus, later pointedly transformed the site into a public latrine.)
A second section of the complex was a vast and splendid enclosed park—or quadriporticus—containing gardens, fountains, leafy walks, trophies commemorating military victory, and sculptural masterpieces from around the Mediterranean world. Richard Beacham writes: [Begin Page 27]
Finally, the whole monument culminated in a grand, architecturally unified, theatre-temple (Plate 4)—the first stone theatre in the city of Rome. Although the theatre was built upon the flats of the Campus Martius, its highest point—the temple of Pompey's patron divinity, Venus Victrix—was second in height only to the capitol (Plate 5). According to our research, the stage of the theatre was almost 290 feet across, and the auditorium—or cavea—may have accommodated some 25,000 spectators. Some years later, Nero himself performed upon this stage, much to the disgust of the senatorial class and the delight of the masses. As late as the sixth century A.D., Cassiodorus, Chancellor to the Ostrogoth King Theodoric, described: "caves vaulted with...