This week, we’re featuring a summer travel reader request from Fiona, who’s packing her bags for Amman, Jordan. Thanks for the request, and keep them coming as we head into the estival months. Amman is the capital of modern Jordan, but its history stretches back to the Stone Age. It was named Philadelphia after its Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus in the fourth century BCE, and was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 63 BCE. The Romans made their mark on the city, leaving behind a number of impressive architectural structures, including a spectacular theater that has become one of Amman’s top attractions. Read on to learn more.
1. Essential Elements: The theaters of the Roman world all share the same three building blocks: the cavea, orchestra, and scaenae frons. The cavea is the sloped auditorium that accounts for the vast bulk of the theater’s seating. Philadelphia’s held 6,000 spectators. The orchestra is the semicircular area directly in front of the stage. Marble thrones for the leading citizens were placed in this section to ensure VIPs a superb view of the low stage. The scaenae frons (“front of the stage”) is the richly decorated building just behind the stage, usually two stories, embellished with columns and statuary and containing several entrance doors. Learn more: the cavea was divided by staircases into seating blocks known as cunei (or wedges; whence cuneiform, or wedge writing), and the horizontal passageways dividing it into lower, middle, and upper tiers were called praecinctiones. The name for the stage itself was the pulpitum. A little-known fact is that most Roman theaters and amphitheaters (including the Colosseum!) were covered by awnings, or velaria.
2. Pervasive But Polemical: Philadelphia’s theater was built during the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 138—168 CE), and similar theaters have existed throughout the Roman world since the second century BCE. Such a ubiquity would seem uncontroversial, but construction of a permanent theater in Rome itself was delayed until 55 BCE. Conservative senators lobbied against it for fear of the impact on Roman morality, the potential of sedition among the plebeians, and competition amid elites. Pompey constructed the first permanent theater by placing a temple to his patron goddess Venus at its top, thus circumventing the senators’ complaints in the name of piety.
3. Before the 1 and 99%... Because of these class-conscious concerns, Roman audiences were deliberately segregated by status, gender, nationality, and marital status, a practice different from that of the Greeks. The Romans further injected control of the social hierarchy into very architecture of the theater itself, constructing vaulted substructures serving as passageways to the appropriate seating section that assured inappropriate intermingling never occurred.
- Sear, Frank. Roman Architecture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.