Monday, October 17, 2011

A Trip to the Theater-Lugdunum

For Greek, and later Roman civilization the Theater was the defining element of civic life.  If you were a community with any ambitions at all you had to have one.  They are thus rather common in Roman Gaul, with over seventy known examples.

The word theater comes from the Greek "theatron" meaning a place for viewing.  As interpreted through the Roman system theaters have common features.  Before visiting a couple of surviving Gallo-Roman theaters a quick look at some exceedingly well preserved specimens from elsewhere might help tune in the eye.

This is the theater from Leptis Magna.  Located in troubled Libya it was in the news lately with allegations that the crumbling Gadaffi regime was storing weapons there thinking they would be safe from air strikes.  The columns are the remains of the Frons Scanea, a backdrop variously made up of wood and/or stone.  In front of that is the wooden stage, or Pulpitum.  The curved area in front makes up the Orchestra, a central feature of which was always an altar to Apollo.  The best seats in the house surrounded the Orchestra, and were kept separate from the common folk by the curved wall called the Balteus.  Various other features will turn up in later photos.

Here is an example from Syria with intact stone wall as part of the Scanae, and the Apollo altar in place.

On to Gallo-Roman examples:

This is the Theater of Lugdunum (Lyon for you modern types).

With the presumably wooden Scanea gone we are looking from "back stage" to the seating area. 

And here, from the middle status seating you can see the nice marble of the Orchestra with the VIP seats-called Bisellia- the location for the Apollo altar and even a small remnant of the Balteus.

Some surviving columns.  Gallo-Roman museum is built into the hillside behind them

This theater in its prime would have held about 11,000 spectators. The acoustics were good enough to be heard without amplification.  As to the performances, they were a mixture of comedy and tragedy, and were probably more low brow than you might imagine from a scholarly study of classic Greek and Roman playwrights.  In Gaul there seemed to be a particular enjoyment of farces featuring masked stock characters-Bucco the Fool, Pappas the Grand dad, Manducus the Champion Eater with ever moving teeth.  This latter character derives his name from "mandible", the word for jaw bone, and contributes his moniker to "manger" the French word "to eat".

Presumptive notable visitors to the Theater of Lugdunum?  Augustus was in town several times soon after the structure was built in 15 BC.  Tiberius stopped in Lugdunum twice while campaigning.  Germanicus and Claudius were actually born there.  Sidonius, an interesting chap we shall encounter again, grew up in Lugdunum and no doubt ran up and down these steps as a child.

The mad Caligula had a memorable visit in 39-40 AD.  Among other odd behaviour he sponsored a rhetoric contest where the losers were required to erase their written words with their tongues!  It is unclear whether this was held in the Theater or the larger amphitheater, but the former would seem more appropriate.  But then Caligula often saw things in a different light.

Why did the Theater survive?  Partly because when Roman authority finally dissipated the aqueducts quit working.  The Roman community up above withered away, and new settlement sprung up along the riverside.  The upper course of seating was either robbed out or collapsed downward protecting the lower parts.  The lower part of the Theater was pretty durable, being built right into the hill.  Of the upper deck seating only the supporting substructures remain.

Practical tips for a visit:  Like the adjacent Odeon the Theater is still in active use for concerts.  Other times it is free.  The not to be missed Gallo-Roman museum is adjacent, climb to the top of the Theater and turn right.

Next up:  A Trip to the Theater-Arles.

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