So… You Want to Spend the Night In An Ancient Theater?

While some theater performances might unintentionally put you to sleep, it is a very different matter to find a theater that invites you to comfortably spend the night. When the building itself is over two millennia old, that is a rare treat. I know of two such opportunities in the Campus Martius – one an apartment in the Theater of Marcellus, the other a luxurious boutique hotel built into the Theater of Pompey.

The Theater of Marcellus at night with Temple of Apollo on right

The Theater of Marcellus was the third of three stone theaters built in the Campus Martius in the late first century B.C.E. Dedicated in approximately 13 B.C.E. by Emperor Augustus to the memory of his late nephew Marcellus (son of Augustus’ sister Octavia), the theater entertained as many as 13,000 spectators on stone seats sloped steeply in the direction of the Tiber. The dedicatory show was quite an event with a reenactment of battles from the Trojan War and six hundred wild animals from Africa and a tamed Tiger.[1] While the stadium was of sturdy construction, the audience was not so sure. During one performance in the theater, the Emperor Augustus had his special seat collapse from under him sending him sprawling. At another performance, panic broke out when the audience thought the walls were collapsing and Augustus had to relocate to the “unsafe” area to reassure the crowd.[2] Despite the skeptical audience, the theater was well built, continuing in use for well over four centuries. It was turned into a fortress in the twelfth century and passed into the hands of the Savelli family in the fourteenth century who commissioned the architect Baldassare Peruzzi to construct a palazzo over the theater ruins in the fifteenth century. In the eighteenth century the building was owned by the Orsini family who continued to live in it long into the twentieth century.[3] Poor shops occupied the arcades of the outer rim of the theater until Mussolini cleared them out in 1926 and caused about thirteen feet of dirt to be removed to the level now seen.


19th century drawing of the Theater of Marcellus

The theater has been divided now into offices and several apartments, one of which we found on Airbnb. Located on two floors, the apartment was modern, well furnished and ideally located to explore the Jewish Quarter (around the corner) and the ancient sites in the southern Campus Martius. It is also a very few minutes away from the Capitoline Museums and the Forum. Our host, Marghereta Revelli, could not have been more charming and responsive to our questions night or day for our one week stay. Want to see the view from the top of the ancient theater? Her husband’s office occupied the top floor and they welcomed us to the roof terrace to enjoy the view. Spectacular!


View from the top of the Theater of Marcellus


Now for our second theater overnight – this one in the first permanent theater in ancient Rome, the Theater of Pompey. Having left Rome for explorations up north, we needed a place for one night before flying home. Keeping with our theater theme, we found the Hotel Lunetta around the corner from the Campo De’ Fiori at Piazza del Paradiso, 68. The hotel occupies a section of the outer wall of Pompey’s great edifice erected in 55 B.C.E. Unlike the wooden theaters that were built temporarily for religious festivals or the Greek style stone theaters nestled in the slopes of hills, Pompey the Great, a general later defeated by Julius Caesar, conceived and realized a free standing concrete and masonry structure that held approximately 11,000 ticket holders. Supposedly to avoid the opprobrium of the Senate that attended the construction of a permanent theater, Pompey placed a temple to his patron goddess, Venus Victrix (Venus of Victory), at the top of the theater and told theater-goers at the opening, likely in jest, that the theater was really just an access to the temple.[4] Attached to his theater was an enclosed colonnade with beautiful statues and fountains. A sometimes meeting room of the Senate off of the portico was where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E.

Theate of Pompey Outline

Outline of Theater of Pompey over modern city

Unlike the Theater of Marcellus, little of Pompey’s structure is visible from the street. If you walk from the hotel over to the Via di Grotta Pinta, you will immediately see the curving line of the buildings that rest above the arched seating area (cavea). With your back to the curve, you will be facing the stage where audiences were awed by amazing performances. The theater itself would be decorated to add drama. To impress an eastern king, Emperor Nero had the interior of the theater gilded with the top covered in a purple awning embroidered with a likeness of the emperor riding in a golden chariot.[5]

Curve of Pompey's Theater

Via di Grotta Pinta with curve of theater cavea

To find the remnants of the theater itself, you must get below street level. Two places to access it are Pancrazio Restaurant at Piazza del Biscione 92 where the lower dining area is within the theater arcades and in the spa of the Hotel Lunetta. The beautifully appointed spa is worth a visit on its own terms, but as you ascend the glass elevator from the spa level to your room you will see further evidence of Pompey’s structure in the supporting walls. Finally, for history buffs it is worth a note that a hotel has been on the site of the Hotel Lunetta since the fourteenth century, making it the second oldest continuous hotel space in Rome. The oldest is the Albergo del Sole right next door. In this case, second place wins out for creature comforts. Rest well.


Lower level of Pancrazio Restaurant

[1] Cassius Dio 54.26 (wild animals); Pliny NH 8.65.

[2] Suet. Aug. 43.

[3] See A Walk Through The Field of Mars (Walk One, No. 3).

[4] Tert. De Spect. 10.

[5] Cassius Dio 62.6.1-2.

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