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The Roman theatre of Tarraco was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD. At the end of the 19th century, much of its seating was still preserved. However, these remains were destroyed some years later due to the construction various industrial installations.
In the 1970s, the land was purchased by construction companies to build apartment blocks. A long citizens’ campaign called “Save the Roman Theatre” managed to bring the building project to a halt.
Since 2010, the theatre has been the subject of research, conservation and preparation for public visits. The eventual objective is to create an urban park to include the different archaeological remains in the area. One of the most outstanding actions has been the work of the architect Toni Gironès, who reconstructed part of the volumetry of the ancient theatre’s seating.
The sea was the main gateway to Tarraco. Disembarking travellers would find themselves in a very dynamic area.
The economic activity of the port meant that, in addition to dwellings, there was a concentration of warehouses (horrea) used to store the cargos that were loaded or unloaded in the port. There were also craft workshops and businesses.
The port quarter had all the services needed by seafarers and their ships: shops, sailmakers, ropemakers, shipwrights, water deposits and fountains to supply the vessels and allow their desalination. There were also administrative areas for checking the cargos and charging the pertinent duties (estationes portorii). All these facilities linked to the activity of the port were intermingled with those involved with leisure, such as places to buy cooked food (thermopolia), baths or the theatre itself.
In the time of Augustus, the designation of Tarraco as the provincial capital favoured its urban and economic growth. This transformation also led to the reform of the port and its waterfront, including the local forum.
It is in this context of change that the theatre of Tarraco was built. It was a semicircular building that took advantage of the natural slope of the land to support part of the seating. This was divided into three differentiated levels and could seat six thousand spectators. Facing the seating was a slightly raised stage
The theatre and the local forum were essential parts of the political and religious propaganda. Politics, religion and spectacle were intimately linked in the Roman world. The processions began at the forum and ended at the theatre, where the people gathered to enjoy the plays.
Every year, the new occupants of municipal posts were obliged to pay –out of their own pockets– for several days of theatrical performances, which could be substituted or complemented by other spectacles in the circus or the amphitheatre.
Inside the building, the propaganda was reinforced with the decoration of the large wall (scaenae frons) behind the stage. A series of sculptures of the emperor and his family reminded the audience who held the power of the state and who were the models to be followed.
The seating also reflected the social divisions and the spectators were seated in a rigorous order: the elites in lowest part nearest the stage and less wealthy citizens and slaves in the upper rows.
Next to the theatre there was a large area of gardens that was only open to the most privileged members of the audience. It was presided over by a monumental fountain. The water that gushed out of the fountain flowed into a large central pond that had other fountains at its ends.
“Kindly give us your entire attention now, spectators: I heartily hope it will result in benefit to me, also to you, and to this company and its managers, and to those that hire them. Herald, provide all this crowd with ears at once. [...] It is a clever comedy, full of drollery and laughable situations. Do oblige me by being attentive, that now too, as in other days, Mars may be with you”. These are the first words of Asinaria (The Comedy of the Asses), written by Plautus in the 2nd century BC.
Unlike today, performances in Roman times were free of charge and linked to religious festivities. The ludi included religious ceremonies, such as sacrifices and processions, and spectacles, such as chariot races in the circus, gladiator combats in the amphitheatre and plays in the theatre.
In the theatre you could see comedies and tragedies, as well as other styles of performance, including pantomime –in which the actors only expressed themselves with gestures– and dance, or Atellan Farces, masked improvised farces with much more popular plots.
The acting profession was not very highly thought of. Most actors were slaves, freedmen or foreigners, but if they were good, they could achieve great fortune and fame. During the performances, the actors’ faces were covered with masks, they wore lavish attire and platform sandals that increased their height.
Actors were always men, while women devoted themselves to music and dance. Theatrical companies were managed by an impresario and had a principal actor who was accompanied by other actors and extras. The group was augmented by a choir and an orchestra.