The theatre at Arelate was a huge building, which could fit 10,000 spectators in its semi-circle of raised seating. The front rows were reserved for the most important men, while women, the poor, and slaves sat or stood on the highest level, like Felix and Zoe in Chapter 53. Roman theatre performances were part of public religious festivals, so we have imagined the play in Chapter 53 as part of a Roman festival of Mercury held on 15 May. 

The wall behind the stage was decorated with sculptures and columns, and some of these, like the famous Venus of Arles, have been found in the ruins of the Roman theatre in Arles.  Performances were always during the day, and in warmer months, so a coloured cloth awning sheltered the audience from sun.

Reconstruction of the ancient theatre at Arles. Photo Alain.Darles via Wikimedia Commons

There were different types of performances, some of which were adopted from earlier Greek forms of theatre. By the 4th century, the most popular were performances by famous male actors, who played all the main parts in mythological stories using character masks, gestures and dance, but no words. They were accompanied by a group of singers telling the story, and musicians.

Theatre masks, like the actor Pylades wears in Chapter 53, from a Roman wall painting in Pompeii. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chapter 53, Felix and Zoe see a performance of a very ancient story about three goddesses competing to be awarded a golden apple inscribed “for the most beautiful”: Juno, the queen of the gods, the warrior goddess Minerva, and Venus, goddess of love (who wins). It was a popular theme for Roman theatre and the scenery and special effects in the chapter are as described by the 2nd century writer Apuleius.

The performance was followed by funny plays (in which both men and women performed), jugglers and animal shows. Images show some performers dressed like jesters, with bells on their hats and clothes, like Felix sees at the end of the chapter.

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