The Legacy of Rome

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The Legacy of Rome

Theater or Liturgy?

The theater of ancient Rome was both challenged and enriched by the demands of the Christian religion, which rose to prominence during the early decades of the fourth century. On the eve of an important battle in the year 312, a Roman general called Constantine (c. 274–337) prayed to the Christian god to assist him in defeating his enemies, rival claimants to the leadership of the Roman Empire. According to his biographer, Eusebius of Cæsarea (c. 260–340), Constantine had a vision in which he saw the image of the cross, and was told that "under this sign" (in hoc signum, abbreviated ihs) he would be victorious. Painting crosses on his banners and the shields of his legions, he marched into battle. When he won, his loyalty to Christianity was assured, and the traditional monogram ihs that had stood for the Greek name of Jesus was now reinterpreted by historians of the church to refer to this event. A year later, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and just over a decade later, in 325, Constantine would spur the rapid growth of Christianity as an institutional religion by convening the Council of Nicea (an ecumenical or official church gathering) in Asia Minor. Here, for the first time in the history of the young church, bishops and teachers from all over the Roman world could meet and compare their views on how that church should be organized, and what its official teachings should be. Once an official doctrine was in place, there arose other pressing topics of debate for succeeding generations of Christians, one of which was the relationship between the theatrical spectacles of pagan Rome—many of which had a strong religious component—and the new Christian theater of worship: the liturgy. The prayers, chants, hymns, and ceremonies that made up the liturgy emphasized Christianity's debt to the stories of the Old Testament and its commitment to the teachings of the New Testament. The liturgy also dramatized the life and ministry of Jesus through a series of powerful rituals. The most fundamental of these was the daily ritual of the Mass, a re-enactment of the Last Supper when Jesus had performed the highly-charged act of breaking bread and inviting his disciples to eat this potent symbol of his own flesh, at the same time bidding them to drink the wine representing the blood he would shed for them the following day, Good Friday. But the very theatricality of the Mass engendered controversy, and it continues to do so in modern times. Some scholars argue that the Mass, as well as the many festive rituals of the church calendar, should be considered an integral part of medieval theater history. Others insist that the liturgy should not be classified as a type of theater, and make careful distinctions between a religious service (Latin: ordo) that merely performs a set of symbolic actions, and a play (ludus) that attempts to represent events through the impersonation of the characters involved.

The Theater of Worship.

This modern distinction between dramatic ceremony and "real" drama is not one that medieval audiences appear to have made. In fact, a contemporary (medieval) definition of theater offered by the respected teacher and biblical scholar Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096–1141) includes divine worship in an extensive catalogue of entertainments and leisure activities, listing it alongside plays, sporting competitions, gambling, puppet shows, public reading, dancing, instrumental music, singing, and other pastimes. Writing at about the same time, an influential theologian called Honorius of Regensburg (fl. 1106–1135) explicitly compared the celebration of the Mass to the performance of a classical tragedy.

It is known that those who used to recite tragedies in the theaters would perform, through their actions, a display of their struggles. In just this way does our own tragedian, Christ, perform his actions before the Christian people in the theater of the church, and impresses on them the victory of redemption.

A century later, a Latin sermon would echo these sentiments when preachers began to complain that the emotive power of the Mass needed to be emphasized even more convincingly, so that it could compete effectively with other types of entertainment—in this case, attractive street-corner performances of the Old French heroic poem The Song of Roland.

Theater Terms

Antiphon: A style of liturgical chant in which the chanted verses constitute a conversation between two choirs, with solo interventions by a cantor.

Apocrypha: The non-canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. For theater the most important of these is the Acts of Pilate, more commonly called the Gospel of Nicodemus in the New Testament apocrypha, believed genuine in the Middle Ages. It details how Christ descends to the underworld after his death, struggles with Satan in Hell, binds him in chains, and leads the Patriarchs, like Adam and Eve, out of Hell up to heaven again.

Corpus Christi: Festival dedicated to the "body of Christ." Instituted in 1311 by Pope Clement V, it became the occasion around which many of the mystery cycles and Passion plays of Europe were performed.

Eucharist: The consecration and communion of bread and wine which memorialize Christ's death and resurrection in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. A "miracle" play was performed in England by the bakers' guild, whose bread became the body of Christ during their re-enactment of the first Eucharist.

Feast: A certain day in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church devoted to the birthday or martyrdom of a particular saint or event of significance in the Christian year.

Jongleur: An Old French word associated with modern English "juggler," used as a catch-all term to identify a person with the array of talents shared by the professional performers of the Middle Ages.

Liturgy: In the Roman Catholic Church, the forms of prayers, acts, and ceremonies used in public and official worship. The main parts of the liturgy are the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice called the Mass, the singing of the divine office, and the administration of the sacraments. It was from elements of the Mass that the earliest medieval drama is thought to have developed.

Ludus: From the Latin word for a game, it later came to mean "play." Thus the name Ludus Coventriae refers to the cycle of Coventry plays.

Mass: The official name of the Eucharistic sacrifice and associated ceremonies and rituals. The word seems to have come from the words of dismissal that end the Mass—ite missa est—meaning "go, the mass is done." It is a re-enactment of the Last Supper when Jesus had broken bread, asked his disciples to eat this symbol of his own flesh, and bid them to drink wine representing the blood he would shed for them the following day, Good Friday. Some scholars argue that the Mass, and the many festive rituals of the Latin Church, should be considered the source of medieval theater.

Monasticism: The way of life typical of monks or nuns who dwell together for life, living austerely and sharing in common according to a rule; their lives are devoted to the service of God.

Mystery: The term has two meanings in medieval drama. First it means one of the "mysteries" of Christianity, a miraculous event which must be accepted on faith such as the idea of the Virgin birth of Jesus. Second, it means a play put on by a craft guild, a group who have trade secrets or mysteries.

Office: The prayers and ceremonies in the Roman Catholic Church for some particular purpose such as the Office for the Dead, or the church's services in general, such as the Divine Office.

Ordo: The service for representing some aspect of the liturgy or of dramatic events.

Pageant: A separate event in a pageant cycle or large group of plays on Old and New Testament themes, such as a pageant of Christ's nativity.

Passion: The events of Christ's last hours, his torments, suffering, and crucifixion. The term also refers to Passion Sunday or the fifth Sunday in Lent as these are dramatized in Passion plays of the late Middle Ages.

Rubric: From the Latin word for red (rubeo), the larger script indicating a chapter heading or division in a manuscript and particularly the directions (often printed in red in missals and breviaries) for the conduct of church services and the carrying out of liturgical rites.

Sequence: A type of hymn, but not in a regular meter, said or sung between the gradual and the Gospel of certain masses.

Trope: An antiphon or verse interpolated into a liturgical text.

Vernacular: The popular or non-Latin language of a country, such as French or English.

When in the voice of the jongleur, sitting in the public square, it is recited how those errant knights of old, Roland and Olivier and the rest, were killed in war, the crowd standing around is moved to pity, and oftentimes to tears. But when in the voice of the Church the glorious wars of Christ are daily commemorated in sacrifice—that is to say, how He defeated death by dying, and triumphed over the vainglory of the enemy—where are those who are moved to pity?

However, the theatricality of the Mass was not an issue for the people of the Middle Ages. Put more strongly, the Mass was fundamental to the culture of medieval Christianity because it was "good theater." The priest, standing at the altar of the church, spoke the very same words that Jesus had spoken to his disciples on the night of his betrayal and arrest, and performed the same actions. He enacted the role of Christ and, when he did so, the bread he blessed and broke became the body of Christ. In short, this miraculous occurrence, crucial to the Christian faith, was achieved through dramatization of the event. The many feasts that made up the liturgical calendar of the church's ritual year, which began at Advent and climaxed at Easter, were likewise valuable because they provided further opportunities for festive drama. (The word "festive" derives from the Latin for "feast," festum.) Those who performed these rites and those who participated in them understood that these rites were supposed to enlighten, inspire, even entertain. They were theatrical.

Festive Year

The liturgical calendar of the medieval Latin Church begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas (25 December). It consists of fixed feasts, whose dates (like that of Christmas) never change, and moveable feasts, whose dates depend on the dating of Easter, which in turn is dependent on the Paschal Moon, the first full moon of the Vernal Equinox (March 21). The following is a list of the principal feasts, many of which provided the occasion for the performance of plays and related festivities. Also included are some non-religious celebrations based on the change of seasons.

AdventSeason begins four Sundays before Christmas
St. Nicholas6 December
Conception of the Blessed Virgin8 December
Nativity or Christmas25 December
Holy Innocents or "Feast of Fools"28 December
Presentation of Jesus or Circumcision1 January
Epiphany ("Twelfth Day of Christmas")6 January
Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas2 February
Lent, beginning Ash WednesdaySeason begins six weeks and four days before Easter
Maundy (Holy) ThursdayThe Thursday before Easter
Good FridayThe Friday before Easter
Holy SaturdayThe Saturday before Easter
EasterFalls between 21 March and 25 April
Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin25 March
First day of the medieval summer1 May
Ascension DayFortieth day after Easter (a Thursday)
Pentecost Sunday or WhitsundayFiftieth day after Easter, 14 May–14 June
Holy TrinitySunday after Pentecost, 21 May–21 June
Corpus ChristiThursday after Trinity Sunday, 25 May–25 June
"Midsummer night"23 June (vigil of the feast of St. John the Baptist)
Nativity of St. John the Baptist24 June
Visitation of Our Lady2 July
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin15 August
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin8 September
All Hallows' Eve31 October (vigil of the feast of All Saints)
All Saints Day1 November
All Souls Day2 November

Pagans and Christians.

The testimonies of later medieval theologians represent the perspectives of medieval people who were far removed from Christianity's pagan past and, at the safe distance of several centuries, appear to have felt comfortable in making comparisons between the tragedies of Greece and Rome and the Christian tragedy of the daily Mass. But in Constantine's day, as in modern times, there was controversy over the overt theatricality of Christian worship. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity was still a minority religion, newly legal and as yet unformed. The theologians who came of age in those heady days were among the first generation of Christians who were able to discuss the tenets of their faith openly, and many were eager to distinguish it from the other sects with which it competed for attention in the crowded religious marketplace of late antiquity. They were also eager to show that Christianity offered the conscientious citizen of the Roman Empire an opportunity to rise above the distractions and vices of that empire. Even in the days before Constantine's conversion, when Christians were still—literally—fighting for survival, some prominent Christians had been outspoken in their denunciations of Roman decadence, especially the decadence of its theater. The writings of the Christian apologist Tertullian (c. 155–c. 221) offer extended, biting critiques of Roman beliefs and morals, and explicitly contrast the bloodless symbolism of Christian worship with the bloody sacrifices of pagan religions and the blood sports of the amphitheater and the coliseum. Yet Tertullian's views on theater were, in their day, a reactionary, minority opinion. They could not hope to prevail against the overwhelming power of the empire, or its attractive program of public entertainments.


introduction: Hugh of Saint-Victor, an influential teacher and scholar of the Bible at the monastery of Saint-Victor, outside Paris, included the science of "theatrics" (theatrica) as one of the seven "Mechanical Arts" in Book Two of his encyclopedia, the Didascalicon (circa 1125). In this passage Hugh exhibits a familiarity with Roman spectacle.

The science of playing is called theatrics from the theatre, the place where people used to gather for entertainment—not because a theatre was the only place in which entertainment could be had, but because it was more well-known than the rest. Some types of play were indeed done in theatres, some in the entrances of buildings, some in gymnasia, some in circuses, some in arenas, some at feasts, some at shrines. In the theatre, deeds were related either in verse, or by characters, or by means of masked figures or puppets. In entrance halls, they held dances or processions; in gymnasia they wrestled; in the circuses they ran races on foot or on horseback or in chariots; in the arenas, boxers exercised their skill. At banquets, they made music with harmonious and rhythmic instruments, recited stories, and played at dice. And in the temples at solemn festivals they sang the praises of the gods. … For since it is necessary for people to get together in some place for amusement, they decided that certain spaces for entertainment should be defined, rather than that there should be many different meeting-places where they could perform shameful acts and misdeeds.

source: Hugh of Saint-Victor, Didascalicon (circa 1125). Translation by Carol Symes.

The Ingredients of Medieval Theater.

The opinions of St. Augustine (354–430), who ended his life as the bishop of Hippo Regis in the Roman province of North Africa, carried much more weight. A late convert to Christianity, Augustine was the chief doctrinal architect of the fledgling Roman Church, one of the devout men who came of age in the decades after Constantine's establishment of Christianity as a viable state religion. It is through him that we can best trace the strand of anxiety that led to some of the most stringent denunciations of the corrupting dangers of Roman theater, and its potential influence on Christian worship. In many of his writings, notably his autobiographical Confessions and his Christian revision of history, The City of God, Augustine described the dangerous seductions of theater in all its forms. But these descriptions readily betray the source of his anxiety: his own youthful, dramatic passions, and his mature conviction that the devout Christian must turn his back on the worldly pleasures of Rome, the city of man, in order to attain salvation in the celestial City of God. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that Augustine's Christian contemporaries shared a negative view of theater, or that—even if they did—such a view would lessen the attraction of traditional entertainments, or diminish the importance of pre-Christian Roman culture. They also had little negative effect on the way that a new Christian theatricality grew and flourished. It is actually rather ironic that Augustine's own intellectual sparring-partner, St. Jerome (c. 340–420), would at the very same time be laboring to produce the greatest theatrical script of the Middle Ages. For it was Jerome's Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures that would form the Old and New Testaments of "the people's Bible" (Biblia vulgata), which provided the raw material for the vast majority of medieval plays. At the same time, the order of service of the Mass and the festive calendar of the church began to take on their familiar forms, while the legacy of Roman theater continued to be passed down by professional entertainers and lovers of classical literature, both pagans and Christians. All of these elements would be woven together in the rich theatrical tapestry of medieval Europe.


T. P. Dolan, "The Mass as Performance Text," in From Page to Performance: Essays on Early English Drama. Ed. John A. Alford (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1995): 13–24.

Eckehard Simon, ed., The Theater of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

William Tydeman, ed., The Medieval European Stage (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Glynne Wickham, The Medieval Theater. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

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The Legacy of Rome

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