THE ROMAN THEATRE
Its theatre was one of the edifices that conferred the status of a “city” on a Roman settlement. The citizens gathered in front of statues of the imperators and the community's guardian divinities usually set up in niches in the walls beside the stage. Comedies were certainly the most successful attractions, but a theatre's repertory also comprised tragedies with both mythological and historical subjects taken over from their Greek equivalents, as well as extremely popular mimes (farcical dramas including the use of mimicry).
Augusta Taurinorum's first theatre was built at the turn of the first century AD . It was a very simple structure, not yet entirely in stonework, composed of a semi-circular auditorium and a stage wall with three doors flanked by two lateral annexes (parascaenia). Set in a rectangular enclosure that also comprised a simple, single-arm portico behind the stage, the theatre was equally endowed with wooden structures and movable furniture, of which no trace remains.
Around the middle of the first century, the theatre was no longer sufficient to satisfy the requirements of a larger town. The ambitious project then elaborated envisaged the simultaneous erection of both a stretch of the city walls and a monumental auditorium with a curved façade, linked to the walls by a fence. The execution of this plan was duly commenced, but it was eventually abandoned, and the restructuring of the theatre itself was downsized.
The movable fitments were replaced by fixed stonework elements and the original stage wall (scaenae frons) by a new one equipped with scene-shifting devices. The space behind the stage was then embraced by a square portico that includes the previous single-arm version and reached the city walls.
Renovation of the theatre may have been accomplished thanks to the munificence of Cotius II, prefect of the Cotian Alps, and his son Donnus. Of all the many forms of evergetisme (completion of public works thanks to the contributions of well-to-do private persons) those directed to playhouses have always been among the most appreciated by the populace and most gratifying for the benefactors.
During the Flavian (circa AD 70- 90), a spell of economic prosperity for Turin provided the occasion for the complete remaking of its theatre. The auditorium was enlarged by the addition of an external tier to increase its capacity, and a curved façade replaced the previous straight one. The portico behind the stage was also tailored to conform to the theatre's new measurements, by the construction of a peristyle with stone columns. A plaster fragment painted with baskets of leaves and little birds in flight, found in 1900, but now known only from a watercolour drawing, is all that is left of the decoration of the portico in this phase.
The theatre remained in use for more than two hundred years until the critical state of the civic institutions and the serious political conditions sealed the fate of many playhouses throughout the Empire. Its abandonment was also aided by the condemnation of theatrical and amphitheatrical performances by the Fathers of the Church. The edifice, certainly no longer in use, became a quarry for the materials employed to build the first cathedral, the basilica dedicated to Christ the Saviour, which in the year 398 was the venue of a meeting of the synod of the bishops of Gaul and northern Italy.