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Megalensia (Megalesia) Events

These 'Ludi Scaenici' were Roman dramatic performances for Cybele


Cybele and Lions

Cybele and Lions


The Ludi Megalenses (Megalesia), the first religious games of the Roman year, were held in honor of a Phrygian import, the Goddess Cybele, also known as Magna Mater, the Great Mother. During the Second Punic War, the Sibylline Books had revealed that Hannibal would leave Italy when the Great Mother came to Rome. So in 204, her sacred black stone was shipped to Ostia, where Scipio Nasica took custody of it and brought it to the city.

Staid Roma and an Ecstatic Phrygian Cult

Little did the restrained Romans know what worship of the Magna Mater entailed. It wasn't long, however, before they learned that her worship required not only self-flagellation, but emasculation of the priests. Disdainfully, the cult was restricted to non-Romans (until the emperor Claudius), although honor was still paid the goddess with an annual six-day birthday celebration in April, held in a theater on the Palatine near the temple of the Magna Mater (built in 191 B.C.). This, the Megalensia/Megalesia, included sacrifices, feasts, chariot races and games. An important part of the festival was the performance of drama, the ludi scaenici (stage games = dramatic performances).

Temporary Roman Theaters

To have dramatic events, you need a place to focus on the actors and/or chorus -- a place to watch, the literal meaning of the word theater.

If you look at the surviving structures from the ancient Mediterranean, you'll see many theaters. The Greeks had learned how to optimize the acoustics along hillsides and built impressively functional theaters for their religious festivals that featured dramatic competitions. Although some of those theaters were built or modified by Romans in the Imperial period, the stoic, luxury-denying early Romans didn't believe in them.

In the earliest days of Roman theater, temporary wooden stages were erected for each performance. Generally, the stages were long and narrow, representing city streets like those found in Athens -- the setting of most of the comedies. Spectators probably sat on the hillside or brought stools, much as they do at the al fresco Shakespeare productions held in city parks in the U.S.

In time, stands were added, with assigned seats for the senators. However, nothing more permanent appears to have been built until Pompey's stone theater, erected for his triumph in 55 B.C. There were a few failed attempts -- one in 154 B.C., when the censors Cassius Longinus and Valerius Messala started to build a permanent stone theater, but the consul Scipio Nasica stopped construction and sold the materials. He also took the opportunity to ban seats at performances because of adverse affects on public morals.

Roman Theaters and Public Behavior

Scipio Nasica wasn't the only one concerned with the relationship between public behavior and dramatic performances. The comedians, Plautus and Terence, offered advice on proper audience etiquette in the prologues of their comedies: babies should be left at home; women should stop chattering so the rest of the audience can hear. Harlots should not sit on the stage. Slaves should stand so free men can have the seats. Clearly, few paid attention.

Roman Entertainment

Disturbances from the audience weren't the only difficulty the playwrights and (five or six) actors faced. They were in competition with any other form of entertainment that might be going on during the performance. Unlike the Greeks, for whom the theater was a major cultural event, the Romans watched the performances (primarily comedy) for entertainment during the ludi publici (public games or state sponsored festivals presided over by magistrates). Other, more compelling, simultaneous entertainment might be rope-dancers, boxers, or gladiators.

Increasing Length of the Games

The number of days devoted to drama increased over time, so that in 200 B.C., shortly after the introduction of the Megalensia, there may have been only 11, whereas by the time of Augustus there were 43. An individual year might have an extra set of performances to rectify an impropriety in the rituals. Such repetition of a festival was called instauratio. While ostensibly the repetitions were for religious reasons, it is possible that some of the encores were performed because the plays and festivities were so popular.

Related Resources


Ludi Scaenici
Games' Name God Honored Month Celebrated Magistrate In Charge Length Of Games
Ludi Romani Jupiter Optimus Maximus September Curule Aediles 4 days.
Ludi Plebeii Jupiter November Plebian Aedile 3 days.
Ludi Apollinares Apollo July City Praetor 2 days.
Ludi Megalenses Magna Mater [Cybele] April Curule Aediles 6 ? days.

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