The Teatro Marcello is definitely one of my favorite buildings in Rome. Many tourists on their first trip to Rome confuse it with the Colosseum. Some stretch as far as saying it’s indeed a mini-version of the more famous Roman theater, which was actually built later than the Theater of Marcellus.
But trust me, they couldn’t differ more. Close to the Jewish Ghetto, Teatro Marcello is one of Rome’s best kept secrets. So much so that you won’t find any of the crowds that normally visit the Colosseum. In fact, chances are that if you go, you will be one of the very few on site.
Curious to find out more? Continue reading as I will share the most interesting facts about Teatro Marcello, and some useful tips for visiting.
The History Of Teatro Marcello
An ancient monument thought up by Caesar
Although the Theater of Marcellus, or the Italian Teatro di Marcello, looks very much like the colosseum, its history is very different. This open-air theater dates back to the final years of the Roman Republic, in its heyday it was a place for people to see live theater and musical performances.
It was notorious leader Julius Caesar who began work on the original theater. The emperor was keen to build a theater to rival the popular Theater of Pompey which had already been constructed.
An area between the Tiber and the Campidoglio was cleared of any preexisting structures to make way for the building. Two temples were torn down and a sizable space in the city was annexed. However, Caesar was famously murdered in 44BC (incidentally, on the steps leading to the Theater of Pompey) which meant that he died before much of the work carried out on the project.
After Caesar’s death, the project was handed over to his successor, Emperor Augustus, who continued the project. Under new leadership, work on the theater quickly expanded to include the surroundings around the Circus Flaminius.
The curve of the theater’s exterior walls was designed to match that of the pre-existing Circus. Work on the building wasn’t always easy, there were issues with flooding and sediment from the nearby river.
Make sure to read my post The Most Interesting Ancient Sites In Rome.
An enormous and important structure
But, by 17 BC enough of the Teatro Marcello had been built that it was used as part of the ludi saeculares (Secular Games) which took place within the theater itself. The games were actually a revived version of a much older event and were an important celebration for Augustus.
Don’t forget to read my post The Most Popular Games In Ancient Rome.
The building was finally inaugurated in 13 BC by the emperor who dedicated the theater to his nephew and son-in-law Marcus Claudius Marcellus. This was a poignant dedication, Marcellus was intended to be Augustus’s successor but had sadly died in 23BC. A year later, in 12BC the doors were officially opened as the largest theater in Rome.
Measuring 111 meters in diameter, it is believed somewhere between 11,000 and 20,000 people could watch a performance. One source that cataloged the theater in the late 4th century, reported the theater’s capacity to be a very exact 17,580 people. The walls were built of tuff, which was used to build many structures in Rome, and concrete decorated with stones. The whole exterior was completely covered with white travertine marble.
The theater was not just large, it was also a really important place. It stands as an example of urban development in ancient Rome and is an example of the most prominent form of architecture of the time. It was in the construction of this theater that the easiest style of Roman brick was used, something of a modern building technique at the time borrowed from Greek designs.
The theater made use of a series of corridors, tunnels, archways and ramps which allowed theater-goers to access the interior of the building, much like the design of the Colosseum. Originally, it’s thought that there were 41 arches in each of the building’s three tiers. The first tier used ornamental Doric columns, the second used Ionic and the third possibly used Corinthian columns.
Also in the style of other Roman theaters of the time, the theater design made use of the surrounding location. The architect used borrowed scenery to create the environment, allowing for views of the nearby Tiber Island in the southwest.
The building’s scaenae (permanent backdrop) was also large, reaching over the top of the seated section. It was around the height of a large palazzo.
From theater to private home
The theater was still in use by 42 AD but in later years the building was used for other purposes.
Historians can’t be certain about the design of the third tier as the upper level was redesigned during the Middle Ages, with the seating and columns removed. Also like the Colosseum, the theater became a quarry for building materials to be used elsewhere in the city. Stone was even used for the famous Pons Cestius in 370 AD.
Roman Emperor Petronius Maximus, carried out some restoration work in 421, at the time the structure was home to residential buildings. It was taken under the ownership of various powerful Roman families and the walls were fortified. The Savelli family took over ownership in 1200, their family crest still visible on the facade to this day. The notorious Orsini also had a period of ownership in the 16th century, with the family’s house actually built on top of the theater ruins.
With all these modifications, the rise in the street level meant that most of the lower portion of the building was buried underground. The upper floors were divided into many different apartments but the vicinity was still the location for intimate summer musical concerts.
The building’s notoriety carried on well into the 17th century. English architect Sir Christopher Wren said he was directly influenced by it when designing the landmark Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
Fast forward to the modern era and much work has been carried out to restore this beautiful old theater. In the 1930s the private residences and shops that took up space inside the theater’s arches and arcades were evicted. Major excavation work took place in an attempt to reverse some of the centuries of change that had impacted the structure.
Teatro Marcello Main Sights
With all of that amazing history, you might be disappointed to find out that tourists can not actually enter the theater. Sadly, unlike the storied walls of the Colosseum, the Teatro Marcello has been off limits to the public for a while.
This may be to do with attempts to maintain the structure, or the fact it isn’t safe enough to allow for visitor access. Entrance is only allowed for special and rare occasions.
But don’t let that put you off. You can still admire much of the structure and architectural design from outside.
Setting eyes on the magnificent centuries-old building is actually fairly easy. The building is located in a fenced archeological area. Here, visitors can wander around the great archways and pass through grassland scattered with archaeological remains.
Make sure to head down the ramp and then along the edge of the theater and you can get up close to the ruins haphazardly laid out around Teatro Marcello.
The multiple high arches of the ancient theater are still visible, just how they would have been back when it was opened in 13 BC. They may not have the same lustre, but just standing for a moment and taking in the years of history can be very impactful.
The fortified walls that were developed in the medieval period are also visible as are the elegant design additions by Baldassarre Peruzzi who turned the theater into a home for the Orsini. Interestingly, the ancient structure is one of the outlines in the city to be part-owned by the government and part privately owned.
People actually still live in the upper apartments of the theater. But don’t go rushing out to buy one, a few years ago a small apartment reportedly sold for around $10 million.
Once you’re done wondering what it’s like to live in a medieval penthouse, you can read some historical information on the signboards. It can help with getting a better understanding of what part of the theater you are looking at.
If you are in Rome in the summer and are looking for a special experience then you should look for concerts being held at the theater. Small musical performances are held in the area around the theater across the summer months making for a truly magical evening.
Tips For Visiting The Theatro Marcello
Guided tours including Marcellus’ Theater
The internal part of the theater may not be open to the public, but you may want to consider taking a tour anyways. There’s a selection of tours available which include the Teatro di Marcello in their itinerary.
An archaeological guided tour, usually in the form of a guided walk or e-bike tour, will be led by a knowledgeable guide who will help to unravel the hidden history of the theater. The tour will usually also include entrance to other monuments such as the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum.
Another actually easier and most common option is to include the theater in a tour of the nearby Jewish Ghetto area.
One of the best tours of the Jewish Ghetto is the walking tour with a local guide – it’s the one my sister and I took last time we were in the area, and we were positively impressed. You can book it here. For more tour options, click here.
You can see the theater at any time. If you wish to walk around the surrounding area that’s scattered with archaeological remains, opening times are during daylight hours only.
Admission to the Teatro Marcello is completely free – it’s a fun, very budget friendly place to visit!
Make sure to read my post The Best Free Things To Do In Rome.
How to get there
The theater is located on the Via del Teatro di Marcello, opposite the Tiber Island. The easiest way to get there by public transport is by taking the bus. A long list of various buses pass by the area, some bus numbers include, 23, 30, 40, 46, 70 81, 83, 170.
Alternatively you could reach the theater on foot, it’s located just a thirty minute walk from Termini Station and even closer to Via dei Fori Imperiali and Piazza Venezia, where the Altar of the Fatherland is located.