Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

Shakespeare’s first theatre discovered

Archaeologists in the London borough of Shoreditch have uncovered the city’s first theatre, and the first that staged Shakespeare’s plays.

Named simply “The Theatre”, it opened in 1576 and the game is afoot to build a new theatre on the site. The Theatre Appeal is raising money for the project and plans to install glass floors so visitors can admire the original Elizabethan floor and foundations.

The Theatre was disassembled in 1598 and the beams used to build Shakespeare’s more famous venue, the Globe. The reason for this move was that the landowner had a dispute with Shakespeare’s troupe and threatened to kick them out. So the Bard and friends waited until the landowner was away for Christmas, took the building apart, and spirited it to a new location.

A reconstructed Globe offers daily performances on the south bank of the Thames. The faithful reproduction gives you the feel for the original without the toothless peasants, dead cats, and outbreaks of the plague. You can even buy cut-rate tickets for the “groundling” section, a standing-room-only area in front of the stage. The performances are of uniformly high quality. Having lived in London for a year, I put it on my top ten list of things for visitors to do. A reconstruction of The Theatre would give Shakespeare lovers a double-dose of the The Bard.


Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Theater, art, and Haggis! A guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Each week, Gadling is taking a look at our favorite festivals around the world. From music festivals to cultural showcases to the just plain bizarre, we hope to inspire you to do some festival exploring of your own. Come back each Wednesday for our picks or find them all HERE.

Known as the “largest festival on Earth, Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival has something for everyone. From students donning kilts wanting to groove to the newest Jazz singers to street performers on stilts, this annual festival is an adventure where the energy flows into the streets and makes everyone feel like a performing artist for the day. The Fringe has come a long way: from its 1947 beginnings with only eight theater companies, to the present day festival, which sells over 1.8 million tickets each year! Tourists now travel from around the globe to experience this extraordinary event.

Begun by the Festival Fringe Society as an “open access festival” allowing unrestricted exhibition by anyone interested in performing, the modern version of the festival now features some of the world’s most unique and avant-garde artistic and theatrical pursuits. The shows range from dramatic Shakespeare told from the perspective of dinosaurs to puppets singing show tunes. However, the performances are only half of the experience that comes along with the price of the ticket. What else happens at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? Keep reading below.

With over 34,000 performances taking place over three weeks, the word ‘venue’ takes on a whole new meaning at the Edinburgh Fringe. The performance spaces range from a traditional stage to more progressive bars to classrooms with floor seating to places not so appealing like toilets!

Shows start all throughout the day and run long into the night, so every attendee should pick up a program. Treat the program like your tour guide for the length of your visit. Inside you’ll get reviews, a synopsis and location information for each show. Grab a scone and your program and hike up to Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in the city, for a panoramic city view and chart out each day. Since performances vary a great deal in length and are located all throughout the city, double check your times and locations before buying tickets.

Though the offerings of the Fringe Festival change every year, the one show that is on the top of every must-see list is the Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle, a 90-minute celebration lead by over a thousand musicians and ending with fireworks. Tickets for the event are in high demand every year, so make sure to buy those tickets in advance. When it’s over, walk to a pub and have yourself a “dram” of Scotch while trying the Haggis (a Scottish tradition of a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with spices) and tasting the tatties (potatoes). Like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it’s a one-of-a-kind Scottish experience!

This year the festival is scheduled from August 6-30th. Follow on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date on the latest happenings of the Fringe!

London theater for all: Device translates performance into 8 languages

Captions aren’t just for the opera anymore.

London theater is becoming more welcoming to foreign visitors by offering AirScript — a hand-held device that gives live translations in eight languages. The captions scroll throughout the performance — about seven lines at a time — in orange letters on a black background to cut the glare factor. Theater-goers can pick from English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese.

The first theater in London to offer the device is the Shaftesbury Theatre for its current show, Hairspray. The price to the patron? £6. 200 AirScripts can run at one time in a single theater.

Because it’s important that lines sync with the action on the stage, a manual operator cues the translations — the job can’t be automated.

Theater of Dionysus to be restored at the Acropolis

The Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, will undergo a major renovation over the next six years.

This theater was sacred to the god of wine and drama and in ancient times hosted the annual Dionysia, a festival in his honor. The festival included a competition for playwrights and the winners are a Who’s Who of Greek drama and comedy, including Sophocles, Euripides, and Philemon. Many scholars consider the Theater of Dionysus to be the birthplace of Classical theater. Plays were performed on this spot starting in the sixth century BC. The theater visible today was built in 325 BC and seated more than 14,000 people.

While the cult of Dionysus had the reputation of throwing wild orgies, it had a more serious purpose of acting as a sort of social pressure valve, allowing people to mock the rich and powerful and, on the stage at least, make dangerous political statements.

The project will cost six million euros (9 million dollars) and include a restoration of the marble seats and a strengthening of the remaining structure.