Roman Theatrical Masks


The archaeological remains of two Roman theatres point clearly to the frequent staging of theatrical performances and of the highly developed culture scene in Pula’s antiquity period phase. The founding of a Roman colony (Colonia Iulia Pola) in 46/45 BCE at the site of a Histrian hillfort settlement was followed by the development of a city with all the content characteristic of Roman urban and building traditions. In the course of the first century Pula saw the erection of two theatres—a larger edifice outside the city and a smaller one within the bounds of the city walls. Other material evidence also attests to the important role theatrical performances played in the lives of the Roman period inhabitants of Pula. These include artefacts decorated with scenes inspired by details of stage plays, with theatrical (actor’s) masks occupying a special place among them.
This exhibition features a limited selection from the holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria associated with this topic.



Pula, Small Roman Theater






The Mask as an Element of Theatrical Performances in the Antiquity Period


Theatrical (actor’s) masks were an essential part of antiquity period plays. As with dramatic literature, masks draw their roots from ancient Greek customs associated with the cult of the deity Dionysus. Tragedy and comedy—dramatic forms in which the protagonists employed specially crafted actor’s masks—grew out of these customs. Thespis is credited with creating the first tragedy in 534 BCE and with inventing actor’s masks crafted of linen soaked in plaster and then placed in moulds. The fifth century BCE saw the work of the greatest writers of classic Greek tragedy—Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The full range of societal and political shifts of the time were reflected in the content of their works and in the appearance of actor’s masks. In Aeschylus’s time masks were crafted of linen covered in plaster and painted in a variety of colours to emphasise certain facial features. The masks of Sophocles’s period are more expressive and acquire the onkos (superficies)—the high-combed hair characteristic of tragical theatrical masks. In Euripides’s time the masks became even more expressive, almost grotesque.
Theatre in antiquity period Rome developed under the influence of Greek theatre. The Roman world came into contact with Greek comedy and tragedy in the mid-third century BCE thanks largely to Livius Andronicus. The same period saw the emergence of dramatists that treated topics that drew inspiration from Roman daily life, the first among these being Gnaeus Naevius. The second century BCE saw the activity of Plautus, one of the most prominent Roman comic dramatists. Following the Greek model, masks were introduced to theatrical performances early in the first century BCE. The Roman masks were somewhat larger and featured more emphasised facial expressions. The Atellan farces constituted a separate type of theatrical performance and drew their origin from the Campanian town of Atella. These were vulgar plays employing wordplay (paronomasia) and featuring a limited cast of stock characters, each represented by a conventional mask. The Atellan farces were characterised by four masked characters: the clownish Maccus, the obese simpleton Bucco, the old man Pappus and the crafty cheat Dossenus. This type of play was put on as entertaining fare following a tragedy treating Roman topics. Stunning masks with closed mouths were worn by actors of the pantomime, a type of theatrical performance that would come to dominate theatre in the later phase of the antiquity period.





Depictions of Theatrical Masks

 During the antiquity period masks—besides their specific use in the staging of theatrical performances—were often utilised as a motif in various other areas of human activity. Works of great aesthetic merit were at times inspired by the theatre. In this context masks were often depicted either independently, as part of the integral depiction of the figure of an actor, or as part of larger figural theatre scenes. It is these depictions in fact that provide direct insight into the visual appearance of masks as they were once used in the theatre. These motifs are depicted on mosaics, frescoes, on items of daily use, on gravestones, and were often incorporated in rich architectural relief decoration, especially the architecture of theatrical edifices.

Among the holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria are a number of artefacts that depict theatrical masks. Some of these are on gravestones and parts of monumental architectural relief elements, prominent among which are fragments that once adorned the scaenae frons of the larger of the Roman theatres in Pula. Only a small number of elements of this type of architecture are presented at this exhibition. These include broken off sections of Corinthian capitals (Cat. 1–4). The capital of a column of the Corinthian order was formed as a basket with stylised acanthus leaves. It is topped with an abacus, a flat slab with curved sides. At the midpoint of each of the four sides was a fleuron. The fleuron specimens presented here once adorned the abacus of a capital of this type. They are specific in that a theatrical mask is depicted at their centre. One such specimen is preserved without the fleuron element (Cat. 4).
Mythological themes were one of the sources of inspiration for antiquity period dramatists, and masks were developed to be used by the actors when interpreting characters in performances with such content. One exhibit is the mask of a bearded satyr in the fleuron from an abacus (Cat. 1). There is also a depiction of a mask of the well-known mythical hero Hercules, the protector of the Roman colony at Pula, with his club. Theatrical performances inspired by his heroic labours were surely well received in the city of which he was the protecting patron. This mask is depicted on a ceramic oil lamp (Cat. 8). Oil lamps were objects that used oil as fuel and the primary function of which was to provide light in a given space. In the Roman period they took on a symbolic function of providing light when laid in the graves of the deceased. Lamps were also popular as gifts presented on various occasions and it comes as no surprise that master craftsmen showed broad creative licence in the decoration of these items. Theatrical masks were one of the more frequent motifs used to adorn them. For this exhibition we have highlighted several specimens featuring various depictions of theatrical masks (Cat. 5–9).


Fleuron from the abacus of a Corinthian order capital with satyr mask.











1. Fleuron from the abacus of a Corinthian order capital with satyr mask, made of limestone. The head of a satyr is placed at the centre of a damaged five-petalled fleuron. The satyr is depicted as an older bearded man with curly hair and a face characterised by slanted eyes without irises, emphasised and arched eyebrows, a broad nose, and an open mouth.
Inventory code: A-4843
Dimensions: height 8.6 cm, width 15.6 cm, length 8.2 cm, weight 988 g
Site: Pula, Small Roman Theatre, 1912
Date: second half of the 1st century BCE






2. Fleuron from the abacus of a Corinthian order capital with a comical theatrical mask, made of limestone. The mask is placed on an acanthus leaf that is largely damaged. The depiction of the mask is characterised by stylised, high-combed hair, bulging eyes, a broad snub nose and stretched out mouth crafted as a broad smile. The mask is topped with a coronet in the form of a spirally twisted ribbon.
Inventory code: A-4844
Dimensions: height 12 cm, width 11 cm, length 4.4 cm, weight 754 g
Site: Pula, Small Roman Theatre, 1935–1939
Date: second half of the 1st century BCE






3. Fleuron from the abacus of a Corinthian order capital with a comical theatrical mask, made of limestone. The mask is placed at the centre of a partially damaged five-petalled fleuron. The depiction of the mask is characterised by stylised hair, a low brow, bulging eyes and highly emphasised mouth opening. The mask is topped by a coronet in the form of a ribbon.
Inventory code: A-5751
Dimensions: height 19 cm, width 20 cm, length 12 cm, weight 4263 g
Site: Nesactium, 1906
Date: 1st century






4. Comical theatrical mask broken off the fleuron from the abacus of a capital, made of limestone. In spite of the significant damage we can make out the mask of an older bearded man. The head is bald, the eyes are large with perforated pupil holes, the nose is damaged, and the mouth opening is highly emphasised.
Inventory code: A-49953
Dimensions: height 8.5 cm, width 6.5 cm, length 4.5 cm, weight 201 g
Site: Pula, AMI building, Lapidarij 1, SU 006, 11 Sep. 2014
Date: early 1st century






5. An oil lamp of the Loeschcke X factory-lamp (Firmalampen) form with two comical theatrical masks depicted in relief. Depicted on the discus are two comical theatrical masks of the Negroid type. Both have broadly spread mouth openings and thick hair depicted with small incisions. Orange clay.
Inventory code: A-4719
Dimensions: height of the body 3.9 cm, height with handles/lugs 4.3 cm, length of the lamp 11.1 cm, body Ø 7.7 cm, base Ø 4.8 cm, weight 121.7 g
Site: Pula, Sveti Nikola, church, pre-1949
Date: 1st – 3rd century





6. Sherd from the discus of an oil lamp of the Loeschcke I B form with an actor and mask depicted in relief. The depicted actor is an older individual wearing a cloak and sandals, seated on a chair facing right, with the right hand extended toward a comical mask set to his right side on a pedestal standing on three small feet. The hole in the discus is below the depicted image. A part of the body and the angular volute nozzle are missing. Light orange clay, reddish-brown low gloss slip.
Inventory code: A-5003
Dimensions: height 1.7 cm, length 7 cm, width 8.2 cm, weight 24.2 g
Site: unknown
Date: 1st – 2nd century






7. Section of an oil lamp of the Loeschcke I B form with two masks depicted in relief. The masks stand on the background facing left; the left mask depicts a shaven young man with a Phrygian cap, the right mask depicts an older balding and bearded man. The hole in the discus is below the depicted masks. The angular volute nozzle is missing. Light ochre-yellow clay, brown matte slip.
Inventory code: A-5012
Dimensions: height 2.8 cm, length 7.8 cm, width 7.4 cm, base Ø 4.4 cm, weight 34.1 g
Site: unknown
Date: 1st – 2nd century






8. Sherd from the discus of an oil lamp with a Hercules mask and club depicted in relief. The mask depicting a bearded Hercules bears a lionskin covering; leaning against it is a downward oriented club. The hole in the discus is below the depicted mask. The shoulder profile is of the Loeschcke 3 A form. Ochre-orange clay, brown low gloss slip. The lamp is of the Loeschcke I or IV form.
Inventory code: A-5844
Dimensions: height 0.7 cm, length 6.1 cm, width 4.4 cm, Ø 5.8 cm, weight 5.6 g
Site: unknown
Date: 1st – 2nd century






9. Triple ceramic oil lamp with masks and festoons on the stand. A triple Knidian (Cnidian) oil lamp with rectangular stand on the front side of which there are three comical masks done in relief and linked by festoons. The central mask depicts a short-haired young man. The two masks to the sides depict older males, likely slaves. The hair is done as a series of incisions, the snub noses are broad, and the mouths wide open and funnel-shaped. Above the base are three fluted shafts bearing lamps with round nozzles and discuses decorated with a multi-petalled rosette. The left and centre lamps have been reconstructed together with the shafts. The reconstruction of the centre lamp is questionable. Light ochre clay, brown matte slip.
Inventory code: A-5849
Dimensions: height 19 cm, width 18.6 cm, length 9 cm, weight 895 g
Site: Pula, Small Roman Theatre, 1912
Date: 2nd century








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Roman Theatrical Masks


Carrarina 4, Pula

Window to the Past

6. 8. – 2. 10. 2019.

 Exhibition and text author:

Silvana Petešić

Organizer and publisher:

Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher:

Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:

Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design:

Vjeran Juhas


Ivo Juričić


Tanja Draškić Savić, Silvana Petešić

Restoration treatment of the artefacts:

Andrea Sardoz

Exhibition coordinator:

Monika Petrović

Translation in Italian:

Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation:

Neven Ferenčić


Irena Buršić, Adriana Gri Štorga,
Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović

Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 700

Pula, 2019.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.