The Sphinx: A Find from the Large Roman Theatre in Pula


Theatres were a feature of cities with the highest levels of urban development in the potent Roman state of the antique period. The Roman colony of Pula (Colonia Iulia Pola Pollentia Herculanea) had two theatres, both raised in the early Principate. The lesser and older of the two was erected within the bounds of the city’s defensive wall. The Roman period inhabitants took advantage of various occasions to gather for leisure and pleasure, including stage performances organised during major religious festivities. As stage plays were at the time frequented by the residents of the whole of the Pula ager and neighbouring areas, a theatre building was required that offered large audience capacity. The relatively small area within the bounds of the city and the indubitably great popularity of stage plays saw a second, significantly larger theatre erected in the 1st c. CE. It was sited outside the city bounds, on the north slope of one of Pula’s hills, now known as Monte Zaro, near the southern line of the city wall. In the period after it ceased to be used for its original purpose the theatre gradually fell into decay until it was little more than a ruin. The human factor played a significant role in its eventual complete destruction, driven by the need to source finished building materials for the erection of new or the adaptation of existing structures. The most recent intervention related to the exploitation of the stone blocks of the Large Roman Theatre for new construction was recorded in the early 1630s, during the erection of a Venetian fort on the city’s central hill. The Venetian authorities produced a design for the fort and entrusted the supervision of its erection, which ran from 1630 to 1633, to the French military engineer Antoine De Ville. In the first two years of the fort’s construction De Ville exploited the large stone blocks from the collapsed Large Roman Theatre for construction material.


Fig. 1 Drainage canal of the Large Roman Theatre in Pula.
Low angle photo facing the Schram House
(photo: T. Draškić Savić).


After an extended period of stagnation Pula fell into the hands of new masters, flourishing again from the mid-19th c. as it found itself in the role of chief naval harbour of the Austria-Hungary dual monarchy. The formation of new city districts with numerous public and private buildings saw Pula rapidly expanding beyond the perimeter of the city wall. This development saw new buildings raised and roads built over the area once occupied by the Large Roman Theatre. As a result of all of these circumstances the site now presents almost no visible traces indicating that the monumental edifice of an antique period theatre once stood here. Thanks to old records and illustrations, and the recorded impressions of some of the visitors to Pula in its distant past, we do have some insight concerning a building that once—along with the amphitheatre—dominated the skyline. In the mid-16th c. Pula was visited by the well-known Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio. His particular interest in antiquity period buildings resulted in the production of the first drawings and plan view of the Large Roman Theatre. At the time much of the front of the stage house and auditorium still stood. Serlio’s notes thus constitute a precious source of data when attempting to visualise the theatre in its original form. Much later, in the second half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th c., during the erection of new buildings, some of the modest remains of the masonry structure of the theatre once again saw the light of day, and finds were recorded of parts of its décor. Particularly notable is the marble torso of an emperor, dated to the second half of the 2nd to the early 3rd c. CE, posited to have occupied a niche on the second level of the central avant-corps of the interior face, i.e., the front of the stage house (the scaenae frons). The year 1908 is especially significant in terms of the collection of data concerning the theatre. That year the Austrian conservator Anton Gnirs, in the course of archaeological investigative work, produced a new plan view that drew on Serlio’s drawings and those produced by gendarmerie commander Hermann Schram during the construction of his family house on what is now No. 4 Dobrilina street (then No. 3 Via Apollo). The foundations of the Schram House were laid in 1874 over what was once the east end of the theatre’s stage house. The investigation led by Gnirs collected only a few modest remains of what was once the architectural decoration of the stage house. This collection was expanded by finds made in 1911 during works on the construction of a new and more spacious navy officer’s club (German: Marine Kasino), now the Dom hrvatskih branitelja (a military veterans’ community centre). The remains of the masonry structure of the stage house were again uncovered in 2014 during excavation works for the installation of a gas pipeline in Dobrilina street. The works recorded the remains of part of the foundations of the northern, outer wall of the stage house with one drainage canal, the same canal previously uncovered and recorded by Hermann Schram.




Fig. 2 The Large Roman Theatre
plan view and view of the side wall of the auditorium according to Sebastiano Serlio
(AMI Documentation Department).


Fig. 3 Plan view of the Large Roman Theatre in Pula (Gnirs 1908).


The data left to us by Serlio, Schram and Gnirs, and the finds of fragments of architectural decoration, now kept at the Archaeological Museum of Istria, sufficed to develop an approximate picture of the size and appearance of the Large Roman Theatre. Making the best of and adapting to the slope of the hillside, the Roman architects formed a rising semi-circular auditorium (cavea) with three tiers, topped by a gallery. It has been estimated that the auditorium had a capacity of some five thousand spectators. One can imagine the delight of spectators taking in the lavishly decorated façade of the stage house, forming the backdrop to the plays performed on the elevated stage.

The lavish marble columns and their Corinthian capitals arranged across three storeys, the relief decoration of the architraves, friezes and cornices, the sculptures, and all the other features typical of a theatre stage house—the nature of which we can only speculate about—must have been awe-inspiring. The outside of the theatre building was also a magnificent showpiece. The semi-circular perimetral outer wall of the auditorium was broken up at the level of the first and second storeys with a series of arched openings, while a two-level portico ran the full length of the outer face of the stage house with a row of fluted columns topped with Corinthian capitals. The impressive stature of this edifice is reflected in its dimensions, stretching to a length of 120 and a breadth of 85 metres, while the highest point of the stage house is estimated to have reached 32 metres. While an analysis of the recovered fragments of architectural decoration dates the construction of the Large Roman Theatre to the Flavian period, some have proposed that it was built as early as the reign of the emperor Augustus.
The recovered architectural elements speak to a Large Roman Theatre lavishly decorated with marble imported from multiple sources. One of these elements, featured here, is a marble fragment with a sphinx depicted in relief.



A Marble Cornice Section with Sphinx in Relief

Although fragmentary, a section of a marble cornice with a relief image of a sphinx is among the finer recovered pieces from the Large Roman Theatre. It was found in 1911 during works at the construction site of the officer’s club of the Austro-Hungarian navy (Marine Kasino) in Pula along with a number of other pieces of the decorative elements of the Roman period architecture done in marble and limestone. Notable among these is a section of an architrave with a depiction in relief of Silenus and satyr masks, and part of a raking cornice with the depiction of male theatrical and satyr masks. Based on the find site these sections must have been parts of the stage house of the Large Roman Theatre. It was in the area where these pieces were recovered that the stage house, with its outer two-level portico, stood in antiquity period Pula. The piece with the relief image of the sphinx is notable in terms both of the material from which it was made, and in terms of the concept of the imagery, which constitutes a departure from the standard production of architectural cornices. In the Roman architectural tradition cornices were almost always a requisite element of the architecture, usually adorned with rich decoration in relief. The surfaces of consoles supporting cornices were covered in sculpted acanthus leaves. It was not, however, unusual to find them at times featuring figural images carved in relief, as is the case with our cornice, on which we see a sphinx depicted in high relief. The nearest analogy is, in fact, found on the raking cornice of the Large Roman Theatre, where the central console is done in the form of a satyr mask.

The sphinx occupies the central place and has the role of a projecting console on the surviving marble cornice fragment exhibited here. To the left and right of the sphinx are coffers, each with a rosette. Acanthus leaves extend above the coffers, each terminating in a ribbon-like spiral. The pair of acanthus leaves—of which the one to the right has been broken off—are held by a broad band behind the sphinx’s head. Extending vertically from the band is a palm leaf. Near the bottom, next to both of the sphinx’s wings, we can just make out a destroyed decoration suggestive of a cyma reversa. The sphinx is depicted frontally, in a seated position, with outspread wings. Her face is framed by hair, which descends in gently undulating locks to the nape of her neck, where it is bound. A set of breasts run along the front of the sphinx’s torso, separated by a broad horizontal band into a thoracic and abdominal zone. The breasts on the thorax are associated with the sphinx’s anthropomorphic aspect, and those on the abdominal zone with its animal aspect. There is evident use of a drill in places during the carving of the relief, especially notable at the perimetral parts of the vegetal decoration and in crafting the pupils of the sphinx’s eye. The entire image was done in high relief, achieving a high degree of voluminosity. Proconnesian marble was used to make this cornice, easily recognisable even when viewed only by the naked eye. This is a white marble with characteristic grey or blue veins. It was quarried on Marmara island in the Sea of Marmara. While marble from this source was used for centuries, its broad use only began in the mid-1st c. CE. Its price was reasonable because the island was situated at a hub of maritime routes, which facilitated ship-borne transport. The quarry produced both finished products and roughly prepared pieces on which the delicate work was done at the final destination. Blocks were often exported in the dimensions required by a client. For the Pula cornice the marble used was most likely thus prepared, with the relief work done at a local workshop. Also among the finds from the Large Roman Theatre are Corinthian capitals, also done in Proconnesian marble, and all dated to the late 1st c. CE. The fragment with the sphinx relief, in terms of its stylistic characteristics, robust moulding, finely worked vegetal motifs and sphinx image, points to a local stone carver with the well-honed skills of a master artisan. The piece is dated to the period of the late 1st to early 2nd c. CE.


The Origin of the Sphinx

Developed out of the mythologies of ancient civilisations, the sphinx was commonly depicted as having the body of a lion, the head of a human, and the wings of an eagle. For ages it has been a frequent motif of literature, drama, and the visual arts. In the Roman world the visual depiction of the sphinx was both frequent and widespread. It was depicted as a freestanding sculpture, in relief, and in painting. It adorned architecture and items of everyday use. We find the sphinx image on Roman coins minted in the immediate aftermath of Augustus’ victory over Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra at the battle fought at Actium in 31 BCE. The sphinx was also featured on Augustus’ first personal seal, and we see a pair of sphinxes on the shoulder straps of the breastplate on the famed marble Augustus of Prima Porta statue. Sphinxes were often depicted on sepulchral monuments—in relief or in the round—as symbolic guardians of the spirit of the deceased. The sphinx came to us out of Egypt, seen as having the role of guardian of the graves of Egyptian pharaohs. Especially renowned is the sphinx at Giza, depicting Khafre. It was created in the mid-3rd millennium BCE. From that time the sphinx was officially depicted in Egypt with the head of the ruler and the typical headdress that is an attribute of the royal family. In Syria and Mesopotamia, the sphinx was always depicted as a winged being, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, which are depicted as a lion with a human head. From Egypt the sphinx made its way to Minoan Crete, when in time, under eastern influences, it also acquired wings. It was from there that the sphinx was introduced to the Greek world and Etruria. The classical Greek period was marked by the standardisation of the depiction of the sphinx; she had a lion’s body, a bird’s wings, and a young woman’s head. She was depicted as a standalone sculpture at graves or on grave stelae, taking on the role of guardian of the spirit of the deceased. She was also often depicted on ceramic ware, where the motifs were, in general, inspired by literary dramatic works dealing with mythological themes. As a character in the mythological tale of the Theban king Oedipus—enigmatic, wise, and deadly—the sphinx found a place in the artistic depictions of Greek pottery decorators. The best known of the depicted themes is the one in which the sphinx, which had made its abode near Thebes, poses this riddle: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? Oedipus answered correctly that this was man, who, as an infant crawls on all fours, as an adult walks on two legs and, in old age, uses a walking stick, thus ridding the Thebans of the terror of the sphinx, who leapt to her death from the heights of Mount Phicion.
In the Roman world the sphinx appears in a protective role in sepulchral contexts, and in depictions of the Oedipus myth.
Among sphinx finds made in Pula almost all are of funereal character, including those depicted on the Arch of the Sergii, a memorial and commemorative monument. The only depiction of a sphinx that departs from this is in fact our example found at the Large Roman Theatre site. Given its context, this sphinx depiction may well have been inspired by dramatic plays featuring the mythological theme of the tragic Theban king Oedipus.




Fig. 4 A section of frieze with a relief depiction of a sphinx and Priapus.

From the octagonal mausoleum in Pula (photo: S. Petešić).



Fragment of a marble cornice with sphinx depicted in relief

Description: Fragment of a cornice done in Proconnesian marble with a console in the form of a sphinx. The sphinx is depicted frontally, in a seated position, with outspread wings. The face—framed by hair descending in gently undulating locks to the nape of the neck, where it is bound—has suffered significant damage to the nose and mouth area. The recessed irises are bored with a drill. The legs are incomplete; the front legs are broken off at half their length, the back legs are damaged at the bottom. A set of breasts run along the front of the sphinx’s torso, separated by a broad horizontal band into thoracic and abdominal zones. The breasts on the thorax are associated with the sphinx’s anthropomorphic aspect, and those on the abdominal zone with its animal aspect. The coffers to both sides of the console are filled out with rosettes having a central protrusion and five tapered and curved lobes. A pair of symmetrical facing curling acanthus leaves run above the coffers (the one to the right has been broken off). The tendrils behind the sphinx’s head are bound by a broad band. The cornice section is broken to all sides. The lavish cornice decoration is done in high relief.
Inv. code: A-5744.
Material(s)/technique(s): marble, carved.
Dimensions: H 16 cm, W 33 cm, L 85 cm.
Findspot: Pula, Large Roman Theatre site, 1911. Recovered along the outer wall face of the stage house (scaena).
Date: late 1stC–early 2ndC.



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The Sphinx: A Find from the Large Roman Theatre in Pula

Carrarina 4, Pula
Window to the Past
25. 10. 2022. – 24. 1. 2023.


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

Drawing: Ivo Juričić

Photographers: Vjeran Juhas, Tanja Draškić Savić, Silvana Petešić

Restoration interventions: Đeni Gobić-Bravar

Exhibition coordinator: Monika Petrović


Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić


Croatian language editor: Milena Špigić

Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović,
Giulia Codacci-Terlević

Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 500

Pula, 2022.

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