A wide view of the Roman theatre in Orange. Augustus Caesar still presides from his niche above the stage. Today the theatre is used for les chorégies d’Orange, the annual summer festival of opera, music, and dance. A dance rehearsal was in progress when I took this picture.
My friend Roger is standing in the foreground. He’s not showing his best side, but he is helping to show the scale of the theatre. The top row of seats is even with the top of the stage wall. As in all Roman theatres and arenas, spectators’ social class determined where they sat. The higher the class, the lower (and better) the seat.
Ordinary citizens and slaves sat in the summa cavea, the “nosebleed” section, where Roger is standing. As binoculars wouldn’t be invented for another 1,500 years, they probably couldn’t see the action very well. But the excellent acoustical design of the theatre meant they (and everyone else) could clearly hear the performers.
Property-owning citizens sat in the media cavea, the middle tiers. The prime imma cavea was reserved for the aristocratic Equestrian class, the most privileged of whom sat in movable seats on the dirt floor of the orchestra, right in front of the stage. (That’s why the ground floor in American theatres is the “orchestra”; it’s called the “stalls” in Britain.) The musical sense of “orchestra” alludes to the musicians who played for dancers; those dancers often performed in the orchestra of ancient theatres like this one. Both meanings apply when opera is performed during les chorégies— the musicians are literally in the orchestra.