A team of archaeologists, led by Professor Richard Beacham, of the University of Warwick, has built a three-dimensional model using computers, recreating the vast auditorium of the Pompey theatre, which stood for centuries as the prototype for all arenas. .

Buried beneath some of Rome's most beautiful palaces and squares, the Pompey theatre could not be excavated without destroying swathes of the city centre and generations of archaeologists were forced to abandon the site despite its fame.

Prof Beacham's team now hopes to perform "keyhole archaeology" by digging to the foundations via a restaurant doorway. Professor James Packer, of Northwestern University, Illinois is directing the excavation of the theater as part of a research project begun in 1996. In 2002 they joined with archaeologist Cristina Gagliardo, architect Dario Silenzi, and engineer Massimo Aristide Giannelli to undertake the first excavation of the theater since 1865.

Descriptions by the ancient historian Pliny of a gigantic structure were dismissed as gross exaggerations. But a two-year study, involving aerial photography, cellar inspections, the sifting of archives, mathematical extrapolations and computers has partially vindicated Pliny. Let's just mention that Pompey's Theatre with its 100-meters-wide stage and 35,000 seats is still today the largest theatre ever built.
View of the stage
"It was the first major example of the imperial style of architecture in Rome – says Prof. Beacham – It influenced many subsequent buildings, not just theatres."

Special effects on a stage the size of a football pitch were paid for by emperors keen to court popularity and crowd control methods were invented to stop the 35,000 spectators turning into a mob. Riot fears infact led to an elaborate ticketing system, believed to be the first of its kind, which allocated each person a particular tier, row, seat and exit.

"Seating replicated class divisions: the emperor and senators at the front, aristocrats and generals in the next 14 rows, then officials, priests, vestal virgins and citizens. Foreigners, slaves and women were allowed to watch from the back. It was a microcosm of Roman society. All the stratas were laid out before you," concludes Prof Beacham.