The enigma of the Roman theatre

The inscription outside the theatre.
The inscription outside the theatre. / PAULA HÉRVELE
  • The giant writing on the visitor centre of the historic site in Malaga tells the story of a slave who rose to be benefactor of the building

Many visitors to Malaga’s historic centre have had their curiosity aroused by the giant text written in Latin on the brown wall of the visitor centre next to the city’s Roman Theatre. The words reveal a fascinating and long-forgotten story about the triumph of an ex-slave that has only come to light in modern times.

In the Roman era, the less money and power you had the further you would sit from the stage in any Roman theatre, as each audience member was seated according to their social status. If you were a slave you would not even be able to get in unless a seat had been left vacant after the show had begun.

However, Publio Gratio, a slave who was lucky enough to buy his freedom from money he’d earned from his own business, was an exception to this hierarchical rule.

The enigma of the Roman theatre


After making his fortune in the ‘garum’ industry, (the local manufacture of a very popular seasoning sauce for fish), Publio rose up to be a benefactor of Malaga’s Roman Theatre. It is his story that is revealed on the brown wall on the side of the visitor centre.

According to the Roman Theatre’s archaeological director, Manuel Corrales, the words that adorn the wall translate as “Publio Gratio, from Malaga, and his wife, Pompye Focyria, donate four pillars and their bases to the theatre.”

The archaeologist adds that the other writing on the visitor centre, on the long glass wall includes various extracts from the ‘Lex Flavia Malacitana’, which was the Roman civil code that outlined the expected norms and customs of the Roman era.

The original inscription referring to the ex-slave were found hidden on the base of one long-destroyed column during the excavations of the site.

“Two inscriptions appeared that said the same thing; however the second one allowed us to work out the name of the woman, as in the first inscription it had been abbreviated in order to save space. The second helped us to verify that she was not called Focyria but Philociria,” explains Pedro Rodríguez Oliva, professor of Archaeology at the University of Malaga, who is a leading expert on Malaga’s Roman Theatre.

Rodríguez adds that “due to the type of writing, the inscriptions that were found are believed to date back to the beginning of the third century, an era in which Roman theatres started to be abandoned,” he continues. Although the pieces of stone with the inscriptions were miraculously found intact, the columns above them had long been removed, used by later civilizations as part of new buildings.

Rodríguez Oliva emphasises the significance of these inscriptions. “It is very important evidence that speaks about the building of the theatre. There is another inscription that refers to some magistrates that probably also paid for part of the construction. The piece was found in front of the theatre’s former stage, on the floor, but only a part of it was found.”