The Master Builders

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Muse with theatrical mask

Though carved from the rock by Nabataean builders well before the kingdom became a Roman province, Petra's main theater adhered strictly to design rules laid down by the highly influential Roman architect Vitruvius. A combination of carved rock and built masonry, it dominated the entrance to the city and may have held up to 8,500 spectators, with special seating for high-ranking officials. The Romans made major additions to Petra's theater, some of which involved destroying Nabataean rock-cut tombs.

Like most Roman theaters, Petra's is classical in form. It had a semicircular orchestra and an ascending horseshoe-shaped seating area divided into three levels. Although now bare, much of the structure, seats included, was faced with marble, lending an elegant and durable finish to the whole.

Traditionally, when Rome annexed a region, its city planners began to reshape the area's cities and build structures worthy of an empire. As one cynical provincial observed, Roman rule consisted of "customs dues, baths, theaters and taxes." In Petra and elsewhere, investment of large sums in venues for public enjoyment suggests that Rome's rulers used them to promote "romanization."