Discovering Rome’s Circus Maximus

Part of Circus Maximus, with the Roman Forum in the background. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rubenholthuijsen/14110642580

The Roman Circus was a large, oval, open air venue used for public events such as chariot races, horse races, games and performances. Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) was the first and the largest of its kind in Ancient Rome, situated in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. It was first constructed in the 6th century BC and due to its popularity, it became the model for all other circuses throughout the Roman Empire. Little remains today of the grand circus, though the site is now a public park and is still used for concerts and events.

Grand Designs

A model reconstruction of Circus Maximus. https://www.flickr.com/photos/timo_beil/3034493113

As Circus Maximus today is a large open space, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine how it would have looked in Ancient Rome. But we can assure you, it was grand! Throughout its lifetime, the circus underwent several refurbishments that both increased its size and use. Though it was first built between 599-500 BC, it was partly destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 AD and after it was rebuilt with grand proportions. At its largest, it had the capacity for 250,000 seated spectators on tiered seating of stone and wood, not unlike modern day football stadiums. The outside of the circus displayed an array of shop-fronts to service the needs of the spectators. The track itself was 540 meters long and 80 meters wide and was covered in sand and had 12 starting gates for chariots at one end. There was a decorative barrier that featured obelisks that ran down the middle of the track, making sure the chariots kept on course, as well as lap markers to mark each completed circuit.

Games and Events

A Roman Chariot

The circus was used to host many events, though its principal function was chariot races. The chariots could be pulled by 4, 6, 8 or 12 horses! The winning charioteers (the men leading the horses) were well known throughout the Roman Empire and were adored by the public. Adoration wasn’t the only thing up for grabs, however, as there were always large cash prizes available. Like modern horse racing, there was also the opportunity for the spectators to place bets on their favorites! The most famous charioteer was a man by the name of Scorpus who won more than 2,000 races.

Aside from chariot races, Circus Maximus also hosted the annual Roman Games (Ludi Romani) which were held every September to honor the god, Jupiter. When Circus Maximus first opened in the 6th century BC the games ran for about 15 days, but by the 1st century AD, 135 days of the year were dedicated to the games! There were a multitude of celebrations and spectacles included in the Roman Games such as religious ceremonies, public feasts, horse and chariot racing, athletics, plays and recitals, beast hunts and gladiator fights.

Other events hosted throughout the year at Circus Maximus included public executions, and the wildly popular and gruesome animal hunts and gladiator fights.

Excavations and Modern Uses

Circus Maximus park. https://www.flickr.com/photos/groume/8023956074

In the 6th century AD the circus fell into disuse. This was largely because there were other venues like the Colosseum for gladiator and animal fights, and the Stadium of Domitian for chariot and horse races. The last chariot race in Circus Maximus was held in 549 AD, after which the site was abandoned.  The site was then used as a quarry and even a market garden! Today the original track lies six meters below the surface. When excavations of the site began in 1587 under Pope Sixtus V, two of the obelisks that formed a part of the decorative barrier were recovered and relocated. One stands in Piazza del Popolo, and the other in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. Excavations in the 19th century exposed sections of the seating and more of the decorative barrier, but unfortunately further excavations are limited by the depth and the water-logging of the site. Today, Circus Maximus is used as a large public park and often hosts music concerts and public events. Musicians such as The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd have played at the venue in recent years.

Via del Circo Massimo

Metro B, Circo Massimo

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