The Circus Maximus (Latin: greatest or largest circus; Italian: Circo Massimo) in Rome, along with the nearby Colosseum, is an iconic symbol of ancient Roman architecture and entertainment. Even to this day it is one of the largest sporting stadiums by capacity ever to have been constructed.
Once a place to watch chariot races, mock battles, public executions, gladiator fights and dance/acrobat shows, this huge arena was built in the 6th century BC, and it continues the legacy of being a recreational facility right up to the present day. Step back into history with this article and learn about this extraordinary event center.
The Circus Maximus is one of the biggest sports stadia ever built at about 2,037 feet (621m) in length and 387 feet (118m) in width. It is located in the Valley of Murcia (Vallis Murcia) between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, and is the oldest public event space in the city of Rome.
This valley would have been prone to flooding from the River Tiber (which, as we will see later, damaged the lower tier of seating as the Circus’s usage began to decline and buried the track under many layers of mud and soil over the years). When not underwater, this area would initially have just been a flat open space with perhaps raised banks to provide a track layout and a slightly elevated position for spectators to sit on and watch the action unfold.
The first Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus, who reigned from 616 to 579 BC, built a wooden perimeter of seating that was raised for upperclass Romans. His grandson, Tarquinius Superbus, then added wooden seats for those lower down the social hierarchy. In 494 BC, Dictator Manius Valerius Maximus was granted seats for his family. The starting stalls for the chariots were built in 329 BC.
What Did the Circus Maximus Look Like?
The appearance of the Circus changed drastically over the ages from those early days of grassy banks to the installation of wooden seating, right up to the eventual grand stone and marble structure as the wealth and might of the Roman civilization grew.
The track itself was a large oval similar to the horse racing or NASCAR tracks of today, and, just like nowadays, the spectators ate snacks, cheered on their favorites, and engaged in a little wagering on the outcome of the race.
Numerous Roman emperors made changes to the Circus Maximus during their reigns. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar made the track longer, extended the seating all the way around and put in an euripus (water-filled channel) that was 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep, all the way around between the track and the seating. This not only improved the drainage from the track during periods of heavy rainfall and high water levels, but also served to keep the wild animals from attacking spectators.
There were originally seven large wooden eggs that were used as lap markers until Agrippa brought in seven bronze dolphins in 33 BC (a chariot race was typically run over seven laps of the track).
The changes made by successive emperors were not all made through pure vanity and whim. Quite often, new building work was necessary as the Circus suffered from a number of fires during its lifetime.
A large fire in 31 BC destroyed most of the Circus during the reign of Augustus. During the reconstruction works, he commissioned a shrine to the gods to be built below the seating on the Palatine Hill side of the track, which also served as an imperial box.
Another fire hit the Circus in AD 80 during the reign of Trajan. His reconstruction work incorporated marble seats which adorned the first tier, with the lower tiers made out of stone and concrete. Although some wooden seating still remained, not only did the Circus start to look as spectacular and beautiful as the nearby temples, but having it constructed of stone also greatly reduced the chance of any future destruction from fire.
What was the Capacity of the Circus Maximus?
Estimates vary wildly, but the consensus amongst historians is that the Circus Maximus could accommodate around 150,000 spectators, but some argue that, at its peak, the Circus Maximus could seat up to approximately 300,000 people. It is very difficult to get a measure of exact numbers as, unlike modern all-seater stadiums that have an exact number of seats, it is difficult to know how many spectators could cram into long, continuous seating tiers.
If the 300,000 figure is true, this would make it six times bigger in terms of capacity than the Colosseum, which itself could hold an impressive 50,000 spectators (approximately of course, as estimating figures for the Colosseum suffers from the same difficulty). There has never been a stadium in history as large as this one.
Games and Events
The most important chariot races were held every year from September 4 to 18.
Just like the now more famous games held at the Colosseum, events at the Circus Maximus were put on by the state or, as became increasingly the case, by the aristocracy to garner favor with the population, most likely to win their support for political office. Again, like those at the Colosseum, they could sometimes last several days at a time.
With the Colosseum not opening until 80 AD, the Circus Maximus was the main venue in the city of Rome where the crowds were entertained for many centuries. Chariot races, gladiator fights, acrobatic and other displays all took place there.
After the construction of the Colosseum, the Circus started to focus primarily on chariot racing. The wild beast hunts and gladiator games moved over to the Colosseum as they required much less space to take place and made it easier for the attendees to view the action. Sitting at one end of a race track and trying to view a gladiator fight all the way at the other end would not have been much fun!
Other events to take place at the Circus included public executions, animal hunts, religious celebrations and festivals. The organizers did all they could to keep the public happy, often showering them with money, sweets, and presents on top of trying to provide them with a spectacle that they would remember for a long time to come.
Danger For Spectators
Along with the significant probability of injury or death to those competing in the arena, the crowd themselves were not totally free from risk, at least not those in the lower seats anyway.
It wasn't abnormal for pieces of chariots involved in high-speed crashes to end up in the crowd. With little in the way of safety barriers, those unlucky to be close to the track could be hit by flying debris such as loose wheels or splinters of broken wood. In the early days of the Circus, there were also incidents where wild animals broke through and attacked the crowd, which, as mentioned earlier, was one of the reasons that prompted Julius Caesar to install the euripus water ditch.
Although there was a level of danger in just watching, this did not seem to deter the masses, and the chariot races and events at the Circus Maximus were an immensely popular social event for many people. Women and men could sit together, which lead to flirting and fun, and brothels and taverns were visited by many after the events of the day.
The Decline of the Circus Maximus
As Christianity rose in popularity throughout the Roman Empire, the Circus Maximus began to host fewer events. Some Christians believed the Circus was the "devil's playground" due to the debauchery that went on in and around it.
As mentioned earlier, when it was opened in 80 AD, the Colosseum started to increasingly become the premier entertainment venue for the Roman people. It did continue to be a popular venue for chariot races right up until the fall of the Roman empire, and even for a time beyond. Totila, the Ostrogoth king, held the last official chariot race at the Circus Maximus in 549 AD.
The Circus Maximus Area Today
Like many of the ancient buildings from the Roman period, natural events, the weather and the actions of people have not been kind over the subsequent centuries. Situated in the valley between two hills, the site was always prone to flooding, and numerous floods over the years have taken out the lower tiers of seating, and buried much of the original base, including the actual track, deep within waterlogged soil. This has made excavation and archaeological work extremely challenging. People took stone and marble from the structures as they began to sink into the ground to use on other construction projects elsewhere. The Flaminio Obelisk - which was an Egyptian obelisk 67 feet (24 m) high that was brought to Rome by Augustus in 10 BC and triumphantly displayed in the spina (central area) of the track - was moved in the 16th century to the Piazza del Popolo.
Although it is difficult to see any of the historic site for what it once was, and the racing track area itself is now covered in grass, it is still easy to see how big this space was, and to imagine the chariots thundering along the track towards you. Though relatively little of the physical presence is still there, people can now take guided tours using virtual reality which brings the whole area back to life, albeit virtually.
Despite the now-ruined appearance, the Circus Maximus is far from finished as an entertainment venue and place for public enjoyment and leisure. These days, it is now a large public park area, but also serves occasionally as a venue for music concerts and gatherings. The Rolling Stones, Genesis and Duran Duran have all played concerts on the iconic site, and the space has also been used during celebrations of soccer victories; AS Roma winning the Serie A league title in 1983 and 2001, and the Italian national team success at the World Cup in 2006.
This is a special place full of history. The structure may now be in ruins, and the track buried under many feet of waterlogged soil and overgrown with grass, but the sheer scale of this ancient arena still persists, and with only a small amount of imagination, perhaps supplemented by the new augmented reality experience that has been created, it is not too hard to bring this spectacular place back to life in your mind.
Plus, you may also be lucky enough to one day attend an event or celebration on the site, and take your place in history as one of many fortunate enough to have been entertained in such spectacular surroundings. From wild chariot races to rock concerts, the screaming crowd full of excited spectators is one thing that has never changed.
Did you know...
Originally chariot races were held only on religious festivals like the Consualia, but later they would also be held on non-feast days when sponsored by magistrates and other Roman dignitaries.