Circus Maximus in Rome

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The Circus Maximus (Latin for great or large circus, in Italian Circo Massimo) is an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue located in Rome, Italy. Situated in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, it was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome and its later Empire. It measured 621 m (2,037 ft) in length and 118 m (387 ft) in width, and could accommodate about 150,000 spectators. In its fully developed form, it became the model for circuses throughout the Roman Empire. The site is now a public park.



The Circus Maximus was sited on the level ground of the Vallis Murcia (Valley of Murcia), between Rome's Aventine and Palatine Hills. In Rome's early days, this would have been rich agricultural land, prone to flooding from the river Tiber and the stream which divided the valley. The stream was probably bridged at an early date, at the two points where the track had to cross it, and the earliest races would have been held within an agricultural landscape, "with nothing more than turning posts, banks where spectators could sit, and some shrines and sacred spots".

The southeastern turn of the track ran between two shrines which may have predated the Circus' formal development. One, located at the outer perimeter, was dedicated to the valley's eponymous goddess Murcia, an obscure deity associated with a sacred spring, the stream that divided the valley, and the lesser peak of the Aventine Hill. The other, at the southeastern turning-post, was an underground shrine to Consus, a minor god of grain-stores, connected to the grain-goddess Ceres and to the underworld. According to Roman tradition, Romulus discovered this shrine shortly after Rome's foundation, invented the Consualia festival, and invited Rome's Sabine neighbours to the celebrations. These included horse-races, which distracted the Sabine men and provided the opportunity for Rome's abduction of the Sabine women. In this quasi-legendary era, horse or chariot races, or possibly both, would have been held at the Circus site. The track width may have been determined by the distance between Murcia's and Consus' shrines at the southeastern end, and its length by the distance between these two shrines and Hercules' Ara Maxima, supposedly older than Rome itself and sited behind the Circus' starting place. In later developments, Consus shrine was incorporated into the fabric of the south-eastern turning post as one of the Circus' patron deities. When Murcia's stream was built over to form a dividing barrier (spina or euripus) between the turning posts, her waters were drained into a culvert beneath it and her shrine retained, or rebuilt. In the Late Imperial period the southeastern turn, and the circus itself, were sometimes known as Vallis Murcia.

Temples to several other deities overlooked the Circus; most are now lost. Those to Ceres and Flora stood close together on the Aventine, more or less opposite the Circus' starting gate, which remained under Hercules' protection. Further southeast along the Aventine was a temple to Luna, the moon goddess. Aventine temples to Venus Obsequens, Mercury and Dis (or perhaps Summanus) stood on the slopes above the southeast turn. On the Palatine hill, opposite to Ceres's temple, stood the temple to Magna Mater and, more or less opposite Luna's temple, one to the sun-god Apollo. Sun and Moon cults were probably represented at the Circus from its earliest phases. Their importance grew with the introduction of Roman cult to Apollo, and the development of Stoic and solar monism as a theological basis for the Roman Imperial cult. In the Imperial era, the Sun-god was divine patron of the Circus and its games; his sacred obelisk towered over the arena, set in the central barrier, close to his temple and the finishing line. The circuit reflected the heavenly course of the sun from rising to setting, and the sun-god, represented in a four-horse chariot (quadriga), was the ultimate, ever-victorious charioteer. In Imperial ideology, the emperor was his earthly equivalent.

Uses of the Circus

The Circus was Rome's largest venue for Ludi, public games connected to Roman religious festivals. Ludi were sponsored by leading Romans or the Roman state for the benefit of the Roman people (populus Romanus) and gods. Most were staged as regular calendar fixtures, and were held annually or at annual intervals. Of those held at the Circus in historical times, some are of uncertain foundation and date; Romulus' first, semi-mythical Consuallia and Ceres' major festival, the Cerealia were probably older than the earliest historically attested Ludi Romani (Roman Games) of 366 BC, held at the Circus in honour of Jupiter. In the early Imperial era, Ovid describes the opening of Cerealia (mid to late April) with a horse race at the Circus, followed by the nighttime release of foxes into the stadium, their tails ablaze with lighted torches. Other ludi might be given to fulfill a vow, such as the games in celebration of a Triumph; the earliest known triumphal ludi at the Circus were vowed by Tarquin the Proud to Jupiter in the late Regal era for his victory over Pometia.

Ludi ranged in duration and scope from one-day or even half-day events to spectacular multi-venue celebrations held over several days, with religious ceremonies and public feasts, horse and chariot racing, athletics, plays and recitals, beast-hunts and gladiator contests. These greater ludi at the Circus began with a flamboyant pompa circensis (circus procession), which served – much as a triumphal procession – to dedicate the games and introduce their participants. The more complex ludi would have tested the skills of the aediles who organised them; the results would have measured – unsparingly and in full public view – their competence, generosity and fitness for higher office. Some Circus events seem to have been relatively small and intimate affairs; in 167 BC, "flute players, scenic artists and dancers" performed on a temporary stage, probably erected between the two central seating banks. Others were swelled – at enormous expense – to fit the entire space. A venatione held there in 169 BC – one of several that century – used "63 leopards and 40 bears and elephants", with spectators presumably kept safe by a substantial barrier.

As Rome's empire expanded, existing ludi were embellished and new ludi invented, by politicians who competed for divine and popular support. By the late Republican era, ludi were held on 57 days of the year; an unknown number of these would have required full use of the Circus. On many other days, charioteers and jockeys would need to practice on its track but otherwise, it would have made a convenient corral for the animals traded in the nearby Forum Boarium, just outside the starting gate. Beneath the outer stands, next to the Circus' multiple entrances, were workshops and shops. When no games were being held, the Circus of Catullus' time (the late Republican era) was likely "a dusty open space with shops and booths... a colourful crowded disreputable area" frequented by "prostitutes, jugglers, fortune tellers and low-class performing artists."

With the end of the Republic, Rome's emperors met the ever-burgeoning popular demand for regular ludi and the need for more specialised venues, as essential obligations of their office and cult. By the late 1st century AD, the Colliseum had been built to host most of the city's gladiator shows and smaller beast-hunts, and most track-athletes competed at the purpose-designed Stadium of Domitian; long-distance foot races were still held at the Circus. Eventually, 135 days of the year were devoted to ludi. Even at the height of its development as a chariot-racing circuit, the circus remained the most suitable space in Rome for grand-scale religious processions, and was the most popular venue for large-scale venationes; in the late 3rd century, the emperor Probus laid on a spectacular Circus show in which beasts were hunted through a veritable forest of trees, on a specially built stage.


Regal era

In Livy's history of Rome, the first Etruscan king of Rome provided raised, wooden perimeter seating at the Circus for Rome's higher echelons (the equites and patricians), and his grandson, Tarquinius Superbus, provided lower seating for citizen-commoners (plebs, or plebeians). The elevated, high status seats were probably near the finishing post, midway along the Palatine straight, with an awning against the sun and rain. Seating for lesser citizens would have been adjacent, or on the opposite, Aventine side. Otherwise, the Circus of the late Regal era was probably still little more than a trackway through surrounding farmland. By now, it may have been drained but the wooden stands and seats would have frequently rotted and been rebuilt.

Republican era

In 494 BC, (early in Republican era) the dictator M. Valerius Maximus and his descendants were granted rights to a curule chair at the southeastern turn, an excellent viewpoint for the thrills and spills of chariot racing, and prestigiously close to Murcia's shrine. The games' sponsor (editor) had a right to sit near or alongside the images of attending gods, whose images were placed on couches (pulvinaria) to "watch" the games from a conspicuous elevated stand, known as a pulvinar. High seats implied high status but those at the track perimeter offered the best and most dramatic close-ups. In the 190s BC, by order of the censors, track-side stone seats were built, and reserved for senators.

In 329 BC permanent wooden starting stalls were built. They were gated, brightly painted, and staggered to equalise the distances from each start place to the central barrier. In theory, they might have accommodated up to 25 four-horse chariots abreast but when team-racing was introduced, they were widened, and their number reduced. By the late Republican or early Imperial era, there were twelve stalls, their divisions fronted by herms that served as stops for spring-loaded gates. Twelve light-weight, four-horse chariots could thus be simultaneously released onto the track. Stalls were allocated by lottery, and the various teams were identified by their colours. Typically, there were seven laps per race. From at least 174 BC, they were counted off using large sculpted eggs; Castor and Pollux, who were born from an egg, were divine patrons of horses, horsemen, and the Roman equites. In 33 BC, an additional system of large dolphin-shaped lap counters was added, placed high up in the spina for maximum visibility.

Julius Caesar's development of the Circus, commencing around 50 BC, extended the seating tiers in a continuous run from the starting gates, around the south-east turn and back to the start, around a track that measured approximately 621 m (2,037 ft) in length, 150 m and (387 ft) in breadth. A canal was cut between the track perimeter and its seating to protect spectators and help drain the track. Inner stone-built tiers (a third of the total, forming a trackside cavea); the front sections along the central straight reserved for senators and those behind for equites. The outer tiers were for plebs and non-citizens. They were timber-built, with wooden-framed service buildings, shops and entrance-ways beneath. The number of seats is uncertain. Pliny the Elder's 250,000 is unlikely; at this time, the Circus probably seated around 150,000. The wooden bleachers were damaged in a fire of 31 BC, either during or after construction.

Imperial era

The fire damage of 31 was probably repaired by Augustus (Caesar's successor and Rome's first emperor), who modestly claimed credit only for an obelisk and pulvinar at the site. Both of these were major projects. Ever since its quarrying, long before Rome existed, the obelisk had been sacred to Egyptian Sun-gods. Augustus had it brought from Heliopolis at enormous expense, and erected it midway along the spina, the first obelisk brought to Rome, an exotically sacred object and a permanent reminder of Augustus' victory over his Roman foes and their Egyptian allies in the recent civil wars. Thanks to him, Rome had secured both a lasting peace and a new Egyptian Province. The pulvinar was built on monumental scale, a shrine or temple (aedes) raised high above the trackside seats. Sometimes, while games were in progress, Augustus watched from there, alongside the gods. Occasionally, his family would join him there.

The site remained prone to flooding, probably through the starting gates, until Claudius' made improvements there; they probably included an extramural anti-flooding embankment. Fires in the crowded, wooden perimeter workshops and bleachers were a far greater danger. A fire of 36 AD seems to have started in a basket-maker's workshop under the stands, on the Aventine side; the emperor Tiberius compensated various small businesses there for their losses. In AD 64, during Nero's reign, fire broke out at the semi-circular end of the Circus, swept through the stands and shops, and destroyed much of the city. Games and festivals continued at the Circus, which was rebuilt over several years to the same footprint and design.

In AD 81 the Senate built a triple arch honoring Titus at the semi-circular end of the Circus. The emperor Domitian built a new, multi-storey palace on the Palatine, connected somehow to the Circus; he likely watched the games in autocratic style, from high above and barely visible to those below. Repairs to fire damage during his reign may already have been under way before his assassination. The risk of further fire-damage, coupled with Domitian's fate, may have prompted Trajan's decision to rebuild the Circus entirely in stone, and provide a new pulvinar in the stands where Rome's emperor could be seen and honoured as part of the Roman community, alongside her gods. Under Trajan, the Circus Maximus found its definitive form, which was unchanged thereafter save for some monumental additions by later emperors, and their repairs and renewals to existing fabric.

Trajanic Circus

Track and spina

The spina functioned to divide the track between the turning posts. It was a low masonry rib 344 m in length, set at a slight diagonal to the track. Statues of various gods were set up on the spina. Each end of the spina terminated in a turning post (called a meta), around which chariots made their turns. Laps were marked by a series of rotatable metal dolphins, seven in all; one was turned downwards each time the leading chariot completed a lap.

Chariot races

Chariot racing was an extremely dangerous sport, frequently resulting in spectacular crashes and the death of one or more of the contestants. One end of the track extended further back than the other, to allow the chariots to line up to begin the race. Here there were starting gates, or carceres, which staggered the chariots so that each travelled the same distance to the first turn. During these chariot races, bribery of the judge in order to fix the start of the race was very common. The race went for a total distance of about 6.5 km.

The last known chariot race at the Circus was held by Totila in 549.

Modern status

Very little now remains of the Circus, except for the grass-covered racing track and the spina. Some of the starting gates remain, but most of the seating has disappeared. After the 6th century, the site fell into disuse and gradual decay. Some of its stone was recycled, but many standing structures survived for a time. In 1587, two of the spina obelisks were removed by Pope Sixtus V; one of these was re-sited at the Piazza del Popolo. The lower levels of site, ever prone to flooding, were gradually buried under waterlogged alluvial soil and accumulated debris; the original level of track is now buried 6m beneath the modern surface. In the 12th century, a watercourse was dug to drain the soil and by the 1500's the area was used as a market garden. Mid 19th century workings uncovered the lower parts of a tier and outer portico. Since then, a series of excavations has exposed further sections of seating, curved turn and spina, but further exploration has been limited by the scale, depth and waterlogging of the site.

The Circus still occasionally entertains the Romans; being a large park area in the centre of the city, it is often used for concerts and meetings. The Rome concert of Live 8 (July 2, 2005) was held there, as was the Italian World Cup 2006 victory celebration.

See also

  • Amphitheatre
  • Forma Urbis Romae
  • List of closed stadia by capacity

Further reading

  • Humphrey, John, Roman circuses: arenas for chariot racing, University of California Press, 1986. [1]

External links