The History of the Circus Maximus

The History of the Circus Maximus

When in Rome, one of the best places to get an idea of what an ancient Roman stadium looked like in its hey-day is the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo.) Today, it’s a recreational park used for concerts, performances, and celebrations. It sits in the shadows of the Palatine Hill, holding onto a thousand secrets of the past. The history of the Circus Maximus is an interesting one to say the least.

The History of Rome
The Circus Maximus today – overlooked by Domitian’s palace
The History of Rome
The Circus Maximus today

Situated at the south-west end of the Palatine Hill, the Circus Maximus was not only the first stadium ever built, but it was also the largest of its kind in ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.

The History of Rome
Circus Maximus – model of how it looked back then/Photo credit: Wikipedia

It was built during the Etruscan era in the 6th century BC and was used for ludi Romani – Roman games, such as religious festivals, feasts, gladiator fights, and plays, which took place for the benefit of the people and to honour the Gods. Although many of these occasions took place annually, eventually, when Rome got bigger during the late republic era, these events were held at least once a week at the circus. When there were no such occasions, the Circus Maximus was used as a practise ground for chariot riders or became a bustling market area for Rome’s residents.

The History of Rome
Circus Maximus – Oil on canvas by Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gargiulo c.1638/Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Circus Maximus was the most important venue for all of these occasions, but over time more and more venues were built, such as the Colosseum and the Stadium of Domitian, and these took over as the place to see gladiator fights and athletics. Even so, by the late 1st century AD, the Circus Maximus continued to be the setting for chariot races.

These chariot races were thrilling, albeit highly dangerous, events and the crowds came from far and wide to witness these spectacles – and to place bets on their favourite charioteer to win. The chariots could be identified by colours and they were pulled by teams of horses –sometimes up to 12 abreast.

The History of Rome
Circus Maximus by Jean Léon Gérôme c.1876/Photo credit: Wikipedia

The charioteers, some of them slaves, became rich and famous – victories rewarded with gold or money and the continuous adoration of the crowd – even the winning horses were lauded. One such man was Gaius Appuleius Diocles. With over 1,462 victories, he became known as the best paid athlete of all time, allegedly winning 35,863,120 sesterces (a whopping $15 billion in today’s money). He became renowned for his chariot-racing skills where he would thunder past the leading chariot at the very last minute – whipping the crowds up into a frenzy.

The History of Rome
The highest paid athlete of all time – Gaius Appuleius Diocles/Photo credit: Wikipedia

Another celebrated charioteer went by the name of Scorpus or Scorpius. A slave when he first started out, he went on to be awarded the laurel wreath – the symbol of victory – countless times. He was victorious in over 2,000 races and won so much money that he was able to buy his freedom.

The History of Rome
Another famed charioteer – Scorpus/Photo credit: Wikipedia

At first, the Circus Maximus was 540 m long and 80 m wide and it was on an area of land near the Tiber River, with nothing more than grass banks for spectators and turning posts at either end of the makeshift track. Later, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the 5th king of the Etruscans, added wooden seating for Rome’s elite. His grandson, Tarquinius Superbus, then added additional seating for the common people.

The History of Rome
The Circus Maximus today
The History of Rome
The Circus Maximus today
The History of Rome
The Circus Maximus today

By the time of Julius Caesar, in 50 BC, there was room for 150,000 spectators and the Circus Maximus was now 621 m long and 150 m wide. The arena’s seating was divided into caveas (enclosures). There were usually 3 caveas for each social class. Ima Cavea was for the upper class; media cavea for men; and summa cavea for women and children.

The History of Rome
Modern spectators!

The Circus Maximus was further developed by Augustus and, following a fire in 31 BC, he erected Rome’s first ever obelisk on the central barrier – later this barrier was filled with temples, shrines and other structures, as well as being a safe place for fallen charioteers to recover while the race was still in progress. This Egyptian obelisk can now be seen in Piazza del Popolo.  Further fires in 36 AD and 64 AD destroyed the arena, but the games continued because the circus was rebuilt in the same design.

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Circus Maximus and the Imperial Palace
The History of Rome
Circus Maximus and the Imperial Palace

During the early 2nd century AD, stone seating was built around the track and it was there that Rome’s senators were able to get as close to the action as possible. In 81 AD, Domitian built his sumptuous palace on the Palatine Hill and he relished in being able to watch the games from his vantage point without being seen by the ever-expanding crowds.

The History of Rome
The Circus Maximus and the Imperial Palace of Domitian

Following the reign of Domitian, Emperor Trajan made the decision to rebuild the Circus Maximus in stone to prevent further fire damage and from this point on, save a few additions and alterations, the Circus Maximus was at its greatest and remained unchanged for many years to come.

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The Eastern End of the Circus Maximus

By the 6th century AD, the Circus Maximus had seen out its glory days and was no longer used. The stone was used for other buildings throughout Rome. The lower levels of the arena and the original track were now buried underground. Houses were built on the site in the 11th century and throughout the 16th century the Circus Maximus was used as to grow crops that could be sold in the local markets. A world away from its previous role in Roman society.

The History of Rome
Standing on a hidden past!

The early 20th century saw excavations of the site begin in earnest and parts of the original central barrier and seating were uncovered. Sadly, some of these findings have since been buried again up to 9 m underground. However, more recent excavations have started to uncover a second Arch of Titus – the first one is near the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Built by Emperor Domitian, it would have been a grand entrance to the Circus Maximus.

The History of Rome
Circus Maximus – the uncovering of the second Arch of Titus

As these excavations continue, the more we can learn about the history of the Circus Maximus and all the secrets of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

12 Replies to “The History of the Circus Maximus”

  1. Wonderful photos, Gill! And thanks for reminding me of these adventurous times! I loved watching Ben Hur when I was a kid. 😉 I didn´t know that it was used as a recreational park now! It´s so awesome when things like this can actually be arranged. In Trier (city in the southwest of Germany) there´s a lovely little amphitheater that´s very well conserved and that´s also used for theater productions.
    Have a lovely weekend! xx

    1. Thanks for dropping by Sarah! They were adventurous, those chariot races must have been crazy if you were actually in one, but exciting (and horrible) to watch especially when they crashed! Yes, I love walking through these places, your imagination runs riot! I have been reading and writing about Germany recently and it looks like it’s full of wonderful places. Will be sure to get there one day! Have a fab week xxx

    1. Thank you Kirt! I know, its so much bigger than the Colosseum. I found some computer simulated videos and one of the chariot race in Ben Hur and you get an idea of just how big! Impressive! 🙂

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