The Circus Maximus occupies the valley between two of the most important hills in Rome, related to the mythical origins of the city: twins Romulus and Remus founded their settlements on the Palatine and the Aventine respectively, but the gods declared the Palatine more favorable, so Romulus founded Rome there and killed his brother. The imperial complexes that grew on the Palatine remain visible from the Circus Maximus today. Yet this is not the only link between the Circus Maximus and the legendary foundation of Rome: the infamous abduction of the Sabine women supposedly took place here to populate the new community.
In the centuries that followed, the valley developed into a venue for horse and chariot racing; at first wooden, and then stone seating lined three sides, eventually reaching 28 meters in height. Under Trajan, the circus had capacity for 200,000 spectators. With dimensions of 545 meters in length and 80 meters in width, the Circus Maximus was aptly named the ‘greatest’ entertainment site in antiquity: races usually lasted seven laps with chariots pulling as many as ten horses. However, the circus was tied to one of the most significant tragedies in Roman history: the great fire of 64 CE broke out here, in the hot, dry animal paddocks, spreading first through the stalls and shops on the site and then across three quarters of the city.
As a sporting venue, the Circus Maximus played an important role in Roman cultural and social life, from religious festivities to public executions. The oldest celebrations thought to take place there were the Ludi Romani, a festival held annually in September in honor of Jupiter the Best and Greatest, but during the imperial period at least 20 annual ludi (public games consisting of religious and entertaining aspects often lasting several days) included spectacles at the Circus Maximus.
Part of imperial building regimes, the Circus Maximus was enhanced by several emperors. In 10 BCE, Augustus installed an Aswan obelisk on the spina (the central dividing barrier) imported from Heliopolis and considered sacred as it was quarried in 1280 BCE; although buried over the course of the Middle Ages, the obelisk was excavated in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V and placed in the Piazza del Popolo where it can still be seen today. Similarly, in 357 CE Constantius II introduced an obelisk quarried in the sixteenth century BCE which now stands in the Piazza of San Giovanni in Laterano.
The Circus Maximus was regularly used until the fifth century, when the last official races were organized by the Ostrogothic king Totila. During the Middle Ages, the area reverted to fields which were eventually claimed by industry, including a gasworks in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, an archaeological park was created on the site, which is now publicly accessible. Although the original track and richly decorated spina are still nine meters below ground, the Circus Maximus is once again a venue for public events such as concerts, resuming its ancient purpose over two millennia after its first use.
- Claridge, “Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide”, (Oxford 2010), 299-300.
- Humphrey, “Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing”, (California 1986).
- Platner, “A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome”, (Chicago 1929).
The last known hunts and races were held in the Circus in the 6th Century AD. The Circus lies in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, a natural split for the two areas of Rome which symbolized the different social classes of the city. Being a low lying spot, it would have been fertile land for farming but also suffered from flooding by the Tiber, so early races would have been in a very natural setting. According to Livy, Tarquinius Priscus, Rome’s first Etruscan king, built raised wooden seating for the upper class citizens, and his grandson Tarquinius Superbus built the seating for the plebeians. During one of these reigns, a way of draining the area must have been implemented, though races would have still been rather natural, a beaten track through farmland rather than a designated racetrack. Development of the seating and other track features took place throughout the duration of the Republic, including stone starting gates and dolphin-shaped lap counters. Caesar added seating that ran nearly the entire circuit. Throughout the Imperial period the Circus received upgrades. Augustus added the Flaminian obelisk to the middle of the dividing barrier in the center of the track, as well as the monumentalisation of the pulvinar (elevated stand for the sponsors of the games). Smaller additions were made by Claudius to help prevent flooding. Then under Nero, the Circus, like much of the rest of Rome, burnt down in the Great Fire of AD 64, though it was all rebuilt on the same footprint. At the semi-circular end in AD 81 the Senate built a triple-arch for Titus, and then in the reign of Domitian, the emperor connected the Circus to the imperial palace somehow. It was under Trajan that the Circus Maximus took on it’s definitive form, and the seating was finally made completely of stone. Though there were later additions or repairs, by Caracalla, Diocletian, and Constantius II added the Lateranense Obelisk.
Being a location for the celebration of Ludi from the earliest points in Roman history, the Circus had great religious significance. There were shrines to Murcia (the goddess of the valley) and Consus (a god of grain stores) there from very early on in the development of the site. The shrine to Consus and the celebration of the Consualia play an important role in the myth of Romulus and the Rape of the Sabine Women. The dolphin-shaped lap counters tie in to Neptune and his role in creating horses. Egg-shaped lap counters preceded the dolphin-shaped ones and these connect to the myth of Castor and Pollux, who were the patrons of horses and horsemen. There were also temples or shrines to Sol and Luna in the central area too, and a statue of the Great Mother was added after her adoption into the Roman religious belief system.
Upon falling out of use in the 6th Century, the Circus became buried by flooding, so much that the original track was 6 meters below the modern surface. There have been dwellings, a watercourse, a market garden, and a quarry across history. The two obelisks that had been erected there (the Flaminio and the Lateranense) were moved elsewhere by Pope Sixtus V. Nowadays the Circus serves as a public park (with the curved end used as a functioning archeological site), which hosts large-scale public events, like concerts and sporting victory celebrations. It also plays host to the Natale di Roma parade start and celebrations each year on or around April 21st.
Circus Maximus: The first and largest circus in Rome, which was greatly built up in the Vallis Murcia (q.v.), between the Palatine and Aventine hills. This valley was admirably adapted for the purpose, being 600 metres long and 150 wide. Here the first recorded games were held (Reference Latin Library: Ov. Ars Am. I.103‑108; cf. Trist. II.283; Fast. II.391‑392; IV.391, 680), horse races in honour of Consus (q.v.) ascribed to Romulus, at which occurred the rape of the Sabine women (Latin Library: Varro, LL VI.20). To the Tarquins tradition ascribed the beginnings of the circus and the assignment of definite places or curiae to senate and knights where they could erect wooden platforms on supports (fori), from which to view the games, either to Priscus (Latin Library: Liv. I.35.8; or Superbus (Latin Library: Liv. I.56.2;) but the first definite statement is that of Livy for 329 B.C. (VIII.20.1: carceres eo anno in circo primum statuti), which makes it plain that there had been nothing permanent before that date. These carceres were probably of wood, for a century later they were painted (Enn. ap. : omnes avidi spectant ad carceris oras quam mox emittat pictis e faucibus currus). For further mention of the fori publici, see Liv. XXIX.37 (204 B.C.); CIL I2.809 (first century B.C.).
It is probable that after the carceres the next permanent part of the circus to be constructed was the spina (see below), and that on it were placed those statues of which we have record, one of Pollentia (Latin Library Liv. XXXIX.7.8 (189 B.C.): malus in circo instabilis in signum Pollentiae procidit atque id deiecit), and others (Liv. XL.2.1: signa alia in circo maximo cum columnis quibus superstabant evertit). It is also possible that the arch of Stertinius with its gilded statues, erected in 196 B.C. (Latin Library Liv. XXXIII.27.4), may have stood in the line of the spina, but the temple of luventas (q.v.) of 191 (Latin: (Liv. XXXVI.36.5) was on one side. A permanent spina presupposes the covering over of the stream, which flowed through the circus. This came from the valley between the Caelian and Esquiline, passing through the (marshy?) depression which later on Nero converted into the stagnum of the domus Aurea and then traversed the valley between the Caelian and Palatine. It was converted into a cloaca, and discharged into the Tiber about 100 metres below the Cloaca Maxima, where its mouth may still be seen (LF 30, 35; cf. our Ill. 5). In KH IV it is wrongly connected with the mediaeval Marrana Mariana (see Aqua Lulia.).
In 174 B.C. the censors, Q. Fulvius Flaccus and A. Postumius Albinus, p115 added considerably to the equipment of the circus, but owing to the fragmentary condition of the text in Livy (Latin Library: XLI.27.6), nothing can be made out with certainty except that they restored the carceres, and set up ova, or sets of seven large eggs of wood, with which to record the number of laps run in the races for the benefit of the spectators — an arrangement that became permanent Cassiod. Var. III.51.10). In 55 B.C., at the dedication of the temple of Venus Victrix, Pompeius caused twenty elephants to fight in the circus, and they broke down the iron railing with which he had intended to protect the spectators. More effective protection was afforded by the moat or euripus which Caesar constructed in 46 B.C. between the arena and the seats: circensibus spatio circi ab utraque parte producto et in gyrum euripo addito . . . venationes editae . . . quingenis peditibus elephantis vicenis tricenis equitibus hinc et inde commissis. nam quo laxius dimicaretur, sublatae metae inque earum locum bina castra exadversum constituta erant). This passage seems to mean that Caesar lengthened the circus and removed the goals temporarily, but does not justify the conclusion (HJ 123) that up to this time there had been no permanent section of the spina. In 33 B.C. Agrippa placed on the spina seven dolphins, probably of bronze, which served with the ova to indicate the laps of the races.
How extensive and how permanent the circus had become before the Augustan period, it is impossible to say. In 31 B.C. a fire destroyed a considerable part of it. Augustus himself records only the construction or restoration of the pulvinar ad circum maximum, a sort of box on the Palatine side of the circus from which the imperial family could view the games, but Cassiodorus attributes to him much more (Var. III.51.4: mundi dominus ad potentiam suam opus extollens mirandam etiam Romanis fabricam in vallem Murciam tetendit Augustus). Pliny, on the other hand, speaks very distinctly of the existing circus as the work of the dictator Caesar: nec ut circum maximum a Caesare dictatore exstructum longitudine stadiorum trium latitudine unius sed cum aedificiis iugerum quaternum ad sedem CCL inter magna opera dicamus). At any rate, our definite information about the monument, whether due to Caesar or Augustus, begins with the Augustan period, and subsequent changes probably did not affect materially its general plan. Besides building the pulvinar, Augustus set up on the spina the obelisk from Heliopolis, which is now in the Piazza del Popolo.
According to Dionysius’s description, written in 7 B.C., the circus was then one of the most wonderful monuments in Rome, three and one-half stadia (621 metres) long and four plethra (118 metres) wide, a euripus or water channel, ten feet wide and ten feet deep, surrounding the arena except at the carceres end. The seats rose in three sections, p116 the lower story being built of stone, and the two upper of wood. The short side, opposite the carceres, was crescent-shaped, and the total seating capacity was 150,000. The carceres, or chariot stalls, were without roof, and closed by a rope barrier which could be dropped before them all at once. Around the outside of the building was a one-storied arcade containing shops (ἐργαστήρια) and οἰκήσεις, perhaps a sort of pergola (Mitt. 1887, 220) above them. Through this colonnade were entrances to the lower section of seats and stairways to the upper, arranged alternately to facilitate ingress and egress.
The chambers in the outer arcade, which Dionysius mentions, were occupied in large part by questionable characters, cooks (Latin Library: Cic. pro Mil. 65), astrologers (Latin Library: Hor. Sat. I.6.113‑4) and prostitutes (Iuv. 365; Priap. 27: Anth. Lat. I.190; Cyprian. de spect. 5). Augustus and succeeding emperors also watched the games from the imperial residences on the Palatine, or the houses of their friends, as well as from the pulvinar ; cf. CIL VI.9822, and perhaps Fest. 364). That the circus was faced with marble on the inside, and presumably on the outside also, is to be inferred from Ovid (Latin Library: Ars Am. I.103‑104: tunc neque marmoreo pendebant vela theatro nec fuerant liquido pulpita rubra croco; cf. — aet. Neronis). Augustus is said to have assigned separate seats to the senators and knights, but apparently not in any fixed section, for Claudius did this for the senators , and Nero for the knights.
In 36 A.D. part of the circus on the Aventine side was burned. This is called pars circi inter ultores in a fragmentary chronicle of Ostia (BC 1916, 211‑212), where ultores probably refers to certain di ultores whose shrines were in this part of the circus. The damage was probably repaired at once, for Caligula celebrated the ludi circenses, evidently with considerable pomp minio et chrysocolla constrato circo; cf. invenere et alium usum in ramentis squamaque circum maximum ludis circensibus sternendi ut sit in commendatione candor).
Claudius built carceres of marble instead of the tufa, of which they had previously been constructed, and gilded goals, probably of bronze, in place of the earlier wooden metae Nero removed the euripus to make room for additional seats for the equites and protected the spectators from the wild beasts by a continuous round bar of wood, covered with ivory, which revolved and therefore gave no hold to the animals. At some later time the name euripus was given to basins of water on the spina, or in its line, and then to the spina itself. Into these basins flowed streams of water from the mouths of the dolphins (Tert. de spect. 8: delphines Neptuno p117 vomunt; Cassiod. Var. III.51.8: euripis maris vitrei reddit imaginem unde illuc delphini aequorei aquas influunt; cf. the mosaics of Barcelona and Lyons, DS I. figs. 1520, 1523; for euripus used of the whole spina, Tert. loc. cit. ea (i.e. Magna mater) praesidet euripo; adv. Hermog. 31: statua super euripum; Anth. Lat. 3.5‑6; Sid. Apoll. Carm. 23.360; RE VI.1284; Lydus, de mens. 1.12).
In 64 A.D. the great fire of Nero broke out in the tabernae on the Palatine side of the circus, and must have destroyed a considerable part of this side at least. It is probable that in this, as in other fires, it was only the upper structure of wood that was burned. Nero evidently rebuilt the circus, for it was in use in 68 when he returned from Greece and passed through it in triumphal procession. Of the circus during the reign of Vespasian Pliny says that it was three stadia long, one wide, covered four iugera of land, and seated 250,000 persons. He calls the circus, the basilica Aemilia, and the temple of Peace the three most beautiful buildings in the world. The text of the passage is, however, corrupt, and the figures are open to question. Again, in the reign of Domitian, both the long sides were injured by fire; naumachia e cuius postea lapide maximus circus deustis utrisque lateribus extructus est), but to what extent is not known. The restoration was carried out by Trajan with stone from Domitian’s naumachia; he increased its seating capacity sufficiently by adding two stadia to the length of the cavea. A passage in Pliny’s Panegyric )Latin Library 51) seems to mean that Trajan removed a sort of private box (cubiculum), from which Domitian, while invisible to the people, had viewed the games, and sat himself exposed to the gaze of the spectators. His enlargement of the circus was probably on the Palatine side, where an addition two stadia long could have been built on the north side of the street that bounded the north side of the circus, bath could be connected by arches with the cavea. Whether Pliny’s further statement — populo cui locorum quinque milia adiecisti — refers to the seats in this addition, is very doubtful (cf. a similar statement in CIL VI.955; Mommsen, Staatsrecht, III.446). It was under Trajan that the circus seems to have reached its greatest size and magnificence.
During the reign of Antoninus Pius there was a ruina circi, doubtless the same catastrophe which is mentioned in Chron. 146: circensibus Apollinaribus partectorum columna ruit et oppressit homines MCXII. What the partecta were, is not known, but a similar incident is recorded under Diocletian (ib. 148: partectorum podius ruit et oppressit homines XIII). Caracalla is said to have enlarged the ianuae circi (ib. 147), presumably some of the arches of the lower arcade. Constantine restored the circus magnificently (Latin Library Aur. Vict. Caes. 40.27_: a quo etiam post circus maximus excultus mirifice; Nazar. Paneg. 35: circo ipso maximo sublimis porticus et rutilantes auro columnae tantum inusitati ornatus p118 dedere), and prepared to bring an obelisk from Heliopolis, which, however, was actually done by Constantius in 357. This was set on the spina and was the highest in Rome (now in the Piazza del Laterano; see Obeliscus Constantii. References to the circus and its games in literature after Constantius are numerous Symmach. passim, but give practically no information about the building except the section of the letter of Theodoric, contained in Cassiodorus, Varia III.51. In addition to what has been already quoted from that letter, we learn that the spina was decorated with reliefs representing Roman generals in triumphal procession over the bodies of their captives, a scene that recurs on a diptych of the consul Lampadius of the fifth-sixth century (DS I. fig. 1532).
Additional information about the circus in furnished by fragments of the Marble Plan (38‑40, 124, 153, 370; BC 1899, pl. 1 n7; cf. HJ 135 n63 and pl. III; also DAP 2.xi.107‑110), reliefs on sarcophagi, coins, mosaics, and smaller works of art (for lists and descriptions see Ann. d. Inst. 1863, 137‑149; 1870, 232‑261; Abhandl. d. Berl. Akad. 1873, 67‑71; RE III.2579‑2580; HJ 138‑139; DS I figs. 1515‑1534). Modern excavations have brought to light comparatively few remains of the structure, mainly foundations of some parts of the east end, and of both the long sides, especially that on the north. The lines of the paved streets around the building have also been found, so that the exact site, the orientation, and the principal dimensions of the circus in its final shape, can be determined with considerable accuracy (NS 1876, 101, 138‑139, 184; 1877, 8, 110, 204; 1888, 191, 226‑227; Mitt. 1892, 295; 1893, 289; BC 1888, 171; 1908, 241‑253; Mél. 1908, 229‑231; 1909, 132‑135; CRA 1908, 327‑328). The ruins under S. Anastasia (HJ 134 n616; ZA 269‑274) form no part of the circus proper, but belong to buildings on the lower slopes of the Palatine. Only the arched chambers on the right of the church belong to the circus.
The length of the arena was 568 metres, and its width increased from 75 metres at the carceres to 84 at the beginning of the spina and 87 at its east end. The length of the spina was 344 metres, and the total length of the circus 600. The width of the cavea proper was 27 metres, but this was much increased by the additions built over the streets on the north and south sides. The extreme width thus secured on the Palatine side was about 80 metres, and the maximum width of the circus about 200 (Mél. 1908, 229‑231; BC 1908, 248‑249).
The exterior had three stories with arches and engaged columns, like the Colosseum, but all covered with marble. The cavea was divided into three bands or zones of seats, separated by corridors. The upper and perhaps the middle zone were probably made of wood. The arrangement of approaches and stairways was also probably somewhat like that of the Colosseum. The west end contained the carceres or stalls for the chariots (Varro, LL V.153), set on a curve so that the distance was p119 the same from each to the starting line (alba linea, Cassiod. Var. III.51.7) drawn across the arena which marked the start and finish. The carceres, twelve in number (ib. 4), were closed by rope barriers supported by small hermae (hermulae), which were dropped simultaneously at the start. This fact probably explains the use of the name Duodecim portae (Latin Library: Obseq. 70; for this end of the building. Above the middle of the carceres was the box of the magistrate presiding over the games, from which he gave the signal for the start with a mappa (Cassiod. Var. loc. cit.) . At each end of the carceres were towers and battlements suggesting a walled town, and this part of the circus was sometimes called oppidum (Varro, cit.; Fest. 184). The east end of the circus was curved, with a gateway in the centre through which the procession seems to have usually entered at the beginning of the games. In 81 A.D. this gateway was replaced by a triple arch, Circus Maximus: The first and largest circus in Rome, which was greatly built up in the Vallis Murcia (q.v.), between the Palatine and Aventine hills. This valley was admirably adapted for the purpose, being 600 metres long and 150 wide. Here the first recorded games were held (Latin Library: Ov. Ars Am. I.103‑108; cf. Trist. II.283; Fast. II.391‑392; IV.391, 680), horse races in honour of ascribed to Romulus, at which occurred the rape of the Sabine women (Varro, LL VI.20) To the Tarquins tradition ascribed the beginnings of the circus and the assignment of definite places or curiae to senate and knights where they could erect wooden platforms on supports (fori), from which to view the games, either to Priscus (Liv. I.35.8; or Superbus (Liv. I.56.2; de vir. ill. 8;1 cf. Chron. 145), but the first definite statement is that of Livy for 329 B.C. (VIII.20.1: carceres eo anno in circo primum statuti), which makes it plain that there had been nothing permanent before that date. These carceres were probably of wood, for a century later they were painted (Enn. ap. omnes avidi spectant ad carceris oras quam mox emittat pictis e faucibus currus). For further mention of the fori publici, see Liv. XXIX.37 (204 B.C.); CIL I2.809 (first century B.C.).
The seating capacity of the circus has given rise to much discussion. Dionysius’ statement that the Augustan building held 150,000 spectators, and Pliny’s that in his time it held 250,000, have both been questioned; and that of the Notitia that in the fourth century it had 385,000 loca has been interpreted to mean that number of running feet of seats,• which would accommodate about 200,000 spectators. This seems reasonable, but there is no doubt that the capacity of the building was greatly increased after the time of Augustus and on this basis Dionysius’ figure would seem too high. Estimates of the final capacity vary from a maximum of 385,000 to a minimum of 140,000, but no certainty has been reached (BC 1894, 321‑324; Richter 178; HJ 137; RE III.2578).
Throughout the republic the circus was used for gladiatorial combats and fights with wild beasts, as well as for races; but after the building of the amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus, and still more after the erection of the Colosseum, the first species of entertainment was largely, although not entirely removed from the circus. The last recorded games took place under Totila in 550 A.D. (Procop. b. Goth. III.37), and in that century the destruction of the circus began. The form of the circus was still clearly recognisable in the sixteenth century (DuP 107‑112). At present p120 a small portion of the seats at the curved end, on the N.E. side, are still visible, and traces were found further N.W. in making a drain in 1873‑4 along the Via dei Cerchi (Mora in Messaggero, 25th March, 1924). The name de gradellis, applied to churches of S. Gregorio and S. Maria. does not refer to the circus (LS I.90) but probably to the steps that descended to the mills in the Tiber. See in general HJ 120‑144; RE III.2572‑2581; Gilb. II.454‑456; III.313‑319; DS II.1187‑1201; ZA 265‑269.
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