The ‘circus’ was the Romans’ arena for chariot racing and the most important and imposing of them all was the Circus Maximus (‘greatest circus'). Its size far exceeded all other buildings for spectacles of the ancient, and, probably, the modern worlds, with an attributed capacity of around 250,000 spectators. It was located in a valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. According to literary tradition, it was founded in the Regal period, but its buildings were sporadically upgraded and given a make-over throughout the period of the Republic.
Julius Caesar created the layout of parallel sides and one semi-circular end fitted with tiered seating and with twelve starting gates (or in the Latin carceres) at the open end. And the preservation of the Circus Maximus was guaranteed by the emperor Trajan’s colossal building program.
The area was divided into two tracks by a long central barrier, marked at the ends with conical turning-posts. Augustus’ obelisk and other monuments marked the ends of the seven laps in each race. Four, six, eight and even twelve teams of horses contended in the race, identifiable by their colours, which included (but were liable to change) red, white, green and blue. The excitement of the crowd is easy to imagine.
Ovid in his guide to the art of love suggests that the circus is an ideal place to meet women, for example when he refers to “mistress” he means a potential love partner and the crowded atmosphere of the circus makes getting close to the individual all the easier. “Nor miss the ring where high-bred courses race, you’ll find much vantage in that crowded place... sit next to your mistress... thanks to the custom of the crowded bench, coy though she be, you’re bound to squeeze the wench.” (Ovid, The Art of Love: 1.35-42)
Unlike the Colosseum or the theatre of Marcellus, the Circus Maximus was not well preserved because it was not re-used in the Middle Ages. It was largely abandoned and allowed to rot. Eventually its main use was as an allottment for growing vegetables!
The only remains of the Circus buildings now visible are the semicircular seats on the Palatine side, rediscovered and excavated in the 1930’s.
Top: Romae Antiquae Notitia. London,1820
Middle:Romae Antiquae Notitia. London, 1820
Bottom:Roma vetus ac recens utriusque aedificiis ad eruditam cognitionem expositis.Rome, 1738.