Roman circuses were the most important centres of entertainment in the Roman cities, along with amphitheatres.
The Circus Maximus, located between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, was a huge precinct, for 250,000 spectators. The arena was the largest public space in Rome. At the time was a huge achievement for Ancient Rome architecture.
It is the oldest public space in Rome and legend says that the Circus was originally laid out in the 6th century BC, when Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, created a track between the Palatine and Aventine hills. However, the first race track were created in 329 BC. Chariot races were one of the Roman’s most popular entertainment. Romulus, the first of Rome’s seven kings, problably held chariot races, in which participants had to take seven laps of the race track. The competitors, on their small chariots drawn by horses, won much more than large money prizes, since they were slaves fighting for freedom.
During the public games, equestrian exhibitions, known as “Ludus Troiae”, also took place. These were a reenactment of famous battles carried out by young Roman aristocrats. Also, there were athletics races that lasted for hours. The spectators would bet on the winner, making the competitions even more exciting. Circus Maximus hosted the Roman Games (Ludi Romani) held to honour Jupiter. These games took place on September and lasted for 15 days.
Unfortunately, in 31 BC a fire destroyed the wooden structure. The Circus was rebuilt by Emperor Augustus who added an imperial box on the Palatine Hill. A large obelisk from Heliopolis was put in the midlle of the Circus as a decoration. The obelisk is now at the centre of Piazza del Popolo.
Another fire, in 64 AD, started in wooden shops located by the racing track, burned much of Rome.
The Circus was eventually rebuilt by Trajan in 103 AD. The Roman Empire was at the height of its power and the new Circus Maximus reflected Rome’s richness. The Circus was now a stone construction, three stories high. The seats were in marble. The arena was bigger then ever: more than 600 meters long and 150 meters wide.
The last official chariot race at the Circus Maximus was held in 549 AD. The site was largely abandoned. The first excavations were carried out under Pope Sixtus V in 1587. Again, in 1930, the site was excavated, works continued until 1988. Original seats were revealed. However, they were re-covered and now lie some 9 m under the present ground level.Today the main part of the circus is used for popular events such as concerts and rallies.
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