Circus Maximus in Rome

Posted on Jan 09, 2012

The Roman circus was the venue for horse and chariot racing, religious ceremonies, public feasts and athletics, similar to the ancient Greek hippodrome. Along with theaters and amphitheaters, circuses were one of the main entertainment sites of the time.

The Circus Maximus in Rome was the first and largest Roman circus. It existed at least as early as the 4th century BC and was repeatedly rebuilt and renovated. Emperor Trajan rebuilt the circus in 103 AD as a stone construction after a fire destroyed its wooden predecessor. It measured 621 m (2,037 ft) in length and 118 m (387 ft) in width, and could accommodate about 150,000 spectators.

Chariot Racing
Chariot Racing. From the movie Ben Hur

Chariots usually had two wheels and were pulled by four horses. Occasionally, ostriches, dogs, or camels were used to pull the chariots. Accidents frequently caused injuries and deaths. Four to twelve chariots raced at a time, and the course usually consisted of 7 laps around the arena.

Admission to the Circus Maximus was free and all levels of Roman society, from the emperor to the urban poor, came to see the chariot races. Like gladiator games, chariot races were very popular with the Roman people.

Circus Maximus in Rome
Circus Maximus in Rome

The last race at the Circus Maximus in Rome was held in 549 AD , almost a millennium after the first races were held at this location. The circus fell into disuse and gradual decay. In 1587, two obelisks were removed by Pope Sixtus V, and one of these was placed at the Piazza del Popolo. Today very little remains of the Circus, except for the grass covered racing track and the outline of the central barrier.