Ancient Rome Palatine Hill

Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

Erected in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo in Italian) was 600 metres long and up to 200 wide, with a spine that must have measured 340 metres. This makes it the biggest building for public spectacles of all time.

Drawing of Circus Maximus, 1649, Atlas van Loon

Drawing of Circus Maximus, 1649, Atlas van Loon

Circus Maximus and Palatine Hill in Rome

Circus Maximus and Palatine Hill in Rome

The earliest installations were the work of Tarquin Priscus (seventh-sixth centuries BC), but construction proper only began in 329 BC, with the erection of the starting gates for the chariots and of the central spine.

Model of Ancient Rome Circus Maximus, Domus Augustana and the Palatine.

Model of Ancient Rome Circus Maximus, Domus Augustana and the Palatine. 

Reconstruction Sketch of Circus Maximus - Photo Credit & Sketch. J.C GOLVIN

Reconstruction Sketch of Circus Maximus – Photo Credit & Sketch. J.C GOLVIN

In 174 BC the seven “eggs” were placed on the spine to mark to number of circuits of the course. In 33 BC Agrippa added seven bronze dolphins. Augustus’s principal addition was the obelisk of the Pharoah Ramses II (thirteenth century BC), brought from Heliopolis and erected on the spine. Much later, in 357 AD, Constantius II added a second obelisk, that of Thothmes III  (fifteenth century BC) from Thebes. In 1587 both of the shattered obelisks  were unearthed by Pope Sixtus V. The first was later placed in Piazza del  Popolo and the second in Piazza di  San Giovanni in Laterano.

Drawing of Circus Maximus, Rome,1582.

Drawing of Circus Maximus, Rome,1582.

Mosaic of Circus Maximus in palaestra - Villa Romana del Casale

Mosaic of Circus Maximus in palaestra – Villa Romana del Casale

The circus remained in use throughout late antiquity. The last races were  held there in 549 AD by Totila, king of  the Ostrogoths.

Races at Circus Maximus

The race-track in the circus was divided down the middle by a masonry spine with a pillar (meta) at each end to mark the turns. The chariots, drawn by two or four horses, were extremely light and it took great skill on the part of the charioteers to keep them from overturning (though disastrous falls were one of the attractions for spectators).

Two-horse chariot in the circus

Two-horse chariot in the circus, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Rome.

The skill of the charioteer lay in taking the turns as close as possible so as to gain ground. The rules allowed all sorts of foul play to obstruct opponents and send them crashing into the walls. Horses and chariots were divided into teams, distinguished by different colours, and each had its supporters: the various colours eventually formed factions and had a notable influence on political life.

Races in the circus, carving. Musei Vaticani, Rome

Races in the circus, carving. Musei Vaticani, Rome

“The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883.

“The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883.

The charioteers were idolised and if particularly skilful would accumulate immense fortunes. One Diodes, of Portuguese origin, raced for the Reds for twenty-four years in the second century AD: he won 3000 times with a two-horse chariot and 1462 times with a four-horse team. When he retired he had accumulated the fabulous sum of 35 million sesterces. Around the circuses, like football stadiums today, there stood myriads of taverns, kiosks, and booths, and while the spectators on the terraces watched up to a hundred races a day, thieves, prostitutes, peddlers and hucksters of all sorts mixed with the crowd.

Circus Maximus Photo Gallery:

 

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Distance to the Colosseum

Circus Maximus set in the center of Roman Forum, 0,7 km from (9 min walk) from Colosseum.