Circus Maximus

According to legend, the Circus Maximus is as ancient as Rome itself. Tradition holds that it was during the first games in the Circus Maximus, put on by Rome's first king Romulus, that the Romans carried out the Rape of the Sabines. Seizing the women from their Sabine neighbors in a desperate bid to populate their city.

Such an inauspicious start set the tone for such a bloody and violent arena as the Circus Maximus. As immortalized in the movie Ben Hurr (and more recently in a less critically acclaimed remake), throughout its long history it was the scene of some spectacular chariot races. Competed in ferociously, unpittylingly, and often to the death

The construction of the Circus Maximus 

Building the Circus Maximus started early, under Rome's first kings, the Tarquins. The Tarquins built a series of wooden seats, spatially separating the games' spectators according to class. Then, during the mid Republic (around 189 BC), the Romans built the circus' first permanent spina - the long colonnaded strip along whose lengths the charioteers had to race.

Model showing the Circus Maximus during the reign of Constantine

As the Roman Empire expanded and more riches flooded the city, the Circus Maximus evolved. Far from a basic chariot racing track, it became a showy, monumental landmark capable of putting on the strangest spectacles immaginable.

In 55 BC, Julius Caesar's great rival, Pompey, procured 20 African elephants and let the loose in the Circus Maximnus. His plan had been for them to fight to the death. But as their survivalist instincts took hold, the elephants tried to flee, causing considerable damage to the stands. 

The Romans quickly learned their lesson. They didn't stop putting on wild animal shows of course. In fact, these increased considerbly with the building of the Colosseum. But they at least endeavoured to make such shows a little safer for the public. So to avoid any further accidents they used the River Tiber to create a moat dividing spectators from the racing track. 

The Circus Maximus' runway was some 600 meters long. At its height, it could accommodate some 250,000 spectators, five times the capacity of the Colosseum. The Circus Maximus extends between two of Rome's Seven Hills, the Aventine and the Palatine. It was the emperors living on the Palatine that had the best seats in the house, however, as you can still see from the palatial ruins that run across the hill today.

So what would a typical chariot race in the Circus Maximus look like?

Charioteers, riding chariots of two to four horses, raced seven laps around the plug, a central divider wall where two Egyptian obelisks once stood. Once they arrived at each end of the track they had to circle a meta - a large gilded column which quite literally served as a turning point. 

The obelisks that once stood in the Circus Maximus are still extant in the city. They were renamed Flaminium and Lateran and were placed at the center of two important squares of Rome. The first stands tall in Piazza del Popolo, at the very north of the center but within view of the Altare della Patria. The second stands across from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.

Like today's footballers, charioteers didn't compete alone but in teams. The teams were distinguished by four colors: green, blue, red, white. And rivalries between the teams, and especially between the fans that supported them, were fierce. The chariot races were the most popular and loved shows by the Romans and the charioteers were true sport superstars. It might not surprise you that they were very, very rich. In fact, Roman Empire boasts the world's highest paid athlete, one Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who's earnings in today's money would equate to around $15 billion. Net.

A member of the

What's left of the Circus Maximus today?

Today, the shape of the Circus Maximus is still clearly visible, despite the depredations of its stones which were recycled four to five centuries ago to build palaces and churches. Its foundations, recently brought to light by archaeological excavations, have only recently opened to the public.

The valley where the Circus Maximus was built in an area that is now one of the favorite destinations for joggers. Spectators still come to fill it, as they did 2,000 years ago. But instead of die-hard supporters of the red, green, or blue factions, today's crowds are fans of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and other stars who aspire to play here.  

OPENING TIMES

As an enormous open-air chariot racing track, the Circus Maximus is always open!

Very little of the actual circus survives. Its structure is mainly preserved in the shape of the valley it once occupied.

But some original ruins remain at the far south-eastern side of the circus. Contact us and we can organize your Circus Maximus Visit

  • King Romulus - Rome's founder and twin of the recently deceased Remus - invited the neighboring Sabines to the Circus Maximus in 752 BC. The Roman historian Titus Livy tells us that the games he put on were so captivating that "nobody had eyes or thoughts for anything else." It was during the games that his men abducted the Sabine women - an event we know as the Rape of the Sabines
  • Ever heard of the expression "bread and circuses"? It comes from the Latin panem et circenses, penned by the first century AD satirist Juvenal. But what does it mean? Well, like Marx when he wrote about the "opium of the masses", Juvenal was talking about control. And how did a Roman emperor keep control over his subjects? That's right - keep them filled with bread and happy with circuses.