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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Circus Maximus in Rome

What is the Circus Maximus?

The Circus Maximus is a chariot-racing stadium in Rome that once held a capacity of over 150,000 spectators, and was the premier sporting venue of the Roman Empire.

Circus Maximus History

It’s a common misconception, perpetuated in movies and television shows, that gladiatorial combat was the leading entertainment of the Roman age. In fact, chariot racing was by far the more popular spectacle, and what now resembles little more than a brown field was once the premier sporting venue for aristocrats and plebs alike. At its peak, the Circus Maximus boasted a capacity of over 150,000 and was the largest man made structure in the entire Roman Empire. This was, as the writer Pliny described it, ‘a fitting place for a nation that has conquered the world’.

Although best known for hosting the capital’s chariot races, the circus was also home to a number of other ludi, or public games, held to celebrate the Romans’ religious festivals. These public games took the form of multi-day events, featuring beast hunts, gladiatorial fights, public executions and mock battles.

The stadium itself was U-shaped, formed of two parallel sides and a rounded end, with stables and starting gates opposite. Once the customary religious procession had paraded through the city streets, finishing its course here at the stadium, the eager crowd turned their gaze towards the gates. From directly above the anxious charioteers, the game’s sponsor dropped a white handkerchief. As it hit the floor, the racers propelled themselves forward at breakneck speed.

Amidst the raucous shouts and clouds of dust, as many as twelve chariots at once would hurtle their way around the track, risking their lives in the undertaking. Often drivers were thrown from their chariots and killed either by stampede or by getting caught in their reins and dragged to a bitter end. To add to the drama, the track was visually enhanced, scattered with a sparkling mineral that glistened in the sun.

Victorious racers were showered with vast amounts of wealth and the adoring praise of the heaving crowds, particularly from those who had won bets on the outcome. Although individual glory was up for grabs for the charioteers, they also rode on behalf of four main teams – Red, White, Green and Blue – each with their own following of partisan supporters. However, this enthusiasm could quickly grow deadly, for it is said that Emperor Vitellius, upon hearing a group of plebs belittling his cherished Blue team, immediately called for their execution!

The last official race at the circus was held in the 6th century, with the site largely abandoned thereafter.

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