The history of the Circus Maximus in a nutshell

 

Remnants of the Circus Maximus large format        Ancient Circus Maximus model reconstruction        Large format model
Étienne Dupérac  ‘Circus Maximus and the Palatijn’ 1575, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam       Vincenzo Brenna c. 1770 Circus Maximus
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Remnants of the Circus Maximus Rome

Much of the story below is based on: Fik Meijer, ‘Wagenrennen Spektakelshows in Rome and Constantinople’, Athenaeum – Polak&Van Gennepp, Amsterdam 2004. From here on abbreviated as F.M.

Around 600 B.C., the valley between the Palatine and the Capitoline was drained by the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus, with the construction of the Cloaca Maxima (large sewer). This way, the low-lying area could be cultivated. In addition, this is where the centre of the city of Rome, the so-called Forum Romanum, originated. Later on, the king also drained the valley, the Vallis Murcia, on the other side of the Palatine (see map). This allowed the originally marshy area to be used for chariot racing. The spectators could follow the race from the Aventine and the Palatine. It was Tarquinius Priscus (616-578 B.C.) who, as the story goes, was the first to place wooden stands. In 328 B.C., according to Livius, carceres or starting boxes were placed so that the start would be fair.

Julius Caesar understood that the Circus Maximus was more than a place where the people were entertained. He realized that you had to give a voice to the city’s people, deprived of political influence. Not a voice of political weight, but a sound that brought out what lived among the ordinary people in Rome. No place he considered more suitable than the Circus Maximus. He expanded it in both longitudinal directions, increasing the spectator capacity to over 150.000. He also had a moat dug around the racetrack in front of the stands to protect visitors even better from the wild jumps of cornered wild animals. Behind it, he had stone seats installed’.

When the Circus Maximus caught fire in 31 B.C., it was rebuilt under Augustus. Furthermore, it was expanded and an imperial box (pulvinar) was added. Augustus also ordered an obelisk from Egypt which was placed on the spina, a dividing wall that divides the racetrack in two. This obelisk is now in Piazza del Popolo. Under Constantius II there was a second obelisk, which now stands behind the basilica of Saint John Lateran. During the big fire in 64 AD under Nero, the racetrack was rebuilt.

In 81 AD the senate ordered to build a triumphal arch (reconstruction) in honour of Titus. This arch on the short eastern side of the Circus Maximus had three passages (Wikipedia) and became the entrance to the racetrack. During excavations in 2014 and 2015 the foundations of this Arch of Titus were found. The arch has almost completely disappeared, but the inscription is still known (Wikipedia.nl).

“Because in accordance with the precepts, plans and predictions of his father, he overcame the Jews and completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which even before was besieged by all the generals, kings and peoples in vain or left unmolested by them.”

Quoted from: F.M. blz. 53

‘Trajan (98-117) once again had the circus restored in a grand manner after another devastating fire. The circus was then three stories high with open arcades on the outside. […] After Trajan, the Circus Maximus was no longer substantially expanded.’

Quated from: Wikipedia

The last wagon races were held in 549. In the late 6th century, the Circus Maximus disappeared. The place was used by farmers for vegetable gardens and vineyards. The eastern part was now the church of Santa Lucia which was demolished in the 16th century. Part of the Circus Maximus was used as a fortress by the Frangipani family. In 1145 this family also acquired the medieval Torre della Moletta. This tower was not isolated as it is today, but was surrounded by buildings and was part of Frangipani’s fortification.

Torre della Moletta large size
Torre della Moletta Circus Maximus Rome

In the 16th century, marble steps were used in the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. In the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, chariot racing continued long after 500.

Nowadays it is used for concerts (the Rolling Stones among others) and demonstrations, but in 2006 it was also used for the inauguration of the Italian football team that became world champion. The circus reopened in 2016.

The racetrack

The length of the racetrack was about 565 meters and the width about 80 meters (cross section).  According to Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, there were 250.000 spectators in the circus. Dionysius of Halicarnassus mentions the number 150,000. ‘[…] every year about three million people could attend the races.’ (F.M. p. 133). The lowest estimate is most likely. In the Colosseum, close to the Circus Maximus, there was room for 50,000 people. 

In the middle of the Circus stood the spina, a wall that divided the track in two (map spina). The spina was 335 meters long and on both ends of this wall were the metae. These were three conical columns that were firmly anchored. The metae indicated the point where the wagons had to turn.

Reconstruction of the turning point  with  metae large size
reconstruction Circus Maximus chariot races

Next to these turning poles were eggs and one egg was removed with each round. Later bronze dolphins that were filled with water were used as well. At each round one dolphin was tipped over, which caused the water to flow into a tank on the spina. In the middle of the spina were the two obelisks as described above and there were also little temples on the partition wall. On the east side were the starting boxes, the so called carceres. A white cloth was thrown into the arena as a starting signal.

Startboxes or Carceres reconstruction large size
Startboxes or Carceres reconstruction Circus Maximus

At this sign a mechanism ensured that the doors of all twelve starting boxes opened simultaneously.


The chariot races, the stables and the charioteers

Circus Maximus large size         Detail large size     Reconstruction drawing     Model        Model Museo della Civiltà Romana
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Reconstruction Circus Maximus Rome

Artwork: Katharina Huber

 
Reconstruction model Circus Maximus large size         Reconstruction drawing       Grond plan of the Circus Maximus
Reconstruction model Circus Maximus

Model: National Geographic

Before the horse races started there was a parade (pompa circensis) in which the nobility drove in front and the participants of the race were introduced. 

Parade 4th century opus sectile from the basilica  Junius Bassus large size Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Parade 4th century opus sectile from the basilica  Junius Bassus large size Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

 

Sarcophagus depicting the start of a race. Hortator (passed on stable orders on horseback) in front of the four-horse chariot and Sparsor (sprinkled horses with water)  On the left the organizer and his wife Vatican Museum large format
Sarcophagus depicting the start of a race. Hortator (passed on stable orders on horseback) in front of the four-horse chariot and Sparsor (sprinkled horses with water)  On the left the organizer and his wife Vatican Museum

When the twelve doors of the starting boxes opened, the charioteers had to circle the spina seven times counter clockwise, covering a total of five kilometres (map of tracks for the horses). Usually the races were run in four-horse chariots, but they also rode in two- or three-horse chariots. At the start, but also at the turning posts, accidents were not uncommon, especially when the riders guided their horses in a too sharp turn around the metae or when they were too fast. The winner did a lap of honour.

1. Video Circus Maximus Altier4 (0.31 minutes)
2. Video reconstruction Circus Maximus (1.15 minutes)
3. Video Circus Maximus Khan Academy (2.03 – 2.51 minutes)
4. Video Ben Hur  1959 (4.17 minutes)
5. Video Circus Maximus Ben-Hur 2016 trailer
6. Youtube Fik Meijer: What did hooligans look like in Roman times? 15.53 minutes (Dutch)

 

Winner is offered olive branch and laurel wreath  Mosaic Piazza Armerina Villa Romana del Casale          Mosaic floor
Winner is offered olive branch and laurel wreath  Mosaic Piazza Armerina Villa Romana del Casale 

The winner was presented at the imperial box with a laurel and olive branch and a reward that was often substantial. As a consolation, the numbers two and three also received an amount.  ‘[…] they were paid sums of money that most people in Rome did not earn together in their whole lives.’ (F.M. p. 114). In imperial times, races were held 135 days a year and 24 races a day, barring exceptions.1 In between races, riders (desultores) performed all kinds of acrobatic rides with their horses.

The four race stables from top left clockwise Green, Red, White and Blue large format
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, 2nd floor  Rome
The four race stables from top left clockwise Green, Red, White and Blue large format Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, 2nd floor  Rome

There were four race stables or factiones: the Greens, the Reds, the Whites and the Blues. The chariots got the color of the respective stables. The largest stables were the Greens and the Blues. All four had their own stables on the Campus Martius, with practice areas and stables for the horses. At the head of a stable was the dominus factionis. He had to make sure everything went well. Huge amounts of money were involved, which is why the highest boss of the stable came from the highest position and had experience with financial matters.

Each horse racing stable employed people in their organisation such as the conditores (guardians of the horsemen), farriers, veterinarians and sellarii (stable-boys). During the race the sparsores had to sprinkle the horses and the axles of the wagon with water.

“Curious was the performance of the hortatores. During the races they rode on horseback between the wagons and kept the drivers of their stables informed of the state of affairs, especially what happened behind their backs. These people were clearly recognisable to the public by the colours of their stables.”

Quoted from: F.M. p. 79

The Circus Maximus was not only used for chariot races. Before the construction of the Colosseum (80), gladiator fights were also held. 

Roman society was highly hierarchical. This can also be clearly seen in the seats of the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum. The imperial box, the pulvinar, was naturally the best place and had a separate entrance. The upper class was high enough to be able to look over the spina. The inferior spots were for the plebeians.

Imperial box or Pulvinar from the movie: Ben Hur 2016 large format
Imperial box or Pulvinar from the movie: Ben Hur 2016 Circus Maximus

The charioteers were from the underworld of society, many of them were slaves.  If a charioteer was successful, he could buy himself free.

Alexander von Wagner ‘The Chariot Race’ ca. 1882 Manchester Art Gallery large size zoom in     Details: horses       Figure
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Alexander von Wagner 'The Chariot Race' ca. 1882 Manchester Art Gallery

The chariot race was dangerous. In this way, Bishop Sidonius Apollinaris described a race of a charioteer around 450.

‘His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, until there was a leg between all the spokes. The wheels kept spinning and broke the legs that were trapped in them. Then the charioteer, the fifth victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow.’

Taken from: Morten Kjerside Poulsen ‘Wedrennen waren formule 1 van Rome: Dodenrit in Rome’ Historia / Quoted from: W. B. Anderson, ed. and trans., ‘Sidonius: Poems and Letters’, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London), 1963-65, vol. 1, p. 310.

 
Chariot racing fresco Pompeii 1st century large size
Chariot racing fresco Pompeii 1st century

Photo: National Geographic

On the straights you could reach speeds of up to 70km, but you had to slow down considerably when taking a sharp turn. Things often went wrong here, as often depicted in reliefs.

Relief chariot races  Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Antikensammlung c. 50 large size
Relief chariot races  Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Antikensammlung c. 50

It is therefore not surprising that most charioteers died young. The famous Flavius Scorpus or Scorpius (68 – 95) who rode for the Greens died after 2048 victories at the age of 27. Martial, a Roman poet, about the death of Flavius Scorpus:

‘Let Victory in sadness break her Idumaean palms; O Favour, strike thy bare breast with unsparing hand. Let Honour change her garb for that of mourning; and make thy crowned locks, O disconsolate Glory, an offering to the cruel flames. Oh! Sad misfortune! That thou, Scorpus, must be cut off in the flower of thy youth, and be called so prematurely to harness the black steeds of Pluto. The chariot race was always shortened by your rapid riding; but O why should your own race have been so speedily run?’

Martial, Epigrams Book X L

The drivers had special equipment to protect themselves, including a chest protector, a leather helmet and leather straps around the legs. The reins were tied around the body of the charioteer. In the worst case, if you thundered out of the wagon, a knife was needed to loosen entangled reins. The knife was in between the straps of the chest protector. Scorpus probably died during the race while he was unable to loosen the reins in time.

Famous gladiators were popular, but charioteers were often even more popular. A famous one was Gaius Appuleius Diocles:

“[…] charioteer of the Reds, from the Spanish Lusitania, 42 years, 7 months, 23 days old. […] The statistics: 24 years of chariot racing, 4257 times at the start, 1462 victories […] 2900 victories and places of honour, 861 second places, 576 third places, 1 fourth place […] 35 863 120 sesterces of prize money, 8 horses with 100 victories, 1 horse with 200 victories.”

Quoted from: Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’  Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 p. 115. From now on abbreviated as J.L.

Neither Ronaldo nor Messi, but Gaius Appuleius Diocles is by far the best paid athlete of all time. Diocles’s prize money was enough to provide the 1 million inhabitants of Rome with grain for one year. He was sung and immortalized in poems and his image and name could be found everywhere on walls of latrines in graffiti. Just like today’s star soccer players, they were bought up for a lot of money by the competitors. For example, Diocles rode 6 years for the Whites, 3 years for the Greens and the last 15 years for the Reds.

The Emperor and the public

Early in the morning, people from all walks of life came in large crowds to Circus Maximus so as not to miss anything. Among them were many fans of one of the race stables. They were recognizable by the color of their shirts. For example, the hard core of the Greens or Whites often stood together in the stands. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330 – 395) did not like the people who went to the chariot races. He described the crowd as follows:

“Let us now turn to the idle and slothful commons. Among them some who have no shoes are conspicuous as though they had cultured names, such as the Messores, Statarii, Semicupae and Serapini, and Cicymbricus, with Gluturinus and Trulla, and Lucanicus with Porclaca and Salsula, and countless others. These spend all their life with wine and dice, in low haunts, pleasures, and the games. Their temple, their dwelling, their assembly, and the height of all their hopes is the Circus Maximus. […] Among them those who have enjoyed a surfeit of life, influential through long experience, often swear by their hoary hair and wrinkles that the state cannot exist if in the coming race the charioteer whom each favours is not first to rush forth from the barriers, and fails to round the turning-point closely with his ill-omened horses.”

Taken from: J.L. p. 114 / Quoted from: Ammianus Marcellinus, The Roman History, Book XXXl, Loeb’s Classical Library edition, vol. 3 (Cambridge, 1939), p. 157

Gladiators were very popular, but the charioteers even more so. This of course also had to do with the frequency with which you could visit the Colosseum and Circus Maximus.  The gladiator fights and the many animals were very costly. The chariot races, and indeed the theatres, were much cheaper and were visited much more often than the fights at the Colosseum.

Some fans went very far in their dedication to their race stable or charioteers like Diocles, Musclosus or Scorpus. In his Natural History Pliny the Elder mentions in Book 7 on p. 186 extreme behaviour of a supporter of the Reds:

“It is found in the official records [Acta Diurna, a daily gazette] that at the funeral of Felix [Luck], the charioteer of the Reds, one of his backers threw himself upon the pyre – a pitiful story – and the opposing backers tried to prevent this score to the record of a professional by asserting that the man had fainted owing to the quantity of scents!”

Quoted from: Pliny the Elder, ‘Natural History’, trans. H. Rackham, William Heinemann Ltd., London 1947, Vol. II, Book VII, p. 186.

Furthermore, the gods and the underworld were called upon to do harm to the other side. Tablets were found in which the opponent was cursed. In Hadrumetum (North Africa) a curse tablet was found ‘with a text written by a Blue or Red […]’.

‘I conjure you, demon, whoever you are, and order you to torment and destroy the horses of the Green and White, and kill the charioteers Clarus, Felix, Primulus and Romanus, do not leave a breath in them.’ (Herman Dessau, ed., ‘Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae’, Berlin 1992-1916, no. 8753).’)

Derived from: F.M. p. 140

“II conjure you up, holy beings and holy names; join in aiding this spell, and bind, enchant, thwart, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy, kill, break Eucherius the charioteer, and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome.” (René Cagnat, ed., ‘Inscriptiones Graecae ad res Romanas pertinentes’, Paris 1911, vol. I, no. 117)”

Derived from: F.M. pp. 141-142

The emperor watched the chariot races from his grandstand of honor. If the public reacted enthusiastically or cheerfully when the emperor entered, he knew exactly where things stood. For the people, the chariot races were an outlet to vent their displeasure or joy.  Emperors could make themselves popular by organising gladiator fights in the Colosseum, but especially by holding chariot races. The public appreciated it when the emperor appeared in the Circus Maximus to witness the race. Seen in this light, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was not doing it right: ‘He was in the habit of reading, listening and signing during the Circus performances, and the story goes that the crowd often jokingly pointed this out to him’. J.L. p. 115. Many emperors were also fans of a race stable. Usually they were followers of the Greens or the Blues. There were some emperors who went to lengths to make their favourite win. Notorious was Emperor Caligula (37-41) who was a fanatic supporter of the Greens. This emperor did not hesitate to poison competitor drivers and horses. The Greek orator and philosopher, Dio Chrysostom, wrote about Caligula and his favourite horse:

“One of his horses – called Incitatus – he often invited to dinner. There he would offer the animal golden barley and toast him with wine in golden cups. He swore an oath by the horse’s fortune and salvation and even promised that he would select him as a consul. He would certainly have carried it out if he had lived longer, and then he would have had the time of his life.” 

Quoted from: J.L. p. 115

There are doubts whether this story is true. Possibly it came from the supporters of the Senate, who often came into conflict with Caligula. This emperor jokingly observed that his horse was smarter than a senator.

During and before the chariot races there was massive gambling. Not only by the people and senators, but also by many emperors. It is well known that a number of emperors, such as Augustus and Claudius, were fond of playing high stake dice. Many emperors were excited about the chariot races and probably bet on their favourites during the games.

A popular meeting place

The circus wasn’t just there for the chariot races, it was also a popular meeting place. If you were looking for a relationship, then the Circus Maximus was, according to Ovid, the perfect place. In his Amores (The Loves), he describes how the girl he is in love with is watching the chariot race in the Circus Maximus:

“I see who is your favourite; whoever you wish well to, he will prove the conqueror.
The very horses appear to understand what it is you wish for.
Oh shocking! Around the turning-place he goes with a circuit far too wide.
What art thou about? The next is overtaking thee with his wheel in contact.
What, wretched man, art thou about? Thou art wasting the good wishes of the fair;
pull in the reins, I entreat, to the left, with a strong hand.
We have been resting ourselves in a blockhead; but still, Romans, call him back again
[…]
See! they are calling him back; but that the waving of the garments may not disarrange your hair,
you may hide yourself quite down in my bosom.
And now, the barrier unbarred once more,
the side posts are open wide; with the horses at full speed the variegated throng bursts forth.
[…]
The wishes of my mistress are fulfilled; my wishes still exist.
He bears away the palm; the palm is yet to be sought by me.
She smiles, and she gives me a promise of something with her expressive eye.
That is enough for this spot; grant the rest in another place.”

Quoted from: Ovid, ‘The Amores’, The Project Gutenberg EBook (transl. Henry T. Riley, 1885), Book III, Elegy II. Retrieved March 12, 2020

There was also plenty of choice for seekers of paid love. In the bottom arcades there were many shops as well as bars and brothels located.

Large size       Circus Maximus
Remnants Circus Maximus Rome
 
Circus Maximus large size
Remnants Circus Maximus Rome

There have been excavations at the Circus Maximus since 2008. Many coins and pans have been unearthed, as well as part of a glass goblet (replica) with a victorious horse on it. The Circus Maximus was reopened in 2016 and is again open for visitors. Virtual tours in seven languages can be found here.

Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’  Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 blz. 107-117
Fik Meijer, ‘Wagenrennen Spektakelshows in Rome en Constantinopel’, Athenaeum – Polak&Van Gennepp, Amsterdam 2004
Fik Meijer ‘Wagenrennen in het Circus Maximus’ Spiegel Historael, jaargang 2005, nummer 5
Samuel Ball Platner “Circus Maximus” (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby): A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London: Oxford University Press, 1929
Morten Kjerside Poulsen, ‘Wedrennen waren formule 1 van Rome: Dodenrit in Rome’ Historia
Peter T. Struck, ’Greatest of All Time Lifestyles of the rich and famous Roman athletes’ Lapham’s Quarterly Monday, August 02, 2010

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