Probably everyone knows or has seen in many films how Rome enjoyed all kinds of shows and performances such as chariot races, gladiator fights, animal fights, and staging of famous battles (especially those where the Romans won). They took place in specially designed buildings called circuses from the Latin circus – circumference or circle.
The mass-scale shows for the Roman people were also quite a political tool. It is not without reason that the maxim panem et circenses – “bread and games” was created.
The most famous examples of such buildings are the Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, and the Circus Maximus. The former could hold over 85,000 viewers, while the latter could hold over 150,000.
Circus Maximus was the biggest and oldest circus. Its origins date back to the reign of Tarquinius the Elder and in the period from the 6th century BCE to the 4th century CE it was rebuilt many times. Ultimately, it reached the dimensions of 544 by 129 m. It was used mainly for chariot races. On the spina (an island in the middle of the arena) there were 7 eggs, which were lowered and thus informed which lap is performed during the races. At Agrippa’s order, 7 figures of dolphins were placed there, and a fountain decorated with dolphins was placed behind Nero. On the order of Augustus, an imperial box was built and an obelisk brought from Heliopolis was erected. Currently, we can admire it on the Place del Popolo.
Circus Maximus was burned down several times. But it was rebuilt every time. First in the reign of Claudius, then in the reign of Domitian. It was rebuilt by Trajan and during this period its dimensions were 600 m by 200 m. Unfortunately, during the reign of Antoninus Pius, part of it collapsed as a result of the catastrophe. Subsequent emperors also rebuilt it and subjected it to modifications, e.g. Caracalla widened the gate, Aurelian placed the temple of the sun on the spina, Constantine the Great added new porticoes and golden columns, and Constantius II set up another obelisk brought from Egypt (which currently stands in St. John Lateran Square).
The last games were probably in 550. Today, after this largest and most magnificent circus, there is a hill covered with grass.
Besides the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, there were at least 3 other circuses in Rome.
Around 221 BCE a circus was founded in the Field of Mars near the Tiber by the censor Gaius Flaminius Nepos. In the early days, the circus was 500 meters long and did not have a permanent place to sit. The so-called plebeian games – ludi plebei. It also served as a market square. It almost certainly lacked a chariot racing track. But horse races were held there.
Many buildings and temples were built near the circus, including the temple of Mars and Apollo. In 15, statues of Augustus were erected. The square was entered through a marble arch with three passes erected in honour of Germanicus, which had inscriptions of his military conquests.
In CE 2, the circus was filled with water to stage a hunt for 36 crocodiles.
The ruins of Flaminius’ circus still existed in the 16th century. Then they were completely destroyed and the Palazzo Mattei was built in this area.
The construction of another circus was started by Caligula in the areas where Agrippina’s gardens were located. Currently, the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. The construction was completed during the reign of Nero. In the middle of the spina, an obelisk brought from Egypt was placed, which stands almost in the same place to this day (the one that stands in front of St. Peter’s Basilica).
This circus was the place where the martyrdom of the first Christians took place in 65 CE, as described by Tacitus in his Annals. Tradition says that two years later St. Peter. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine used part of the circus structure and built a basilica. In the 5th century, two round mausoleums were built in the middle of the spina (one for the wife of Emperor Honorius). The mausoleums and the remains of the circus were finally destroyed around 1450 by the construction of the New Basilica of St. Peter.
The best-preserved circus (apart from the Colosseum) is the Circus of Maxentius on Via Appia. It was created in honour of Maxentius’ son, Romulus, who died at an early age.
The circus was 482 meters long and 78 meters wide. Spina was 297 meters. An Egyptian obelisk was also erected here. It used to stand in front of the temple of Isis and it was built on the order of Domitian. The obelisk lay among the ruins of the circus until 1651, after which it was moved by Bernini to Piazza Navona and incorporated into the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
Circuses were built not only in Rome itself. They were also built in all Roman provinces that belonged to ancient Rome.