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Forgotten hippodrome of mad emperor

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Circus Varianus in Rome visible preserved foundations of the north-western end of the racetrack
Circus Varianus in Rome visible preserved foundations of the north-western end of the racetrack | Photo: Michal Kubicz

When we think of chariot races in ancient Rome, the first thing that comes to mind is Circus Maximus. But the “Great Circus” was not the only racetrack existing in ancient Rome. Many of you probably remember that Emperor Caligula also started building his hippodrome in the Vatican (the work was finally completed by Nero). A memento of him is the obelisk currently standing on pl. St. Peter. Recently, I also wrote about the Maxentius Hippodrome on the Appian Way.

But there was another great hippodrome in Rome, which today is neither as famous as the Circus Maximus nor as well preserved as that of Maxentius. This is the race track used by one of the most flamboyant Roman emperors, called Elagabalus. We are talking about the so-called Circus Varianus.

Circus Varianus was probably built by Emperor Caracalla at the beginning of the 3rd century CE. The hippodrome was located between the present basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (on this side were carceres – stables) and Via Alcamo. It was almost as long as Circus Maximus and measured 565 meters in length! Of course, it was a private arena, so it did not have as large an audience as the circus between the Palatine and the Aventine. Although erected by Caracalla, the hippodrome at Santa Croce is associated primarily with Elagabalus, who reigned in the years 218-222 CE. Besides being an avid fan of chariot racing, Elagabalus was one of the most eccentric rulers ever to rule Rome. Even the black legend of Nero and Caligula pales in comparison to the descriptions of what happened in his time. A twisted sense of humor, sexual excesses (both heterosexual and homosexual), declared intentions to change sex, entrusting the actual power to his mother and grandmother – all this could not win Elagabalus the sympathy of his subjects.

Elagabalus slightly rebuilt the building erected by Caracalla. Among other things, the hippodrome was slightly shortened, and towers similar to those in the Circus Maximus were added at carceres. Probably Elagabalus put a small obelisk in the middle of the spina. Unlike the obelisk erected by Augustus in the Circus Maximus and by Caligula in the Vatican, the obelisk of Elagabalus was relatively modest and not so ancient in origin. It was forged just a few decades earlier in the time of Hadrian, who wanted to commemorate his prematurely deceased favorite Antinous. It is disputed where Elagabalus took the obelisk: according to one theory, it was to be taken from the temple of Antinous in Egyptian Antinoopolis, according to the other – from the area of ​​Hadrian’s villa in Tibur (now Tivoli). The theory with Hadrian’s villa speaks to me. Why would Elagabalus bring a relatively young and not very impressive obelisk all the way from Egypt, when there were many older and larger obelisks in Egypt? It would be much simpler to carve a new obelisk in place. The only explanation would be if there was another one relatively nearby, already ready, which would not require excessive effort to bring to Rome.

Circus Varianus served its function for a relatively short time. Already in the years 272-282 (i.e. about 60 years after Elagabalus), the threat of barbarian invasions made Rome surrounded by powerful fortifications (the Aurelian Wall). In the area of ​​today’s Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the course of the wall was set exactly across the Circus Varianus, which meant that most of the hippodrome was outside the walls. Only a small fragment of the carceres remained inside. The circus divided in this way completely lost its functionality, although I suppose that during the construction of the defensive walls it probably stood unused anyway (otherwise it seems unlikely that any emperor would allow the construction of a wall on its territory). Gradually, the building became a source of demolition building material. On the plans of Rome from the 16th century, only orchards are marked in this place, which suggests that no trace of the hippodrome was visible at that time.

The remains of the Circus Varianus are not easy to find today on contemporary plans of Rome. You have to have an eagle’s eye to see them on GoogleMaps. Excavations near the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme have uncovered fragments of the foundations of the stands and starting boxes, as well as one of the towers. The modern Aqua Felice aqueduct runs partly in the footsteps of the former hippodrome. However, the most tangible trace of the Circus Varianus in modern Rome is the obelisk that Elagabalus set up on its spin. Currently, you can see it on Pincio Hill. It is not tall – it is not even 10 meters high, so compared to the huge obelisks brought to Rome from Egypt, it is only a dwarf.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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