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Circus Maximus

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Reconstruction of Circus Maximus
Reconstruction of Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus (literally “Great Circus”) was the oldest and largest Roman circus, situated between the Palatine and Aventine hills. From the 6th BCE to the 4th century CE the circus was rebuilt many times. Ultimately, it was able to accomodate about 250,000 viewers. It was 544 meters long and 129 meters wide. The circus was rectangular with one side rounded.

Building and history of object

In the centre of the arena was the so-called spina. It was a long and low wall separating the tracks. On its foundation, there were altars of deities, statues, and small cult or decorative buildings (e.g. fountains, obelisks). On both sides of the wall, three massive posts and 7 items were placed: on one side, 7 eggs (septem ova), and on the other, 7 dolphins. These items were removed on each subsequent lap to control the number of laps.

The oldest part of the circus is the remains of the foundations of a wooden stable building (carceres), dating from 329 BCE. Since then, the circus has undergone many modifications. In 194 BCE, seats were added to the audience for senators, and in 174 BCE the building was replaced by a brick structure.

Circus Maximus

Because the arena was used not only for races but also for circus performances – during Pompey’s reign, the auditorium was fenced off with iron railings, which, however, did not fulfil their task, falling in 55 BCE under the charge of 20 rampant elephants and causing understandable panic among the trampled spectators. Under the influence of these events, in 46 BCE Julius Caesar enlarged the track, surrounded it with water canals (euripi), rebuilt the auditorium and remodelled the already existing brick carceres.

During this period, Circus Maximus has already reached great dimensions, easily seating around 150,000 spectators and becoming the central arena for racing (circus performances eventually moved completely to the amphitheatres) so fascinating for almost everyone in the population of Rome.

In 33 BCE, at the command of Agrippa’s brand, 7 dolphins were placed on the spinning. During the reign of Augustus, a lodge for the emperor (pulvinar) was added and an obelisk 23.7 m high, brought from Heliopolis, was set up. In 36 CE the circus burned down. It was rebuilt by Emperor Claudius. Most likely, Claudius was the one who “funded” the first stone seats for the senators, also replaced the wooden finish with gilded bronze and added marble elements in place of the previous ones – tufa.

A chariot race in Circus Maximus.

In the time of Nero, a dolphin-shaped fountain was placed in the centre of the spina. In 64 CE, during a great fire, the circus was destroyed for the second time. Thereafter, Emperor Domitian in addition to enlarging the audience (which was further increased for Emperor Trajan) in 81 CE crowned the southern gable of the building with a triumphal arch in memory of victory over the Jews. During this time, the Circus Maximus reached its monumental size, reaching dimensions of about 600 by 200 meters and able to accommodate a total (according to various estimates) of 255,000 to 385,000 spectators. The building on the opposite side of the Arc de Triomphe contained 12 start gates (carceres) – each decorated with two marble Hermes. Above the gates, there was a stand from which the president of the Games, with a sound of fanfare, gave the signal to start the competition with a white scarf. The destruction caused by another fire during the reign of Domitian was rebuilt in 104 CE by Trajan. During the reign of Antoninus Pius, some buildings collapsed, but the damage was quickly rebuilt. During the reign of successive emperors, various amendments were made: for Caracalla, the gate was widened, for Aurelian, a temple of the sun was erected on the spine, for Constantine the Great additional porticoes were added and the building was decorated with golden columns, and under Constantius II, an obelisk 32.5 meters high, brought from Thebes, was placed on the spin.

Chariot racing

Various types of acrobatics were the “prelude” to the actual show, which was chariot racing: two-horse bigae, three-legged trigae or four-legged quadrigae. There were also sledges with more horses – including a 10 horse decemiuges – inclusive.

The chariot races took place around the spina. Usually, the race was 7 laps long. This fascinating spectacle captured the crowd, which in turn encouraged their parties to fight. There were four parties. Each party had its own colour – white, red, blue or green. “Whites” and “Reds” were in opposition to the empire, “Greens” supported the emperor, and “Heavenly” supported the Senate and the aristocracy.

Belonging to a particular faction was forced by the economy – the enormous costs that had to be incurred for the purchase, training, maintenance of horses and servicing. In addition to the valued “weight in gold” – coachmen (aurigae), each of the stables employed a huge and diverse staff: people responsible for horses (doctores), coaches (magistri), vets (medici), janitors (conditores), grooms (succonditores), shouters that make horses run (iubilatores) and many others, so as not to fall into the manner of enumerating.

The Roman audience loved these shows where the almost heroic exploits of the competitors, the vicissitudes of races, danger and bravado – it all made the race enthusiastic and stimulating curiosity. Not surprisingly, the one-day ludi (games) of the young Republic was followed by ludi weekly and biweekly under the Empire, and the daily number of races increased from 12 – during Republican times – to about 100 in the time of the Flavians. It got to the point that in order to fit in time from sunrise to darkness, it was necessary to limit the “sacred” number of 7 laps of the track to 5 for the late Empire – one hundred races, each about 2.8 km – forced such a draconian move.

Today Circus Maximus is a park. The building in the background is the Imperial Palace on the Palatine.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same conditions 3.0.

An additional aspect that made the crowd feverish was money betting. More than one citizen has lost a fortune, and many a driver has lost his life. The driver was a slave who had a knife stuck in his belt in case the reins became tangled.

The animals taking part in the races were purchased in Italy, Africa, Greece, Armenia, and most of all in Spain. The best ones were so famous that we find their names written on the vessels on the outskirts of the Empire, or arranged in mosaics. Usually, after three years of training, there was a 5-year period of competitions in races, when they were dressed in the colours of the appropriate factiones, with twigs attached to their heads, in decorative harnesses, with tied manes and tails, and hung with amulets and ornaments – they brought wealth to some and even ruined the lives of others. The two middle horses were harnessed to the yoke of the cart, but the real value of the harness lay in strength and obedience, specially selected two outermost horses called funalis attached – each individually – with a special rope to the axis or wing of the quadriga. The courage, bravado, cleverness and skill of steering these four horses made the best of the coachmen – despite their often low origin – become idols of the crowds: slaves obtained liberation and wealth, liberators – fame and fortune.

Unfortunately, all fame has its “lights and shadows” – extensive accounts of these, after all, dangerous feats are full of the names of coachmen who lost their lives in their prime: “Aurelius Mollicius after 125 victories in 20 years of age, Tuscus – 56 victories in 24 years, or Crescens after earning 1,600,000 sesterces in 22 years of age. ” Life could also be lost in a less (or perhaps more) glorious way – falling victim to the passion of “Caesars – players” who were able to condemn their teammates to death (Vitellius) or to lose one of the “factio” coachmen (Caracalla). However, the glory and fame of the winners, coupled with the huge cash benefits, made the risk “worthwhile”. Rome prided itself on its aurigami, who were called “millionaires” (miliarii) – not because their income was estimated at millions of sesterces (though that is also true), but because they have won races at least a thousand times: Pompeius Musclosus – 3,559 times, Pompeius Epaphroditus – 1,467 times, Scorpus – 1,043 times. Finally, Diodes, who is worth a separate line in that after winning 4,462 races by 150 CE – reasonably withdrew from further competition with about 35 million sesterces.

The victory or defeat of the team on which the bets were placed – sponsio – made some rich, ruined others completely: the rich put their fortunes at stake, the poor – the last sesterces. The possibility of gaining a fortune by gambling magically absorbed the entire Roman crowd, among other things, or precisely because it mostly consisted of unemployed people, and even the best emperors at games, competitions, fights, and shows – skillfully used the mood of the people. Often, after the closing of the actual performance, an additional – epulum – feast was organized, and during it a “rain” of sweets, coins, purses, lots for a house, farm, ship – which the clever losers could use for their benefit.

  • John Humphrey, Roman circuses: arenas for chariot racing, 1986
  • Rupert Matthews, Rzym mroczny, ponury, krwawy, Warszawa 2007

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