Largest stadium in the history of the Roman world. As the name suggests, the Circus Maximus was Rome’s biggest circus, or racetrack. It was established by Tarquinius Priscus, the fi fth king of Rome, in the sixth century BCE.
The first circus to be erected in the city, the original building was a wholly wooden construction. Increased in size by Julius Caesar, a triple stone arch was later added to honour Emperor Titus, before the entire structure was rebuilt in stone and concrete by Emperor Trajan in 103 CE, after a fire destroyed its wooden predecessor.
Although various monumental additions were continually added during the following centuries, the Circus Maximus essentially remained the same for the next 400 years. Despite the massive cost of the circus’s construction and the popularity of chariot racing, admission was entirely free – anyone could attend races, including poorer citizens.
Betting was popular with all classes and under the stands were food stalls, stables and shops that serviced charioteers and public alike. Several small temples and shrines were also incorporated into the complex and religious festivals were held annually within its walls.
Other forms of entertainment also featured in the venue’s yearly calendar, including musical recitals, athletics competitions, plays and staged animal hunts. With the advent of Christianity and the crumbling Roman Empire, the fortunes of the Circus Maximus quickly declined.
The last recorded chariot race took place in 549 CE, after which Rome’s greatest entertainment venue was abandoned and became a quarry. In 1587, the two Egyptian obelisks that stood on the central spine were removed by Pope Sixtus V to adorn different parts of the city; the rest of the building disappeared soon after. Today, the circus’s site is used as a public park and there is little to indicate its former glory.
Located to the south of the city’s heart, the Circus Maximus was a functional building as well as a prestigious monument proclaiming the glory of Rome.
Towering over the circus on its northern flank was the great Palatine Palace, built by the emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Bordering both the palace and the circus at its southern end was the Septizonium, a huge marble façade, which functioned as an ornamental fountain.
Rising above the circus on its southern flank was the Aventine Hill, crowded with temples and private villas, while to the west stood smaller buildings and the River Tiber.
Circus Maximus facts
Starting gates – Charioteers entered the circus from the starting gates located at the northern end of the arena.
Metae – Made from three conical stone pillars, these turning posts marked the ends of the central dividing barrier and protected it from damage as the chariots cornered.
Egyptian obelisk – Removed from Heliopolis in Egypt by Augustus, the obelisk commemorated the Roman victory over Antony and Cleopatra.
Spina – Running down the length of the circus, chariots raced around this central brick and stone barrier.
Seating – Rising some three storeys or more in height, the seating in the Circus Maximus was built of stone and brick, with wooden sections added at the top.
Imperial box – Located on the palace side of the circus, the imperial box allowed the royal family to watch races in comfort and security
Drainage canal – Dug between the bottom of the seating and the edge of the track, the canal helped drain the fl oor and also protect spectators from chariot crashes.
Processional entrance – Civic and religious processions entered the circus at its southern end under a triple arch erected in honour of Emperor Titus.
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