The Circus Maximus’s history is as ancient as Rome’s itself. Legend has it that it was during the first games in the circus, put on by Romulus himself, that Rome’s king gave the order for the infamous Rape of the Sabine women. Under the Tarquins, wooden seats were constructed that spatially separated spectators according to class. And during the mid-Republic (c. 189 BC) the first permanent spina was constructed – the long collonaded strip the length of which competitors had to race. Fortunately, a few rare Roman coins have preserved for us how the Great Circus of Rome used to look like.
Scene of most cruel battles
As foreign riches flooded the city in the wake of the victories of dynasts like Marius, Pompey, and Caesar during the late Republic, the Circus Maximus became the site of some truly bizarre scenes. In 55 BC, Pompey provided the combative spectacle of twenty African elephants forced to fight to the death. The result of this battle, unsurprisingly, caused some serious damage to the stands. By channelling the Tiber, Caesar built a protective moat between the sand and the stands. He did this partly to outdo his rival and partly to make sure no fights in the arena can damage stands again.
One of the Rome’ most beautiful buildings
The circus was at its greatest under Augustus (31 BC – 14 AD). The first emperor added to its grounds an Egyptian obelisk (the Flaminio Obelisk which now stands in the Piazza del Popolo), expanded its seating capacity to 150,000, and rebuilt many of its sections in stone. His successors too made their own additions. Claudius in particular has built carceres (starting gates) out of marble. The Great Fire of 64 AD caused significant damage. But it wasn’t serious enough that Nero didn’t have the circus up and running for his return from Greece in 68 AD.
Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD) counted the Circus Maximus among the most beautiful buildings in Rome. And Procopius tells that the last games to take place in the Circus Maximus were held in 550 AD. Unfortunately, the circus’s destruction began in the same century. However, the circus has never been destroyed to the extent that its former greatness hasn’t been instantly recognisable.
Rome’s greatest shows on coins
A few coins struck under several rules tell us the story of Circus Maximus renovations. They also provide a glimpse of how the most spectacular shows of antiquity looked like. The first coin below was struck under Trajan. In 103 AD he restored and expanded the grandstand of the Circus Maximus. Thanks to this renovation, an additional five thousand places were added.
The coin shows the Circus from the Palatine hill. One can see the spina and all major decorative elements of it: the obelisk of Augustus, the statue of Cybele on a lion, the dolphin lap counter, and two metae (turning points). The arch of Titus seen on the eastern side of the Circus should not be confused with another arch dedicated to this Emperor by his brother Domitian in 82 AD. This latter arch still stands on the Forum, while the former one has left virtually no traces, excepting its depiction on Circus Maximus coins.
Rome mint. Struck under Trajan circa AD 103. Laureate head right, slight drapery / View of the Circus Maximus. The image in public domain. Annotations by TTR.
The next coin is interesting because it shows the evolution of Circus architectural elements. It was struck some hundred years later than the first one, under Caracalla. Trajan sestertius served as the prototype for it, but the coin of Caracalla also depicts starting boxes, called carceres. The coin that we have used as a header of this article was also struck under Caracalla and one can see departing gates on it too.
The last coin is very scarce and it depicts on its reverse one of the great Circus Shows. In 204 AD Romans held Saecular Games (Ludi Saeculares) which included sacrifices, distribution of money to citizens, and Circus races and games. This coin is likely corresponding to this event. Fortunately, we also have a full description of the show provided by Dio Cassius (LXXVII, 4-5). Here is his description of the great show:
“The whole construction in the amphitheatre was constructed in the form of a ship, and was so conceived that 400 beasts might be received into it, and at the same time be sent forth from it. Then, when it suddenly collapsed there issued out of it bears, lionesses, panthers, lions, ostriches, wild asses and bison, so that seven hundred beasts, both wild and domesticated, were seen running about at the same time and were slaughtered.”
The coin is so well engraved that one can actually see animals described by the historian: there is an ostrich on the left, a leaping lion, and bison standing on the right side of the ship.
What to see there now ?
The Circus Maximus is Rome’s best example of a perfectly preserved structure in which nothing of the actual structure has survived. More than being situated in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, the Circus Maximus is the valley: its ancient shape stretching from the exit of the Circo Massimo metro stop right up to the Via dell’Ara Massima di Ercole near the Forum Boarium.
Regrettably, little material has survived from one of the most important structures of the ancient city. The only traces of its foundations that have been found are located either towards the east end of the circus or running along its northern side near the Palatine. But you can easily make out its shape and size of this enormous racetrack: a total length of 600 metres and total width of 200 metres with a cavea (or seating area) that would have stood three storeys tall.
Rather counter-intuitively, some of the Circus Maximus’s best remains are actually to be found on the slopes of the Palatine. Several inscriptions have been recovered from the area known as Cermalus Minisculus which seems to have been the home of shops, workshops, and other buildings associated with the running of the circus. Some of these have been preserved beneath the Basilica of Santa Anastasia, while others—dating from the late Republic to the late Empire— run between the basilica and the grounds of the circus.
To find out more: Timetravelrome.
Authors: Alexander Meddings with additions and edits by TTR.