What visitors see today is a large oblong field that modern-day Romans go for walks in. But Circus Maximus today is not so very different to what the ancient Romans saw when they first started to use this small valley between two of Rome’s hills, the Palatine and the Aventine, for sports. People sat on the ground on the slopes to watch sporting events. The shape and structure of the Circus Maximus changed as fast as Rome grew and with the importance of chariot racing, one of the great Roman passions.
But what was Circus Maximus like then?
Well, actually we don’t know. The first building, built in the VII century B.C. by Tarquinius Priscus was made of wood, but in its moment of splendour, Circus Maximus would have completely been covered in marble and travertine stone; in the centre of the track were two large Egyptian obelisks, one of which, from the time of Ramses II, can now be found in Piazza del Popolo, the other from the reign of Thutmosis III from Thebes, in Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano.
Circus Maximus is the biggest sports stadium ever built. Just think it could hold almost three hundred and eighty thousand visitors with free access to races. Almost four times bigger than the biggest stadium today, an incredible number.
Its structures couldn’t have been much different from our horse racing tracks. Imagine watching a chariot race surrounded by the cheering and clapping of thousands of people, betting huge fortunes on the races, eating, arguing and cheering their champions on just like modern fans. Excitement, risk and tension were vital ingredients of the race.
Four teams (the factions) took part in each race, each with an identifying colour; they were so popular and important that they ended up becoming actual political parties. Classical races were those with the drivers, called “charioteers”, were hired and sold to other teams for sums much like those spent today to buy sports champions. Prizes were magnificent. Diocles, the greatest Roman charioteer, stopped racing when his riches amounted to the equivalent of 7 million euros today.
The most important races took place during the Roman Games, from 4 to 18 September. The excited crowd was stimulated by organizers using different tactics, of which the most original was small parcels full of sweets, money or presents showered down on the crowd. The historian Suetonius even mentions presents like: houses, farms, ships, not so different to what we see in so many of our television programmes today.
Races went from morning till night, up to a hundred a day. Each lasted seven laps indicated by a mechanical counter placed in the centre of the track which, as each chariot drove by, raised large wooden eggs or bronze dolphins (a symbol of the horse protecting Gods).
But Circus Maximus was not just for races: Caesar simulated a battle with about one thousand foot-soldiers, six hundred cavalry and forty elephants. To add variety to events, during the intervals between races they put on acrobatics or fights between exotic animals.
The races were really dangerous, often bloody, anything was allowed. Crashes between chariots were normal. Chronicles of the day tell of violent, often fatal crashes, and give the names of the young charioteers who died in the ruins of their chariots. But it was not just the race that was dangerous. Over-excited Emperors like Vitellius or Caracalla could have a team killed just because it threatened the victory of their favourites or because it had disappointed them.
Watching a race at Circus Maximus was not just dangerous for athletes, but for spectators too. Lots of stories tell of fatal accidents involving the audience. During one race a herd of elephants knocked down an iron fence and injured many people. It was a regular occurrence for a chariot to lose control and crash into the public, with dramatic results.
Going to the circus was also an important social event. The poet Ovid in his famous manual on the art of love said that the circus was the best place for lovers to meet. He said that race fever combined with the elegant flirtatiousness of women’s clothing helped erotic meetings. And as often happened next to arenas and stadiums, Circus Maximus had its fair share of places where the Romans enjoyed pleasures of varying kinds, such as taverns or brothels.
Over the centuries, Circus Maximus was damaged by fire several times. It is well known that the famous fire of Rome (the one that legend says was started by Nero) began on one of the short sides of the Circus (the one where we can now still see the brick remains), but after each fire Circus Maximus was repaired, rebuilt and even enlarged straight away.
The last games were organised around 549 A.D. In the Middle Ages it became a fortified area as the small Frangipane tower shows. Then, due to the urban decentralization suffered by the area, Circus Maximus fell into disuse and slowly began to fall apart due to the stealing of marble and stone and the progressive sinking into the ground that still covers a large part of the building today.
Circus Maximus has again become popular with young people, thanks to events such as concerts and shows, sometimes with internationally famous artists. So, two thousand seven hundred years later, tradition lives on.