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 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. The first building, built in the VII century B.C. by Tarquinio Prisco was made of wood, but in its moment of splendour, Circus Maximus would have been completely covered in marble and travertine stone. Circus Maximus is the biggest sports stadium ever built. Just think that it could hold almost three hundred and eighty thousand visitors with free access to races. Almost four times bigger than the biggest stadium today.
Its structures couldn't have been so different to our horse racing tracks. Imagine watching a horse 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 factiones" 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 quadrigas and bigas, that is respectively chariots drawn by either four or two horses. 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. Diocle, 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. 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 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.
Over the centuries, the building 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 a short side of the Circus (the one where you 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 decentralizing 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.