Circus Maximus (antique hippodrome) – a favorite place of ancient Romans – races, bets and lotteries

Circus Maximus, view of Palatine Hill

Circus Maximus, view of Palatine Hill

Today not many elements remind us of this structure – they include the outline of the spina, one of its restored entrances and the remains of viewing loggia on the edges of the Palatine Hill, from where in the past emperors and dignitaries looked upon Circus Maximus – a grand Roman hippodrome. This enormous space presently serves the inhabitants as a sort of a square, on which from time to time mass festivals are organized – including concerts, such as that of Genesis in 2007, when the stadium was filled with half a million fans.

Circus Maximus, view of Palatine Hill
Model depicting Circus Maximus, pic. Wikipedia, author Pascal Radigue
Circus Maximus – model, Museo della Civiltà Romana
Charioteers and Their Horses, floor mosaic, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo
Circus Maximus, spina in the central part of the hippodrome, present-day view
Frangipani family tower in the eastern part of the former structure
Remains of the stands in the eastern part of the hippodrome
Remains of the hippodrome construction
Part of the construction of the hippodrome stands
View of Palatine Hill from Circus Maximus
Circus Maximus from the north
Circus Maximus, reconstruction of the Arch of Titus – a monumental decoration of the hippodrome
remains of the old stands of the hippodrome
remains of the old stands of the hippodrome
Battle Against Animals, Circus Maximus, relief from the I century A.D., Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo

Today not many elements remind us of this structure – they include the outline of the spina, one of its restored entrances and the remains of viewing loggia on the edges of the Palatine Hill, from where in the past emperors and dignitaries looked upon Circus Maximus – a grand Roman hippodrome. This enormous space presently serves the inhabitants as a sort of a square, on which from time to time mass festivals are organized – including concerts, such as that of Genesis in 2007, when the stadium was filled with half a million fans.


The beginnings of this once imposing structure go back to the time of the last Roman kings. At that time the wooden stands were built, from which the viewers could watch the annual Roman Games. They were attended by horse-drawn chariots, horse-riding acrobats, but also boxers and gladiators.  From the year 186 A.D. Greek-style games took place here, meaning athletics competitions (all the way up to the times of Julius Caesar), but also bloody slaughters of wild animals, since that is the only way to describe the killing of five hundered lions and eighteen elephants which were felled during the games of 55 B.C., which lasted five days. However, the main attraction of the hippodrome was the races of horse-drawn chariots, the so-called ludi circenses (circus games), which were part of the official events financed from the state treasury. They were accompanied by processions, in which the statues of the deities were brought to Capitoline Hill. In times of the republic there were twelve races in the daily program of the week-long games, while during the times of the empire, in two-week-long games, this number was further multiplied. They were accompanied by feasts and other types of celebrations with indispensable lotteries and items which could be won.

The victorious Caesar gave new form to the hippodrome, broadening it, he changed the wooden stands into marble and in addition ordered the construction of a canal surrounding the race track in order to protect the fans from wild animals. In order to honor his triumph in the year 46 A.D., to please the Roman populace he „sent” hundered of lions and giraffes to be slaughtered, in this gesture surpassing his competitor and father-in-law Pompey the Great, known for often organizing entertainments of such type.

       

The work of Caesar was continued by his successor, Emperor Octavius Augustus, during whose reign the circus was given its final form. It was 600 meters long and 140 meters wide. Octavius Augustus also created the imperial box at the foot of the Palatine, in this way connecting the imperial residences with the hippodrome stands. Rectangular on one side, the rounded race track was enhanced by the so-called spina – a low wall decorated with various kinds of objects – columns, obelisks, statues of deities. The first of these was a nearly 24-meter obelisk brought from Heliopolis in Egypt (presently obelisk Flaminio) at Piazza del Popolo. The stone stands were further extended and wooden ones were added as needed. The circus was entered through the arcades, both  the lower stands, as well as the higher ones, which were two stories high. The whole was laid with white marble and travertine and had to be a sight to behold. The stadium had a capacity of 250 thousand viewers – fans of riding competitions.

Races of chariots drawn by two, three, four, or even ten horses, completely attracted the attention of Romans and were their greatest passion – perhaps comparable to present-day World Cup in football, while the victors and their horses enjoyed popularity, which today can be attributed to sport and pop culture celebrities. The participants competed with their own colors, had their own supporters, which competed against one another, while an ever-present element of the race was the bets, and they were the ones that excited the public. The competitors had to circle the spina seven times. During intermissions horse-riding shows and feats were organized for entertainment. Exceptional races were organized by Emperor Nero, who had the chariots drawn by camels instead of horses, while at the emperor’s behest amber brought from the Baltic Sea was used to decorate both the stands and the arena.

The Great Fire of Rome, which in 64 A.D., destroyed a large part of the city, quickly consumed the wooden stalls surrounding the circus with taverns and snack shops with food, drink and all kinds of gadgets. It was rebuilt and further embellished by Emperor Trajan at the beginning of II century A.D. According to antique sources, at that time the games could have been watched by 385 spectators, which is an imposing number indeed, even if we take into account additional constructions put up at nearby hills, from which the public could watch competition at the arena.

 

Subsequent emperors enhanced the circus with structures until the IV century, even when they no longer resided in the city. In this way the Emperor Constantine the Great ordered the building to be embellished with golden columns and additional porticos, while his son Constantius II brought another obelisk to decorate the spina, this time from Thebes. Today it can be seen on a square in front of the side entrance to the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran (obelisk Lateranese).

Games were organized at the Circus Maximus until mid-VI century.

In the Middle Ages, the large race track was used as cropland. In the eastern part of the stands the small Church of Santa Lucia in Settizodio was constructed along with numerous appurtenances. Another part of the circus was taken over by the influential Frangipana family, converting it into a fortress. The stands were completely demolished in order to serve as building blocks for the new Christian Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano). In time small buildings of different use were put up here. It was not until the time of Benito Mussolini, that the circus was cleared of later elements and archeological research, which for all intents and purposes continues until today, in the eastern part of the rounded stands began.

The significance of chariot races in the Roman world can be attested to by the fact that Circus Maximus, was not the only structure of this type in the city. Several smaller ones were built as well, of which the oldest one, Circus Flaminius, was located on Campus Martius, near Theatre of Marcellus (Theatrum Marcelli). However, the most famous one was built on   Vatican Hill. It was built by Caligula and Nero and it is best known for being the place of execution of the first Christians, among them St. Peter. It was next to it, or more accurately in its part, that a Christian basilica was built in the IV century. However, the best maintained hippodrome still exists today and can be found at via Appia Antica. It was built for Emperor Maxentius at the beginning of the IV century.