Chariot Racing

The Circus Maximus

In this section you will learn

  • the history of the Circus Maximus, Rome’s largest performance space
  • the connection of the Circus and games with Roman religion
  • the behaviour and make-up of crowds at Rome
  • how often the Circus burned down and/or flooded (a lot)
Model of Rome in the 4th century AD, by Paul Bigot. The Circus lies between the Aventine (left) and Palatine (right); the oval structure to the far right is the Colosseum.

The Circus Maximus was the oldest and largest circus in Rome: it could seat 250,000 people and another 250,000 could watch events there from the surrounding hills – which meant that even when Rome was at its biggest, around about a 1/3 of its population could conceivably view events in it. Although it was said to have been laid out by a later king, this was also where Romulus, the founder of Rome and its first king, was said to have seized and raped the Sabine Women, at a festival for Consus, the Roman god of grain storage. As Livy tells the story, the trouble started because people did not want to marry their daughters into a state that was an asylum for criminals and exiles, and the Romans, offended at this, decided just to take their women where they wanted:

The Roman state had now become so strong that it was a match for any of its neighbours in war, but its greatness threatened to last for only one generation, since as they had no women[1] they had no hope of children and no right to intermarry with their neighbours. Acting on the advice of the Senate, Romulus sent messengers to the surrounding nations to ask for alliances and the right of intermarriage on behalf of his new community. These said that these cities, like everything else, sprung from the humblest beginnings, and those who were helped on by their own courage and the favour of heaven won for themselves great power and great fame. But as for the origin of Rome, it was well known that while it had received divine assistance,[2] it did not lack courage and self-reliance. There should, therefore, be no reluctance for men to mingle their blood with their fellow-men. Nowhere did the messengers meet with a  welcoming reception. Whilst their proposals were treated sneeringly, people felt great worry at the power so rapidly growing among them. Usually they were dismissed with the question, “whether they had opened an asylum for women, because except that would get them intermarriage on equal terms.” The Roman youth could barely tolerate such insults, and it began to look like there would be war. To secure a favourable place and time for such an attempt, Romulus, hiding his resentment, made elaborate preparations for the celebration of games in honour of “Equestrian Neptune,”[3] which he called “the Consualia.” He ordered public notice of the spectacle to be sent to neighbouring. cities, and his people supported him in making the celebration as magnificent as their knowledge and resources allowed, so that expectations were raised to the highest level. There was a great gathering; people were eager to see the new City, all their nearest neighbours – the people of Caenina, Antemnae, and Crustumerium – were there, and the whole Sabine population came along with their wives and families. They were invited to accept hospitality at different houses and, after examining the situation of Rome, its walls and the large number of homes it included, they were astonished at the rapidity with which the Roman state had grown.

When the time for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, a prearranged signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the girls who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians who had been instructed to do so. One, surpassing all others for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius.” Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the girls fled distracted with grief and uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy. The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 1.9

However, others claimed the Circus Maximus was  laid out not by Romulus, but by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, King of Rome from 614 BCE.

Modern image of the Circus Maximus

Tarquinius also built the Circus Maximus, which is located between the Aventine and Palatine Hills;[4] he was the first to place covered seats around it on bleachers supported by beams – before then spectators had to stand. He divided these seats among Rome’s 30 curiae[5] and gave each one a particular section so that every spectator sat in his proper place. This structure was fated to later become on of the most gorgeous and impressive structures in Rome. The Circus is three and a half stades[6] long and four plethra.[7] On the two longer sides and on one of the shorter sides a canal has been dug around the Circus; this is 10 feet deep and wide and is there for water. Behind that canal there are porticos of three stories high; the lower story has stone seats, which rise, just as they do in the theatres, one after another. The two upper stories have wooden seats. The two longer porticos are joined by the curved, shorter one, making a single array of seats, just as in an amphitheatre: this is eight stades long and can seat 150,000. The other, shorter side is open and holds arched starting gates, and these are opened with a single rope. On the outside of the Circus there is another portico of one story containing shops and apartments over them; this portico also holds the entrances and stairs for spectators, which are located by every shop. This means that the thousands who attend can enter and leave easily.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus 3.68

Tarquinius’ first war was with the Latins, whose town of Apiolae he captured by storm. He returned from there with more loot than the rumours about the war had led people to expect and held games on a more splendid and elaborate scale than former kings had done. It was then that the ground was first marked out for the circus now called Maximus. Places were divided among the senators and the equestrians where they might each make seats for themselves; these were called ‘rows.’ They got their view from seats raised on props to a height of twelve feet from the ground. The entertainment was supplied by horses and boxers, most of whom were brought from Etruria. From that time the Games continued to be a regular annual show, and were called either the Ludi Romani or the Ludi Magni.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 1.35.7-10

Although the chariot races were of ancient origin (they were probably one of the original forms of spectacle), they developed considerably over time, as the Romans expanded the number of ludi they celebrated. During the Second Punic War the Romans suffered a number of defeats at the hands of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, losing almost 50,000 men at the Battle of Cannae in 216 alone. The Romans attributed their loss to the anger of the gods and went looking for ways to propitiate them; the Senate consulted the Sibylline Prophecies, a collection of prophecies in Greek of exceeding obscurity. The end result of this consultation was the instituting of a new set of games in honour of the god Apollo, [8]  the Ludi Apollinares in 212, at which (among other events) chariot racing took place.

Then the second prophecy was read. It was not only more obscure than the first because the future is more uncertain than the past, but it was also more unintelligible because of the language it used. It ran as follows:

“If, Romans, you desire to drive out the enemy who came from far away to mar your land, then see that ludi be held in honour of Apollo as each fourth year comes round; and your Republic shall bear its part and all your people shall share this sacred work, each for himself and his. Your praetor, who shall justice do for each and all, shall be in charge. Then let there be Decemviri[9] selected who shall offer sacrifice in Greek fashion. If you will do this then you shall always rejoice and your state shall prosper; and the god will destroy the enemies who now consume your land.  Then shall you rejoice forever.”

They spent one day interpreting this prophecy; the day after that, the Senate passed a resolution that the Decemviri should inspect the sacred books with reference to the institution of Games to Apollo and the proper form of sacrifice. After the Decemviri had completed their investigations and reported to the Senate, a resolution was passed “that Games be vowed and celebrated in honour of Apollo, and that when they were finished, 12,000 asses[10] were to be given to the praetor for the expenses of the sacrifice and two large sacrificial victims.” They also passed a second resolution that “the Ten should sacrifice according to Greek ritual the following victims: to Apollo, an ox with gilded horns and two white she-goats with gilded horns, and to Latona[11] a heifer with gilded horns.” When the praetor was about to celebrate the Games in the Circus Maximus he gave notice that during the Games the people should contribute a gift to Apollo according to the amount they each wished. Such is the origin of the Ludi Apollinares, which were founded for the cause of victory and not, as is generally thought, in the interests of the public health.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 25.12

Map of ancient Rome around 320 AD
Map of ancient Rome around 320 AD

The map above shows the location of the Circus Maximus (XI). Due to its proximity to the Tiber it had a perennial issue with flooding, which even occurred in the middle of games, resulting in their abandonment. Starting gates were added in 329 BCE, and the spina, the central barrier, around the same time; the starting gates helped a little with blocking the flooding. Further construction continued: in 196 BCE an arch was built and so forth. However, its final form took shape only under Julius Caesar and Augustus. In 33 BCE Augustus’ friend (and later son-in-law) Agrippa added lap counters in the form of dolphins and eggs to the Circus Maximus as Cassius Dio relates below:

In the following year Agrippa agreed to be elected aedile and repaired all the public buildings and all the streets, cleaned out the sewers and made sure they went underground to the Tiber, without asking for money from public funds. And seeing that in the Circus Maximus spectators made mistakes about the number of laps completed, he set up the dolphins and egg-shaped objects, so that the number of times the course had been circled might be clearly shown with their assistance.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 49.43.1-2

Coin depicting the Circus Maximus
Coin depicting the Circus Maximus

The coin above shows the obelisk and the metae (turning posts); it dates from the reign of Caracalla (211-17). In addition to these features there was also the pulvinar, originally the place where the statues of the gods, which had been paraded into the circus, were kept. Augustus constructed it[12]; it became the imperial box, although emperors might watch from other locations as the below shows:

Augustus himself usually watched the games in the Circus from the upper rooms of his friends and freedmen, but sometimes from the pulvinar, and also sat with his wife and children. He was sometimes absent for several hours, and now and then for entire days, asking for pardon and appointing presiding officers to take his place. But whenever he was present he did nothing except watch the games, either to avoid the popular criticism to which he remembered his father Julius Caesar had been exposed, because he spent his time in reading or answering letters and petitions or from his interest and pleasure in the spectacle, which he never lied about but often frankly confessed.

Suetonius, Augustus 44.1-2

It wasn’t all gods and emperors and their hangers on around the pulvinar, though; we also have an epitaph for a fruit seller who sold fruit before it.

Gaius Julius Epaphra, a fruit-seller Circus Maximus in front of the pulvinar at the, set this up for himself and his wife Venuleia Helena, a freedwoman of Caesar.

CIL 6.9822

The Circus Maximus was more than just a race-track, however, it was also a religious site, which held many temples and shrines for a wide number of deities, including the Sun, the Moon, the goddess Murcia, the god Consus, among many others. The Christian author Tertullian, in fine pagan loathing form, attacks it for this:

Circus Maximus decorations
The Flaminio Obelisk, which now stands in the Piazza del Populo in Rome, used to be on the spina of the Circus Maximus. It was placed there by the Emperor Augustus in 10 BCE, after he stole it from Egypt. It was originally created to honour Egyptian pharaohs in the 1200s BCE.

The Circus is primarily consecrated to the Sun. His temple stands in the middle of it, and his image shines forth from the pediment of the temple. For they did not think it proper to worship beneath a roof a god whom they see above them in the open sky. Those who argue that the first circus show was given by Circe in honor of the Sun, her father, as they will have it, conclude also that its name is derived from her. Plainly, the sorceress undoubtedly transacted the business in behalf of those whose priestess she was, namely, the demons and evil spirits. How many evidences of idol worship do you recognize accordingly in the decoration of the place? Every ornament of the circus is a temple by itself. The eggs are regarded as sacred to Castor and Pollux by people who do not feel ashamed to believe the story of their origin from the egg made fertile by the swan, Jupiter.[13] The dolphins spout water in honor of Neptune; the columns bear aloft images of Seia, so called from “sementatio” (‘sowing’); of Messia, so called as deity of “messis” (‘reaping’); and of Tutulina, so called as ‘tutelary spirit’ of the crops.[14]

In front of these are seen three altars for the triple gods: the Great, the Potent, the Prevailing. They think these deities are Samothracean. The huge obelisk, as Hermateles says, is set up in honor of the Sun.[15] Its inscription which, like its origin, is Egyptian, contains a superstition. The gathering of the demons would be dull without their Great Mother, so she presides there over the ditch.

Consus,[16] as we have mentioned, keeps in hiding underground at the Murcian Goals. The latter are also the work of an idol. For Murcia, as they will have it, is a goddess of love to whom they have dedicated a temple in that part (of the valley).[17] Take note, Christian, how many unclean deities have taken possession of the circus. You should have nothing to do with a place which so many diabolic spirits have made their own.

Tertullian, On Spectacles 8.1-5

Another late (5th century) Christian source discusses the Circus Maximus as a reflection of the cosmos:

Oenomaus is said first to have exhibited this sport [chariot racing] at Elis, a city in Asia,[18] and afterwards Romulus, at the time of the rape of the Sabines, displayed it in rural fashion to Italy, as there were not yet any buildings for the purpose. Long after, Augustus, the lord of the world, raising his works to the same high level as his power, built a building marvellous even to Romans, which stretched far into the Murcian Valley. This immense mass, firmly surrounded with hills, enclosed a space which was fitted to be the theatre for great events.

Twelve ostia[19] at the entrance represent the twelve signs of the zodiac. These are suddenly and equally opened by ropes let down by the hermulae.[20] The four colours worn by the four factions of charioteers denote the seasons: green for verdant spring, blue for cloudy winter, red for flaming summer, white for frosty autumn. Thus, throughout the spectacle we see a determination to represent the works of nature. The two-horse chariot is made in imitation of the moon, the four horse chariot of the sun.[21] The circus horses, which the slaves of the Circus use to announce the races, imitate the swiftness of the morning star. Thus it came to pass that while they deemed they were worshipping the stars, they profaned their religion by parodying it in their games.

Racing chariots entering the Circus Maximus

A white line is drawn not far from the starting gate to each podium, so the race begins when the four horse chariots pass it, in case they should interrupt the view of the spectators by their attempts to get before each other. There are always seven laps round the turning posts in one race, matching the days of the week. The goals themselves have, like the constellations of the zodiac, each three pinnacles, round which the swift four horse chariots circle like the sun. The wheels indicate the boundaries of East and West. The channel which surrounds the Circus presents us with an image of the glassy sea, whence come the dolphins which swim here through the waters. The tall obelisks lift their height towards heaven; but the upper one is dedicated to the Sun, the lower one to the Moon: and upon them the sacred rites of the ancients are indicated with Chaldean signs for letters.

The spina[22] represents the lot of the unhappy captives, inasmuch as the generals of the Romans, marching over the backs of their enemies, reaped the joy which was the reward of their labours. This is how the mappa [=napkin], which is still seen to give the signal at the games, came to be used: once when Nero was lingering over his dinner, and the people, as usual, were impatient for the spectacle to begin, he ordered the napkin which he had used for wiping his fingers to be thrown out of window, as a signal that he gave the required permission. Hence it became a custom that the display of a napkin gave a certain promise of future circenses.

The circus is so called from “circuitus:” circenses is, as it were, circu-enses, because in the primitive ages of antiquity, before an elaborate building had been prepared for the purpose, the races were run on the green grass, and the multitude were protected by the river on one side and the swords (enses) of the soldiers on the other. We observe, too, that the rule of this contest is that it be decided in twenty-four heats, the same numbers as the hours of day and night. Nor let it be accounted meaningless that the number of circuits round the goals is expressed by the putting up of eggs, since that emblem, pregnant as it is with many superstitions, indicates that something will be born from there. And in truth we may well see that the most fickle and inconstant characters, well typified by the birds who have laid those eggs, will spring from attendance on these spectacles. It would take too long to describe in detail all the other elements of the Circus, since each appears to arise from some special cause. This only will we remark upon as extremely strange, that in these beyond all other spectacles men’s minds are hurried into excitement without any regard to a fitting sobriety of character. The Green charioteer flashes by: part of the people is in despair. The Blue gets a lead: a larger part of the City is in misery. They cheer frantically when they have gained nothing; they are cut to the heart when they have received no loss; and they plunge with as much eagerness into these empty contests as if the whole welfare of a threatened fatherland were at stake. No wonder that such a departure from all sensible behaviour should be attributed to a superstitious origin. We are compelled to support this institution by the necessity of humouring the majority of the people, who are passionately fond of it; for it is always the few who are led by reason, while the many crave excitement and oblivion of their cares. Therefore, as we too must sometimes share the folly of our people, we will freely provide for the expenses of the Circus, however little our judgment approves of this institution.

Cassiodorus, Variae 3.51

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Humphrey, John H. Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.


Media Attributions

  1. It is never explained why they have no women, given that women too could be criminals and exiles.
  2. Supposedly Romulus’ father was the god Mars.
  3. Consus was sometimes associated with Neptune (Greek Poseidon), who was both god of the sea and of horses. During his festival horses and mules – apart from those running in the races to celebrate his festival – did no work and were garlanded with flowers; the festival took place on the 21st of August.
  4. This was known Murcian Valley, after the goddess Murcia.
  5. According to legend Romulus had divided the Roman people into 30 curiae.
  6. The stade is a Greek unit of measurement; unfortunately it varied in size from 176-185 metres, so it is hard to be precise.
  7. A plethrum was about 30 metres.
  8. Apollo was the god of prophecy and healing among other things.
  9. A board of ten.
  10. A small, copper Roman coin.
  11. Another name for the goddess Diana, who was Apollo’s sister.
  12. He lists it as one of his many building projects in his Res Gestae/Autobiography.
  13. Jupiter raped Leda in the form of a swan and she laid eggs from which Helen and Pollux were born.
  14. These three goddesses are rather obscure, but were native Italic goddesses connected with grain production and protection.
  15. This obelisk was set up by Augustus.
  16. His altar was buried in the Circus Maximus and uncovered during his feast day.
  17. A native goddess, she was identified with Venus, the goddess of love.
  18. Elis is in Greece and was the town that controlled the Olympic games. Oenomaus was said to have challenged all those who wanted to marry his daughter to a chariot race; he was eventually beaten by Pelops. Who cheated.
  19. Starting gates.
  20. A type of column that is built into a wall, but juts out slightly from it.
  21. The moon goddess, often identified with Diana, drove a two-horse chariot, the sun god a four horse one. Sometimes the sun god was sometimes identified with Apollo, but was frequently worshipped as a deity in his own right.
  22. The central barrier that ran down the Circus. It was there to prevent headlong crashes – noticeably Greek chariot races had no central barrier, making their races often a far more bloody experience, especially as they would often race large numbers of chariots.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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