It is nearly impossible to look at the field that holds the remains of the Circus Maximus and understand what it once held without the aid of a vivid reconstruction. The remains of Circus Maximus lie in the Valley between the Aventine and Palentine hill. Traditionally, the history of the Circus Maximus began with chariot races held in honor of the God Consus in a less permanent structure in the area near Consus’s altar. In later years, this lead to the construction of a circus under the first Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus around 600 bc.Previous to Tarquin’s intervention, an underground stream kept the valley swamp like.
Tarquin diverted the water and drained the area and began to hold chariot races in the area. The Circus was built for the use of public games to serve as a source of amusement for the people and was the largest of its kind in Rome. The Circus experienced various additions and construction throughout the period of the Roman Republic. The first permanent starting gates were built in 329 BC out of painted wood and the spina is suspected to have been added not too long after.The spina was a raised median built to prevent cheating.
The spina was an estimated 340 meters long. Throughout the use of Circus Maximus, various amendments were made to the spina. Initially seven eggs were placed there to count seven turns about the track. Later, Agrippa in 33 BC added seven bronze dolphins that would turn upwards when laps were completed. The spina held water basins that allowed for impressive fountains to be constructed atop it. Along the sides, carvings of symbols and artwork were displayed.
There were a myriad of altars and monuments placed on the spina and even an remarkable statue of Cybele mounted on a lion. Perhaps, the most impressive addition to the circus was the addition of two Egyptian obelisks. In 10 BC, Augustus had an obelisk brought from Heliopolis, which has been dated to about 1280 BC. Like was common under Augustus’s rule, Egyptian relics were places about Rome to send a message to the citizens about the dominance of the Roman empire and the stability of the capital city, Rome.
Constantius II placed the second obelisk on top the spina in 357 AD.Originally, the obelisk was destined to be placed in Constantinople by Constantine, yet it remained unattended at a dock in Alexandria for 25 years. The obelisk was placed on the spina with an inscription on the base dedicating it to the city and people of Rome as well as chastising Constantine for originally intending the obelisk for Constantinople and praising Constantius II for a restoration of unity. Presently, the first obelisk is located in the Piazza del Popolo and the second in the Piazza Saint Giovanni in Laterano.There was a massive expansion and reconstruction of the Circus Maximus under Caesar and later under Emperor Trajan c. 103 AD.
The Circus was built to accommodate an estimated 150,000 spectators under Caeser and reached a capacity of about 250,000 people by the time of Constantine. The first tier of seats were constructed out of concrete and the upper was built out of wood and other less permanent materials. Around the time 81 AD, the senate of Rome added a triumphal arch built to honor Titus’s defeat of Judea where the gates leading to the forum were.Customarily, arches were built to signify major military triumphs. In cases of great victories, Rome welcomed back the victorious general with a triumphus, a celebratory processional leading into the city.
Triumphs passed through their erected arch if one way built for the victory and a passing about Circus Maximus was usually included in the parade route. The starting point of the 12 charioteers were marked by painted carceres which were staggered to ensure an even racing length per circuit about the track.The starting gates were split in half; six chariots would start on either side of the entrance that opened to the Forum Boarium. The officiating magistrate was situated above the separation and signaled the beginning of the races. At the drop of the magistrate’s white flag, the stalls (similar to the racing stalls used in present day chariot racing) would open and the horses began racing. Racers were expected to remain in their chalked lanes until passing a marked break line at which time the charioteers were free to take any position on the track.
The jargoning for the ideal location on the track often made racing a dangerous sport. The chariot races traditionally consisted of seven laps about the track counterclockwise. Turning posts dubbed matae consisted of 3 gilded bronze cones set atop a hemispherical shaped block. The races lasted somewhere in the realm between eight and nine minutes and the race length was measured to be near three miles. More often than not, chariots were pulled by four horses.
At the beginning of the races, it is suspected that chariots were owned privately and the charioteers hired by the owners.Over time factions, a system of professional chariot racing organizations emerged. The timing of the initial use of factions is expected to have been sometime shortly after the Second Punic War. The factions seem to have emerged over time out of need rather than by a specific mandate. The amount of chariot races and popularity of the sport a public need for organization became apparent. The efficiency offered by factions was a popular solution to the inadequacy of the previous system.
The faction owners had teams of workers and all sorts of resources for their athletes.The horses, chariots, stables, and caretakers were all owned by the factions. The best racehorses were bred in north Africa and transported to Rome in custom constructed boats. The groups identified themselves by the colors adorning the chariots and charioteers as well as the adoring fans. Zealous fans took bets on factions and bribes to readjust the starting gates were common.
For a period of time, birds with painted legs were released to celebrate the winners. Over time, the factions came to represent political parties and business groups depending on the time.Factions had short lives and were often dissolved and absorbed by rivals. Contrary to the exquisite breeding of the racehorses, the charioteers were of the lowest social class and in some cases slaves.
Like the gladiators that competed in the nearby Coliseum (or at times within Circus Maximus itself) charioteers were mostly slaves, prisoners, or impoverished freedmen. A victorious career could result in different outcomes depending on the temperament of the populace. An able free charioteer often used his talent as leverage in negotiation with the faction owners.The threat of betraying a faction in favor of a higher salary with a different owner often lead to great wealth for these free men.
Some successful charioteers were praised and raised to a seat of glory in society while others were sometimes run out of town and accused of using enchantments to ensure victories. Specifically, during control of Emperor Valentinian (AD 364-375), charioteers were persecuted. There has been literature telling the plights of a charioteer accused of training his son in wizardry to ensure triumphs while another of a man who had been burnt at the stake for practicing sorcery.Circus Maximus was built specifically for the use of chariot racing. Racing was the most popular sport form its building until sometime in the 4th century with as many as 66 days of racing a year and 24 races a day. The grounds were also used for gladiatorial games, hunts and presentations meant to impress the citizens.
Caecilius Metellus from a prominent and wealthy political family, during the time of the First Punic war had 140 elephants that were captured from Carthage transported to Rome. The elephants were presented to the public as spoils of war in a battle with slaves in Circus Maximus in 252 BC.The presentation and destruction of bizarre creatures became the norm in Circus Maximus. The demolition of the beasts served as a sort of reenactment ofRoman victories.
Such exhibits continued throughout the series of Punic wars and at the end of the third century BC when ostriches and African felines of some sort were brought into the Circus to accompany processions and celebrations. Perhaps the most famous hunt that occurred with in the confines of Circus Maximus was held by Nobilior in 186 BC.There was an inclusion of vast amounts of Asian animals and a grand battle that ended with Nobilior as a great victor. Soon after the extravagant exhibition, the senate attempted to control such demonstrations, declared that no hunt ever cost more than Nobilior’s. The senate also banned the use of the dangerous African felines in the hunts, but eventually the preferences of the public became apparent and the senate financed the addition of iron animal fences for just that purpose.
Races sometimes served as an anonymous forum for plebeians to shout complaints about taxes or laws.During the reign of Caligula, 43-37 AD the crowds once shouted towards the emperor’s box in hopes of a tax relief, to silence the crowds, Caligula had the protesters slaughtered. The crowd quickly silenced themselves in favoring life over lower taxes. In AD 196, during the last chariot races before the Saturnalia, people expressed their displeasure of the continuing civil war between Septimius Severus and his rival Albinus.
(Kyle, 305). It was customary and a symbol of mutual respect for the people that the emperor would show a certain amount of deference by listening and considering the pleas of the people.Emperors were expected to attend the games and present a pleased disposition. The circus’s near vicinity to the Palatine hill made it convenient for the ruler to attend the games. Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius both were admonished for being too engrossed in political affairs and not appearing at the games regularly. The Circus Maximus offers all sorts of addictive entertainment all in one architecturally impressive structure: sports, politics and violence.
It is easy to see how such an institution appealed to the people of ancient times.Countless kings and emperors left their mark in the form of architectural additions and embellishments for thousands to observe in years after their deaths. The location of the circus in the center of ancient Rome is very symbolic of the role it held in the lives of Roman citizens. Even today, its decaying practically unidentifiable ruins still draw thousands of visitors.