History of the Roman Circus Maximus

Scenic View Of Circus Maximus Against Sky
Andrea Sanzo / EyeEm / Getty Images

The first and biggest circus in Rome, the Circus Maximus was located between the Aventine and Palatine hills. Its shape made it particularly suitable for chariot races, although spectators could also watch other stadium events there or from the surrounding hillsides. Each year in ancient Rome, from the early legendary period, the Circus Maximus became the venue for an important and popular celebration.

The Ludi Romani or Ludi Magni (September 5-19) were held to honor Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest) whose temple was dedicated, according to tradition, which is always shaky for the early period, on September 13, 509 (Source: Scullard). The games were organized by the curule aediles and were divided into ludi circenses -- as in circus (e.g., chariot races and gladiatorial combats) and ludi scaenici -- as in scenic (theatrical performances). The ludi started with a procession to the Circus Maximus. In the procession were young men, some on horseback, charioteers, the almost naked, competing athletes, spear-carrying dancers to flute and lyre players, satyr and Silenoi impersonators, musicians, and incense burners, followed by images of the gods and once-mortal divine heroes, and sacrificial animals. The games included horse-drawn chariot races, foot races, boxing, wrestling, and more.

Ludi Romani and the Circus Maximus

King Tarquinius Priscus (Tarquin) was the first Etruscan king of Rome. When he took power, he engaged in various political ploys to gain popular favor. Among other actions, he waged a successful war against a neighboring Latin town. In honor of the Roman victory, Tarquin held the first of the "Ludi Romani," the Roman Games, consisting of boxing and horse racing. The spot that he selected for the "Ludi Romani" became the Circus Maximus.

The topography of the city of Rome is known for its seven hills (Palatine, Aventine, Capitoline or Capitolium, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, and Caelian). Tarquin laid out the first racetrack circuit in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. Spectators could view the action by sitting on the hillsides. Later Romans developed another type of stadium (Colosseum) to suit other games they enjoyed. The ovoid shape and seating of the circus were more suited to chariot races than to wild beast and gladiator fights, although the Circus Maximus held both.

Stages in the Building of the Circus Maximus

King Tarquin laid out an arena known as the Circus Maximus. Down the center was a barrier (spina), with pillars at each end around which charioteers had to maneuver -- carefully. Julius Caesar enlarged this circus to 1800 feet in length by 350 feet wide. Seats (150,000 in Caesar's time) were on terraces over stone arched vaults. A building with stalls and entrances to the seats surrounded the circus.

End of the Circus Games

The last games were held in the sixth century CE.


The drivers of the chariots (aurigae or agitatores) that raced in the circus wore team colors (factions). Originally, the factions were White and Red, but Green and Blue were added during the Empire. Domitian introduced short-lived Purple and Gold factions. By the fourth century CE, the White faction had joined the Green, and the Red had joined the Blue. The factions attracted fanatically loyal supporters.

Circus Laps

On the flat end of the circus were 12 openings (carceres) through which the chariots passed. Conical pillars (metae) marked the starting line (alba linea). At the opposite end were matching metae. Starting on the right of the spina, the charioteers raced down the course rounded the pillars and returned to the start 7 times (the missus).

Circus Hazards

Because there were wild beasts in the circus arena, spectators were offered some protection through an iron railing. When Pompey held an elephant fight in the arena, the railing broke. Caesar added a moat (euripus) 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep between the arena and the seats. Nero filled it back in. Fires in the wooden seats was another danger. The charioteers and those behind them were in particular danger when they rounded the metae.

Other Circuses

The Circus Maximus was the first and largest circus, but it was not the only one. Other circuses included the Circus Flaminius (where the Ludi Plebeii were held) and the Circus of Maxentius.

The games became a regular event in 216 BCE in the Circus Flaminius, partly to honor the fallen champion, Flaminius, partly to honor the gods of the Plebes, and to honor all gods due to the dire circumstances of their struggle with Hannibal. The Ludi Plebeii was the first of a whole string of new games beginning in the late second century BCE to gather favor from whatever gods would listen to Rome's needs.

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Gill, N.S. "History of the Roman Circus Maximus." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-circus-maximus-and-the-roman-circus-117832. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). History of the Roman Circus Maximus. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-circus-maximus-and-the-roman-circus-117832 Gill, N.S. "History of the Roman Circus Maximus." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-circus-maximus-and-the-roman-circus-117832 (accessed June 7, 2023).