Today the Circus Maximus doesn’t look like much, it is a large grassy space between the Palatine hill and the Aventine hill. It is difficult to imagine that this big field was once a huge stadium that held a quarter of Rome’s population for, one of the most popular games in Ancient Rome – chariot racing.
What was the Circus maximus?
According to Livy, the Circus Maximus was founded in the 6th century BC by the last of the kings. It was originally used for the annual Ludi Romani ‘The Roman Games’ where there were fifteen days of chariot racing and military displays. Circus Maximus literally means ‘Biggest Stadium’, the Circus was Rome’s oldest and largest space, primarily a gigantic chariot racing track as featured in the Film ‘Ben Hur’. It became the largest Circus or racetrack in the Roman Empire. The ‘games’ were held throughout the year and featured all of the entertainment venues with different sports/attractions, much like a modern music festivals with different stages; these had at least one day of races at the Circus Maximus. The stadium also hosted other types of shows for large audiences like grand venationes (animal hunts), mass executions and before the colosseum, gladiator contests. As the largest meeting place of the city it was also used for religious and triumphal processions.
Today visitors are more interested in the gladiator games perhaps because the ‘Colosseum’ – the amphitheatre where they were held is still here to see; but to the Roman people, ordinary Roman people the chariot races were more available and exciting. There were more than 60 racetracks across the Empire, Carthage in north Africa was the largest outside of Rome, it was also where the Roman’s got the Strong necked Berber horses for the races
The structure of the Circus Maximus was enormous, the outside of the Circus consisted of stone arches much like the colosseum, almost one kilometre of arches surrounding the stadium housed stalls and shops – it was the largest commercial complex in Rome. Bars, restaurants, betting shops, brothels and souvenir shops serviced the spectators; there were also shops for daily life, like butchers, bakers and laundries. When the stadium wasn’t used for racing it was still a busy area with all the shops on the outside and prostitutes who plied their trade under the arches. It was here in these shops that the legendary fire of 64 AD started when Nero apparently fiddled as the city burned.
Inside the stadium, the seating that stretched around the track went up to 28 metres in height and like other entertainment venues, the seating was made of marble at the bottom, stone and then wooden bleachers at the top. At its largest (under Trajan in the 100s AD) the circus held around 250,000 – more than four times the people that could fit in the Colosseum.
The racing track (9 metres below the current level) measured 540 x 80 m and was originally covered in sand. Down the middle of the track was a raised barrier called the spina (still visible) – this was richly decorated, in 10BC Augustus brought an obelisk from Heliopolis to decorate the spina (that now stands in Piazza del Popolo). Also, on the spina were the lap markers shaped as bronze dolphins and eggs which were visible to the crowd and functional water troughs used by the sparori who sprinkled the track with water to reduce the clouds of dust that would obscure the track for the drivers and the spectators. At the end of the spina was the meta – three cones that were the turning point which was the most dangerous and exciting part of the race.
At the flat end of the Circus (closest to the river) there were 12 ornamental starting gates, which were arranged in an arc, these would snap open at the start of a race releasing the chariots onto the track.
Races were held on at least 60 days a year, not including special occasions like extraordinary games or triumphs. There would be several races per day, charioteers on average had around 500 races a year! Each race consisted of seven laps (around 3.5 miles), the laps were counted with the markers on the spina which were turned to mark the completion of each of the seven circuits. The chariots were drawn by 4 or 6 horses, sometimes more on extraordinary occasions.
Charioteers were organised in factions or teams which represented the seasons; the reds (summer), whites (winter), greens (spring) and blues (autumn). Much like in football today the fans were fiercely devoted to their team and fights often broke out among the spectators, some were deadly.
The aim was to be the first to finish – you needed to outrun the other chariots or force them onto the central spina or off the track. The chariot races were a dangerous and exciting spectacle, everyone had their favourite spot, mostly seated around the turning end where there was a great view of the crashes as the charioteers raced to make the curve.
The chariots used in the races were not the sturdy high fronted chariots we see in the movies. Mosaics and images on graves and small replica toys give us an idea of what they looked like. They were essentially a basket made of leather and wood, low to the ground with small wheels which stopped the chariot from flipping over; there was no handhold for the drivers. Charioteers needed incredible strength, balance and stamina; the challenge was staying balanced whilst keeping the horses parallel using only the reins at 20 miles up to around 50 miles per hour.
The Charioteers were mostly slaves (as with the gladiators) they started training in their late teens, with an expected lifespan of ten years. They could win enormous sums of money if they won, more than formula one drivers today (estimated at around £4million per race) but their manager owner would take a huge cut. If they were successful, they could buy their freedom and continue racing (for a larger cut). Charioteers could be fabulously rich but were never really accepted into polite Roman society, they were the sports stars of their day and adored by men and women.
The most famous charioteer we know of is Scorpus who drove at Domitian’s games in 95AD; in 10 years he won 2048 races (earning around £10 billion. Scorpus’ was a rags to riches story, he started in Carthage and made it to Rome, he bought his freedom and then at the height of his success he died at 26 – probably in one of the huge crashes or (shipwrecks) as the Romans called them.
Racing was a huge industry: There were drivers, trainers, grooms, doctors and scouts always looking for new driving talent. As in horse racing, betting was a huge attraction of the games, in a society where most people were living meagre lives the possibility and thrill of winning big was a huge attraction. So much so it seems fans would place curses on the opposing teams, curse tablets have been found near racing sites.
A day at the races – The crowd
Because of its size the Circus Maximus could host huge gatherings and so was a popular venue during the games. Like games in the Colosseum there were races and entertainments all day, it was about the races but also being at the venue and mixing with a wider section of society. Games here were more relaxed in terms of who could go and where they sat. At the races, the crowd was more mixed with no gender segregation as in the Colosseum. The crowd was larger, with a different social range of spectators; according to the love poet Ovid writing in the time of Augustus the Circus Maximus was the place to pick up girls!
Like football or formula one people went to support their favourite teams or charioteers, they went for the excitement and the adrenaline of the race, the crashes or shipwrecks were also a macabre part of the attraction. The crowd also went for the atmosphere, for a day out with friends, for food and drinks and to shop and of course bet. Chariot racing with the Charioteers in their fine coloured uniforms and the horses with decorated bridles was a sight in itself. It represented Rome just as the gladiator games – it was truly a spectacle in majesty, supremacy and jeopardy.
The last official chariot race at the Circus Maximus was in 549 CE and was held by Totila, the Ostrogoth king, after the fall of Rome the cost of continuing the races was too high although the continued in Constantinople. For a thousand years the Circus Maximus was at the heart of Roman life. Today it is still the largest space in the city, still used for mass gatherings, demonstrations, public displays concerts (in 2014 The Rolling Stones played to a crowd of 70,000). Occasionally you might see Rome’s mounted police training their horses on the track, but on an ordinary day it is a big grassy area to walk your dog, or perhaps relax with a picnic and think of days gone by.