The Circus Maximus was ancient Rome’s foremost chariot racing stadium. A huge rectangular site in the valley between Aventine Hill
and Palatine Hill
, it is 621 metres long and 118 metres wide, and could hold up to a staggering 150,000 spectators at a time - more than modern football stadiums today.
The Circus Maximus had been used by the Roman State before the Empire, not just for chariot racing but also for many other ludi (games) and large-scale spectacles including venatiae (beast hunts), executions, gladiator fights and plays. Caesar is said to have used 400 lions in one venatio. These displays were not only for the entertainment of the people but also honoured Roman leaders and the gods, and would often include religious ceremonies and great feasts.
The site holds religious significance even pre-dating the construction of the stadium, as the patron goddess of the valley, Murcia, a relative of Venus, was worshipped there; statues to the gods adorned the arena. When the arena was not being used for public events, vendors and merchants of all sorts would set up shop in the Circus Maximus, as well as other tradespeople like performers and prostitutes.
The beaten track
After the construction of the Colosseum
and other stadiums the Circus Maximus was used almost exclusively for chariot racing, and remained the most popular venue for races in the Empire. Ludi
only began to fall out of favour after the adoption of Christianity as the Empire’s official religion in the 5th century.
To stand on Aventine Hill today and look down at the huge site of the Circus Maximus, with the Palatine’s magnificent palace ruins as backdrop, it is difficult not be awestruck imagining 150,000 cheering Romans watching as chariots, men and horses hurtled round the track. Now the area is primarily a public park, with only a small portion at one end currently being excavated; modern Romans still use the site for concerts and celebrations, and the spirit of the Circus Maximus is alive and well.