The famous Circus Maximus was a huge chariot race track and arena in ancient Rome. Chariot races were one of the Roman citizen's most popular forms of entertainment.
Romulus, the legendary first of Rome's seven kings, is said to have held chariot races. Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, was the first who laid down a track for chariot races between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. The Circus Maximus of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire dates back to the 6th century B.C., sometime between 600 and 501 B.C..
In 329 B.C. the first starting gates were set up.
In 174 the gates were rebuilt. Seven wooden eggs were placed atop the central wall in the arena, the spina. These eggs showed the count of the numbers of laps to be completed, one egg being removed after each lap.
In 33 B.C. seven bronze dolphins were placed on the spina for the same purpose.
The wooden stadium was destroyed by fire in 31 B.C., the first of three fires. Emperor Augustus rebuilt the wooden structure, and added an imperial box on the Palatine Hill. As a decoration, a large obelisk from Heleopolis was added to the spina. It can now be viewed at the center of the Piazza del Populo. Much later, in the 4th century, another obelisk was added.
The second fire in 64 B.C., during the reign of Emperor Nero, that burned much of Rome, was started in wooden shops around the track at the bottom of the stadium. Nero was absent from Rome, but the people held that he was responsible. He then shifted the blame to the Christians.
In A.D. 103, after yet another fire, the third, the Circus was rebuilt by Emperor Trajan as a stone construction. The Roman Empire was at the height of its power and the new Circus Maximus reflected its status. The lower part of the seating area, the cavea, was constructed of marble, and the arena complex now was more than 2000 feet long and 500 feet wide (600 meters by 150 meters).
On most days only chariot races with quadrigaes, pulled by four horses, were held in the Circus Maximus, and occasionally it was the venue for events such as processions or gladiator contests.
The races themselves were wildly popular. People fanatically supported one of the four factions: red, white, green and blue, representing summer, winter, spring and autumn respectively. Bets were laid on one of the factions and the supporters of each of the different factions often clashed, sometimes violently, resulting in deaths among the spectators.
The last race in the Circus Maximus was held in A.D. 549, almost a millennium after the first races were held at this location.
The site today
- The same violent passions have occurred in recent decades in the notorious sports riots of the 20th and 21st centuries at soccer matches in Europe and South America.