Circus Maximus: Chariot racing in Ancient Rome

Among all the beautiful things built by the ancient Romans, few stood as magnificent as the Circus Maximus. Although the term circus is used to define an entertainment event these days, the Circus Maximus, Latin for “largest circus,” was actually a venue. But more than that, it was an architectural marvel. 

Used for everything from chariot races, to beast hunting, and even religious festivals, the Circus Maximus was an important part of the day-to-day life of ancient Romans.

It was also a testament to the engineering prowess of the architects of the day, and a symbol of Rome’s social complexities. Once the largest hippodrome in the ancient world, the Circus Maximus is now little more than a field dotted with ruins. So what exactly happened to Circus Maximus?

The Beginnings of the Circus Maximus 

Situated in a valley between Aventine and Palatine hills, the Circus Maximus in Rome started out as little more than a sandy field in the 6th century BCE. This means that Circus Maximus, at least in this early ideation, predated the Roman Empire altogether. 

Back in those early days, they would mainly use the field that would become Circus Maximus for chariot racing. This would remain one of the most popular uses for the arena even when it was at its largest and most magnificent. 

Unsurprisingly, chariot racing became not just the favorite sport at the circus, but in all of Rome. In 329 BCE, the Circus Maximus really started to take shape. Wooden benches were added to allow for a great number of spectators to attend the races, and the course itself was also lengthened. 

Throughout the years, the valley the Circus was built within would flood. Even though an open drainage canal had been built into the Circus, the dampness of the area would often cause the wooden benches and structures to rot, so they were constantly being rebuilt. 

As the structure continued to be built up, with even more measures being taken to lessen the flooding, additional problems arose. 

Fires became common in the arena. In AD 64, a fire broke out in the Circus Maximus that destroyed much of the arena itself and then spread outside of the structure. Nevertheless, events still continued at the Circus, which remained one of Rome’s most important gathering points throughout its multiple rebuilds. 

Roman Emperor Trajan, who ruled from AD 98 to 117, decided to end the fire and the rotting wood altogether and had the Circus Maximus rebuilt completely with stone. Trajan also had a pulvinar, a type of balcony with seating, built in the stands so Rome’s emperor could be seen and interacted with by the surrounding crowd.  

With that, the Circus Maximus had reached its ultimate form. There would be minor adjustments made for the rest of the Circus’ existence and even more cosmetic changes, but otherwise, this version would be the defining form of the Circus Maximus. 

Layout of the Circus Maximus

At its largest, the Circus Maximus could accommodate over 150,000 spectators and measured: 

  • 621 m (2,037 ft) in length
  • 118 m (387 ft) in width 

It was a large, long, rectangular structure, made so lengthy to accommodate for the ever-popular chariot races. Tiers of seating surrounded the track and central area, towering high to make room for the enormous amount of spectators it could hold. 

At the front of the Circus Maximus were the starting gates, also known as “carceres” which would be incorporated into the chariot races. The racers would burst from the gates dramatically to signal the beginning of the event. 

There were central dividers, which were richly decorated. The Circus also had space for vendors and shops of all sorts to set up and take advantage of the immense crowds.

The Heartbeat of the Circus: Chariot Races at Circus Maximus Racetrack

If one event was at the heart of Circus Maximus, it was undoubtedly the chariot races. Chariot races were an important part of Roman culture in general, but Circus Maximus was tailormade to suit these races. 

More often than not, slaves were the ones taking part in the races, and the winners were given their freedom. Particularly talented chariot drivers would become celebrities, taking their place as beloved crowd favorites between potentially deadly, fast-paced races.

Chariot races were color-coded, green, white, blue and red, and could be pulled by teams of 4 to 12 horses. These races were so famous that they were often depicted in artwork like mosaics and reliefs. 

Entertainment Beyond Races 

Chariot races may have been the principal attraction at the Circus, and the reason it was built in the first place, but the Romans definitely used the incredible space for other things. 

A few of the other important events that might occur at Circus Maximus were:

  • Ludi- With Circus Maximus being the largest entertainment venue in Rome, it was often used for Ludi, which were massive public games that were connected to Roman religious festivals. Ludi could include chariot races, but also other events like feasts, and even public executions. 
  • Gladiator Fights- Gladiator fights were events that consisted of trained Gladiator warriors engaging in combat. 
  • Beast Hunts- One of the bloodier events held at Circus Maximus, besides the public executions of course, were the beast hunts. Beast hunts occurred when exotic animals like lions, tigers, and even elephants would be brought in. Men would test themselves against these animals, almost always leading in death for the creature. 
  • Athletic Contests – Sporting events in ancient Rome didn’t look quite like the ones we have today but usually included things like footraces and feats of strength.

The Legacy of the Circus Maximus 

Eventually, as events like the chariot races fell out of favor, and Rome needed huge entertainment venues like Circus Maximus less, the water finally won and retook the arena. 

The floods never truly stopped, and once no one was working to maintain the Circus, it quickly fell into disrepair. 

In modern times, the location where the Circus Maximus used to stand is almost unrecognizable. The space is used as a park, but there are still some ruins that hint at the marvelous structure that used to exist. Maybe on a quiet night, if you listen closely enough, you might still hear the thunder of hooves. 


“Circus Maximus

“Circus Maximus”

“Circus Maximus in Rome”

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