Sunday, July 27, 2008
The Circus Maximus stood in the Murcia Valley, between the Palatine and the Aventine Hills, the largest and oldest of the four chariot-racing tracks in ancient Rome. It was extended under various administrations until the time of Julius Caesar (100–44 b.c.). His alterations, and those ordered by his nephew, the emperor Augustus (reigned 27 b.c.–a.d. 14), created a building about 2,035 feet long by 460 wide (620 by 140 meters), with an arena measuring 1,850 by 280 feet (564 by 85 meters). On each side concrete vaults supported tiers of seats that accommodated at least 150,000 spectators: some sources put the number above 200,000, and others even more. For the purposes of comparison, the Houston Astrodome has a capacity of around 62,000, and Australia’s Melbourne Cricket Ground holds only 100,000 spectators. Like many Roman public edifices, the circus, while not entirely a new building type (it was based on the Greek hippodrome), was built on a scale that the world had not seen before.
Founded when the city was part of the Etruscan kingdom (ca. 600 b.c.), the Circus Maximus remained the major site of diversions for the Roman populace for over a thousand years. The brook that ran through the Murcia Valley was diverted to a culvert, over which the central barrier (spina) of the hairpin track was constructed. The original circus was built of wood, but it was rebuilt and enlarged several times. In 196 b.c., Lucius Stertinius built an arch facing the starting gate, and a year or so later the censors for the games ordered the seating changed so that senators were separated from the plebeians. About thirty years later a vast stage was built for musicians and dancers, and the starting gate was altered. Julius Caesar commissioned a major reconstruction and extension in the first century b.c., and Augustus constructed a shrine that also served as an imperial box from which he could watch the races. In 10 b.c. he erected an obelisk on the spina to commemorate his conquest of Egypt, bringing the Circus Maximus to its greatest glory. Dionysius of Halicarnassus described the Augustan arena as “one of the most beautiful and admirable structures in Rome.”
Following disastrous fires in the wooden parts of the structure in a.d. 103, Trajan again restored the Circus. Each of the three stories of seats was divided by aisles. Marble seats in the first tier were reserved for senators—and for the equestrian class behind them. Senators were also allowed to sit along the podium that defined the track. The plebeians occupied the rows above the select seats. Unlike in other places of public entertainment, the sexes were allowed to sit together—a degree of permissiveness that some Romans considered scandalous.
Events other than chariot racing—animal hunts, gladiatorial games, athletic competitions, and processions—were held in the Circus Maximus. In order to display wild beasts, Julius Caesar had a water-filled moat 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep (3 by 3 meters) made around the arena. About a century later it was filled in to gain more seating space; for safety reasons animal fights were discontinued and eventually staged at the Colosseum. Although all kinds of entertainment were popular, chariot races remained the Romans’ favorite spectator sport, probably for the excitement and the vicarious danger of the reckless races. The crowds fanatically supported the various professional racing factions, named for the colors worn by the charioteers: the red, green, blue, and white. The chariots—usually drawn by four horses— started from twelve gates leading from the Forum Boarium, near the starter’s position. At the far end, where the track entered its sharp 180-degree turn, stood the triumphal arch (built in a.d. 80) through which processions entered the arena. The spina was adorned with gilded shrines, including one to Consus, a god of the harvest, and another to Murcia; at either end were the turning posts. Run under very strict rules, races comprised thirteen turns around those posts, a distance of approximately 4 miles (6.4 kilometers).
During the reign of Augustus, Rome gave no fewer than seventy-seven days a year to public spectacles; seventeen of those were for chariot races. Usually, twelve races were run each day, although the infamous emperor Gaius Caligula had the number doubled. It is reported that Domitian once had 100 races in a day but was forced, simply for the sake of time, to reduce the thirteen laps to five. By the fourth century a.d. the annual number of race days had risen to sixty-six. Convinced, possibly with good reason, that the circus was the devil’s playground, the church fathers later condemned it. Nevertheless, events continued to be organized well into the Christian era, and the last race was recorded in a.d. 549, seventy-five years after Rome had fallen to the barbarians.Now, the only visible remains of the Circus Maximus are at the semicircular end. The vaulted brick-and-concrete substructures of the seats on the Palatine side were uncovered by archeologists in the 1930s, and those excavations were extended in 1976. A few years later, work began on the Aventine side of the same end. Every spring, and sometimes in the fall, the Roseto Comunale, Rome’s municipal rose garden on the lower slopes of the Aventine, is opened to the public. Located about halfway along the southwestern side of the Circus Maximus, it presents a spectacle of a less exciting kind.