Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Circus Maximus

Today's photos:


1. This re-creation shows the position of the Circus Maximus in relation to the river and the Tiber Island.

2. Here you can see part of the Colosseum at the top right.

3. This model gives you a good picture of the objects on the spina (the low center wall).

4. Who can forget the famous scene of the chariot race in the movie Ben Hur?

5. There's not much to see at the Circus Maximus today except for the original shape of it.

6. Most of the spectacular crashes took place at the turning points of the track.

7. The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo was set up on the spina in the 1st century A.D.

8. The obelisk in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano was added to the spina in 4th century A.D.

9. The crowd for the celebration of Italy's victory in the World Cup soccer matches in 2002 filled the Circus Maximus and spilled out into the nearby streets.


The Circus Maximus

To the ancient Romans the circus was a large, more or less rectangular-shaped arena where various types of athletic games (ludi) were held. Suetonius, writing in the second century A.D., speaks of combats of wild beasts and, incredibly, of a battle between two opposing armies, each consisting of 500 men, 20 elephants and 30 cavalrymen! But a Roman circus was built primarily to accommodate chariot races, which were very popular with the Romans. So popular that the Roman poet Juvenal complained that the only thing the degenerate population was interested in were panem et circenses (bread and circus games).


The popularity of the circus is evidenced by the number of circuses which existed in ancient times. The Flaminian Circus was in the area of the Campus Martius, the Circus of Caligula and Nero, where the Vatican is today, is where St. Peter was martyred, and the Circus of Maxentius was on the Appian Way. However, the largest and most spectacular by far of all the Roman circuses was the Circus Maximus. Perhaps the most vivid picture we have of the spectacular Roman chariot races in the circus is the one seen in the movie Ben Hur (photo #4).


According to one tradition, the Circus Maximus was first built in about 600 B.C. during the reign of the fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus (616-579 B.C.). However, the first reliable reference we have to it is from 329 B.C. The last known games to be held in it were in 549 A.D., so it was in use for at least 800 years, and possibly longer. It was enlarged several times over the centuries and reached its greatest size during the time of the emperor Trajan (98-117).


Situated in the valley between two of Rome's famous seven hills, the Aventine and the Palatine, the racing surface of the Circus Maximus was about 600 yards long and  100 yards wide. According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.D., there was seating  for 350,000 spectators, although modern scholars believe that the capacity was "only" about 200,000. Very little of the original structure remains today, but the area has kept its same shape over the centuries (photo #5). With a little imagination and the help of reconstructed models (photos #1-3)   we can get a very good idea of what this amazing space looked like. The emperors watched the games from a special section connected to the imperial palace on the Palatine hill. In his Res gestae Augustus himself tells us: Pulvinar ad Circum Maximum . . . feci ("I set up the imperial seat in the Circus Maximus").


Spectators sat on tiers of seats on three sides of the long rectangle, one end of which was curved and the other straight. A low wall (spina) ran down the center, dividing the racing surface into two wide lanes.  The starting gates (carceres) for the horses and chariots were located at the straight end. There were twelve of these gates and they were slightly curved so that the start was staggered, much like many modern foot races begin today.


A curiosity


As opposed to our modern football stadiums where the best seats are considered to be those in the center (the fifty yard line), the most sought-after seating by the masses in the circus was in the curved section (the end zone). This is where you had the best view as the chariots made the dangerous turn, often resulting in spectacular crashes (photo #6).


The spina was perhaps the most interesting part of the entire structure. It was decorated at different times with two Egyptian obelisks. The first one was brought to Rome from Egypt by Augustus in the first century A.D. and set up at the center of the spina. In 1589 it was moved by Sixtus V to Piazza del Popolo (photo #7) where it still stands today.  The second one, the oldest and tallest in Rome, was placed on the spina in the mid fourth century A.D. by the emperor Constans. Sixtus also had this one moved, in 1588, to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano (photo #8) where it remains to this day. At both ends of the spina were cone-shaped pillars (metae) to remind the charioteers that they were approaching the turning points as they sped down the track.


Also on the spina were fourteen other pillars, seven in the shape of eggs and seven in the shape of dolphins. The number, seven, matched the number of laps in the chariot race. These objects were moveable and could be raised and lowered. At the start of the race they were all in the up position. After each lap, one egg and one dolphin would be lowered to indicate to the drivers how many laps were remaining. When they saw the last pillar lowered they knew they were on the last lap of the race. Time for the final sprint! Dio Cassius, writing his Roman History in the early third century tells us who set these lap markers up and why:


Seeing that the groundsmen made mistakes about the number of laps completed in the races, Agrippa set up the Dolphins and Eggs, so that they would serve to indicate clearly the number of laps completed. (Agrippa [62-12 B.C.] was a consul and the trusted advisor, as well as the son-in-law, of the emperor Augustus).


Chariot racing in ancient Rome, like our horse racing today, was serious business, and there was wide-spread betting on the races. The race was also a very colorful spectacle as the charioteers, usually divided into four teams, were identified by their fans according to the colors they wore: red, white, green and blue.  Just like the victorious gladiators, the winning charioteers were treated like heroes by their fans. Some races were run using bigae (two-horse chariots), others used quadrigae (four-horse chariots as shown in photo #4). In the latter case, the horses were arranged four abreast.


A curiosity


Most of the seating area in the circus was made of wood, which was the source of several devastating fires over the centuries. The worst of these was certainly the great fire of 64 A.D. during the time of the emperor Nero (54-68). The fire is actually believed to have begun at the Circus Maximus from where it quickly spread to other parts of Rome, destroying much of the city. Whenever these fires occurred officials were quick to rebuild the circuses because the games were so popular with the people. (For more about Nero and the great fire of 64 A.D., see Rome: Sights and Insights, p. 162).


Excavations are currently being conducted at the curved end of the circus where the main entrance was located. There are also plans to reconstruct some parts of the complex in order to give visitors a better idea of what it looked like. Many people go jogging or walking in the Circus Maximus today, and it is also often used as the venue for large-scale events such as rock concerts, political rallies and other mega celebrations and gatherings, the most spectacular of which was the celebration of Italy's World Cup soccer victory in 2002 (photo #9).



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