The Obelisco Flaminio, now in the Piazza del Popolo, was once part of the dividing barrier (spina) at the Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus was sited on the level ground of the Valley of Murcia (Vallis Murcia), between Rome's Aventine and Palatine Hills. In Rome's early days, the valley would have been rich agricultural land, prone to flooding from the river Tiber and the stream which divided the valley. The stream was probably bridged at an early date, at the two points where the track had to cross it, and the earliest races would have been held within an agricultural landscape, "with nothing more than turning posts, banks where spectators could sit, and some shrines and sacred spots".
In Livy's history of Rome, the first Etruscan king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, built raised, wooden perimeter seating at the Circus for Rome's highest echelons (the equites and patricians), probably midway along the Palatine straight, with an awning against the sun and rain. His grandson, Tarquinius Superbus, added the first seating for citizen-commoners (plebs, or plebeians), either adjacent or on the opposite, Aventine side of the track. Otherwise, the Circus was probably still little more than a trackway through surrounding farmland. By this time, it may have been drained but the wooden stands and seats would have frequently rotted and been rebuilt. The turning posts (metae), each made of three conical stone pillars, may have been the earliest permanent Circus structures; an open drainage canal between the posts would have served as a dividing barrier.
The games' sponsor (Latin editor) usually sat beside the images of attending gods, on a conspicuous, elevated stand (pulvinar) but seats at the track's perimeter offered the best, most dramatic close-ups. In 494 BC (very early in the Republican era) the dictator Manius Valerius Maximus and his descendants were granted rights to a curule chair at the southeastern turn, an excellent viewpoint for the thrills and spills of chariot racing. In the 190s BC, stone track-side seating was built, exclusively for senators.
Permanent wooden starting stalls were built in 329 BC. They were gated, brightly painted, and staggered to equalise the distances from each start place to the central barrier. In theory, they might have accommodated up to 25 four-horse chariots (Quadrigas) abreast but when team-racing was introduced, they were widened, and their number reduced. By the late Republican or early Imperial era, there were twelve stalls. Their divisions were fronted by herms that served as stops for spring-loaded gates, so that twelve light-weight, four-horse or two-horse chariots could be simultaneously released onto the track. The stalls were allocated by lottery, and the various racing teams were identified by their colors. Typically, there were seven laps per race. From at least 174 BC, they were counted off using large sculpted eggs. In 33 BC, an additional system of large bronze dolphin-shaped lap counters was added, positioned well above the central dividing barrier (euripus) for maximum visibility.
Julius Caesar's development of the Circus, commencing around 50 BC, extended the seating tiers to run almost the entire circuit of the track, barring the starting gates and a processional entrance at the semi-circular end. The track measured approximately 621 m (2,037 ft) in length and 150 m (387 ft) in breadth. A canal was cut between the track perimeter and its seating to protect spectators and help drain the track. The inner third of the seating formed a trackside cavea. Its front sections along the central straight were reserved for senators, and those immediately behind for equites. The outer tiers, two thirds of the total, were meant for Roman plebs and non-citizens. They were timber-built, with wooden-framed service buildings, shops and entrance-ways beneath. The total number of seats is uncertain, but was probably in the order of 150,000; Pliny the Elder's estimate of 250,000 is unlikely. The wooden bleachers were damaged in a fire of 31 BC, either during or after construction.
The fire damage of 31 was probably repaired by Augustus (Caesar's successor and Rome's first emperor). He modestly claimed credit only for an obelisk and pulvinar at the site but both were major projects. Ever since its quarrying, long before Rome existed, the obelisk had been sacred to Egyptian Sun-gods. Augustus had it brought from Heliopolis at enormous expense, and erected midway along the dividing barrier of the Circus. It was Rome's first obelisk, an exotically sacred object and a permanent reminder of Augustus' victory over his Roman foes and their Egyptian allies in the recent civil wars. Thanks to him, Rome had secured both a lasting peace and a new Egyptian Province. The pulvinar was built on monumental scale, a shrine or temple (aedes) raised high above the trackside seats. Sometimes, while games were in progress, Augustus watched from there, alongside the gods. Occasionally, his family would join him there. This is the Circus described by Dionysius of Halicarnassus as "one of the most beautiful and admirable structures in Rome", with "entrances and ascents for the spectators at every shop, so that the countless thousands of people may enter and depart without inconvenience."
The site remained prone to flooding, probably through the starting gates, until Claudius made improvements there; they probably included an extramural anti-flooding embankment. Fires in the crowded, wooden perimeter workshops and bleachers were a far greater danger. A fire of 36 AD seems to have started in a basket-maker's workshop under the stands, on the Aventine side; the emperor Tiberius compensated various small businesses there for their losses. In AD 64, during Nero's reign, fire broke out at the semi-circular end of the Circus, swept through the stands and shops, and destroyed much of the city. Games and festivals continued at the Circus, which was rebuilt over several years to the same footprint and design.
By the late 1st century AD, the central dividing barrier comprised a series of water basins, or else a single watercourse open in some places and bridged over in others. It offered opportunities for artistic embellishment and decorative swagger, and included the temples and statues of various deities, fountains, and refuges for those assistants involved in more dangerous circus activities, such as beast-hunts and the recovery of casualties during races.
In AD 81 the Senate built a triple arch honoring Titus at the semi-circular end of the Circus, to replace or augment a former processional entrance. The emperor Domitian built a new, multi-storey palace on the Palatine, connected somehow to the Circus; he likely watched the games in autocratic style, from high above and barely visible to those below. Repairs to fire damage during his reign may already have been under way before his assassination.
The risk of further fire-damage, coupled with Domitian's fate, may have prompted Trajan's decision to rebuild the Circus entirely in stone, and provide a new pulvinar in the stands where Rome's emperor could be seen and honoured as part of the Roman community, alongside their gods. Under Trajan, the Circus Maximus found its definitive form, which was unchanged thereafter save for some monumental additions by later emperors, an extensive, planned rebuilding of the starting gate area under Caracalla, and repairs and renewals to existing fabric. Some repairs were unforeseen and extensive, such as those carried out in Diocletian's reign, after the collapse of a seating section killed some 13,000 people.
The southeastern turn of the track ran between two shrines which may have predated the Circus' formal development. One, at the outer southeast perimeter, was dedicated to the valley's eponymous goddess Murcia, an obscure deity associated with Venus, the myrtle shrub, a sacred spring, the stream that divided the valley, and the lesser peak of the Aventine Hill. The other was at the southeastern turning-post; where there was an underground shrine to Consus, a minor god of grain-stores, connected to the grain-goddess Ceres and to the underworld. According to Roman tradition, Romulus discovered this shrine shortly after the founding of Rome. He invented the Consualia festival, as a way of gathering his Sabine neighbours at a celebration that included horse-races and drinking. During these distractions, Romulus's men then abducted the Sabine daughters as brides. Thus the famous Roman myth of the Rape of the Sabine women had as its setting the Circus and the Consualia.
In this quasi-legendary era, horse or chariot races would have been held at the Circus site. The track width may have been determined by the distance between Murcia's and Consus' shrines at the southeastern end, and its length by the distance between these two shrines and Hercules' Ara Maxima, supposedly older than Rome itself and sited behind the Circus' starting place. The position of Consus' shrine at the turn of the track recalls the placing of shrines to Roman Neptune's Greek equivalent, Poseidon, in Greek hippodromes. In later developments, the altar of Consus, as one of the Circus' patron deities, was incorporated into the fabric of the south-eastern turning post. When Murcia's stream was partly built over, to form a dividing barrier (the spina or euripus) between the turning posts, her shrine was either retained or rebuilt. In the Late Imperial period, both the southeastern turn and the circus itself were sometimes known as Vallis Murcia. The symbols used to count race-laps also held religious significance; Castor and Pollux, who were born from an egg, were patrons of horses, horsemen, and the equestrian order (equites). Likewise, the later use of dolphin-shaped lap counters reinforced associations between the races, swiftness, and Neptune, as god of earthquakes and horses; the Romans believed dolphins to be the swiftest of all creatures. When the Romans adopted the Phrygian Great Mother as an ancestral deity, a statue of her on lion-back was erected within the circus, probably on the dividing barrier.
Sun and Moon cults were probably represented at the Circus from its earliest phases. Their importance grew with the introduction of Roman cult to Apollo, and the development of Stoic and solar monism as a theological basis for the Roman Imperial cult. In the Imperial era, the Sun-god was divine patron of the Circus and its games. His sacred obelisk towered over the arena, set in the central barrier, close to his temple and the finishing line. The Sun-god was the ultimate, victorious charioteer, driving his four-horse chariot (quadriga) through the heavenly circuit from sunrise to sunset. His partner Luna drove her two-horse chariot (biga); together, they represented the predictable, orderly movement of the cosmos and the circuit of time, which found analogy in the Circus track. In Imperial cosmology, the emperor was Sol-Apollo's earthly equivalent, and Luna may have been linked to the empress. Luna's temple, built long before Apollo's, burned down in the Great Fire of 64 AD and was probably not replaced. Her cult was closely identified with that of Diana, who seems to have been represented in the processions that started Circus games, and with Sol Indiges, usually identified as her brother. After the loss of her temple, her cult may have been transferred to Sol's temple on the dividing barrier, or one beside it; both would have been open to the sky.
Temples to several deities overlooked the Circus; most are now lost. The temples to Ceres and Flora stood close together on the Aventine, more or less opposite the Circus' starting gate, which remained under Hercules' protection. Further southeast along the Aventine was a temple to Luna, the moon goddess. Aventine temples to Venus Obsequens, Mercury and Dis (or perhaps Summanus) stood on the slopes above the southeast turn. On the Palatine hill, opposite to Ceres's temple, stood the temple to Magna Mater and, more or less opposite Luna's temple, one to the sun-god Apollo.
Several festivals, some of uncertain foundation and date, were held at the Circus in historical times. The Consualia, with its semi-mythical establishment by Romulus, and the Cerealia, the major festival of Ceres, were probably older than the earliest historically attested "Roman Games" (Ludi Romani) held at the Circus in honour of Jupiter in 366 BC. In the early Imperial era, Ovid describes the opening of Cerealia (mid to late April) with a horse race at the Circus, followed by the nighttime release of foxes into the stadium, their tails ablaze with lighted torches. Some early connection is likely between Ceres as goddess of grain crops and Consus as a god of grain storage and patron of the Circus.
Modern status and uses
After the 6th century, the Circus fell into disuse and decay, and was quarried for building materials. The lower levels, ever prone to flooding, were gradually buried under waterlogged alluvial soil and accumulated debris, so that the original track is now buried 6 meters beneath the modern surface. In the 11th century, the Circus was "replaced by dwellings rented out by the congregation of Saint-Guy." In the 12th century, a watercourse was dug there to drain the soil, and by the 16th century the area was used as a market garden. Many of the Circus's standing structures survived these changes; in 1587, two obelisks were removed from the central barrier by Pope Sixtus V, and one of these was re-sited at the Piazza del Popolo. In 1852 a gas works was built on the site by the Anglo-Italian Gas Society. It remained in situ until 1910 when it was relocated to the edge of Rome. Mid 19th century workings at the circus site uncovered the lower parts of a seating tier and outer portico. Since then, a series of excavations has exposed further sections of the seating, curved turn and central barrier but further exploration has been limited by the scale, depth and waterlogging of the site.
The Circus site now functions as a large park area, in the centre of the city. It is often used for concerts and meetings. The Rome concert of Live 8 (July 2, 2005) was held there. The English band Genesis performed a concert before an estimated audience of 500,000 people in 2007 (this was filmed and released as When in Rome 2007). The Rolling Stones played there in front of 71,527 people on June 22, 2014 for the Italian date of their 14 On Fire tour. The Circus has also hosted victory celebrations, following the Italian World Cup 2006 victory and the A.S. Roma Serie A victory in 1983 and 2001. In May 2019, a new virtual/augmented reality experience, the Circo Maximo Experience, opened on the site, taking visitors on a journey through the site and its history.