Circuses in Ancient Rome
But what about Remus’ mob? They follow fortune, as always … they discarded their responsibilities long ago … for the people who once handed out power, political office, command of the legions, everything, now holds itself in check and anxious hopes for only two things – bread and circuses.Juvenal, Satire 10, 72 – 81.
Figure 1: Digital reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, with detail of the decorated spina
It was then [after a victory in war] that a site was designated for the circus that is now called Maximus. Spaces were divided up for the senatorial and knightly orders where they could each make seats for themselves; these were called ‘rows’ … the entertainment was horses and boxers, mostly imported from Etruria.Livy, 1.35.
… [the elephants] all tried to make a break for it in a group through the iron railings that enclosed them, causing some trouble to the crowd. Because of this later on Caesar, when he was about to put on a similar show during his Dictatorship (in 49 BC), surrounded the arena with a canal, which the emperor Nero removed when adding special seats for the knights.Pliny, Natural History 8.1.21.
Whenever he was there he did no other business, whether because he wanted to avoid the accusation he recalled had been circulated about his father Julius Caesar, that while watching the games he had spent his time reading and answering letters and petitions, or because he had a real enthusiasm and pleasure in watching.Suetonius, Life of Augustus 45.
The Circus Maximus was Rome’s largest Circus – holding around 250,000 spectators and perhaps the largest sporting arena ever built – but it was not the only one. The emperor Maxentius, for instance, built a smaller but much better preserved circus as part of a funerary complex out along the Appian Way. This was an extension of the Roman funerary tradition which, as you saw, invited commemoration of the dead by the attention of the living at their tombs.The emperor Domitian built another circus-shaped 30,000 seater stadium in the Campus Martius, opening it in time for his new games in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus in AD 86. This stadium gave its shape to the modern day Piazza Navona. We imagine various sorts of athletics events happening there, but it must also have been used for bloodier entertainment; Borromini’s baroque Church of St Agnes on the modern piazza commemorates the saint’s martyrdom there in a Roman public execution.You can view the Circus Maximus in Rome in our 360° panorama picture.Please note: this link takes you to the external site ‘Panellum’.Don’t let the racing of the noble steeds pass you by: The Circus with its crowds offers lots of opportunity. There’s no need for a special finger signal to pass your secrets Or a nod by which your meaning can be understood: Just sit down next to your mistress – there’s nothing to prevent it – Squeeze your side up against hers as far as you can: It’s good that the rows of seating force you up against her, like it or not, Since the rules of the place push the girl within touching distance… Earnestly enquire whose horses are coming, And without delay, whichever one is her favourite, make it yours too…Ovid, The Art of Loving, 1.135-146
Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City
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