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If you are looking for the Circus of Nero
where St. Peter was put to death,
see this detailed plan & discussion
by Roman archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani.

 p283  Circus

Article by Anthony Rich, Jun. B.A. of Caius College, Cambridge
on pp283‑288 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

CIRCUS (ἱπποδρόμος) a place for chariot-races and horse-races, and in which the Roman races (Circenses Ludi) took place. When Tarquinius Priscus had taken the town of Apiolae from the Latins, as related in the early Roman legends, he commemorated his success by an exhibition of races and pugilistic contests in the Murcian valley, between the Palatine and Aventine hills; around which a number of temporary platforms were erected by the patres and equites, called spectacula, fori, or foruli, from their resemblance to the deck of a ship; each one raising a stage for himself, upon which he stood to view the games (Liv. I.35; Festus, s.v. Forum; Dionys. III. p192, &c.). This course, with its surrounding scaffoldings, was termed circus; either because the spectators stood round to see the shows, or because the procession and races went round in a circuit (Varr. De Ling. Lat. V.153, 154, ed. Müller). Previously, however, to the death of Tarquin, a permanent building was constructed for the purpose, with regular tiers of seats in the form of a theatre (cf. Liv. and Dionys. ll. cc.) To this the name of Circus Maximus was subsequently given, as a distinction from the Flaminian and other similar buildings, which it surpassed in extent and splendour; and hence, like the Campus Martius, it is often spoken of as the Circus, without any distinguishing epithet.

Of the Circus Maximus scarcely a vestige now remains, beyond the palpable evidence of the site it occupied, and a few masses of rubble-work in a circular form, which may be seen under the walls of some houses in the Via de' Cerchi, and which retain traces of having supported the stone seats (Dionys. l.c.) for the spectators. This loss is fortunately supplied by the remains of a small circus on the Via Appia, commonly called the Circus of Caracallaº, the ground-plan of which, together with much of the superstructure, remains in a state of considerable preservation. The ground-plan of the circus in question is represented in the annexed woodcut; and may be safely taken as a model of all others, since it agrees in every main feature, both of general outline and individual parts, with the description of the Circus Maximus given by Dionysius (III p192).​a

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A view along the spina of the Circus of Maxentius — referred to above as the Circus of Caracalla; in the diagram below, from G looking towards O.

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Around the double lines (A, A) were arranged the seats (gradus, sedilia, subsellia), as in a theatre, termed collectively the cavea; the lowest of which were separated from the ground by a podium, and the whole divided longitudinally by praecinctiones, and diagonally into cunei, with their vomitoria attached to each. Towards the extremity of the upper branch of the cavea, the general outline is broken by an outwork (B), which was probably the pulvinar, or station for the emperor, as it is placed in the best situation for seeing both the commencement and end of the course, and in the most prominent part of the circus (Suet. Claud. 4). In the opposite branch, is observed another interruption  p284 to the uniform line of seats (C), betokening also, from its construction, a place of distinction; which might have been assigned to the person at whose expense the games were given (editor spectaculorum).

In the centre of the area was a low wall (D) running lengthways down the course, which, from its resemblance to the position of the dorsal bone in the human frame, was termed spina (Cassiodor. Var. Ep. III.51). It is represented in the wood-cut subjoined, taken from an ancient bas-relief.

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At each extremity of the spina were placed, upon a base (E, E), three wooden cylinders, of a conical shape, like cypress trees (metasque imitata cupressus, Ovid, Met. X.106; cf.  Plin. H. N. XVI.60), which were called metae — the goals. Their situation is distinctly seen in the preceding woodcut, but their form is more fully developed in the one annexed, copied from a marble in the British Museum.

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The small stone column on the right, undoubtedly Roman, now in the crypt of the church of S. Ponziano in Spoleto, is said to be a meta from a vanished circus of Spoletium. (Extraneous elements were added when the crypt was built: the capital, a slice of another column to serve as a base.)

The most remarkable object upon the spina were two columns (F) supporting seven conical balls, which, from their resemblance to eggs, were called ova (De Re Rust. I.2 §11; Liv. XLI.27). These are seen in the woodcut representing the spina. Their use was to enable the spectators to count the number of rounds which had been run; for which purpose they are said to have been first introduced by Agrippa (Dion Cass. XLIX. p600), though Livy (XLI.27) speaks of them long before. They are, therefore, seven in number, such being the number of the circuits made in each race; and as each round was run, one of the ova was put up (Cassiodor. Var. Ep. III.51) or taken down, according to Varro (De Re Rust. I.2 §11). An egg was adopted for this purpose, in honour of Castor and Pollux (Tertull, De Spectac. c. 8). At the other extremity of the spina were two similar columns (G), represented also in the woodcut, over the second chariot, sustaining seven dolphins, termed delphinae, or delphinarum columnae (Juv. Sat. VI.590), which do not appear to have been intended to be removed, but only placed there as corresponding ornaments to the ova1; and the figure of the dolphin was selected in honour of Neptune (Tertull. l.c.). Some writers suppose the columns which supported the ova and the delphinae to be the phalae or falae, which Juvenal mentions (l.c.). But the phalae were not columns, but towers, erected as circumstances required, between the metae and euripus, or extreme circuit of the area, when sham-fights were represented in the circus (cf. Festus, s.v. Phalae; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. IX.705). Besides these, the spina was decorated with many other objects, such as obelisks,  p285 statues, altars, and temples, which do not appear to have had any fixed locality.

It will be observed in the ground-plan that there is a passage between the metae and spina, the extreme ends of the latter of which are hollowed out into a circular recess: and several of the ancient sculptures afford similar examples. This might have been for performing the sacrifice, or other offices of religious worship, with which the games commenced; particularly as small chapels can still be seen under the metae, in which the statues of some divinities must have been placed. It was probably under the first of these spaces that the altar of the god Consus was concealed (Tertull, De Spectac. c. 5), which was excavated upon each occasion of these games (Dionys. II. p97).

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The oppidum of the Circus of Maxentius and its carceres
(A dozen young tourists obligingly provided the scale.)

At the extremity of the circus in which the two horns of the cavea terminate, were placed the stalls for the horses and chariots (H, H), commonly called carceres at, and subsequently to, the age of Varro: but more anciently the whole line of buildings which confined the end of the circus was termed oppidum; because, with its gates and towers, it resembled the walls of a town (Festus, s.v.; Varro, De Ling. Lat. V.153); which is forcibly illustrated by the circus under consideration, were the two towers (I, I) at each end of the carceres are still standing. The number of carceres is supposed to have been usually twelve (Cassiodor. Var. Ep. III.51), as they are in this plan; but in the mosaic discovered at Lyons, and published by Artaud (Description d'unºMosaique, &c. Lyon, 1806), there are only eight.​2 They were vaults, closed in front by gates of open wood-work (cancelli), which were opened simultaneously upon the signal being given (Dionys. III p192; Cassiodor. l.c.; cf. Sil. Ital. XVI.316), by removing a rope (ὕσπληγξ, Dionys. l.c.; cf. Schol. ad Theocr. Idyl. VIII.57) attached to pilasters of the kind called Hermae, placed for that purpose between each stall; upon which the gates were immediately thrown open by a number of men, probably the armentarii, as represented in the annexed woodcut, taken from a very curious marble in the Museo Borgiano, at Velletri; which also represents most of the other peculiarities abovementioned as appertaining to the other carceres.

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In the mosaic of Lyons the man is represented apparently in the act of letting go the rope (ὕσπληγξ) in the manner described by Dionysius (l.c.). The cut below, which is from a marble in the British Museum, represents a set of four carceres, with their Hermae, and cancelli open, as left after the chariots had started; in which the gates are made to open inwards. º

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The preceding account and woodcuts will be sufficient to explain the meaning of the various words by which the carceres were designated in poetical language, namely, claustra (Stat. Theb. VI.399; Hor. Epist. I.14.9), crypta (Sidon. Carm. XXIII.319), fauces (Cassiodor. Var. Epist. III.51), ostia (Auson. Epist. XVIII.11), fores carceris (Ovid, Trist. V.9, 29), repagula (Ovid, Met. II.155; Sil. Ital. XVI.318), limina equorum (Id. XVI.317).

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A closer look at some of the carceres of the Circus of Maxentius.

It will not fail to be observed that the line of the carceres is not at a right angle with the spina, but forms the segment of a circle, the centre of which is a point on the right hand of the arena; the reason for which is obviously that all the chariots might have, as nearly as possible, an equal distance to pass over between the carceres and mouth of the course. Moreover, the two sides of the circus are not parallel to each other, nor the spina to either of them; but they are so planned that the course diminishes gradually from the mouth at (J), until it reaches the corresponding line at the opposite side of the spina (K), where it is narrower by thirty-two feet. This might have proceeded from economy, or be necessary in the present instance on account of the limited extent of the circus; for as all the four, or six, chariots would enter the mouth of the course nearly abreast, the greatest width would be required at that spot; but as they got down the course, and one or more took the lead, the same width would no longer necessary.º

The carceres were divided into two sets of six each, accurately described by Cassiodorus (l.c.) as bissena ostia, by an entrance in the centre (L), called porta pompae; because it was the one through which the Circensian procession entered, and which, it is inferred from a passage in Ausonius (Epist. XVIII.12), was always open, forming a thoroughfare through the circus. Beside this entrance, there were four others, two at the termination of the seats between the cavea and the oppidum (M. M), another at (N), and the fourth at (O), under the vault of which the fresco decorations are still visible. This is supposed to be the Porta Triumphalis, to which its situation seems adapted. One of the others was the Porta Libitinensis (Lamprid. Commod. 16), so called because it was the one through which the dead bodies of those killed in the games were carried out (Dion Cass. LXXII p1222).

Such were the general features of a circus, as far as regards the interior of the fabric. The area had also its divisions appropriated to particular purposes, with a nomenclature of its own attached to each. The space immediately before the oppidum was termed circus primus; that near the meta prima, circus interior or intimus (Varr. De Ling. Lat. V.154), which latter spot, in the Circus Maximus, was also termed ad Murcim, or ad  p286 Murciam, from the altar of Venus Murtia, or Murcia, placed there (cf. Apuleius, Met. VI. p395, ed. Oudendorp; Tertull. de Spectac. 8; Müller, ad Varron. l.c.). The term arena belongs to an amphitheatre; and it is therefore probable that it was applied in the circus to the large open space between the carceres and prima meta, when the circus was used for the exhibition of athletic games, for which the locality seems best adapted; but in Silius Italicus (XVI.145) it is put for the part down the spina. When the circus was used for racing, the course was termed spatium (Juv. Sat. VI.582) or spatia, because the match included more than one circuit (Virg. Aen. V.316, 325, 327, Georg. I.513; Stat. Theb. VI.594; Hor. Epist. I.14.9; cf. Sil. Ital. XVI.336). It is also called campus (Sil. XVI.391), and poetically aequor (id. 414).

At the entrance of the course, exactly in the direction of the line (J, K), were two small pedestals (hermuli) on each side of the podium, to which was attached a chalked rope (alba linea, Cassiodor., l.c.), for the purpose of making the start fair, precisely as is practised at Rome for the horse-races during Carneval. Thus, when the doors of the carceres were thrown open, if any of the horses rushed out before the others, they were brought up by this rope until the whole were fairly abreast, when it was loosened from one side, and all poured into the course at once. In the Lyons mosaic the alba linea is distinctly traced at the spot just mentioned, and one of the chariots is observed to be upset at the very place, while the others pursue their course. The writer has often seen the same accident happen at Rome, when an over-eager horse rushes against the rope and gets thrown down. This line, for an obvious reason (Plin. H. N. XXXV.58), was also called calx, and creta (Cic. de Am. 27; Senec. Epist. 108), from whence comes the allusion of Persius (Sat. V.177), cretata ambitio. The metae served only to regulate the turnings of the course, the alba linea answered to the starting and winning post of modern days — "peracto legitimo cursu ad cretam stetere" (Plin. H. N. VIII.65; and compare XXXV.58). Hence the metaphor of Cicero (Senect. 23), "quasi decurso spatio ad carceres a calce revocari"; and of Horace (Epist. I.16.79), "mors ultima linea rerum" (cf.  Lucret. VI.92).

From this description the Circus Maximus differed little, except in size and magnificence of embellishment. But as it was used for hunting wild beasts, Julius Caesar drew a canal called Euripus, ten feet wide, around the bottom of the podium, to protect the spectators who sat there (Dionys. III. p192; Suet. Jul. 39), which was removed by Nero (Plin. H. N. VIII.7), but subsequently restored by other princes (Lamprid. Heliogab. 23). It possessed also another variety in three open galleries, or balconies, at the circular end, called meniana or maeniana (Suet. Cal. 18). The numbers which the Circus Maximus was capable of containing, are computed at 150,000 by Dionysius (III p192), 200,000 by Pliny (H. N. XXXVI.24 §1),º and 385,000 by P. Victor (Regio XI), all of which are probably correct, but have reference to different periods of its history. Its very great extent is indicated by Juvenal (Sat. XI.195). Its length, in the time of Julius Caesar, was three stadia, the width one, and the depth of the buildings occupied half a stadium (Plin. l.c.), which is included in the measurements given by Dionysius (III. p192), and thus exactly accounts for the variation in his computation.

When the Circus Maximus was permanently formed by Tarquinius Priscus, each of the thirty curiae had a particular place assigned to it (Dionys. III. p192); but as the plebeians had no right to a seat in this circus, the Circus Flaminius was afterwards built for their games (cf. Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. I p362, vol. II p360).º Of course, in the latter days of the republic, when the distinction between patricians and plebeians had practically ceased to exist, the plebeians sat in the Circus Maximus (Suet. Aug. 44). The seats were then marked off at intervals by a line or groove drawn across them (linea), so that the space included between two lines afforded room for a certain number of spectators. Hence the allusion of Ovid (Amor. III.2.19):

Quid frustra refugis? cogit nos linea jungi.

(cf. Ovid. Art. Amat. I.141). As the seats were hard and high, the women made use of a cushion (pulvinus), and a footstool (scamnum, scabellum, Ovid Art. Amat. I. 160, 162), for which purpose the railing which ran along the upper edge of each praecinctio was used by those who sat immediately above it (Ovid. Amor. III.2.64). But under the emperors, when it became necessary to give an adventitious rank to the upper classes by privileges and distinctions, Augustus first, then Claudius, and finally Nero and Domitian, separated the senators and equites from the common people (Suet. Aug. 44, Claud. 21, Nero 11, Domit. 8). The seat of the emperor — pulvinar (Suet.  Aug. 44, Claud. 4), cubiculum (id. Nero 12), was most likely in the same situation in the Circus Maximus, as in the one above described. It was generally upon the podium, unless when he presided himself, which was not always the case (Suet., Nerol.c.); but then he occupied the elevated tribunal of the president (suggestus), over the porta pompae. The consuls and other dignitaries sat above the carceres (Sidon. Carm. XXIII.317), indications of which seats are seen in the woodcut on p285, a. The rest of the oppidum was probably occupied by the musicians and persons who formed part of the pompa.

The exterior of the Circus Maximus was surrounded by a portico one story high, above which were shops for those who sold refreshments (Dionys. III. p192). Within the portico were ranges of dark vaults, which supported the seats of the cavea. These were let out to women of the town (Juv. Sat. III.65; Lamprid. Heliogab. 26).

The Circensian games (Ludi Circenses) were first instituted by Romulus, according to the legends, when he wished to attract the Sabine population to Rome, for the purpose of furnishing is own people with wives (Val. Max. II.4 §3), and were celebrated in honour of the god Consus, or Neptunus Equestris, from whom they were styled Consuales (Liv. I.9). But after the construction of the Circus Maximus, they were called indiscriminately Circenses (Servius, ad Virg. Georg. III.18), Romani, or Magni (Liv. I.35). They embraced six kinds of games:

I. Cursus

II. Ludus Trojae

III. Pugna Equestris

IV. Certamen Gymnicum

V. Venatio

VI. Naumachia
The two last were not peculiar to the circus, but were exhibited also in the amphitheatre, or in buildings appropriated for them.

 p287  The games commenced with a grand procession (Pompa Circensis), in which all those who were about to exhibit in the circus, as well as persons of distinction, bore a part. The statues of the gods formed the most conspicuous part of the show, which were paraded upon wooden platforms, called fercula and thensae (Suet. Jul. 76). The former were borne upon the shoulders, as the statues of saints are carried in modern processions (Cic. de Off. I.36); the latter drawn along upon wheels, and hence the thensa which bore the statue of Jupiter is termed Jovis plaustrum by Tertullian (De Spectac. 7), and Διὸς ὄχος, by Dion Cassius (p608). The former were for painted images, or those of light material; the latter for the heavy statues. The whole procession is minutely described by Dionysius (VII pp457, 458; cf. Ovid, Amor. III.2.43, &c.).

I. Cursus, the races. The carriage usually employed in the circus was drawn by two or four horses (biga, quadriga) [Currus.]

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		The usual number of chariots which started for each race was four. The drivers (aurigae, agitatores) were also divided into four companies, each distinguished by a different colour, to represent the four seasons of the year, and called a factio (Festus, s.v.): thus factio prasina, the green, represented the spring, whence (Juv. Sat. XI.196) "Eventum viridis quo colligi panni"; factio russata, red, the summer; factio veneta, azure, the autumn; and factio alba or albata, white, the winter (Tertull. de Spectac. 9; cf. the authorities quoted by Ruperti, ad Juv. VII.112). Originally there were but two factions, albata and russata (Tertullian, l.c.), and consequently only two chariots started at each race. Domitian subsequently increased the whole number to six, by the addition of two new factions, aurata and purpurea (Suet. Dom. 7); but this appears to have been an exception to the usual practice, and not in general use. The driver stood in his car within the reins, which went round his back. This enabled him to throw all his weight against the horses, by leaning backwards; but it greatly enhanced his danger in case of an upset, and caused the death of Hippolytus (Eur. Hipp. 1230, ed. Monk; cf. Ovid, Met. XV.524). To avoid this peril a sort of knife or bill-hook was carried at the waist, for the purpose of cutting the reins in case of an emergency, as is seen in some of the ancient reliefs, and is more clearly illustrated in the annexed woodcut, copied from a fragment formerly belonging to the Villa Negroni, which also affords a specimen of the dress of an auriga. The torso only remains of this statue; but the head is supplied from another antique, representing an auriga, in the Villa Albani.

When all was ready, the doors of the carceres were flung open, and the chariots were formed abreast of the alba linea by men called moratores from their dutyº; the signal for the start was then given by the person who presided at the games, sometimes by the sound of trumpet (Ovid. Met. X.652; Sidon., Carm. XXIII.341), or more usually by letting fall a napkin (mappa, Suet. Nero 22; Mart. Ep. XII.29.9),​b whence the Circensian games are called spectacula mappae (Juv. Sat. XI.191). The origin of this custom is founded on a story that Nero, while at dinner, hearing the shouts of the people who were clamorous for the course to begin, threw down his napkin as the signal (Cassiodor. Var. Ep. III.51). The alba linea was then cast off, and the race commenced, the extent of which was seven times round the spina (Varro, ap. Gell. III.10), keeping it always on the left (Ovid Amor. III.2.72; Sil. Ital. XVI.362). A course of seven circuits was termed unus missus, and twenty-five was the number of races ran in each day, the last of which was called missus aerarius, because in early times the expense of it was defrayed by a collection of money (aes) made amongst the people (Serv. ad Virg. Georg. III.18; cf. Dion Cass. LIX p908). Upon one occasion Domitian reduced the number of circuits from seven to five, in order to exhibit 100 missus in one day (Suet. Dom. 4). The victor descended from his car at the conclusion of the race, and ascended the spina, where he received his reward (bravium, from the Greek βραβεῖον, Paul. 1 Corinth. ix.24),​c which accounts for the great wealth of the charioteers to which Juvenal alludes, and the truth of which is testified by many sepulchral inscriptions.

A single horseman, answering to the κέλης of the Greeks, attended each chariot, the object of which seems to have been twofold; to assist his companion by urging on the horses, when his hands were occupied in managing the reins, and, if necessary, to ride forward and clear the course, as seen in the cut from the British Museum representing the metae, which duty Cassiodorus (Var. Ep. III.51) assigns to him, with the title of equus desultorius. Other writers apply that term to those who practised feats of horseman­ship in the circus, leaping from one to another when at their speed​d (cf. Suet. Jul. 39; Cic. Pro Muren. 27; Dionys. p462; Panvin. De Lud. Circens. I.9). In other respects, the horse-racing followed the same rules as the chariots.

The enthusiasm of the Romans for these races exceeded all bounds. Lists of the horses (libelli), with their names and colours, and those of the drivers, were handed about, and heavy bets made upon each faction (Ovid, Art. Amat. I.167, 168; Juv. Sat. XI.200; Mart. Ep. XI.1.15); and sometimes  p288 the contests between two parties broke out into open violence and bloody quarrels, until at last the disputes which originated in the circus, had nearly lost the Emperor Justinian his crown (Gibbon, c. 40).

II. Ludus Trojae, a sort of sham-fight, said to have been invented by Aeneas, performed by young men on horseback (Tacit. Ann. XI.11), often exhibited by Augustus and succeeding emperors (Suet.  Aug. 43, Nero 7), which is described by Virgil (Aen. V.553, &c.).

III. Pugna Equestris et Pedestris, a representation of a battle, upon which occasions a camp was formed in the circus (Suet. Jul. 39, Dom. 4).

IV. Certamen Gymnicum. See Athletae, and the references to the articles there given.

V. [Venatio]

VI. [Naumachia]

The pompa circensis was abolished by Constantine, upon his conversion to Christianity;º and the other games of the circus by the Goths (A.D. 410);​e but the chariot races continued at Constantinople until that city was besieged by the Venetians (A.D. 1204).​f

The Author's Notes:

1 In the Lyons mosaic, subsequently noticed in the text, the delphinae are represented as fountains spouting water; but in a bas-relief of the Palazzo Barberini (Fabretti, Syntagm. de Column. Trajani, p144), a ladder is placed against the columns which support the dolphins, apparently for the purpose of ascending to take them up and down.

2 This mosaic has several peculiarities. Most of the objects are double. There is a double set of ova and delphinae, one of each sort at each end of the spina — and eight chariots, that is a double set, for each colour, are inserted.

Thayer's Notes:

a For exhaustive detail on the Circus Maximus, see Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Romes.v.

b For the napkin (mappa), see the article Mantele.

c This is the ultimate origin of the word bravo! (Yes, really.)

d This seems much likelier to me: desultorius from de + saltare = horses that people jump off from. The acrobat who did this was a desultor.

e One of the most important documents we have on the circus games is the mosaic floor of the baths of a palatial villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, which may have been the country estate of an importer of wild beasts for the circus shows. A very good collection of some two dozen photos of these mosaics can be found on Mary Ann Sullivan's site.

f Venationes were still being held in Constantinople one hundred and fifty years later under the officially most Christian emperor Justinian, or, at least, wild beasts were being used in large numbers there for something: Procopius, Anecdota, 9.2.

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