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Reconstruction of the Circus by Trajan

On the reverse: SPQR OPTIMO PRINCIPI and in exergue S C (Senatus Consulto, "by degree of the Senate"). Reference: BMC 853, RIC 571.

"He was so high-minded and generous that, after enlarging and embellishing the Circus, which had crumbled away in places, he merely inscribed on it a statement that he had made it adequate for the Roman people."

Dio, Roman History (LVIII.7.2)

This coin is a completely new type and the first to represent the Circus in its entirety. It dates to late AD 103 and celebrates the extensive restoration by Trajan, as can be seen in the emphasis given to the arcaded façade and windowed attic. By extending the length of the Circus on the Palatine side and carrying the tiers of seats up the hill, an additional five-thousand places were added.

The view is from the Palatine hill and looks down onto the spina, with the obelisk of Augustus in the center (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XVIII, speaks of the obelisk as an arrow running through the middle of the world). To the left is a statue of Cybele (Magna Mater) mounted on a lion (the first time the figure appears), facing the finish line and opposite the Temple of the Sun, to whom the Circus was dedicated, its effigy, in the words of Tertullian, shining from the top (De Spectaculis, VIII). To the right of the obelisk are an unidentifiable feature, a representation of the dolphin lap counter, and the metae at each end. At the other end of the Circus, opposite the two arches flanking the starting gates (which are not visible), is the arch dedicated to Titus, with a tall attic and surmounted by a quadriga and charioteer.

Struck only in bronze to ensure greater circulation among the populace, the coin is important, too, for what it says of the relationship between the emperor and Senate. On the obverse, Trajan's name is in the dative, rather than the nominative. The year before, Trajan had been victorious over the Dacians, and a devoted Senate and People of Rome (SPQR) dedicated the coin to a most perfect prince (OPTIMO PRINCIPI), whose title ranked below only that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Caracalla also renovated the Circus, work on the starting gates (carceres) being commemorated on coins issued in AD 213. On the reverse of this gold aureus (RIC 211B), which follows the model of the Trajanic coin, one sees the arches of the façade, the central spina and metae, and, more importantly, the carceres. (So as not to obscure the gates and the figures above them, the quadriga group is omitted from the near arch, although it can be seen on the far one.) It is from the Freeman & Sear catalog (Spring 2005), item R4544 111.

The reverse of this sestertius, which also was struck in AD 213, shows another depiction of the Circus and is from the Triton II catalog (1998), item 958.

"The city [Heliopolis] is now entirely deserted; it contains the ancient temple constructed in the Aegyptian manner, which affords many evidences of the madness and sacrilege of Cambyses, who partly by fire and parly by iron sought to outrage the temples, mutilating them and burning them on every side, just as he did with the obelisks. Two of these, which were not completely spoiled, were brought to Rome, but others are either still there or at Thebes, the present Diospolis—some still standing, thoroughly eaten by the fire, and others lying on the ground."

Strabo, Geography (XVII.27)

The obelisk of Sethos I and his son Ramesses II was taken by Augustus from Heliopolis soon after the annexation of Egypt in 30 BC. It was the first to be brought to Rome, where it was placed at the eastern end of the spina of the Circus as a monument to the conquest of Egypt and a dedication to the Sun. Excavated at the order of Sixtus V in 1587, the broken obelisk was re-erected two years later in the Piazza del Popolo, surmounted with the pope's stylized image of three mountains topped by a star. It also is known as the Flaminian obelisk after the ancient Via Flaminia.

Another obelisk, brought to Rome by Augustus at the same time and with the same inscription, was used as a gnomen or pointer for a colossal sundial on the Campus Martius. It was excavated in 1748 and finally re-erected in the Piazza di Montecitorio in 1792.

Constantius II later erected a second obelisk on the spina, dedicated to the Sun and City of Rome, when he visited there in AD 357. Approximately 107 feet tall and weighing 455 tons, it is the largest in the world and marked the center of the Circus, itself. The transport of the red granite shaft is described by Ammianus Marcellinus.

"But Constantine,​ making little account of that [the obelisk having been consecrated as a special gift to the Sun God], tore the huge mass from its foundations; and since he rightly thought he was committing no sacrilege if he took this marvel from one temple and consecrated it at Rome, that is to say, in the temple of the whole world, he let it lie for a long time, while the things necessary for its transfer were being provided. And when it had been conveyed down the channel of the Nile and landed at Alexandria, a ship of a size hitherto unknown was constructed, to be rowed by three hundred oarsmen. After these provisions, the aforesaid emperor departed this life and the urgency of the enterprise waned, but at last the obelisk was loaded on the ship, after long delay, and brought over the sea and up the channel of the Tiber....But it was brought to the vicus Alexandri​ distant three miles from the city. There it was put on cradles​ and carefully drawn through the Ostian Gate and by the Piscina Publica​ and brought into the Circus Maximus. After this there remained only the raising, which it was thought could be accomplished only with great difficulty, perhaps not at all. But it was done in the following manner: to tall beams which were brought and raised on end (so that you would see a very grove of derricks) were fastened long and heavy ropes in the likeness of a manifold web hiding the sky with their excessive numbers. To these was attached that veritable mountain engraved over with written characters, and it was gradually drawn up on high through the empty air, and after hanging for a long time, while many thousand men turned wheels resembling millstones, it was finally placed in the middle of the circus​ and capped by a bronze globe gleaming with gold leaf; this was immediately struck by a bolt of the divine fire and therefore removed and replaced by a bronze figure of a torch, likewise overlaid with gold foil and glowing like a mass of flame (Roman Antiquities, XVII.4.13–15)

An inscription on the base indicates that Constantine the Great had intended to install the obelisk in his new capitol at Constantinople. It was removed from Karnak, but Constantine died in AD 337 and the obelisk remained in Alexandria until his son Constantius had it transported to Rome instead. The oldest obelisk in Rome and the last to be brought there, it was discovered in 1587, broken in three pieces. The next year, it was re-erected in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano by Sixtus V as part of his scheme of urban development.

The massive ships that carried the obelisks to Rome "attracted much attention from sightseers," says Pliny. Indeed, the obelisk brought to Rome from Alexandria by Caligula in AD 37 for the spina of his circus was carried by a ship thought to be "the most amazing thing that had ever been seen at sea." It was so large that one hundred and twenty thousand modii of lentils (a modius was a dry measure of approximately eight quarts) were required as ballast (weighing some eight to nine hundred tons). Carefully preserved by Claudius (who completed the circus), he eventually had the hull filled with cement at Pozzuoli (which produced a mortar of volcanic ash that hardened under water) and then towed to Ostia, where it occupied the greater part of the harbor's left side. There it was sunk as a foundation for a mole (Natural History, XXXVI.xvi.201–202). Suetonius places the mole at the harbor entrance and says that it supported a lighthouse modeled after the Pharos at Alexandria (Life of Claudius, XX.3).

Inherited by Nero, the circus provided shelter for survivors of the great fire of July 18, AD 64. It also was the site of Christian persecution, whom Nero blamed for the conflagration, including "an exhibition in his Circus" (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44). Christian tradition also places the crucifixion of Peter there.

For fifteen centuries, the Vatican obelisk stood in its original location, a monument to those martyrdoms. In 1586, eighty years after work on the basilica of St. Peter had begun, Sixtus V ordered that it be moved to the center of the piazza of St. Peter, there to be the centerpiece of Bernini's encircling colonnade.

References: Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing (1986) by John H. Humphrey; Trajan: Optimus Princeps (1997) by Julian Bennett; Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum: Volume I (1923) by Harold Mattingly; The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types (1989) by Philip V. Hill; Ammianus Marcellinus: The History (1939) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Pliny: Natural History (1962) translated by D. E. Eichholz (Loeb Classical Library); Trajan: Optimus Princeps (1997) by Julian Bennett. The illustration has been taken from Monumental Coins: Buildings & Structures on Ancient Coinage (1999) by Marvin Tameanko.

Interestingly, Hill's description of the Circus Maximus is completely different from that of Humphrey. He regards the Circus as being viewed from the Forum Boarium, with the twelve starting gates (duodecim portae) in the foreground, and the spina oriented ninety degrees from its proper position to show its ornamentation. On the spina, too, he identifies the statue of Cybele as being an equestrian statue of Trajan. Such a perspective seems completely wrong.

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