Return to Circus Maximus

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 populus, 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 boxes (carceres, prisons) 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.)

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.

  This aureus is from the Freeman & Sear catalog (Spring 2005), item R4544 111.

"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 reerected two years later in the Piazza del Popolo (right), 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 reerected 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 (XVII.4.13) in his history of the later Roman empire.

"He tore it from its foundations, but then let it lie for a long period on the ground while the necessary preparations were being made for its transport. It was brought down the Nile by water and landed at Alexandria, where a ship of unheard-of size, requiring 300 rowers, was built for it....At last, however, the obelisk was embarked and conveyed overseas and up the Tiber....The obelisk was landed at Vicus Alexandri, three miles below the city. There it was placed on a sledge, slowly dragged through the Ostian Gate and the Piscina Publica, and brought into the Circus Maximus. It only remained to set it upright, a task which seemed almost, if not totally, impossible. [Dangerously tall masts were erected], which gave the impression of a forest of beams. To these were attached long, stout ropes which formed a network so dense it hid the sky. The mountain of obelisk covered with inscribed figures was tied to the ropes and gradually hauled up through the empty air, where it hung suspended for a long time till at last the efforts of many thousands of men turning what looked like millstones placed it in position in the middle of the Circus."

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 reerected 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" (XVI.201). It was so large, says Pliny, that one hundred and twenty thousand modii of lentils (a modius was a dry measure of approximately eight quarts) were required as ballast, some eight to nine hundred tons. Eventually, Claudius had it sunk at Ostia as part of the harbor mole to support the lighthouse there (Suetonius, XX.3).

Completed by Nero, the circus was the site of Christian persecution, including the crucifixion of Peter in the AD 60s. 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 center piece 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 Later Roman Empire (1986) translated by Walter Hamilton (Penguin Classics); 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.

Return to Top of Page