The Circus Maximus was the largest stadium in ancient Rome. Popular chariot races were held here for almost a millennium. The races were one of the Roman’s most popular forms of entertainment. Romulus, the first of Rome’s seven kings, is said to have held chariot races.
The origins of the Circus Maximus can be traced to the sixth century BC when Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, created a track between the Palatine and Aventine hills. The first permanent starting gates were created in 329 BC. In 174 BC the gates were rebuilt and seven wooden eggs were placed on top of the central wall in the arena. The eggs were used to count the number of laps and after each lap one egg was removed. In 33 BC seven bronze dolphins were added to the spina for the same purpose.
A fire in 31 BC, the first of three, destroyed the wooden structure. It was rebuilt by Emperor Augustus who also added an imperial box on the Palatine Hill. A large obelisk from Heliopolis was added to the spina as a decoration. The obelisk can now be found at the center of the Piazza del Popolo. Another obelisk was added much later, in the fourth century. A second fire, in 64 AD, which started in wooden shops at the bottom around the track started the fire that burned much of Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero.
Destructed by three fires in a row the Circus was rebuilt by Trajan in 103 AD. The Roman Empire was at the height of its power and the new Circus Maximus reflected this status. The Circus was now a stone construction, three stories high. The lower part of the cavea (seating area) was built in marble. The arena complex was now more than 600 meters long and 150 meters wide.
The Circus Maximus was occasionally used for events such as processions or gladiator combats, but on most days only chariot races with quadrigaes, pulled by four horses, were held here. The races themselves were wildly popular with people fanatically supporting one of the four factions: red, white, green and blue representing summer, winter, spring and autumn respectively. Bets were laid on one of the factions and supporters of the different factions often clashed, sometimes resulting in deaths among the spectators.
Location: Via del Circo Massimo, Rome
Nearby sights: Palatine Hill, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Mouth of Truth
How to get there: Subway: Circo Massimo (B)
Nearby hotels: Hotel Domus Aventina, Palazzo al Velabro – Serviced Apartment, Kolbe Hotel Rome