The Circus Maximus can be considered as the largest building ever put up for entertainment purposes.
Indeed, when the circus attained its greatest size, in the heyday of the imperial age, it measured no less than 600m in length and 200m in width, and could accommodate up to 300,000 spectators.
Photo credits by Google Maps.
The last of the major reconstructions of the circus was undertaken by Trajan at the beginning of the 2nd Century AD, though it was later enlarged by Caracalla and restored by Constantine, while Constans, as late as 357 AD, had it adorned with an Egyptian obelisk (attributed to Thutmosis III), which thus came to make a pair with the one (bearing the cartouche of Ramses II) that Augustus had erected at the centre of the spina, the characteristic barrier that ran down the middle of the arena, thus defining the circuit that the chariots had to complete seven times before reaching the finishing line.
Photo credits by Jeremy Thompson under CC-BY license.
The seating area was divided into three sections by horizontal gangways, interrupted on Palatine side by the great imperial ‘box’, which was in direct communication with the palaces on the top of the hill. But a part of the seating, presumably the topmost rows, must have been sustained by wooden structures, because the records apprise us of frequent collapses: one such disaster killed 1,112 spectators in the time of Antoninus Pius and another, under Diocletian, no less than 13,000.
The Circus Maximus had a long life. Races were still being organized there in the 5th Century AD, the last spectacle to be put on being the one sponsored by Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, in 549.
The two obelisks were unearthed in 1588 and Pope Sixtus V had them removed and re-erected, one in Piazza del Popolo and the other in front of the side entrance of St. John in Lateran, where they can still be seen today.
Do you want to know more about the history of the Circus Maximus and see how it was originally?
Check out our guidebook to Rome, with detailed history and Past & Present images of the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Trajan’s Market and all the greatest historical and archaeological sites of the eternal city.
How to get to the Circus Maximus
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