Nestled in the Valley of Murcia, between the Palatine and Aventine hills, the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo in Italian) is the oldest and largest hippodrome in ancient Rome.
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Brief history of the Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus in Antiquity
The Circus Maximus under the Roman Monarchy and the Roman Republic
According to Roman tradition, the origins of the Circus Maximus dates back to the very beginning of the 6th century BC. The stadium is said to have been built at the request of Tarquin the Elder, but was then only a vast esplanade without any permanent infrastructure.
It wasn’t until the 4th th century BC, during the Roman Republic, that the Circus Maximus was fitted with permanent wooden structures, including starting gates and grandstands. It was also around this time that the spina was built, a central dividing ridge dividing the track into equal parts, where chariot races took place.
The Circus Maximus under the Roman Empire
At the end of the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar undertook major construction works to enlarge the circus. His successor, Augustus, continued in his footsteps and erected in the stadium an obelisk brought back by Roman troops from Heliopolis in Egypt.
But the Circus Maximus was partly destroyed in several fires. The first stone bleachers were built much later, at the request of the emperor Claude in the 1st century AD. His successors continued to replace the old wooden seats with seats made of stone and marble.
Despite these improvements, the construction of the Colosseum in the 1st century AD initiated the decline of the Circus Maximus.
That being said, the circus was completely renovated in the 2nd century AD under the reign of Trajan, and then again in the 4th century at the request of Emperor Constantine I. His successor, Emperor Constantine II, had a second obelisk erected on the spina, brought from Karnak in Egypt.
The Circus Maximus in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
The Circus Maximus was abandoned in the 6th century AD and gradually fell into oblivion. The last chariot race took place in 549 during the reign of the Ostrogothic king Totila.
In the Middle Ages and later in the Renaissance, the Circus Maximus was looted and its materials reused for new constructions.
The Egyptian obelisk installed in the hippodrome at the request of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC was transferred to Piazza del Popolo. The obelisk erected by Emperor Constantine II in the 4th century was relocated to the square in front of the Lateran Palace.
The Circus Maximus today
Today, the Circus Maximus has again become quite a symbolic place for the inhabitants of the Italian capital, who meet here for huge concerts (Genesis, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen), festivals, open-air cinema sessions and large popular gatherings.
The Romans celebrated Italy’s victory at the World Cup in 2006 at the Circus Maximus!
Games, chariot races and processions at the Circus Maximus
Don’t be fooled by the name “Circus Maximus”! You’ll find no clowns nor acrobats here! In ancient Rome, a circus was a vast stadium similar to a hippodrome where various games, races and processions were organized.
Roman spectators could therefore attend chariot races, but also equestrian shows, animal or gladiator fights, athletic events (wrestling, pugilism or running) as well as triumphal processions.
Short description of the Circus Maximus during Antiquity
During Antiquity, the track of the Circus Maximus extended over 600 meters long for a width varying between 80 and 200 meters (the circus was enlarged over the centuries).
Covered in sand, the track was split in two by a spina decorated with statues. It was around this spina that races and processions took place.
A ditch lined with a palisade separated the arena from the stands in order to protect the spectators from any accident, in particular due to the presence of wild animals.
The bleachers, first made of wood, were replaced over the centuries by stone stands.
Many shops were also located to the west of the circus, on the Palatine Hill.
🏟️ Capacity of the Circus Maximus 🏟️
Ancient authors claimed that the Circus Maximus could accommodate between 150,000 and 300,000 spectators! A study from the 2000s, however, proved that the capacity of the racecourse was closer to 95,000 to 100,000 spectators
Impressive, isn’t it?
Visiting the Circus Maximus
All that remains of the mythical Roman stadium is a vast grassy expanse dotted with a few remains of bleachers. But the shape of the track is still perfectly discernible and allows visitors to imagine the immensity of the stadium during Antiquity.
While it may not be one of the top attractions in Rome, the Circus Maximus is well worth a visit if you’re staying long enough in the Italian capital.
Visitors can freely access the Circus Maximus!
The old hippodrome is located on the Via del Circo Massimo, a short walk from the Palatine Hill and the Bocca della Verità.
The nearest metro station is Circo Massimo (line B).
Please note that unlimited access to public transport is included in the Omnia Card and Roma Pass. More info here.
Looking for tips and recommendations? Here are all the Captain’s suggestions!
🎟️ Activities: as for booking visits and tourist activities, Captain Ulysses recommends three websites: GetYourGuide, Tiqets and Civitatis. Guided tours, cruises, skip-the-line tickets, tourist activities… there’s plenty to choose from!
🎫 Citypass: if you are staying in Rome for several days, it may be worth investing in the Roma Pass or the Omnia Card . As well as entry to some of the capital’s most iconic sites, these passes include access to public transport.
🚐 Transfers: if you want to arrive in Rome serenely, you can book your transfer from the airport to the city centre in advance. A car will be waiting to take you to your accommodation in the city. Find out more: transfers in Rome.
🚌 Local transport: Rome has a comprehensive public transport system: metro, bus and tram. Access to public transport is included in the Roma Pass and the Omnia Card. If you wish, you can also opt for a hop-on hop-off bus tour which stops at all the top tourist attractions in Rome (audio guide included).
✈️ Flights and trains: to book your flights to Rome, Captain Ulysses warmly recommends Skyscanner. You’ll be able to compare countless offers to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can also compare prices over several months to find the cheapest flights possible.
As for trains, the Captain recommends Trainline to book your tickets.