A model of the Circus Maximus depicting how it would have appeared in Ancient Rome.
At the height of the Roman Empire's grandeur, the Circus Maximus drew over a quarter of a million Romans to its festivals, games, and religious ceremonies. The spectacle spared no expense in glorifying the wealth and might of the empire. It must have been exhausting just to watch the twelve races that began at the rise of the sun and ended with its setting. With no lull in the activities, spectators enjoyed boxing and wrestling matches wedged between the main events. To reach a crescendo of excitement, gladiators sometimes exhibited their skill and the crowd could cheer for the martyrdom of Christians.
Nothing was ever done in a small way. Chariot races claimed to be the most breathtaking event of all. Twelve chariots raced abreast at dangerous speeds on a tract wide enough to hold them all. Some records claim that athletes would sometimes run for a whole day-up to 150 miles-to prove their endurance and skill. The emperor could survey it all from an especially built, luxurious enclosure high on Palatine Hill.
The fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, who ruled from 616 to 578 BC, is credited with creating the original Circus Maximus building for the purpose of horseracing. The marsh between the Palatine Hill and Aventine Hill was drained specifically for its construction.
Subsequent rulers expanded the site. The main arena was oval in shape with a flat end. Statues of various gods were set up on a raised median. Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) erected an obelisk. An amphitheater was added for gladiator and wild beast combats. Pompey the Great (106-47 BC) put on a grand spectacle of fighting elephants who tore down the protective bars between them and the crowd.
The Greek Olympian Games influenced the Romans to expand to an even greater public entertainment center in the second century BC. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) had a protective moat built and the wooden seats replaced with stone ones to accommodate 150,000 people. In the first century AD, It was Trajan who increased the capacity to 250,000 marble seats.
Nero became emperor in 54 AD at the age of 16. He found his palaces on the Palatine too crowded with the Forum on one side and the Circus Maximus on the other-and the slums not too far away. The city had just grown up without foresight, each ruler adding whatever he wished. He set about planning to rebuild Rome and call it Neropolis.
Little remains of the Circus Maximus today, Its grandeur, atmosphere and immensity have been robbed-out like much of Ancient Rome. In effect these fantastic monuments, including the Colosseum have been used as vast quarries of stone for later building.
But on July 18, 64, a great fire broke out in the Circus. It spread across its level ground, up the hills and throughout the city, raging for nine days. It destroyed seventy percent of the Rome, consuming the palaces as well. Rumors spread as fast as the flames, claiming Nero himself was to blame and had played his lyre as the fire devoured the city. Actually, Nero had been at his palace at Antium and rushed back. Evil as the emperor had been in many ways, he did open the Field of Mars for those who had fled for their lives. He had a city of tents set up and food brought to the destitute. But to quell the rumors he found a scapegoat in the new religion that was spreading throughout his empire. Alas, the killing of Christians would be the new sport in the rebuilt Circus Maximus.
After the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, the Circus Maximus fell into ruin, its marble stones carried off during Medieval times to build other structures. Its Obelisk, removed by Pope Sixtus V in the sixteenth century, now stands in the Piazza del Popolo.
However, in the nineteenth century, excavation and partial restoration began. In late 2008 archeological work on the eastern end of Circus Maximus was begun to better understand the site.
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