When was the Circus built?
The Circus Maximus was originally built in the sixth century BCE. Permanent starting gates were constructed in 329 BCE, and they were rebuilt in 174 BCE. Julius Caesar lengthened the track and built a euripus (water filled channel) around it in 46 BCE. In 33 BCE, Agrippa supplemented the large wooden eggs used for marking laps with seven bronze dolphins instead. In 31 BCE, a fire destroyed most of the Circus, and Augustus rebuilt it, and added an imperial box, or a pulvinar. In 10 BCE, an obelisk was erected as a dedication to the sun, and as a monument for the conquest of Egypt. Finally, in 80 CE, Trajan restored the temple to greater than ever before after a fire, changing some seats into marble, making massive columns and arches on the sides, adding walkways between seats, and allowing men and women to sit together.
Where, why, how, and by whom was the Circus built?
The circus was built by Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome. By the time of the building of the Circus, chariot races were already happening near the site of the building. The building simply gave an official venue in which the races could occur. Part of the building of the Circus involved rechanneling a river to make a boundary for the track. The circus was the first of its kind to be built, and the channeling of the river, the massive sandy track, and the seats around the edges marked one of the original sport stadiums. It was located in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. When it was rebuilt in 80 CE, massive arches, and marble seating were added, making this into a truly magnificent example of a Roman sports stadium. Other chariot tracks built around the Empire were modeled on the circus. The circus was originally mostly made out of wood, as the seats were on raised wooden platforms, and the starting gates were wood, but in 80 CE, marble was added. While the Circus was built for chariot races, gladiator games and animal hunts were staged there as well.
What were the important structural and artistic features of the Circus?
Like major racing stadiums today, the starting areas were staggered so the total distances was the same. The arches were another important structural feature of the Circus, one of the features that would, and had, become iconic in Roman architecture. Columns were also a very important feature of the Circus, making it look extremely impressive on the outside. A very important feature, both structural and artistic, was the Euripus, a moat around the outside to protect the spectators from wild animals. There was a sweeping curve at both ends of the track, called the sphendone, and this was where many crashes would have occurred. An important artistic feature was the metae, turning posts with seven bronze dolphins on them to mark the laps.
What was the usage and significance of the Circus Maximus in the Roman world?
The Circus Maximus, and Circuses in general, were one of the most important features of Ancient Rome. The Circus itself was used extremely often, with seventy-seven days devoted to racing at one point, and twenty four races a day after Caligula. Four factions dominated the Circus, Red, White, Blue, and Green, with Blue and Green being the most important. The Roman populace loved the games, and often used them as an excuse to petition the Emperor, or even attempt to crown new ones after the Emperor’s death sometimes. Each race in the Circus had seven laps, and would have been upwards of three miles long. Deaths were common at the races, with risks including being run over by chariots, having an enemy’s whip knock you off, or simply dying in a chariot crash. Sometimes, victory by a particular faction would result in disastrous riots, with portions of the populace being killed. There was an intense rivalry between factions, as the individual racers, or supporters often tried to kill or curse each other. Probably nothing, except for the gladiatorial games, was as popular as chariot racing was in Rome.
Other interesting information about the Circus Maximus:
Many emperors were especially brutal in their handling of crowds at a circus, such as Caligula. He once simply killed all citizens who were demanding lowered taxes until they stopped complaining. The Circus remained as a sports stadium until 550 CE. This was around the end of the importance of the city of Rome. It was never used for other events, and quickly fell into ruin with the rest of the city.
“Circus Maximus.” Circus Maximus. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2012. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/circusmaximus/circusmaximus.html>.
Brommer, Gerald F. Discovering Art History, 3rd ed. Worcester: Davis Publications Inc. 1997
Thompson, Nancy L. “Roman Art”. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007
“Circus Maximus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 Aug. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circus_Maximus>.