Circus Maximus

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey it’s not. But it is the original “Big Top” but without the top. Circus Maximus was an arena built into a narrow valley on the outskirts of the city of Rome. It is situated on the south side of the Palatine Hill. Tradition holds that King Tarquin originally built it around 500 BC (remember the last of the Etruscan kings in Rome?) in order to commemorate a successful battle with the neighboring Sabinites. Apparently the Romans were short of eligible women for their men and conducted a successful raid and theft of Sabinite women. Not exactly a circusy event, but a circus it became complete with chariot racing, gladiator battles and gambling.

It certainly isn’t much to look at today, but in its heyday the Circus Maximus could accommodate as many as 300,000 people. It is considered the largest structure ever constructed for entertainment purposes. At its peak around AD 100, its huge oval shape measured more than six football fields long and two football fields wide. The infield of this gigantic racetrack, because that’s what it really was, was a long narrow island called the “spina.” At either end of the spina were two obelisks imported from Egypt. One is attributed to Thutmosis III (c. 1460 BC) and the other Ramses II (c. 1250 BC) What did I tell ya? Everybody loves Egypt. Races usually consisted of seven laps, and these obelisks marked out the turns on the track. The obelisks were re-excavated in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V and re-erected around Rome.

How do you seat 300,000 people? There were box seats that backed up against the Palatine Hill where the palaces of the emperors stood. These, of course, were reserved for the ruling elite, the emperors. Most of the seating was paved with concrete, bricks, and stone into the hillsides on either side of the Circus. The cheap seats at the top of the hills were wooden bleachers that regularly collapsed. On one occasion, around AD 300, historians wrote of the deaths of around 13,000 spectators. I hope that this number was a misprint. On that day the main event was in the bleachers not on the track.

Unable to resist the temptation Megan, Sam, Sarah Jane, and Emma raced one lap around the track. Emma dropped out after about 30 yards. Megan turned back after ¾ of a lap. Sarah Jane ran back and forth to check on Meg and Emma before she completed her lap (probably completing two lap in the process). But Sam cranked out his lap in record time and then went on to run another half a lap just to make sure he completed a full mile on the Circus Maximus.

Circus Maximus

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