Last time I was in Rome the Circus Maximus was just a vast grassy area. A pleasant place for a walk, or a picnic perhaps, but nothing more. But now excavations at one end of the site have uncovered some of the original brickwork – seating, shops and more. The excavated area opened to visitors at the end of 2016.
History of the Circus Maximus
According to one of the many helpful information boards, the Circus Maximus was the “largest sports and entertainment venue of all time”, with the ability to house more than 150,000 people. Dating back to the 6th century BC, it was located in a valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, just outside the city of Rome. For the next thousand years it was home to the ludi, public games associated with religious festivals. These included athletics, chariot races, plays and gladiator contests, as well as religious ceremonies and feasts. The festivities might also feature public executions!
The Circus Maximus later fell into disuse and was plundered for building materials. The marble of the triumphal arch and of the temples at the centre of the stadium were particularly in demand. The area gradually reverted to agricultural use. In the 19th century, when it was still outside the urban area, it became an industrial zone with gasometers and manufacturing operations. Later the city expanded and the industrial activity relocated to the outskirts. At this point the Circus Maximus became a grassed leisure area, occasionally hosting outdoor concerts.
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Exploring the Circus Maximus
Even today most of the Circus Maximus is effectively a public park. However there is plenty to see: you can walk up the steps by which the crowds would have entered and see the seats they would have crammed into to watch the sports. Around the entrance are the remains of shops. These housed not just the usual hawkers, but also taverns, betting shops and brothels. All the needs of the spectators were met; there were even public latrines and fountains for hand washing.
Around the site you will see fragments of other structures, including the triumphal arch. This would have been a magnificent structure, allowing a mighty procession to enter the stadium at the start of the ludi. At the centre of the excavations is a tall tower. This is not Roman, but medieval, the remains of a watermill, and a reminder of the varied history of the site. Climb to the top of the tower to see the Circus Maximus spread before you like a massive football pitch, and try to imagine the roar of the assembled masses as they cheer on the athletes.
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