Welcome to the ancient Circus of Maxentius.
This circus, known until the 19th century as the Circus of Caracalla, is the best preserved
of all extant Roman circuses. It is also the second largest of all circuses, only beaten
by Circus Maximus. This grand arena, located next to the Appian
Way, was built during the early 4th century during the reign of the Roman Emperor Maxentius.
The exact history of this circus is still rather unknown, but the records tell us about
at least one of the games held at this circus. These games were the inaugural ones which
were described to have been funerary in character. These games were most likely held in honor
of the emperor’s son, Valerius Romulus, who died at young age. Romulus is believed to
have been interred at the circus, at a masoluem Maxentius most likely already had built as
a future tomb for himself. The Tomb of Romulus is one of the first things that you will see
if you’re walking the Appian Way from Rome. However, today the tomb itself is in ruinous
state and to a large extent concealed by another building.
As you can see, much of the circus itself is also left in ruins. However, the 500 meter
long track itself is visible, as well as the two gate towers. These towers would have contained
mechanism for raising the starting gates to allow the chariots to race down the track.
It was during the track excavation in the 19th century, that archeologists found an
inscription which dedicated the circus to the “divine Romulus”. This was what helped
the historians to identify the circus as Circus Maxentius, rather than the Circus of Caracalla.
In the middle of the 90 meters wide track is the “spina” — the barrier which divided
the track into two. The spina is exactly 1000 Roman Feet long, around 300 meters, and was
most likely cased in marble during the glory days of the circus. During these times, the
circus was decorated with several statues and obelisks. One of the obelisks originally
located here at the Circus of Maxentius is the obelisk which today dominates the popular
square Piazza Navona, in central Rome. The circus is believed to have had a spectator
capacity of around 10.000 people. The spectators were standing on an elevated area surrounding
the track, which allowed them to view the races in safety. The audience was also protected
from the sun by an arch which sprung from the summit.
While the spectators of the races were safe, the same cannot be said about the charioteers
competing in the races. The dangers of the course required the contestants to wear both
a helmet and a chest mail. The chariots were drawn by 2, 4 or sometimes even 10 horses.
As you can imagine, racing chariots on a track like this was bound to cause accidents. It
wasn’t uncommon that charioteers were wounded or killed due to crashes during the race,
despite their protection. Today, the Circus of Maxentius is by far the
best preserved of all Roman circuses. Even though the towers are ruins, the spina largely
covered and the arches broken, the old circus is still an impressive sight.