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Circus Maximus


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Julius Caesar (100 bc — 144 ad) politician, author, and military commander

Nero (37—68 ad) Roman emperor 54–68

 

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The most magnificent of the Roman circuses. The Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, laid out a sports ground for the celebration of the victory of the Etruscans over the Latins, and erected tribunes for the higher-class spectators. The last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, rebuilt these, thus laying the foundations for the Circus Maximus where Roman Games were staged. Sculptured into the slopes of the depression in the Murcia valley close to central Rome, between the Palatine and the Aventine hills, its layered seating could accommodate more than a quarter of a million spectators: the podium was reserved for the most privileged, and wooden structures at the top of the structure accommodated slaves and visitors/strangers. Booths surrounded the Circus, with salesmen of the day offering merchandise of all kinds, including astrological forecasts and the services of prostitutes. Julius Caesar modernized the venue, enlarging it to 621 metres long, and 118 metres across. Twelve starting gates—carceres—dominated one end of the site, out of which the horses raced; at the other end of the course a triumphal gate welcomed the winning unit. The Circus was later the source of the fire through which the Emperor Nero, as legend but not definitive history relates, fiddled.

The sexes were not segregated, and in the early years of the first century ad a day at the races was established as not just a betting venue and a holiday fair but also a meeting place; Ovid refers to the site as a source for finding potential partners. There were up to 24 races staged throughout the day, and disappointed out-of-pocket gamblers might be compensated with free raffle tickets or snacks. In the fourth century ad the writer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of the importance and significance of the games for the Roman populace:Now let me describe for you this mass of people, unemployed and therefore with too much time on their hands. For them the Circus Maximus is temple, home, social club and centre of all their hopes. You can see them beyond the city, arguing about the races…and declaring that the country will come to ruin unless their favourite wins in the next races. And on the day they all rush to the circus even before daybreak, to secure a place.' (cited in Vera Olivova, Sports and Games in the Ancient World, 1984).The Circus Maximus became a model for the hippodrome in contemporary Istanbul, north of the Blue Mosque and close to the Topkapi Palace. In both Rome and Istanbul, the spaces of these racing venues remain identifiable, powerful testimony to the profile in imperial cities of this blend of popular culture and political control. The Circus area itself hosted the free rock concert of the band Genesis in 2007, in front of 500,000 people; and the victory of the Italian national side in the 2006 men's football World Cup was celebrated by 700,000 people there.

Now let me describe for you this mass of people, unemployed and therefore with too much time on their hands. For them the Circus Maximus is temple, home, social club and centre of all their hopes. You can see them beyond the city, arguing about the races…and declaring that the country will come to ruin unless their favourite wins in the next races. And on the day they all rush to the circus even before daybreak, to secure a place.' (cited in Vera Olivova, Sports and Games in the Ancient World, 1984).

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Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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