There is possibly a logical explanation, such as “historic preservation,” and let us hope that is the reason, but I confess my surprise that such a huge tract of land right in the historic center of Rome remains undeveloped. It is the size of at least a couple of football fields, with room for many spectators, and is the site of the once famous chariot races of Rome. It is an impressive place and ideal for pondering the past and imagining what it must have once looked like, when the races were held, with hundreds of thousands in attendance. It was definitely not a place for the faint hearted, as accidents happened, blood was spilled and deaths occurred. Circo Massimo has the distinction of being the largest sports stadium ever built, and according to tradition, was constructed in the seventh century B.C
The now classic film of 1959 (the year I began grade school at the age of six!), directed by William Wyler, entitled “Ben Hur,” brought history to life in its depiction of Circo Massimo with its chariot race sequence. Starring the late Charlton Heston, “Ben Hur” was a movie my parents went to see on one of their weekly outings “away from the kids,” on Saturday nights. We four siblings would be left in the care of a capable high school-age babysitter, who prepared supper for us, watched some TV with us, then send us to bed. My parents usually returned home around 11:00 pm. Why do I remember so well the night they went to see Ben Hur? I must have wanted to see it too!
For the actual chariot races of imperial Rome, as many as twelve chariots, with four horses and a single driver competed, though several chariots often ended up overturned, trapping the drivers beneath and causing fatalities. The curve at either end of the elliptical arena was especially prone to accidents, believed to be in part the result of deliberate obstruction between the four rival stables competing in the races. The fours stables were color-identified as red, blue, green and white, with the drivers wearing the color of his stable. Like modern day sports teams, each of the four stables strove to gain the favor of the spectators, and the excitement was described in the Latin phrase as “furor circensis,” that is, “the frenzy of the games.” Some things never change!
Circus Maximus, its Latin name, was active in the first century B.C. under the Emperor Julius Caesar. During the reign of Emperor Trajan, from 98 to 117 A.D., the arena, some two thousand feet long and four hundred feet wide, was faced in marble. Seating capacity was in the range of two-hundred fifty thousand to, some say, four-hundred thousand. That is a lot of fans! One end of the arena held the starting gates, where drivers waited for the signal from the editor, as he was called, the organizer and sponsor of the event that day, who would drop a handkerchief to start the race. At the moment the handkerchief dropped, a mechanical devise would unbolt and open the iron gates for the beginning of the race.
Between the emperors Julius Caesar and Trajan, the Emperor Caesar Augustus reigned from 63 B.C. to 14 A.D. During his time a “spina,” a spine or decorated boulevard, ran down the center of the Circo Massimo arena. It can still be seen today, and originally was about seven feet high and twenty feet wide and over a thousand feet long. This made the actual running track about three hundred feet wide. The chariot drivers had to gallop their horses around the track seven times during a race. At both ends of the “spina” were men who counted the number of times the drivers raced by. The counting method was composed of seven dolphins made of metal. As each round was completed, a dolphin was clapped down. Why dolphins? Because the dolphin was especially associated with the sea-god Neptune, who was also the god of horses.
The Emperor Caesar Augustus had an obelisk, one of those monolith stone pillars of Egypt, from the time of the Pharaoh Ramses II, who reigned from 1279 – 1212 B.C., placed on the spina in the Circo Massimo arena. In 1589 it was moved to Piazzo del Popolo in Rome and can still be seen and admired there. Obelisks were spoils of war from Roman times and are found all over the city of Rome today. Egyptian hieroglyphics normally adorn the four sides of the monumental obelisks. Another obelisk once in the Circo Massimo is now in front of Rome’s Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the pope’s official cathedral.
Each chariot race at Circo Massimo offered a monetary prize for the winner, the charioteer who made all seven rounds of the arena in one piece and first. The most successful drivers could end up as “multimillionaires” of their day and superstars as well. Among the drivers were sometimes the emperors themselves, including Caligula, Nero, Domitian and Commodus. It is hard for us to imagine presidents, kings, prime ministers or such in a “Formula I” race or as jockeys at the Kentucky Derby, but in Roman antiquity it was taken for granted that the leaders be in the running, and even be the victor when they hadn’t actually reached the winners post or deserved a prize. The term might be called, “emperor duping.”
Besides the actual charioteers amassing fortunes, the possibility of the crowd also winning money existed by competitive betting, as we have in modern horseracing, for example. Betting booths were part of the Circo Massimo events and food vendors were there as well. With wine flowing freely at the games, bloody fights between the spectators in the stands were common. Rival fans sometimes even killed each other. Stampedes among the crowds caused fatalities as well, and on one occasion a column collapsed causing many deaths. Another time a wall buckled, resulting in numerous fatalities. To say the least, one took one’s life in one’s hands when going to the chariot races, either as a participant or a spectator!
The chariot races of ancient Rome typically took place one day or more in the course of a week, throughout the year, and usually lasted the entire day. Many of the races and other events at Circo Massimo celebrated important dates in the Roman calendar. Some races were held as fulfillment of vows made to the gods for specific favors, especially victory in battle.
The end of chariot racing in Rome occurred under King Totila of the Eastern Goths (also called the “Ostrogoth King”), who reigned from 541 to 552 AD, during the lifetime of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Totila banned the tradition that had lasted for many centuries, with the last recorded race at Circo Massimo taking place in 549 AD.
The remains of the Circo Massimo are still noteworthy, and when I pass it on my daily walk, I can easily imagine and even hear the roar of the crowds and the stamping of horse hooves, only to look around and see a flock of gaggling young tourists passing by and a horse and buggy or two carrying sightseers, heading down the street next to Rome’s Circus Maximus.