Rome flaunts the restored Circus Maximus as an eminent archaeological site

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On 16th November, Rome officially showcased one of its architectural gems that harks back to the historical Roman epoch of the ‘eternal city’. We are talking about the one-and-only Circus Maximus, the largest sporting stadium of the ancient times. The massive scope of its archaeological ruins has been restored for the public, thus allowing the common folk to visit the spruced up race tracks and arched walkways that attracted the likes of influential senators and rich sportsmen in the ancient times. As a matter of fact, the allure of the Circus Maximus can be summed up by one name – Gaius Appuleius Diocles, possibly the highest paid athlete in the history of mankind. This charioteer, according to classical studies professor Peter Struck (at University of Chicago), amassed around some 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money – which is equivalent to about a whopping $15 billion or £9.6 billion in present value!

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Claudio Parisi Presicce, Rome’s superintendent for Rome’s cultural heritage, said –

We can imagine bustling activity around the semicircle which we have restored and made accessible to the people, with crowds gathering around these structures.

Now incredibly enough, while the Circus Maximus’ eminence as Rome’s largest venue for ludi (the public games related to religious festivals) rose during the late Republic period, the area comprising the stadium was in use for public events since Rome’s kingdom days. According to Ovid’s Fasti, in the ancient Roman festival of Cerealia, people used to tie blazing torches to the tails of foxes, who were then ceremoniously let loose into the expansive agricultural space later known as Circus Maximus – as a symbolic punishment for the creatures’ yearly forays into Roman crop lands that were sacred to Ceres. A legend also says how Rome’s founder Romulus forcefully abducted women from the Sabine tribe and brought them to the site to marry Roman men. As Presicce added –

This is where the famous “Rape of the Sabines” took place, which led to the formation of the first Roman families who then went on to build this city.

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And as for the actual physical ambit of the Circus Maximus, the oval-shaped ‘stadium’ had a capacity of 150,000 people, and gargantuan dimensions of 620 m of length (2,033 ft or 678 yards) and about 140-150 m (492 ft or 159 yards) of width (by the time of Augustus). The inside track, covered in sand, boasted an area of 43,000 sq m or 465,000 sq ft – which is equal to more than 8 American football fields! This racing track also contained the spina, the crucial median strip of the circus – at the end of which the charioteers made their dangerously calculated turns.

Interestingly, the material of the spina mainly comprised hydraulic mortar that was created by combining lime with crushed ceramics. This endowed the structure with water resistance, thus allowing the spina to be arrayed with water basins. So the structure mitigated any signs of dampness, while specially employed men (known as sparsores) were given the unenviable task of sprinkling water (from the basins) on the chariots and the horses as they rapidly passed by the median strip.

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Via: Reuters / All Images Credit: Max Rossi, Reuters

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  • Geoff Kieley

    On my first visit to Rome many years ago, I searched and searched for the Circus Maximimus – I even stood on the Palatine, looking down to where the guide book told me I could see it. But all I saw was a big field, with a few dog walkers and joggers. Only later that evening, wandering around under a full moon, did I find myself walking along a dirt track through that very field. Suddenly, it dawned o that the little dirt track was in fact the very track where the chariots raced all those centuries ago. I looked ahead and saw the track disappear in the dark distance, looked up and saw the ruins of the grand houses of the Palatine under the moon. It was vast and empty, only a ruin, really – but even then – when you stood in the middle of it – you were overcome by the sense of history, by the feeling those charioteers must have experienced as they looked out at the vast, cheering audience, their horses snorting, their nerves on a knife edge, waiting for the start of the race.

    A sight not to be missed, when in Rome. Can’t wait to see the restoration on my next visit.

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