1902 Encyclopedia > Circus


CIRCUS, in Roman Antiquity, was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot racing. It consisted of tiers of seats running parallel with the sides of the course, and forming a crescent round one of the ends. The other end was straight and at right angles to the course, so that the plan of the whole had nearly the form of an ellipse cut in half at its vertical axis. Along the transverse axis ran a fence (spina) separating the return course from the starting one. The straight end had no seats, but was occupied by the stalls (carceres) where the chariots and horses were held in readiness. This end constituted also the front of the building with the main entrance. At each end of the course were conical pillars (metce) to mark its limits.

The oldest building of this kind in Rome was the CIRCUS MAXIMUS, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, where previous to any permanent structure races ap< pear to have been held beside the altar of the god Consus. The first building is assigned to Tarquin the younger, but for a long time little seems to have been done to complete its accommodation, since it is not till 329 B.C. that we hear of stalls being erected for the chariots and horses. It was not in fact till under the empire that the circus became a conspicuous public resort. Caesar enlarged it to some extent, and also made a canal 10 feet broad between the lowest tier of seats and the course as a precaution for the spec-tators' safety when exhibitions of fighting with wild beasts, such as were afterwards confined to the amphitheatre, took place. When these exhibitions were removed, and the canal (euripus) was no longer necessary, Nero filled it up. Augus-tus is said to have placed an obelisk between the metae or goals, and to have built a new pulvinar, or state box ; but if this is taken in connection with the fact that the circus had been partially destroyed by fire in 31 B.c., it may be supposed that besides this he had restored it altogether. Only the lower tiers of seats were of stone, the others being of wood, and this, from the liability to fire, may account for the frequent restorations to which it was subject; it would also explain the falling of the seats by which a crowd of people were killed in the time of Antoninus Pius. In the reign of Claudius, apparently after a fire, the car-ceres of stone (tufa) were replaced by marble, and the mette of wood by bronze gilt. Under Domitian, again, after a fire, the circus was rebuilt and the carceres increased to 12 instead of 8 as before. The work was finished by Trajan. The number of people it could seat is given at 150,000 and at 250,000, the latter being supposed to be the more cor-rect. This was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not assigned to separate places. The lower seats were reserved for persons of rank ; the state box, sug-gestus or cubiculum, was midway in the range of seats. The principal object of attraction apart from the racing must have been the spina or low wall which ran down the middle of the course, with its obelisks, images, and ornamental shrines. On it also were seven figures of dolphins and seven oval objects, one of which was taken down at every round made in a race, so that spectators might see readily how the contest proceeded. The chariot race consisted of seven rounds of the course. The chariots started abreast, but in an oblique line, so that the outer chariot might he compensated for the wider circle it had to make at the other end. Such a race was called a missus, and as many as 24 of these would take place in a day. The competitors wore different colours, originally white and red (albata and russata) ; afterwards the colours green (prasina) and blue (veneta) were added, and further, under Domitian, gold and purple, but these last two were not long retained. To pro-vide the horses and large staff of attendants, it was necessary to apply to rich capitalists and owners of studs, and from this there grew up in time four select companies (factiones) of circus purveyors which were identified with the four colours, and with which those who organized the races had to contract for the proper supply of horses and men. The drivers, who were mostly slaves, were sometimes held in high repute for their skill. The horses most valued were those of Sicily, Spain, and Cappadocia. Chariots with two horses (bigae) or four (quadrigae) were most common, but sometimes also they had three (trigae) and exceptionally more than four horses. Occasionally there was combined with the chariots a race of riders (desultores), each rider having two horses and leaping from one to the other during the race. At certain of the races the proceedings were opened by a pompa or procession in which images of the gods and of the imperial family deified were conveyed in cars drawn by horses, mules, or elephants, attended by the colleges of priests, and led by the presiding magistrate seated in a chariot in the dress and with the insignia of a triumphator. The procession passed from the capitol along the forum, and on to the circus, where it was received by the people standing and clapping their hands. The pre-siding magistrate gave the signal for the races by throwing a white flag (mappa) on to the course. Next in importance to the Circus Maximus in Rome was the CIRCUS FLAMINIUS, erected 221 B.C., in the censorship of C. Flaminius, from whom it may have taken its name; or the name may have been derived from Prata Flaminia, where it was situated, and where also were held plebeian meetings. The only games that are positively known to have been celebrated in this circus were the Ludi Taurii and Plebeii. There is no mention of it after the 1st century. Its ruins were identified in the 16th century at S. Caterina de Funari and the Palazzo Mattei. A third circus in Rome was erected by Caligula in the gardens of Agrippina, and was known as the CIRCUS NERONIS, from the notoriety which it obtained through the Circensian pleasures of Nero. A fourth was constructed by Maxentius outside the Porta Appia near the tomb of Caecilia Metella, where its ruins are still, and now afford the only instance from which an idea of the ancient circi in Rome can be obtained. It was traced to Caracalla, till the discovery of an inscription showed it to be the work of Maxentius. Old topographers speak of six circi, but two of these appear to be imaginary, the Circus Florae and the Circus Salustii. There remain then the four described above,—C. Maximus, Flaminius, Neronis, and Maxentii.

Circus races were held in connection with the following public festivals, and generally on the last day of the festival if it extended over more than one day:—(1) The Consualia, August 21, December 15; (2) Equivia, February 27, March 14; (3) Ludi Romani, September 4-19; (4) Ludi Ple- heii, November 4-17; (5) Cerealia, April 12-19; (6) Ludi Apollinares, July 13; (7) Ludi Megalenses, April 4-10 ; (8) Floralia, April 28-May 3. (A. S. M.)

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