The Days Of Circus Maximus & Chariot Racing In Ancient Rome

Last Updated on June 12, 2015

The Circus Maximus (in Italian Circo Massimo) today is a large oblong field that is now a public park in Rome, Italy. In Ancient Rome, it was a chariot racing stadium (a chariot is a small two wheeled cart pulled by horses) and entertainment complex that could accommodate almost a quarter of a million spectators, making it the largest stadium in Ancient Rome. It is situated between the Aventine and Palentine Hills and occupies over 2,000 feet in length and 387 feet in width.

The history of Circus Maximus is rather troubled. The building was damaged by fire several times and on at least two occasions the stands collapsed, killing many people. It is especially well known for the famous Fire of Rome that began on a short side of the circus, where you can still see some brick remains. After each fire, Circus Maximus would be repaired and enlarged in the repair process.

Built in the 6th century B.C., during the time of the Tarquins, the first building was made of wood, but when Circus Maximus was at its highest popularity point, it would have been completely covered in marble and travertine stone.


How much do you know about Chariot Racing? We found the following facts interesting:

  1. Chariots were very light so they could go as fast as possible, and were probably originally made of wicker and leather. Driving a chariot would have been much like driving a basket on wheels.
  2. Chariots completed seven circuits, marked by dolphins (sacred to Neptune, god of the sea and also of horses) and eggs (sacred to Castor and Pollux).
  3. A charioteers would tie the reins around his waist and put a sharp knife in his belt. This enabled him to cut himself free if he was thrown from the chariot.
  4. The last race held at the Circus Maximus was in 549 A.D., almost a full millennium after the track was first constructed.
  5. The races were always run counter-clockwise.
  6. Chariots could have up to two riders: One to steer and one to wield a weapon.
  7. The Chariot participant that was wielding the weapon would use it to poke at other drivers, defend against other attackers or distract or injure the animals pulling the chariot.
  8. Chariots could be pulled by up to four horses.
  9. Chariots were later made of metal plated wood. Racers were able to put hubcaps on the wheels with decorative spikes, or sword blades. Those wheels would be used to injure both the chariot and the animals pulling it.
  10. The wheels would have metal bands around the rims of them, which would keep them from wearing down.
  11. At the end of each lap of the seven lap race, one egg and one dolphin would be removed from each temple. This helped the spectators and the racers to stay updated on how many laps had been completed.

The ruins of what was once the Circus Maximus barely remain as there is only the enormous terrace that keeps the form that it had in its day. We were surprised at how little there was left to see, and disappointed that it was really just a long, grass field. When touring any kind of ruins, it is important to use your imagination in order to imagine the ruins in what would have been their days of splendour. There may not be many ‘ruins’ left on these grounds, but it would have been a spectacular sight to see back in the day.

Have you seen Circus Maximus? Were you initially disappointed?