Circus Maximus ☆☆☆

A view of the Circo Massimo from the FAO headquarters, Circus Maximus, Rome, Italy (Photo by Le Mai)
A view of the Circo Massimo from the FAO headquarters

The greatest racing arena in ancient Rome is now a grassy jogging oval and outdoor concert venue

Slung into the Murcia Valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, the elongated grassy jogging oval known as the Circo Massimo, which occasionally hosts outdoor rock concerts, was, during the glory days of Ancient Rome, the mighty Circus Maximus.

At 2,000 feet in length, it was the largest stadium in all of Rome, where the empire threw its most extravagant chariot races to entertain crowds of up to 300,000 screaming spectators.

History of the Circus Maximus

The origins of the Circus Maximus are murky. Archaeological evidence shows that it was begun at least by the 4th century BC, but Livy said it was built by the Etruscan king of Rome Tarquin the Elder in the 7th century BC.

Roman tradition holds that it is older still, dating to the 8th century BC, and that it hosted its first races during the infamous feast thrown by Rome's first, legendary king Romulus (see sidebar).

Any story you pick, this is truly one of the most ancient sites in Rome.

In addition to the chariot races made famous in the sword-and-sandal epics of Hollywood's golden age, the circus maximus hosted horse races and other athletic competitions, death duels between wild beasts, even mock sea battles.

Julius Caesar famously held a mock battle here featuring a 1,000 infantrymen, 600 mounted centurions, and 40 elephants.

The spina down the center of the track was 1,100 feet long and marked by seven eggs (and, later, dolphins) to help spectators count off distance. To win a race, a charioteer in his quadriga (cart pulled by four horses) had to circle the spina seven times counter-clockwise—and come in first, of course.

Over the years, the spina also acquired as decoration two ancient Egyptian obelisks, which have since been moved.

(The obelisk of Ramses II is now in Piazza del Popolo; the obelisk of Tuthmosis III in now at San Giovanni in Laterano.)

The circus was continually enlarged and rebuilt throughout the Republican and Imperial eras until the dying days of the empire and rule of Totila the Goth.

The last chariot races were held in AD 549.

What you see of the Circus Maximus today

The best bits remaining you can see are some brick walls and arches that supported the set of stepped seats of the cavea, at the curved, eastern (Palatine) end of the circus, built during the reign of Hadrian (AD 117–138).

If you look north to the flanks of the Palatine Hill rising above the circus, you can see the buttresses of the vast palaces that once rose atop the hill.

These also served as box seats so the imperial family and other noted patricians could enjoy the spectacle far above the heat and dust—and, of course, crowds of commoners—below.

Tours of the Mithraeum

By special appointment or tour you can get into the Mitreo dell'Ara Massima di Ercole, the underground Mithraeum or Temple to Mithras, discovered during construction of a Fascist-era building.

While you're down here, you get to see some other underground remains of Roman temples. Cool.

Photo gallery
  • A view of the Circo Massimo from the FAO headquarters, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Le Mai)
  • Remains of the structure at the SW end of the Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Rabax63)
  • The Circo Massimo as seen from the Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Victor R. Ruiz)
  • A medieval tower at the SE end of Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Leif Hinrichsen)
  • The park, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Chris)
  • Romans gathered in the Circus Maximus to watch 2006 FIFA World cup final of Italy vs. France, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Alessio Damato)
  • The NW end of the Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Vašek Vinklát)
  • The Circus Maximus in a model of Ancient Rome at the University of Caen, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo by Pascal Radigue)
  • A late 19C reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo courtesy of The Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library at Penn State)
  • The Mithraeum of Ara Massima di Ercole, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The altar of Mithras in the Mithraeum of Ara Massima di Ercole, Circus Maximus, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
Rome tours
More tours


How long does the Circus Maximus take?

You can just overlook this from the Palatine Hill and be done. To wander the bits of brick vaulting on your way to the Aventine Hill takes maybe 15–20 minutes.

Steer clear after dark

Though perfectly salubrious by day, this is probably not a place to wander after dark. Nothing too dire; it's just a hangout for teenage gangs.

Of course, it's also the site for major concerts and rallies, so you might be coming here after dark on purpose—and with crowds.

Just be careful.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).