The Circus Maximus in Rome may pass as an inconspicuous public park today, but the lifeblood of history is soaked in its ground – from ancient festivals to chariot races, this location was at the heart of Ancient Roman civilisation.
With so much history in one place, you wouldn’t be wasting your money in the Trevi Fountain by wishing there was a way to interact with it. Well, lucky for you, you can keep hold of your spare change, because the Circo Maximo Experience have made that wish come true, and they’ve done it in style.
Winner of Tiqets’ Remarkable Venue Award in 2020 for most innovative venue, the Circo Maximo Experience utilises cutting-edge virtual reality headsets so you can walk through the park and experience the past in real time.
Time travel at the Circus Maximus in Rome
So, what makes walking around outdoors with a pair of VR goggles so great? Well, for starters, plenty of other people will be doing it, so you won’t look like a total weirdo. On top of that, there’s an odd sense of fun at the disorientation of being transported from modern-day Rome to its ancient counterpart. It’s something you’ll want to experience for yourself.
But besides virtual reality oddities, what really makes the Circus Maximus in Rome so special is the history it draws from. Without it, there would be nothing worth displaying at the eight stations you’ll get to enjoy during the experience.
The Circo Maximo Experience
There’s eight interactive stops along the tour. You’ll take a journey back to the 8th century BC when Regal Rome was founded by Romulus, through to the days of the Roman Empire when the Circus had its heyday as the largest stadium in the known world. In fact, even now, if it was to reach full capacity it would still hold the record, with a potential maximum of 150,000 people!
The tour centres around the southern end of the Circus, with your VR headset and audio guide offering you key insights on the cavea (the tiered seating), the tabernae (shops) of the Circus, and the Arch of Titus in its full splendour. But, the most impressive viewing point is likely the panorama which shows you the full scale of the Circus Maximus: it features a resplendent white marble temple to Sol, the sun god, and of course a sandy chariot track with a central island adorned with an obelisk taken from Egypt.
Sounds impressive, right? But why do you need VR to see it?
While we know that stone from the Colosseum was used as spolia (repurposed to use for other buildings), the Circus Maximus had a different fate. Located in a valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, the original race track is buried around 10 metres below ground due in large part to disuse after the final races were held in 549 CE, and the frequent flooding the area suffered.
So after nearly a millennium as a central feature of Roman life, the area fell into obscurity, and the once-great stadium became farmland in the early medieval period.
Some excavations took place during the Renaissance to recover the Lateran Obelisk that stood in the centre of the chariot track (and you can find it now in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome), but little remains of the Circus Maximus’s former glory. The space was finally cleared in the early 20th century, and the sprawling space has a renewed purpose as the perfect location for open-air concerts – and of course, the Circo Maximo Experience.
A quick intro to the Circus Maximus in Rome
While it’s all well and good talking about the wonders of visual time travel through technology, you’ve probably got a couple of questions about what it is you’re seeing and what all the fuss is about. Let’s start with the basics.
What was the Circus Maximus?
The Circus Maximus in Rome was the city’s first and largest stadium, and the home of chariot racing! Don’t worry, there’s plenty more information on chariot racing coming up.
What was the Circus Maximus used for?
The short answer is ludi. The long answer is an explanation of ludi…
Ludi were public games held for the people of Rome – that could be anything from chariot racing and venationes (animal hunts), to theatrical performances. If the ludi were held in the Circus then they got the slightly fancier and more accurate name of Ludi circenses (Circus ludis).
Ludi as religious events:
The ludi often coincided with religious events, and while entertainment soon overshadowed religious significance, the original purpose of ludi were votive offerings for deities who had made good on the favours asked of them.
But just like the Circus Maximus’s architecture, the games also evolved through the course of its existence, and while ludi were still lauded as religious affairs (meaning early Christians were advised not to enjoy them), their popularity soon found other purposes.
Ludi as ancient PR stunts
While it originally fell to the responsibility of colleges of priests to organise ludi, the responsibility soon fell to a presiding official. At first to consuls (the highest elected official in Rome) and then to aediles (who were responsible for maintenance of public buildings (aedēs) and regulation of public festivals).
While public money went toward staging ludi, more and more officials started injecting their own funds to advertise their wealth and their intention to share it for the good of the public. In short – spend big, and win the hearts of Romans.
So in a sentence, the Circus was used for games to thank gods and win favour with Rome’s people.
Chariot racing in the Circus Maximus in Rome
It wouldn’t be a blog about the Circus Maximus in Rome without a section on chariot racing.
Chariot racing was brutal. Pushing other racers into the central median to cause a crash, fans throwing lead amulets studded with nails at teams they didn’t support, and the chance of falling from your chariot and being dragged along until you died.
Just like modern sports, chariot racing had teams and star athletes – in fact, the highest paid athlete of all time was a charioteer. If you do the math, the wealth of Diocles would leave Michael Jordan in the dust. Fans would place bets, support their favourite team (red, green, white, or blue), and of course, riot occasionally.
During the Circo Maximo Experience your VR headset will let you watch a chariot race, and while it might not have the pomp of the scenes from Ben Hur, it will give you an idea of how grand the scale of the stadium was.
The architecture of the Circus Maximus
A major feature of the Circo Maximo Experience is experiencing the architecture. Three of the eight stops focus on constructs in the Circus – the cavea (seating), the tabernae (shops), and the Arc of Titus – and you’ll have the chance to see how the Circus changed across the centuries, including the more radical changes that took place during the reigns of the dictator Julius Caesar (which started around 50 BC and saw seating extend around the entire track) and over a century later under Emperor Trajan (reigned 98 AD-117 AD) who had the entire Circus rebuilt in stone to prevent more fire damage.
With a supposed capacity of 150,000, it’s no surprise that seating is an important part of the Circo Maximo Experience.
During the regal period:
Seating arrangements (and capacity) changed throughout the course of history. The earliest trace of it, though, is wooden seating dating back to the 6th century BC and the fifth King of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. It was strictly reserved for Rome’s upper echelons, the equites and patricians, and it wasn’t until his grandson (Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the final King of Rome) that commoners had seating. These wooden stands and seats would have rotted and been rebuilt over time.
The Roman Republic:
Even before Imperial Rome began, there was stone track-side seating installed in the 190s BC, although this was reserved exclusively for senators.
We all know Julius Caesar irrevocably changed the political landscape of Rome, but he did the same for the Circus Maximus. It was during his rule that seating that surrounded the entirety of the 621-metre long track began.
Fires and disaster:
Beware the ides of march… and fire destroying your wooden seats. 31 BC saw disaster strike the wooden seating, although Rome’s first emperor Octavian set about repairing this. 36 AD and 64 AD saw more fire consume the stands, but the importance of the Circus saw swift reconstruction.
Bad omens haunted the stands further with a seating collapse in third century AD that killed 13,000, marking it as the worst stadium disaster in history.
The Arch of Titus
One of the most impressive features of the Circus Maximus was erected in 81 AD after victory over the Jewish rebellion in Judaea.
While no remnants of this triple-arched version remain, the more famous triumphal arch celebrating the victory in the Near East can still be found in modern Rome, not far from the Colosseum.
During the Circo Maximo Experience you’ll have a chance to see what the arch would have looked like at its most resplendent.
Unbelievable events in the Circus Maximus
At this point we know about ludi and chariot racing, but who doesn’t love a good listicle? So, in the spirit of the Ancient Romans’ endearing love for Buzzfeed-esque content, here are some of the craziest spectacles seen inside the Circus Maximus:
- When Caesar pitted two armies of war captives against each other – each consisting of 2,000 people, 200 horses, and 20 elephants – in a fight to the death
- A forest of trees planted on a specially built stage across the Circus for a hunt, after which people were allowed to seize what animal they wanted
- Julius Caesar importing 400 lions for Circus games and Caesar Augustus having some 3,500 elephants killed during Circus games
The history of the Circus – like anything that lasts close to a millennium – is long and convoluted. But like any epoch in history, you can boil it down to the yearning for power and prestige, and the idea that what rises must fall. Whether that was for the chariot racers seeking to survive, the consul hosting the games and seeking to curry favour with citizens, or as a means to celebrate a military victory for the empire.
Rome’s Circus Maximus: Practical information
How to get to the Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus’s nearest Metro station is the Circo Massimo on Line B. If you’re in the neighbourhood of the Roman Forum or the Colosseum, then the Circus is only a ten minute walk away.
What to wear to the Circus Maximus
The Circus is now a public park, so there’s no strict dress code. There’s no need to worry about bare shoulders offending a long-dead Emperor.
Tickets for the Circo Maximo Experience
The following are also eligible for free admission:
- Children under the age of 6 years
- People with disabilities and/or registered disabled civilians and an escort from the European Union
- European Union tour guides and tour interpreters
To ask for free admission, you must pick up tickets at the ticket counter on site, or through the Circo Maximo contact centre at +39 060608 (from 09:00–19:00) and tourist Info points (with a presale right of €1).
When is the Circo Maximo Experience open?
The Circo Maximo Experience is weather dependent due to the virtual reality headset – in case of rain, all shows will be cancelled.
Standard opening hours change every season, so check the Circo Maximo website for the latest updates, but standard hours are:
From April 29:
Thursday–Saturday, 17:10–20:00 (last admission at 18:55).
From 15 June–1 August:
Tuesday–Sunday, 18:10–21:00 (last admission at 19:55)
From 3–15 August:
Tuesday–Sunday, 17:40–20:30 (last admission at 19:25)
From 17 August–5 September:
Tuesday to Sunday 17:10–20:00 (last admission at 18:55)
How long will the Circo Maximo Experience take?
The whole tour should take around 40 minutes and it’s available in eight languages (Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese).
There are eight stops to see along the way:
- The Valley and the origins of the Circus
- The Circus from Julius Caesar to Trajan
- the Circus in the imperial period
- The seating tiers (cavea)
- The Arch of Titus
- The shops (tabernae)
- The Circus in the Middle Ages and in modern times
- “A Day at the Circus”