LUDI AT THE CIRCUS MAXIMUS
Built between the Palatine and Aventine hills of Rome, the Circus Maximus was Rome’s largest and earliest racetrack. Legend ascribes this as the site of the rape of the Sabines. Around 600 B.C., Tarquinius Priscus, one of Rome’s Etruscan kings, built the first wooden seats. Later rulers--Julius Caesar, Augustus, Domitian and Traja--found it necessary to expand the structure. Its capacity grew from 150,000 in Caesar’s time to 385,000 in the 4th century A.D. The Circus Maximus hosted sporting events 240 days of the year.
At the west end of the ellipse were 12 starting gates. Chariots could compete with teams of 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, or even 10 horses. The horses were typically five year old stallions; the best racers frequently came from Spain and Northern Africa. Teams bore their factions’s color--red, white, blue, or green.
In the center of the arena was the spina or “backbone.” Here were found the obelisks, imported from Egypt by Augustus and Constantius. To keep score of the laps, sets of eggs and dolphins were used. The eggs symbolized Castor and Pollux, the patron gods of horses and horsemen, while the dolphins symbolized Neptune, the inventor of the horse. At the far ends of the spina, were the metae or goal posts of gilded bronze.
Senators and other officials of high rank occupied the stone seats up front. The emperor, of course, has his own box. Unlike in the Colosseum, women and men could sit in close proximity, hence Ovid’s claim that the Circus Maximus was ideal for watching--and picking up--beautiful women. In the arcades, fans could purchase refreshments and souvenirs or frequent barbers, astrologers, and even prostitutes. Betting on one’s faction was very popular; many fans concocted curse tablets to jinx a rival team.
The drop of the mappa or napkin signaled the start of the race. While the chariots raced seven laps around the 4.5 mile track, fans waved their togas. Special attendants sprinkled water on the smoking wheels or whipped horses to maintain the pace. The turns were particularly hazardous; it was here that many an accident occurred. The first team to complete seven laps was declared the winner. The victorious charioteer collected a purse and palm branch or wreath.