Hear the Cheers from Rome’s Circus Maximus


Until late 2016, when Rome’s newest ‘’old’’ tourist attraction was unveiled, visitors could be understandably perplexed about what was so great about the Circus Maximus.

For what had been the biggest entertainment and sport structure of all time had revealed itself to the curious as little more than a vast expanse of weed-dotted field, depending on season, either muddy or caked dry. True, with some imagination, a tourist could picture roaring crowds or pretend to hear them cheering their favorite athlete or jockey, seated in rows, hundreds of thousands of spectators enjoying the spectacle on a 2,000 foot long field.

Now, after six years of careful excavations, tourists have a real, if still partial sense, of what all the fuss was about at the Circus Maximus, which occupies a valley between the ancient Palatine and Aventine hills.

They can stroll through covered walkways that led to the steps of the seats. The plebes went upstairs, the senators on the ground floor, not that much unlike today’s upper bleachers for baseball fans who can’t dole out much money for seats closer to the action and the season-ticket holders or VIPs who snag those coveted box seats. Along the way to seats, just in case if Nature called, latrines were strategically placed, and, the excavation made them visible for viewing.

Along an ancient path just outside where spectators took their seats, were ‘’botteghe,’’ or stores, selling food, snacks or housing money-changers, which would have come in handy in those times for fans who wanted to place bets on horses.

Indeed, the archaeological dig turned up a glass goblet, whose bottom was decorated with the figure of a prancing horse. The horse’s mouth holds a palm branch, apparently signifying that the horse had won at least one race, and the victorious horse’s name, Numitor, is written on it. The find was an exciting one: archaeologists describe it as the only documentation they have that horses were indeed involved in the entertainment at the site for the ancient masses.

Also visible now to tourists are the remnants – still impressive – of what was once the Arch of Titus, considered to be one of the greatest triumphal arches in ancient Rome. The base of several of columns – where, when still standing towered some three-stories high – can be seen. Also revealed by the dig were parts of what was once a bronze inscription on the arch.

Much of the Circus’ glories were carted away over the centuries. One Egyptian obelisk in the 16th century was transferred to the square outside St. John in Lateran Basilica, while the other one was moved to Piazza del Popolo.

A geophysical examination discovered that the original track now lies more than 15 feet below the current surface of the archaeological area.

While the soaring obelisks now longer stud the Circus, visitors to the excavation can climb upstairs the restored, medieval Moletta Tower for a bird’s eye view of the expanse as it is today and get a better sense of the ‘’maximum’’ dimensions of the ancient entertainment site. The field was used by carriages centuries before Julius Caesar’s time that the walls were erected. It wasn’t all fun and games. The tiers of seats also allowed for viewing of public executions.

Nowadays, the vast part of the field outside the fenced off excavated area is the turf of joggers, strollers and dog walkers, and occasionally has hosted track races by local school clubs.

Circus Maximus’ excavations are available for viewing by reservation in guided groups, Tuesday through Friday, by calling 06-0608. On Saturdays and Sundays, the public can enter without reservations between 10 am. And 3 p.m.