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Rome: Circus of Maxentius


Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering.
Circus of Maxentius: Roman hippodrome, close to the Via Appiaa.

The Circus of Maxentius was built during the first decad of the fourth century near the Via Appia, and it is -without exaggeration- the best preserved of all Roman circuses. It was 513 meters long and 91 meters wide, and could offere accomodation to some 10,000 people. It was part of an imperial villa that was (probably) never used. Of course, the complex was splendidly decorated. For example, a herm with a bust of Demosthenes, a good copy of a herm that stood on the Agora of Athens, has been excacated in the circus.

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Model of the Circus of Maxentius. Museo nazionale della civiltą romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Model of the Circus of Maxentius. Museo nazionale della civiltą romana, Rome.

Its builder was the emperor Maxentius, who had usurped power in 306. One source to gain legitimity was his hold on Rome: the old city was, as capital of the Mediterranean Empire, still of an enormeous symbolic value. He showed his mastery with an impressive building programme. However, he was not recognized by the other emperors, of which Galerius (in the east) and Constantine I the Great (in the west) were the most important. The latter defeated Maxentius in 312 near the Milvian bridge, north of Rome. It is possible that Maxentius' circus was never used.

There are several interesting details to be mentioned. One of them is that it was made of the usual materials, bricks and occasionally natural stone. However, to keep the structure as light and elegant as possible, old amphoras were recycled in the structure. We also known that there was an obelisk on the raised median, the spina. It is not shown on the model of the Circus of Maxentius at the Museo nazionale della civiltą romana.

Herm with the portrait of Demosthenes; copy from a herm from the Agora of Athens. Glyptothek, München (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. The obelisk at the Piazza Navona, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering.
Herm with the portrait of Demosthenes (Glyptothek, Munich) The obelisk at the Piazza Navona The central spine
Starting boxes and race course
Honorific arch
Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering.
Entry of the chariots
Starting boxes
Imperial lodge
Recycle amphoras to keep the construction light
View from the starting boxes
Circus of Maxentius. Photo Jona Lendering. The obelisk now stands at Rome's famous Piazza Navona. It is not a real Egyptian obelisk: the momument was made in 81 CE and erected as a monument to the emperor Domitian, probably at the temple of Isis. Later, it was brought to the Circus of Maxentius, and in the seventeenth century returned to a place near its old site, where it now adorns Bernini's famous Fontana dei quattro fiumi.

A satellite photo of the Circus of Maxentius can be found here.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 11 Jan. 2012
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