Almost nothing above ground remains of what was once Rome's oldest and largest stadium. Occupying the whole length of a valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, the Circus Maximus dates back to the 6th century BCE.
The Circus Maximus was a racetrack for chariots and home to the Roman Games (Ludi Romani), an ancient festival of races and military displays, which was held annually for 15 days in September.
In its fully developed form, in the 1st century CE, the stadium was 540 metres long and 80 metres wide. The banks of seating were 30 metres deep and 28 metres high and may have held as many as 250,000 spectators.
There were 12 starting gates, arranged in an arc at one end of the track, and the chariots, which were driven by two or more horses, had to complete seven laps of the circuit, racing anti-clockwise. The laps were first recorded by large wooden eggs and later by bronze dolphins.
The chariot-drivers were all members of one of four teams: the whites, the blues, the reds, and the greens, each with its own following of fanatics. The races were held throughout the day and were the most popular pastime in the city. Before the races started the spectators were treated to a variety of skilful equestrian displays.
The remains of the central track or spina, around which the chariots raced, lies about 9 m underground. The two obelisks which now stand respectively in Piazza del Popolo and Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, were dug up here in 1587. The obelisks would originally have stood on the spina, in the centre of the track.
The Circus Maximus remained in regular use until the middle of the 6th century. During the middle-ages the site reverted to fields and by the 19th century it was covered by various industrial enterprises, including the city’s gasworks. The whole area was cleared in the 1930s when it became a designated park.
The Circus Maximus, a detail of the Plastico di Roma Imperiale