In Roman times, the arena for chariot racing was called a circus, a Latin word meaning “circle” or “ring.” The oldest and most famous circus was the Circus Maximus in Rome. Originally built in the Etruscan period, but rebuilt and expanded several times, by the A.D. 300s the Circus Maximus could seat nearly 250,000 people. Up to 12 chariots, each drawn by four horses, could race at a single time.
The Circus Maximus was an elongated U-shaped structure with raised tiers* of seats on three sides and a series of 12 starting gates called carceres along the open end. The sand-covered race track was about 700 yards long and 135 yards wide. A low barrier wall called the spina divided the length of the race track. Decorated with statues, monuments, and shrines, the spina also had tall posts at each end to mark the turning points of the course. An arcade of shops lined the outer walls of the Circus Maximus.
In a typical race, chariots lined up in the starting gates awaiting the signal to begin. At the starting signal—the dropping of a white cloth— the starting gates flew open and the horses began racing counterclockwise around the arena. The race continued for seven laps around the track, a distance of about five and one-half miles. Laps were counted by markers at either end of the spina that could be lowered or turned-egg-shaped markers at one end and dolphin-shaped markers at the other. (Eggs and dolphins were considered objects sacred to the gods— eggs to Castor and Polydeuces, and dolphins to Neptune.) Officials announced the winner at the completion of the race.
The races in the Circus Maximus were controlled by professional racing organizations called factiones. These groups operated horse farms, trained horses and charioteers, and attended to all maintenance and services at the races. The factiones, each represented by a different color, sponsored various teams of chariots. The spectators generally supported a particular color, and they closely followed the careers of different charioteers and horses. The chariot races at the Circus Maximus were great public events, held as many as 64 days a year, with at least 24 races each day. (See also Amphitheater, Roman; Chariots; Games, Roman.)
* tier one of a series of rows arranged one above the other; as in a stadium