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Circus Maximus › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 16 May 2018
Ancient Chariot Race (Ubisoft Entertainment SA)

The Circus Maximus was a chariot racetrack in Rome first constructed in the 6th century BCE. The Circus was also used for other public events such as the Roman Games and gladiator fights and was last used for chariot races in the 6th century CE.It was partially excavated in the 20th century CE and then remodelled but it continues today as one of the modern city ’s most important public spaces, hosting huge crowds at music concerts and rallies.


The Circus Maximus, located in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, is the oldest and largest public space in Rome and legend says that the Circus was originally laid out in the 6th century BCE by the first Roman kings, although, it first took on its distinctive shape under Julius Caesar. Its principal function was as a chariot racetrack and host of the Roman Games ( Ludi Romani ) which honoured Jupiter. These were the oldest games in the city and were held every September with 15 days of chariot races and military processions. In addition, Rome had many other games and up to 20 of these had one day or more at the Circus Maximus. Other events hosted at the site included wild animal hunts, public executions and gladiator fights, some of which were exotically spectacular in the extreme, such as when Pompey organised a contest between a group of barbarian gladiators and 20 elephants.



At its largest during the 1st century CE following its rebuilding after the fire of 64 CE, the Circus had a capacity for 250,000 spectators seated on banks 30 m wide and 28 m high. Seats were in concrete and stone in the lower two tiers and wood for the rest. The seats at the closed curved end date from the early 1st century CE. The outside of the circus presented an impressive front of arcades in which shops would have served the needs of the spectators. The Roman architectural historian Vitruvius also describes a temple of Ceres in the Circus and that it was decorated with terracotta statues or gilt bronze ( On Architecture 3.3.5).
The Circus Maximus had the following main features:
  • The track, originally covered in sand and measuring 540 x 80 m.
  • 12 starting gates ( carceres ) for chariots arranged in an arc at the open end of the track.
  • A decorated barrier ( spina or euripus ) complete with obelisks running down the centre of the track.
  • Conical turning posts ( metae ) placed at each end of the track.
  • Lap markers (eggs and dolphins) which were turned to mark the completion of each of the seven circuits of a typical race.
Circus Maximus, Rome

Circus Maximus, Rome


The chariots themselves were colour-coded (red, white, green and blue) and could be pulled by teams of 4, 6, 8 or 12 horses.Victorious charioteers not only became rich with large cash prizes but they also became the darlings of the crowd, particularly with those who had placed bets, which were sometimes huge. Famous winners were Pontius Epaphroditus, Pompeius Musclosus and Diocles but perhaps the most famous of all, with more than 2,000 race victories, was Scorpus. Horses too became famous and much followed by the knowledgeable crowd. Famed throughout the Roman world, the races at the Circus Maximus were, then, the ones to win as it was by far the most important of the many circuses which dotted the Empire and its status is testified by its many representations in mosaics, relief sculptures and even coins.


The last official chariot race at the Circus Maximus was in 549 CE and was held by Totila, the Ostrogoth king. The site was then largely abandoned, although, the Frangipanni did fortify the site in 1144 CE. The first excavations were carried out under Pope Sixtus V in 1587 CE and the two obelisks which had originally stood as part of the spina were recovered. One dates to c.1280 BCE and was taken by Augustus from Heliopolis in Egypt in 10 BCE. This once stood at the east end of the spina but was relocated to Piazza del Popolo. The second obelisk which had stood in the centre of the spina dates to Thutmosis II (1504-1450 BCE) and was originally made for the temple of Amon at Karnak. Constantine I intended it for Constantinoplebut after remaining at the docks of Alexandria for 25 years, Constantius II brought it to Rome in 357 CE. It now stands in the Piazza S.Giovanni in Laterano (Rome).
Circus Maximus, Rome

Circus Maximus, Rome


The site was used for industry and even a gasworks in the 19th century CE but in the 1930s CE the area was cleared and converted into a park made to resemble the original form of the Circus. Also in 1930, the site was again excavated, a process which continued between 1978 and 1988 CE. Original seats were revealed, as were the starting gates and the spina.However, the latter two were re-covered and now lie some 9 m under the present ground level. The curved seat end continues to be excavated today whilst the main part of the circus is still used for large public events such as concerts and rallies.

Trireme › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 31 May 2012
Greek Trireme (MatthiasKabel & Sting)

Fast, manoeuvrable, and with a bronze-sheathed ram on the prow, the trireme ( Greek triērēs) was the devastating warship which permitted Athens to build her maritime empire and dominate the Aegean in the 5th century BCE.
Most scholars credit the Phoenicians with first inventing the trireme which was itself an adaptation of the earlier bireme.According to Thucydides it was the Corinthians who first adopted triremes on the Greek mainland c. 700 BCE. However, it was the Athenians, with their newly found wealth from local silver mines, who constructed a fleet of triremes large enough to hold sway over the Aegean.


The trireme was so-called because of the arrangement of rowers in three lines down the length of each side of the ship.Concrete archaeological evidence is lacking and scholars debate the exact arrangement; however, from depictions on ancient carvings and pottery and references from classical authors such as Homer, Thucydides, and Apollinus of Rhodes, a wide consensus has been reached. As many as thirty oars, each with a single oarsman, ran the length of the ship in three tiers.Consequently, the total number of rowers could have been between 170 and 180, allowing a speed of as high as nine or ten knots in short bursts. Each oarsman had a fixed seat (and leather or wool cushion) and the rowers were arranged with 31 on the top row ( thranoi ), 27 in the middle ( zygoi ) and 27 on the lowest level ( thalamoi ). Their 4 m long oars were attached to a tholepin (fixed vertical peg) with a leather oar-loop.


Archaeological remains of boat houses, most notably at Piraeus, indicate that the maximum length of the ship would have been around 37 m with a beam of 6 m. They measured about 4 m from deck to keel and may have weighed as much as 50 tons. However, this was light enough so that crews could carry the vessel if necessary and easily beach it overnight.


The ships were built using softwoods such as pine, fir, and cypress for interiors and oak only for the outer hulls. Oars were made from a single young fir tree and measured some 4.5 metres in length. As a consequence of using lighter woods, the ship was highly manoeuvrable. The full-size reconstruction Olympias built in the 1980's CE has demonstrated that a trireme could turn 360 degrees in less than two ship's lengths and turn 90 degrees in a matter of seconds in only a ship's length. The vessel also displayed impressive acceleration and deceleration rates.
Lenormant Relief

Lenormant Relief

The disadvantage of softwoods is their high absorption of water, and therefore the ships were usually pulled out of the water at night using slipways and then housed in protective huts. The technique used in construction was to lay down longitudinal beams joined by dowel pin-joints along an oak keel. These were then covered with the outer hull, a sheath of closely fitting (but not overlapping) planks sealed with pitch and resin. The hull was made smoother by adding wax to the pitch which added to the speed potential of the vessel. Ribs ( zyga ) and arrangements of tightened ropes ( hypozomata ) were then fixed inside to add strength to the overall structure. Finally, a simple flat deck (without rails) was added with a central space running down the length of the ship, giving access to the interior.
In addition to oarsmen, the ship was equipped with two sails of papyrus or flax, used when cruising and taken down and stored on land when in battle conditions. Steering was achieved through two steering oars at each side of the stern and controlled by a single helmsman ( kybernetes ). Next to the helmsman stood the ship's commander ( trierarchos ), and both were protected by the upward curving structure at the stern known as the aphlaston. Other crew members were the rowing master ( keleustes) who shouted instructions, the 'bow officer' ( prorates ) who relayed those instructions further down the ship, a piper ( auletes ) who kept time for the rowers playing an aulos, a carpenter ( naupegos ), and deck crews to man the sails.
Prows were often decorated to resemble animal heads, and a common feature was the attachment of large, painted marble eyes. The hull itself was painted with water-proofing pitch, giving the distinctive black appearance so often referred to by Homer. Ships were regarded as females and also given names, for example, Artemis, Equality, Sea Horse, and Good Repute.
Trireme Ramming

Trireme Ramming


The principal weapon of the trireme was the bronze-sheathed battering ram affixed to the prow. These often took the form of animals, for example, the head of a goat. However, ramming would have rarely sunk an enemy vessel and an important secondary strategy was boarding the enemy ship. For this reason, the typical Athenian crew included a complement of ten hoplites and four archers.
In terms of operation, the lack of storage space on board the ship - for water and food - and the need for relatively calm seas meant that battles were most often fought close to land. In addition, shipwrecked crews could then also be more easily rescued.
The most celebrated military use of triremes, and perhaps the greatest naval battle in ancient history, was fought in 480 BCE at Salamis between the fleet of the Hellenic League (principally represented by Athens and Corinth ) and the invading armada of the Persian king Xerxes. The Greek victory not only ensured Greek autonomy but allowed Athens to then take centre stage in the Aegean.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
Content is available under License Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. CC-BY-NC-SA License

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