Circus of Maxentius

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Circus of Maxentius (Circo di Massenzio), is an ancient Roman circus, constructed as part of a complex of buildings erected by emperor Maxentius on the Via Appia between 306 and 312 CE. Located between the second and third milestones of the ancient Via Appia, the Circus built by emperor Maxentius is positioned between the basilica and catacombs of San Sebastiano and the prominent late republican tomb of Caecilia Metella.

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The circus of Maxentius itself stands as the most well-preserved structure in the Rome region, ranking second in size only to the ancient Circus Maximus in Rome. The only events, known to have been documented, at the circus of Maxentius were the inaugural games, believed to have had a funerary nature.

These games likely commemorated the young Valerius Romulus, the son of Maxentius, who died in 309 CE, and was probably laid to rest in the nearby cylindrical tomb, known as the tomb of Romulus. The imperial box (pulvinar) of the circus was linked to the Villa of Maxentius through a covered portico. The remains of the villa, now largely concealed by dense foliage, include the apse of the basilical audience hall, visible above the treetops. It seems that the complex including the circus fell into disuse after the death of Maxentius in 312 CE, as archaeological excavations suggest that the tracks were covered with sand in antiquity.

Historically, the circus would have served as a venue for the chariot races, athletic contests, and other public spectacles. The inaugural games at the Circus of Maxentius are believed to have had a funerary purpose, honoring the deceased son of Maxentius, Valerius Romulus. Construction of the circus is associated with the Roman Emperor Maxentius, who ruled from 306 to 312 CE. Despite the passage of time, the Circus of Maxentius remains an important archaeological and architectural landmark, offering valuable insights into Roman engineering, architecture, and entertainment practices.

Architectural Details

circa 312 CE

Track, Spina and the Cavea
The circus of emperor Maxentius has a distinctive U-shaped layout with a long, straight track and a curved, semi-circular end, resembling a horseshoe or a letter 'U'. The overall design is characteristic of Roman circuses, featuring a central spina (median strip) running down the length of the track. The Circus of Maxentius is one of the largest circuses in Rome, measuring approximately 513 meters in length and 91 meters in width.

The seating tiers around the central racing area, known as the cavea, could accommodate a large number of spectators. Although the actual seating capacity of the Maxentian Circus is not known, it is estimated that the circus could hold around 10,000 to 15,000 spectators. The lower seats were reserved for individuals of higher social status, while the upper tiers were for the general public.

circa 312 CE

The most notable feature of the circus was the imperial box, or the pulvinar, a special seating area for the emperor and other dignitaries. In the case of the Circus of Maxentius, this pulvinar was directly connected to the nearby villa of Maxentius via a covered portico. The architectural embellishments of the circus included columns, statues, and ornamental elements that adorned the facade and seating sections. The spina, running down the center of the track, featured various monuments, obelisks, and decorative elements, adding grandeur to the overall design.

circa 312 CE

Triumphal Gate
The triumphal gate (Porta Triumphalis), also known as the Triumphal Gate of the Circus Maximus (Porta trionfale del Circo di Massenzio) is situated at the eastern end of the Maxentian Circus. The Porta Triumphalis is located in the middle of the eastern side and consists of two walls surmounted by a barrel vault and an attic. Today the visible remains include the walls, the vault, the two stairs connecting the ground floor with the stands, and the steps leveling the slope between the track and the external ground. The only missing part is the attic, and possibly the marble cladding.

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