“one of the most beautiful and admirable structures in Rome”
(Dionysus of Helicarnassus, 1st Century BCE)
The Circus Maximus was ancient Rome’s largest public entertainment space, grander than the Colosseum and used much more often. Apart from its scale, there’s little on the ground today to showcase that grandeur described by Dionysus of Helicarnassus.
I last visited well over 10 years ago – things have changed a lot since then and I have a different interest as I’m hoping to explore the site in a follow up to my MA research. New excavations have brought ancient evidence to light, and now the whole space has been vividly brought to life with virtual and augmented reality – the Circo Maximo Experience. We caught the experience just shortly after it opened on 23rd May 2019.
For €12, we spent around an hour exploring the site and being led through its history from its rural origins, to its role in the Rape of the Sabine women (mentioned by Livy), to medieval use as a fortress, and subsequent lives as an industrial complex and a Fascist exhibition space. The AR headsets really make the most of the evidence on the ground and bring it to life in a very special and evocative way. They conjure up the sights and sounds of the circus space where around 200,000 individuals roared their chariot racing teams to success or watched spectacles from religious processions to exotic wild beast hunts. At one point you even find yourself enjoying the view from the emperor’s box looking out over the central spina to the Temple of Sol opposite, where the judges would have had prime views of the action on the track (see the images in the first Tweet above). But for me, it was the quieter moments in the site’s earliest history that were the most moving, as people and animals lived, worked and worshipped in the rural valley space. Obviously I couldn’t take any photos throught the headset, but these images from Twitter give you something of a flavour of what you’ll see.
The headsets are activated by pointing them at one of these information panels dotted around the archaeolgical site at the Viale Aventino/Piazza di Porta Capena end of the Circus (the unfenced area is still free to enter).
The space as it currently stands doesn’t really conjure up the grandeur of the marbled imperial venue and its visual impact (maybe the often slated Vittoriano with its white marble is the closest we currently have), so the headsets do an amazing job of filling in the gaps. Sadly the magnificent Arch of Titus (the biggest arch in Rome for quite some time, and much grander than its namesake in the Roman Forum) no longer survives but it must have been spectacular – only fragments remain, and they are artfully laid out beside the medieval tower, the Torre della Moletta, which it’s possible to climb.
It wasn’t all marble, of course, as the poorer audience members sat in wooden seats high up in the stands. Like the Colosseum, the rich had the best seats in the house.
The Experience also focused on the commercial world of the Circus. In the background, beside the entrances, the space was filled with tabernae – shops, taverns and cafes – and latrines. Everything you’d need for a day out at the races. Walking through this area reminded me a little of Trajan’s Markets, not surprising as both date from similar periods. Again, the headset brought this area to life, and helped to visualise the space, as did being able to just stand in one of those ancient shops.
This was such a lovely site and the staff were helpfully dotted around the 8 VR/AR viewpoints to advise and offer assistance. There’s also a loo which is a great addition to any site! To visit, take either a bus to a stop nearby, or the metro Line B to Circo Massimo and make for Viale Aventino where you can enter the fenced off archaeological area. You’ll need to give some ID (passport or driving licence) as a deposit for the headset, and then you’ll be on your way to the wonders of ancient Rome!