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.
INTERVIEW: ROME: A HISTORY IN SEVEN SACKINGS:
NO city on earth has preserved its past quite like Rome. Visitors stand on bridges that were crossed by Julius Caesar and Cicero, walk around temples visited by Roman emperors, and step into churches that have hardly changed since popes celebrated mass in them 16 centuries ago. These architectural survivals are all the more remarkable considering the violent disasters that have struck the city. In this exclusive interview, Ancient History Encyclopedia’s James Blake Wiener quizzes Matthew Kneale, author of Rome: A History in Seven Sackings, on the fierce courage, panache, and vitality of the Roman people across space and time.
THE ancient Romans had a rich mythology and, while much of it was derived from their neighbors and predecessors, the Greeks, it still defined the rich history of the Roman people as they eventually grew into an empire. Roman writers such as Ovid and Virgil documented and extended the mythological heritage of the ancient Mediterranean to gives us such long-lasting and iconic figures as Aeneas, Vesta, Janus, and the twin founders of Rome itself, Romulus and Remus.
Before one can delve into a study of mythology, one must understand the concept behind a myth. In his book The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories, Philip Matyszak describes a myth simply as “the ancient’s view of the world.” These myths – although often appearing as simple stories filled with valiant heroes, maidens in distress, and a host of all-powerful gods – are much more. The gods of the Greeks and Romans were anthropomorphic, exhibiting many human qualities such as love, hate, and jealousy, and because of this, the people of Rome and Greece were able to see themselves in these tales and understand their relationship to the rest of the world as well their connection to the gods. The lesson often to be learned was that one must meet one’s destiny with strength, determination, and nobility. These myths enabled an individual to stand against the ills and hardships of an unforgiving universe. Matyszak states that, in spite of their constant disagreements and battles, the gods and humankind had to stand together against the “monsters and giants” of the world, or more simply, the “forces of disorder and wanton destruction.”
ROMAN emperors ruled over the Imperial Roman Empire starting with Augustus from 27 BCE and continuing in the Western Roman Empire until the late 5th century CE and in the Eastern Roman Empire up to the mid-15th century CE. The emperors would take different titles such as Caesar and Imperator but it was always their command of the army which allowed them to keep their seat on one of history’s most prestigious and long-lasting thrones.
Prior to the birth of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the first century BCE, there had existed many empires among these were the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, and the Macedonian. All of these had great leaders such as Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and, of course, Alexander the Great. Yet, history tells us these great men were all called kings; the term emperor was never used. In contrast, the Roman Empire was different, for it didn’t have a king; it had an emperor, and one must search both the Roman Republic and the Empire, almost one thousand years of history, to discover the reasons for the difference.
ROMAN DAILY LIFE:
FROM the early days of the Roman Republic through the volatile reigns of such ignoble emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus, the Roman Empire continued to expand, stretching its borders to encompass the entire Mediterranean Sea as well as expanding northward to Gaul and Britain. History records the exploits of the heroes as well as the tirades of the emperors. Despite the sometimes shameful deeds of the imperial office, the empire was built on the backs of its citizens – the unsung people who lived a relatively quiet existence, and who are often ignored by history. Rome was a cosmopolitan city with Greeks, Syrians, Jews, North Africans, Spaniards, Gauls, and Britons, and like any society, the average Roman citizen awoke each morning, labored, relaxed, and ate, and while his or her daily life could often be hectic, he or she would always survive.
Outside the cities, in the towns and on the small farms, people lived a much simpler life – dependent almost entirely on their own labor. The daily life of the average city dweller, however, was a lot different and most often routine. The urban areas of the empire – whether it was Rome, Pompeii, Antioch, or Carthage – were magnets to many people who left smaller towns and farms seeking a better way of life. However, the unfulfilled promise of jobs forced countless people to live in the poorer parts of the city.
TRADE IN THE ROMAN WORLD:
REGIONAL, inter-regional and international trade was a common feature of the Roman world. A mix of state control and a free market approach ensured goods produced in one location could be exported far and wide. Cereals, wine and olive oil, in particular, were exported in huge quantities whilst in the other direction came significant imports of precious metals, marble, and spices.
Generally speaking, as with earlier and contemporary civilizations, the Romans gradually developed a more sophisticated economy following the creation of an agricultural surplus, population movement and urban growth, territorial expansion, technology innovation, taxation, the spread of coinage, and not insignificantly, the need to feed the great city of Rome itself and supply its huge army wherever it might be on campaign.
FALL OF THE WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE:
TO many historians, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE has always been viewed as the end of the ancient world and the onset of the Middle Ages, often improperly called the Dark Ages, despite Petrarch’s assertion. Since much of the west had already fallen by the middle of the 5th century CE, when a writer speaks of the fall of the empire, he or she generally refers to the fall of the city of Rome. Although historians generally agree on the year of the fall, 476 CE, they often disagree on its causes. English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote in the late 18th century CE, points to the rise of Christianity and its effect on the Roman psyche while others believe the decline and fall were due, in part, to the influx of ‘barbarians’ from the north and west.
Whatever the cause, whether it was religion, external attack, or the internal decay of the city itself, the debate continues to the present day; however, one significant point must be established before a discussion of the roots of the fall can continue: the decline and fall were only in the west. The eastern half – that which would eventually be called the Byzantine Empire – would continue for several centuries, and, in many ways, it retained a unique Roman identity.
Dacians attack Roman cavalry by Mariusz Kozik
THE Roman Empire, at its height (c. 117 CE), was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization. By 285 CE the empire had grown too vast to be ruled from the central government at Rome and so was divided by Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) into a Western and an Eastern Empire. The Roman Empire began when Augustus Caesar (27 BCE-14 CE) became the first emperor of Rome and ended, in the west, when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer (476 CE). In the east, it continued as the Byzantine Empire until the death of Constantine XI and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. The influence of the Roman Empire on western civilization was profound in its lasting contributions to virtually every aspect of western culture.
Following the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Gaius Octavian Thurinus, Julius Caesar’s nephew and heir, became the first emperor of Rome and took the name Augustus Caesar. Although Julius Caesar is often regarded as the first emperor of Rome, this is incorrect; he never held the title `Emperor’ but, rather, `Dictator’, a title the Senate could not help but grant him, as Caesar held supreme military and political power at the time. In contrast, the Senate willingly granted Augustus the title of emperor, lavishing praise and power on him because he had destroyed Rome’s enemies and brought much-needed stability.
POMPEII was a large Roman town in the Italian region of Campania which was completely buried in volcanic ash following the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The town was excavated in the 19th and 20th century CE and due to its excellent state of preservation it has given an invaluable insight into the Roman world and may lay claim to being the richest archaeological site in the world in terms of the sheer volume of data available to scholars.
The area was originally settled in the Bronze Age on an escarpment on the mouth of the river Sarno. The site of Pompeii and the surrounding area offered the twin advantages of a favourable climate and rich volcanic soil which allowed for the blossoming of agricultural activity, particularly olives and grapes. Little did the original settlers realise that the very escarpment on which they built had been formed by a long-forgotten eruption of the now seemingly innocent mountain that over-shadowed their town. However, in Greek mythology, a hint at the volcano’s power was found in the legend that Hercules had here fought giants in a fiery landscape. Indeed, the nearby town Herculaneum, which would suffer the same fate as Pompeii, was named after this heroic episode. In addition, Servius informs us that the name Pompeii derives from pumpe, which was the commemorative procession in honour of Hercules’ victory over the giants.