The Circo Massimo was central to our stay in Rome. It was the nearest Metro stop to our hotel. It was also the big circle that we walked around and around (in the rain) when we first arrived, trying to find the Via di San Teodoro that would take us to our hotel. Once we got it figured out we never got lost around the Circle again. It became our home neighborhood! We knew where to get bus tickets and afternoon espressos and pastry.
Here is some history from one of the signs:
The Marcia valley, which lies between the Palatino hill and the Aventino hill, had been a natural site for social happenings and religious celebration since the bronze age, becoming, throughout the centuries, a special place for public events such as religious processions, triumphal marches of victorious generals, young patrician competitions, hunting and public executions.
The origins of the circus games (chariot racing) are deep rooted in ancient religious celebrations. However, over the centuries these games had evolved into extremely spectacular public events capable of attracting massive crowds. This made the construction of stable structures to host spectator essential. …
The racing show was opened by a ritual procession (pompa) which, symbolically, led the Gods (their representations) to watch the races. Then, when the chariots were ready, the magistrate in charge dropped a white cloth (mappa) from the balcony above the starting gates signaling the beginning of the race. In order the finish the race the chariots, which were essentially light wooden carts with 2 wheels drawn by horses (whose number could vary but it was mostly 4) had to complete 7 anti clockwise laps of the track around the end posts (Metae). These were placed at both ends of the central Spina. The number of laps was officially counted by special mechanisms ( “le ova” – eggs or “delfini” – dolphins) placed over the Spina. With its symbolic religious features, the complex was a representation of the universe: the 12 doors of the starting gates (carceres) represented the zodiac’s constellations; the 7 laps each chariot was supposed to carry out represented the orbits of the 7 planets and the charioteer (auriga) represented the Sun.
In each race there were 4 teams (factiones) competing against each other, and the arighi (the athletes of the different teams) wore robes of different colors (white, red, green, and blue) which symbolized the four seasons.
During the games, numerous races followed one after the other throughout the whole day. The games had become so famous and important that the winner, besides receiving prize money, often became a real idol in ordinary people’s eyes; their popularity can be compared to modern sports champions’ fame.
Throughout the centuries the religious nature of this event faded away giving way to real sports competitions, around which developed an enormous betting business. Roman people, especially plebeians, had always had such a passion for horse racing that Juvenal, in the first century AD, said “Roman people … want only two things: panem et circenses (food and games)”, referring to the free distribution of food and the games that were held in the Circus. These were the first signs, already in the imperial age, of the increasing loss of responsibility and moral principles of the Roman society.