Circus Maximus was spared the fate of a fence and entrance fee after archaeologists completed its excavation in the late 19th century. The historic chariot racetrack of ancient Rome retains a bit of its history: it is now a runner’s track, sports park, and all-purpose green space in the heart of this sprawling, modern metropolis. Artfully—for the health of the urban landscape—Circus Maximus lies behind the fenced off Palatine hill, with a view of the ancient imperial palace. And down the street is the Colosseum. This makes the park a perfect rest stop between, or after, your tours of those iconic sites.
All hippodromes (horserace parks) in ancient times were built with banked sides as bleacher seats for spectators, either landscaping the earth or as built structures. Circus Maximus was the largest of its kind, able to hold 250,000 spectators. The chariot races held at the park were popular sports attractions with Romans. They often bet on the charioteers, who were the sports celebrities of their time.
Today you can experience a touch of that ancient atmosphere when you stand on the gravel track at Circus Maximus. It’s easy to imagine the rumble of the crowd, the stirring horses, the chariot wheels creaking on their axels. Today the park is a quiet space that holds a ghostly aura. Look around. The grass on the steep embankments ripples in the breeze. Even with a couple hundred people milling about this enormous recreation park, you feel the space’s immensity. The center knoll is a good place to find a picnic spot. A wall once stood here that separated the 800-foot (250-meter) track.
The south embankment sits higher than the north. Near its center is a wide platform with a dozen benches facing the track. This is where the emperor and his entourage would have sat during the races. Today it’s a good spot to survey the Palatine (one of the seven Roman hills) and its excavated architecture. For a closer look at an excavation-in- progress, the east end of the “Massimo” holds ancient structures that historians believe where the horse stables and dress areas of the chariot riders.
A softball diamond is roughly outlined at each of the corners on the track. Teens gather here after school and on weekends for pickup games. You’ll find morning and evening joggers working their way around the track. I saw couples from three generations taking evening strolls. Lovers lie entwined on the center embankments. Dogs chase balls down the track. And lots of people hang about on the sidelines, watching all this activity around the green-grass bowl in which the park sits.
Food and Drinks at Circus Maximus
Snack & drink carts are all over Rome because there are so many tourists and countless sites both large and small around the city. Roman snack carts are unlike any I’ve seen in most European cities, and certainly in America. I liken the Roman snack carts to delicatessens on wheels, because in them you’ll find freshly made sandwiches, pizza, fresh fruit, ice cream, and the assortment of sweet/salty snacks. Bottled water, soft drinks, wine and beer wait to quench a thirst. You’ll find a snack cart along the Via del Cerchi on Maximus’ north side, and one on the Emperor’s viewing platform on the south side (Via del Massimo). At other times, as well, I’ve seen the odd wandering cart close to the busy street corners.
(read more about Circus Maximus highlights here)