CIRCUS (Lat. circus, Gr. or , a ring or circle; probably "circus" and "ring" are of the same origin), a space, in the strict sense circular, but sometimes oval or even oblong, intended for the exhibition of races and athletic contests generally. The circus differs from the theatre inasmuch as the performance takes place in a central circular space, not on a stage at one end of the building.
1. In Roman antiquities the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races and other amusements. It consisted of tiers of seats running parallel with the sides of the course, and forming a crescent round one of the ends. The other end was straight and at right angles to the course, so that the plan of the whole had nearly the form of an ellipse cut in half at its vertical axis. Along the transverse axis ran a fence (spina) separating the return course from the starting one. The straight end had no seats, but was occupied by the stalls (carceres) where the chariots and horses were held in readiness. This end constituted also the front of the building with the main entrance. At each end of the course were three conical pillars (metae) to mark its limits.
The oldest building of this kind in Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, where, before the erection of any permanent structure, races appear to have been held beside the altar of the god Consus. The first building is assigned to Tarquin the younger, but for a long time little seems to have been done to complete its accommodation, since it is not till 329 B.C. that we hear of stalls being erected for the chariots and horses. It was not in fact till under the empire that the circus became a conspicuous public resort. Caesar enlarged it to some extent, and also made a canal 10 ft. broad between the lowest tier of seats (podium) and the course as a precaution for the spectators' safety when exhibitions of fighting with wild beasts, such as were afterwards confined to the amphitheatre, took place. When these exhibitions were removed, and the canal (euripus) was no longer necessary, Nero had it filled up. Augustus is said to have placed an obelisk on the spina between the metae, and to have built a new pulvinar, or imperial box; but if this is taken in connexion with the fact that the circus had been partially destroyed by fire in 31 B.C., it may be supposed that besides this he had restored it altogether. Only the lower tiers of seats were of stone, the others being of wood, and this, from the liability to fire, may account for the frequent restorations to which the circus was subject; it would also explain the falling of the seats by which a crowd of people were killed in the time of Antoninus Pius. In the reign of Claudius, apparently after a fire, the carceres of stone (tufa) were replaced by marble, and the metae of wood by gilt bronze. Under Domitian, again, after a fire, the circus was rebuilt and the carceres increased to 12 instead of 8 as before. The work was finished by Trajan. See further for seating capacity, etc., Rome: Archaeology, § "Places of Amusement."
The circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated. The lower seats were reserved for persons of rank; there were also various state boxes, e.g. for the giver of the games and his friends (called cubicula or suggestus). The principal object of attraction apart from the racing must have been the spina or low wall which ran down the middle of the course, with its obelisks, images and ornamental shrines. On it also were seven figures of dolphins and seven oval objects, one of which was taken down at every round made in a race, so that spectators might see readily how the contest proceeded. The chariot race consisted of seven rounds of the course. The chariots started abreast, but in an oblique line, so that the outer chariot might be compensated for the wider circle it had to make at the other end. Such a race was called a missus, and as many as 24 of these would take place in a day. The competitors wore different colours, originally white and red (albata and russata), to which green (prasina) and blue (veneta) were added. Domitian introduced two more colours, gold and purple (purpureus et auratus pannus), which probably fell into disuse after his death. To provide the horses and large staff of attendants it was necessary to apply to rich capitalists and owners of studs, and from this there grew up in time four select companies (factiones) of circus purveyors, which were identified with the four colours, and with which those who organized the races had to contract for the proper supply of horses and men. The drivers (aurigae, agitatores), who were mostly slaves, were sometimes held in high repute for their skill, although their calling was regarded with contempt. The horses most valued were those of Sicily, Spain and Cappadocia, and great care was taken in training them. Chariots with two horses (bigae) or four (quadrigae) were most common, but sometimes also they had three (trigae), and exceptionally more than four horses. Occasionally there was combined with the chariots a race of riders (desultores), each rider having two horses and leaping from one to the other during the race. At certain of the races the proceedings were opened by a pompa or procession in which images of the gods and of the imperial family deified were conveyed in cars drawn by horses, mules or elephants, attended by the colleges of priests, and led by the presiding magistrate (in some cases by the emperor himself) seated in a chariot in the dress and with the insignia of a triumphator. The procession passed from the capitol along the forum, and on to the circus, where it was received by the people standing and clapping their hands. The presiding magistrate gave the signal for the races by throwing a white flag (mappa) on to the course.
Next in importance to the Circus Maximus in Rome was the Circus Flaminius, erected 221 B.C., in the censorship of C. Flaminius, from whom it may have taken its name; or the name may have been derived from Prata Flaminia, where it was situated, and where also were held plebeian meetings. The only games that are positively known to have been celebrated in this circus were the Ludi Taurii and Plebeii. There is no mention of it after the 1st century. Its ruins were identified in the 16th century at S. Catarina dei Funari and the Palazzo Mattei.
A third circus in Rome was erected by Caligula in the gardens of Agrippina, and was known as the Circus Neronis, from the notoriety which it obtained through the Circensian pleasures of Nero. A fourth was constructed by Maxentius outside the Porta Appia near the tomb of Caecilia Metella, where its ruins are still, and now afford the only instance from which an idea of the ancient circi in Rome can be obtained. It was traced to Caracalla, till the discovery of an inscription in 1825 showed it to be the work of Maxentius. Old topographers speak of six circi, but two of these appear to be imaginary, the Circus Florae and the Circus Sallustii.
Circus races were held in connexion with the following public festivals, and generally on the last day of the festival, if it extended over more than one day: - (1) The Consualia, August 21st, December 15th; (2) Equirria, February 27th, March 14th; (3) Ludi Romani, September 4th-19th; (4) Ludi Plebeii, November 4th-17th; (5) Cerialia, April 12th-19th; (6) Ludi Apollinares, July 6th-13th; (7) Ludi Megalenses, April 4th-10th; (8) Floralia, April 28th-May 3rd.
In addition to Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities (3rd ed., 1890), see articles in Daremberg and Saglio's Dictionnaire des antiquités, Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, iii. 2 (1899), and Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, iii. (2nd ed., 1885), p. 504. For existing remains see works quoted under Rome: Archaeology.
2. The Modern Circus. - The "circus" in modern times is a form of popular entertainment which has little in common with the institution of classical Rome. It is frequently nomadic in character, the place of the permanent building known to the ancients as the circus being taken by a tent, which is carried from place to place and set up temporarily on any site procurable at country fairs or in provincial towns, and in which spectacular performances are given by a troupe employed by the proprietor. The centre of the tent forms an arena arranged as a horse-ring, strewn with tan or other soft substance, where the performances take place, the seats of the spectators being arranged in ascending tiers around the central space as in the Roman circus. The traditional type of exhibition in the modern travelling circus consists of feats of horsemanship, such as leaping through hoops from the back of a galloping horse, standing with one foot on each of two horses galloping side by side, turning somersaults from a springboard over a number of horses standing close together, or accomplishing acrobatic tricks on horseback. These performances, by male and female riders, are varied by the introduction of horses trained to perform tricks, and by drolleries on the part of the clown, whose place in the circus is as firmly established by tradition as in the pantomime.
The popularity of the circus in England may be traced to that kept by Philip Astley (d. 1814) in London at the end of the 18th century. Astley was followed by Ducrow, whose feats of horsemanship had much to do with establishing the traditions of the circus, which were perpetuated by Hengler's and Sanger's celebrated shows in a later generation. In America a circus-actor named Ricketts is said to have performed before George Washington in 1780, and in the first half of the 19th century the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wide popularity to the circus in the United States. All former circus-proprietors were, however, far surpassed in enterprise and resource by P.T. Barnum (q.v.), whose claim to be the possessor of "the greatest show on earth" was no exaggeration. The influence of Barnum, however, brought about a considerable change in the character of the modern circus. In arenas too large for speech to be easily audible, the traditional comic dialogue of the clown assumed a less prominent place than formerly, while the vastly increased wealth of stage properties relegated to the background the old-fashioned equestrian feats, which were replaced by more ambitious acrobatic performances, and by exhibitions of skill, strength and daring, requiring the employment of immense numbers of performers and often of complicated and expensive machinery. These tendencies are, as is natural, most marked in shows given in permanent buildings in large cities, such as the London Hippodrome, which was built as a combination of the circus, the menagerie and the variety theatre, where wild animals such as lions and elephants from time to time appeared in the ring, and where convulsions of nature such as floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been produced with an extraordinary wealth of realistic display. At the Hippodrome in Paris - unlike its London namesake, a circus of the true classical type in which the arena is entirely surrounded by the seats of the spectators - chariot races after the Roman model were held in the latter part of the 19th century, at which prizes of considerable value were given by the management.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)