A Modern Roman Past Time

circo massimo roma

The circus has an illustrious history and this is no more apparent than in the case of Cirque Italia. Currently touring the world, this unique water circus in the style of nouveau circus acts is a homage to its heritage with roots in Roman and Greek entertainment.

In Roman culture, the circus has long been a tool for enjoyment and political strategy. However, one major difference from today’s circuses was the focus on bloodsport. The Circus Maximus, built between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome, was the largest public space in Rome holding up to 250 000 people at its peak. It was built like a modern day race track with a longer central piece and rounded ends. While a far cry from the modern day big tops, this shape was perfect for the countless chariot races held there. Along with racing, gladiators would fight in the arena against man and beast. One of the most spectacular displays came under Pompey’s rule when a group of barbarians fought against 20 elephants. Beyond this, the circus was a principal public space with animal hunts and public executions also hosted by the Grand Arena.

Beyond entertainment, the circus was an important place for Romans to celebrate their pantheon with games held in honour of Jupiter. Known as the Roman Games, or Ludi Romani, these were the oldest games in Rome and featured 15 days of chariot races and military demonstrations. Much like today’s horse races, the chariot races were a place of great entertainment. Not least of which for the thousands of people betting on the results. Chariots were colour coded and races included teams of 4, 6, 8, or 12 horses. For charioteers who found victory life was good. With fame and fortune, many attempted to find glory in the circus. Of the charioteers, the most successful, and famous, was Scorpus with more than 2000 recorded victories. Roman Emperors knew the importance of this space and used it to keep the masses from turning on them in turns of strife. This is where we get the expression, “bread and circuses”. Often used to indicate a short-term political plan to placate the public, it has its roots firmly in the history of the Roman past time.

Circuses have changed a lot from their origins. The modern circus was developed by Philip Astley in England during the 18th century. While he didn’t add the clowns and trapeze artists we know so well today, he brought all the acts under one roof and created the multi-faceted experience one finds at a circus today. It wasn’t until the American expansion that the idea of the big top and touring became possible. Films and games, such as Lucky Nugget Slots, have long used this intriguing place as a setting for exciting and often bizarre stories.

Cirque Italia is the next step in this history with nouveau circuses like the famous Cirque du Soleil reinvented the practice. Often these circuses, with countless acrobats and amazing costumes, have far encompassing themes ensuring every season is a new experience.

From the early days of chariot racing to modern day contortionists and acrobats, the circus has always been a place to delight and entertain.

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