Let's go to the circus!

One of history's greatest racing venues had a questionable beginning

Roman chariot racing is said to date back to the earliest days of the city (around 753 BCE). During the city's formative years, its founding father Romulus invited neighbouring towns and tribes to Rome so that they might enjoy the Consualia festival. Several events were planned for the festivities, chief among them being horse and chariot races. Chariot races became a key part of Roman festivals, at times even being the event that kicked-off proceedings - preceded by a lavish parade featuring the charioteers themselves, music, costumed dancers, and images of the gods. They were loud in both colour and noise, and were a thing not to be missed.

Legend informs us that the Sabine men might’ve thought so too. Whilst they were enjoying one of the many chariot races during the Consualia festival, Romulus and his men seized and carried off their women. The whole ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ saga had begun with a request from Romulus. On behalf of his mostly male followers, he had asked for a number of Sabine women for his men to marry (the Sabine being a local people who populated Rome’s surrounding area). However, because the Sabine rulers continued to reject Romulus’ requests leading up to the festival, he decided to do what he thought was completely rational, and have them kidnapped right under the noses of their brothers and fathers. This, of course, led to war.

Outraged over the Sabine women incident, the Caeninenses, the Antemnates, the Crustumini, and the Sabine attacked Rome. Though the Sabines were the only army which came close to taking Rome, eventually they too fell to the Romans, with a little help from the women they had abducted no less:

“…from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, "that as fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other with impious blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide, the one their grandchildren, the other their children. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you.”

The battle ended, Romulus victorious, and soon the Sabines agreed to unite with the Romans as one nation. On the ground where this mess all started, the famed Circus Maximus would be built. After a long life, the battered venue eventually attracted the attentions of none other than Julius Caesar and Augustus, who both mended, renovated, and improved the circus during their respective reigns. During Augustus’ time, the Circus Maximus could hold 150,000-180,000 spectators, showcasing just how popular chariot racing must've been in Rome at this time.


Livy, Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome).

Gargola, Daniel J. Boatwright, Mary T. Talbert, and Richard J. A. 2004, The Romans: From Village to Empire, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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