Even though today there is nothing more than a bare surface to be seen, the Circus Maximus was of enormous importance for politics and the economy and was decisive for considerable changes in Roman urban development in various epochs.
The history of the Circus Maximus, the racecourse for horse-drawn carriages, began in the time before Christ. Thus, in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, festivals were already celebrated in archaic times. Often also horse races.
During one of these festivities, the “Rape of the Sabine Women” had also taken place, shortly after the founding of the city of Rome. As a reminder, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus (twin brother: Remus). The city had many men, but there was a lack of women. Romulus knew how to solve this problem cleverly: Women from neighbouring towns were kidnapped at a feast (painting by Nicolas Poussin: “Rape of the Sabine Women”, on display in the Louvre, Paris). The ensuing battles ended with a peace treaty forced by these women, and Rome became bigger and more powerful.
The popularity of chariot races in this area increased, so a stadium made of wood was built here in the 4th century BC. Although wood had the advantage that a stadium could be built easily and cheaply, it had the major disadvantage of being easily ignited. So the stadium had burnt several times and had to be rebuilt again and again.
It was Julius Caesar who, in about 50 BC, magnificently extended the arena with marble and brick. His adopted son Octavian (also known as the first Emperor Augustus) had placed an obelisk from Egypt on the centre line of the arena—the so-called “spina”. This in turn was moved to the Piazza del Popolo by Pope Sixtus the V in 1589.
But even a building material made of stone could not withstand the great fire in 64 AD under Emperor Nero. A burning oil lamp had fallen onto the floor covered with wood and straw in one of the shops inside the Circus Maximus. The fire would have spread so quickly that the great Circus Maximus would have been completely destroyed after two hours. Consequently, all of Rome burned for seven days.