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Excavating the Circus Maximus!

Archaeologists continue to unearth exciting pieces of the ancient world, providing tangible images to even the greatest legends of Rome.  I have had the blessing of visiting Rome a number of times.  During each trip I have visited the site of the great Circus Maximus, the most well-known race track of all time, grandly featured in the epic film Ben-Hur.  For ages the great Circus was nothing more than an oval field with sloping sides that gave only a mere hint to its former grandeur.  Residents and tourists alike enjoyed jogging along the same race course as ancient racing chariots.  However, when I returned in March of 2016 (this time leading a group of my Latin students) I was elated to find that excavation work had carefully moved away the cover of earth to reveal remnants of the stadium surrounding the great race course. I was beyond excited at this unexpected surprise, and I have been following the excavation work ever since.  We have had an idea of the scope and size of the great circus, but the particulars that we are now finding of what resided there are simply amazing.

Rendering of Circus Maximus as it may have appeared in ancient Rome.

Archaeologists are discovering what some call the greatest shopping complex of the ancient world.  I suppose this really shouldn’t surprise us at all.  Modern man is not really that different from ancient man.   Visit any NASCAR or Formula One race track and you are likely to find a plethora of concession stands, clothing venues, souvenir shops, and large bathroom facilities.  You might also find stories posted of the greatest drivers and the cars that set records.  All this has been discovered at the Circus Maximus.  Several shops have been found including ancient laundromats that would clean your garments with the preferred agent of the time: urine.  Large latrines have been uncovered that used the nearby aqueducts to continually “flush” water and waste through to the sewers.  Archaeologists have even found images of a winning race horse by the name of Numitor, who seems to have gained some measure of fame in the great city.

A relief from the first Arch of Titus, showing the grand menorah and other treasures taken from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 A.D.
credit: Dnalor01, Wikimedia Commons
read more:

Most wonderful of all these finds, however, is the discovery of a second Arch of Titus.  The first Arch of Titus stands near the entrance to the Roman Forum along the Via Sacra.  This triumphal arch was erected by the Emperor Domition in honor of his older brother and predecessor Titus, who conquered Judaea and destroyed the Temple of Solomon.  A relief on the arch shows the Roman soldiers carrying away important religious relics of the temple, relics described in great detail by Moses* in the Book of Exodus, chapter 37.

The Romans carried these treasures off after the destruction of Jerusalem and they disappeared into the stories of history.  While we may mourn the destruction of the great temple, we must be grateful here for Domitian’s work on the arch.  For this relief on the Arch of Titus is the only visual depiction we have of these important religious relics.  The only depiction, that is, until now.  Archaeologists have found the remains of a second Arch of Titus, also built by Domition, that serves as a grand entrance into the Circus Maximus (see suggested artistic rendering above).  Although now in pieces, the remains of this arch also reveal depictions of the temple treasures including the well-known menorah.


I am scheduled to return to Rome again this summer.  At the top of my list of places to visit is the Circus Maximus and the second Arch of Titus!

View of ongoing excavation work at the Circus Maximus (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The following are articles published within the past year regarding the ongoing excavation work at the Circus Maximus.

Second Monumental Arch of Titus

Ancient latrines, a lucky race horse: New finds at Circus Maximus

Welcome to Ben-Hur’s Shopping Mall


*Nota Bene: Moses was at the time describing the relics that were created for the Tabernacle, a portable temple that served the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert. These same relics were later housed in the great temple built by King Solomon, as directed by his father King David.


Teaching Tip: Those who use the Latin Alive textbook series will find a reading from Suetonius on Titus and the Fall of Jerusalem in  LA2, chapter 12.  The same text also has a reading from Tertullian on chariot races in chapter 20.  The articles provided in this blog post would make a nice supplement to either reading.

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