It still bears its thrilling ancient name, and the antique ruins on the Palatine Hill, the heart of ancient Rome and home of the Caesars, still gaze down upon it. But now it takes a feat of the imagination to see Circus Maximus as it must have been in its pomp.
Today it is little more than a long, narrow park, 340 metres in length, with a small archeological dig fitfully in progress at its south-eastern end. It can still hold a crowd: Genesis played a free concert here last year, and Bob Geldof persuaded Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni, to let him use it for the Italian leg of the Live-8 spectacular in 2005. The rest of the time it is the haunt of dog-walkers, joggers and the occasional conceptual artist.
But 2,000 years ago this was the most exciting spot in the city. Long before the building of the Colosseum, crowds in their hundreds of thousands packed the stands to watch 12 teams of charioteers scorch the earth. Gladiators and wild animals fought in mortal combat, and the central arena was often flooded so miniature triremes could battle it out for the Romans' delight. If a particularly large number of people had to be crucified, Circus Maximus was the obvious place to do it.
The strip's last big show was in AD549. Then the Barbarians arrived and laid it to waste, and for the next millenium and a half it was no more than a very large allotment with a fancy name.
But now, after the centuries of neglect and years of debate and campaigning, Circus Maximus is finally to get some attention. Beginning on 20 June, the city's archeological authorities are to begin a careful and respectful restoration.
Eugenio La Rocca, Superintendent of Rome and lecturere in archeology at Rome's Sapienza University, said: "We are trying to realise the old dreams that Rome has maintained from the 19th century up to the present. We will do our best to restore this site, which was of the utmost importance in our history.
"[Emperor] Tarquin drained the site 2,500 years ago, but it was Julius Caesar in 46 BC who erected the first buildings here, which were consumed by fire in AD64. With the Emperor Trajan, the performances began to assume the wondrous proportions that we only know today from films."
Professor La Rocca stressed that he will not be attempting to restore the Circus to its former glory. "We will clean up the whole site to make it practicable and legible, and give it a simple curved enclosure," he said. During chariot races the long track was divided by a raised spine of beaten earth, and this is one element the authorities plan to recreate.
They will also continue excavating, with greater urgency. Despite the fame of the Circus, Professor La Rocca told La Repubblica newspaper, "Paradoxically we have little information about it. Pliny claimed it could hold 250,000 spectators but others said 150,000, which seems much more likely." Treasures recovered from the Circus and other sites will eventually find a home in a new Museum of the City of Rome, to be built a few steps away.
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