The Roman Circus stood at the very heart of ancient entertainment. Used to host epic chariot races, horse riding events and even recreations of famous battles, these massive arenas could regularly hold tens of thousands of people.
Yet while they rank among the largest Roman ruins still in existence, the majority of Roman circuses have not survived in good condition. Often easier to pillage than the taller, more compact theatres and amphitheatres, most surviving Roman circuses offer more of an outline of their original state rather than a genuine reflection of their true form.
Check out our list of Roman circuses below and discover some amazing places to visit on your travels.
The ancient city of Aphrodisias was named after the Goddess of Love; Aphrodite. The remains of the beautiful ancient stadium here constitute one of the best preserved examples of a Roman circus still in existence.
Aphrodisias was once a thriving Hellenic and Roman city in what is now modern day Turkey. Today it is an archaeological site, whose ruins include the remains of a beautiful ancient stadium.
Established during the late Hellenistic period, Aphrodisias became a prosperous city under Roman rule from the 1st to the 5th century AD. In the 1st century BC, the city came under the personal protection of the Roman Emperor Augustus and many of the structures which can still be seen today date from that period and the following two centuries.
The city became an artistic centre as a result of its location near a marble quarry; the city is now littered with sculpture. Artists even travelled to Aphrodisias to take part in annual sculpting competitions. However the city fell to ruin after a series of earthquakes and was eventually abandoned in the 12th century.
Upon arrival to the ruins you will be greeted by the renovated Tetrapylon, a gateway of Corinthian style columns decorated with reliefs of the god Eros and goddess Nike.
The Temple of Aphrodite would have been in the busy heart if the city. Originally over forty columns of the temple would have stood, a number of which have been realigned today, giving a great sense of the scale of the original building. The Temple was converted into a Basilica in the 5th century AD with the Roman conversion to Christianity.
The stadium, dating as a far back as the 1st century BC, is beautifully preserved and is one of the biggest ancient constructions still surviving with a capacity of 30,000.
There is also an onsite museum featuring thousands of pieces of Aphrodisian art including busts, decorative and religious sculpture, ceramics and a unique figure of the goddess Aphrodite herself.
Other features of the ruins include the Odeon, the baths of Hadrian and the 8,000-seater ancient theatre which was adapted for gladiatorial combat in the Roman period. Also, look out for some of the over 2,000 Roman inscriptions still decipherable around the ruin.
Contributed by Rebecca Carman
Built as part of King Herod’s great Roman city, the ruins of Caesarea include a large Roman circus which overlooks the ocean and is still used for re-enactments.
Caesarea or “Keysarya” was an Ancient Roman city which is now a large archaeological site in Israel. It is believed that the city of Caesarea was initially founded atop the ruins of Straton's Tower, a third century BC Phoenician port city.
Conquered by King Alexander Jannaeus of the Hasmonean Kingdom in 90 BC, Caesarea’s population remained under local control until it was taken by the Romans in 63 BC. It was King Herod the Great who named the city Caesarea – after Augustus Caesar - and who endowed it with the majority of its great public buildings, infrastructure and monuments from 22 BC. Caesarea became a thriving commercial hub which hosted sporting events and which flourished further under the Byzantines. It was conquered by Crusaders in the eleventh century and its Crusader defences were erected in 1251 under French King Louis IX.
Today, Caesarea offers so much to see, including a large amphitheatre overlooking the ocean and an extensive labyrinth of ruins. Some of the most imposing remains at Caesarea are its Crusader fortifications.
Nearby, visitors can also explore the stunning remains of the Caesarea Aqueduct. Unless willing to hike for quite a while, it’s best to drive to this site. Overall, a trip to Caesarea can last anywhere from one to three hours and makes for a truly excellent day out. This site also features as one of our Top Ten Tourist Attractions in Israel.
Circo Romano de Toledo is a site which houses the ruins of an ancient Roman circus in Toledo, Spain. Very little remains of this site today.
Circo Romano de Toledo (Roman circus of Toledo) stands just outside the (also Roman) walls of this Spanish city.
Toledo was once the Roman city of Toletum and was an important regional centre and capital of the Roman province of Carthaginensis.
Very little remains of this site, but it is thought to have once been the biggest Roman Circus of the time and similar in style to Rome’s Circus Maximus. Visitors can wander through the pretty modern-day park in which the circus is found and explore the ruins with ease.
The remains of the circus are mostly comprised of an array of low-lying arches from the lower levels of the structure and it gives little impression as to what the original circus would have looked like.
The Circus Maximus was the main and largest sports stadium in Ancient Rome, capable of holding between 150,000 and 250,000 people.
The Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) in Rome was the main and largest sports stadium in Ancient Rome. Overlooked from the north by the emperors’ palaces on the Palatine, this grand arena was the site of exciting chariot races watched by an exhilarated crowd.
Built and rebuilt several times, at its largest the Circus Maximus held between 150,000 and 250,000 people. It is unclear as to when the first version of the Circus Maximus was constructed – it was certainly the oldest of Rome’s arenas - although it was in use by the fourth century BC and was enlarged under Julius Caesar in the first century AD and later by other emperors.
Today, the Circus Maximus is a shadow of its former magnificence. Without its Egyptian obelisks and Roman monuments, many see it as just a field, yet, with its shape and vast size still clearly visible, the Circus Maximus is definitely worth visiting.
Though far smaller than the more famous Circus Maximus, the Circus of Maxentius in Rome is one of the best preserved Roman circuses to have survived.
The Circus of Maxentius (Circo di Massenzio), in southern Rome may have been much smaller than the Circus Maximus – only holding approximately 10,000 spectators – but today it has its revenge by being far better preserved that its grander counterpart.
Located on the famous Via Appia, the Circus of Maxentius was built sometime during the reign of the Emperor Maxentius (306-312 AD). Some say that the reason for its excellent preservation was the fact that it was barely used, if at all.
Today, some of the structures in the complex of which the Circus of Maxentius formed a part still stand, together with its central dividing line – spina - and its entrance towers. It would have been the site of the villa of Maxentius. The site is still under excavation, but is open to the public.
Cyrene in Libya is considered to be one of the most impressive Greco-Roman sites in the world and include the remains of a Roman circus. Though little of the original structure has survived its form is nonetheless clearly visible.
Cyrene in Libya is considered to be one of the most impressive Greco-Roman sites in the world and one of the best Classical Greek sites beyond Greece itself.
Traditionally said to have been founded by the Greeks of Thera in 631BC, Cyrene was a trading hub first inhabited by the Battiadae dynasty and which became one of the most important centres of the Greek world.
Over time, Cyrene was conquered several times yielding to, amongst others, Alexander the Great, before being Romanised in 74BC. Cyrene’s status and importance further flourished under Roman rule and was rebuilt under Hadrian. In fact, it was only after the great earthquake of 365AD and the region’s changing climate which eventually caused its decline.
Amongst its fantastic remains, Cyrene is home to the ruins of the great sanctuary of Apollo which has sites ranging from the Temples of Artemis and Apollo which date back as early as the 7th century BC to the 2nd century Trajan Baths. Also found at Cyrene is the impressive Temple of Zeus.
One of its most impressive sites is Cyrene Amphitheatre, which the Greeks built in the 6th century BC, was used as a Roman amphitheatre and is now the largest Greek site in Africa.
There’s lots more to see at Cyrene including its acropolis, agora, forum and necropolis. Part of what makes Cyrene so incredible is not just its monuments but its overall planning - a mix of Greek and Roman, which is evident throughout.
Listed by UNESCO and protected by the Global Heritage Fund, sadly Cyrene is considered to be badly neglected.
Check the official advice of your country’s foreign office before considering travelling to Libya.
Jerash in Jordan was once a thriving Roman city and is one of the world’s most impressive Roman sites. The main track and much of the stands of the circus at Jerash remain extremely well preserved and are among the best preserved of their type.
Jerash or Jarash, is one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman sites. Once known as Gerasa, Jerash is believed to have been inhabited since the Neolithic Era. However, it is the impressive Roman city built in Jerash which has left its greatest mark on the area, becoming Jordan’s second most popular tourist site after Petra.
Jerash formed part of the Roman province of Syria following General Pompey’s conquest of the region in 64 BC. It later became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis league, flourishing and growing wealthier over two centuries of Roman rule. During this time, Jerash underwent several rounds of reconstruction, much of it occurring in the first century AD. One such occasion was in 129 AD, following a visit by the Emperor Hadrian. It was after this visit that Hadrian's Arch or the ‘Triumphal Arch’ was built, the ruins of which can still be seen in the southern part of Jerash outside the archeological park itself.
By the third century AD, Jerash had reached its peak as a thriving centre of trade with a population of up to 20,000 people. In fact, Jerash was even awarded the status of being a colony. However, this success was soon followed by Jerash’s slow downfall.
Several events over the next centuries, including the destruction of Palmyra in 273 AD, pillaging of its temples to build Christian churches under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and the Muslim conquest of the region in the seventh century all contributed to the decline of Jerash. This was further exacerbated by an earthquake in 747 AD. In fact, notwithstanding a brief twelfth century occupation by Crusaders, Jerash had fallen and lay deserted by the thirteenth century.
Today, tourists flock to see Jerash’s extensive and impressive ruins, including the Temple of Artemis and the Forum with its large ionic columns. Jerash’s original main street, the Cardo, runs through the centre of the site and, with its visible chariot marks and underground drainage system, is fascinating in its own right.
Other must-see aspects of Jerash include its still-functioning 3,000 seat South Theatre built between 90-92AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian, its second century AD North Theatre and its Nymphaeum fountain. Visitors can also see many of the artifacts found during the excavation of this site at the Jerash Archeological Museum.
Kourion is an impressive archaeological site in Cyprus containing mostly Ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins. A little way off the main site, the ancient stadium of Kourion is still visible and would have been able to hold several thousand spectators in its heyday.
Kourion, also known as Curium, is an impressive archaeological site near Limassol in Cyprus containing mostly Ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins.
In fact, it is believed that the site of Kourion was first inhabited during Neolithic times, with the earliest evidence dating back to 4500-3900 BC, but that the town itself was founded in the thirteenth century BC by the Argives.
Over the centuries, Kourion has played important roles in many regional conflicts. During the Cypriot uprising against Persia (fifth century BC), its king – Stasanor – betrayed his country, lending his support and troops to the Persians. However, Kourion later supported Alexander the Great’s fight against the Persians (fourth century BC).
Kourion continued to be inhabited throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods, with the establishment of buildings, monuments and other structures from these times still visible today. Perhaps the most memorable site to be seen today at Kourion is its ancient theatre. Still intact and able to seat up to 3,500 spectators, the theatre at Kourion dates back to the second or third century AD, although there would have been a theatre here from the second century BC.
However, the theatre is definitely not the only thing to see at Kourion. The site includes the remains of a third century AD Roman market which includes some public baths and a Nymphaeum.
Several additional ancient buildings remain, including part of the fourth century AD House of Achilles - thought to have been a reception centre - with its mosaic floors and the third century AD House of the Gladiators, so named because some of its mosaics depict gladiatorial battles. The complex of Eustolios is another fascinating site, this having been an affluent fourth to fifth century private residence in Kourion and including a bathing complex.
Kourion also possesses evidence of early Christianity, both at the complex of Eustolios and by way of its early Christian basilica, a fifth century AD church at the site. Other sites of Kourion include the remains of a stadium and the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates. However, it is worth noting that these latter two sites are slightly separate from the rest of the archaeological park.
Laodikeia was an Ancient Greek then Roman city, which is now represented by a set of interesting ruins. Among these ruins is the outline of the ancient circus, along with the bare remains or the original stands.
Laodikeia, also known as Laodicea, was an Ancient Greek then Roman city, which is now represented by a set of interesting ancient ruins.
Said by some to have been founded by Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid Kingdom in the third century BC, many of the buildings and monuments at the Laodikeia site date from the first century BC onwards. Laodikeia later became an important Roman city, continuing to be inhabited even after it was damaged by an earthquake in 60AD.
Among the ruins of Laodikeia are the remains of the ancient theatre, which would originally have held up to 20,000 spectators. A few of the other ruins which can still be seen include the stadium and gymnasium (both 79AD), a baths complex and a Temple of Zeus.
The Merida Roman Circus was an Ancient Roman chariot racing arena which, though in ruins, is one of the better preserved of its type.
The Merida Roman Circus or “Circo Romano de Merida” was built in the time that the city, then known as Augusta Emerita, was part of one of the colonies of the Roman Empire.
A vast sports arena able to accommodate up to 30,000 people, Merida’s Roman Circus would have been the site of chariot races and even naval games. It is considered to be one of the largest of its kind and, whilst it is unclear as to when the circus was constructed, it may have been around 25 BC, when Merida itself was founded.
Today, Merida’s Roman Circus is in fairly good condition for a ruin of this type, still having its original track, stands and gateways. There is now a visitor centre where tourists can learn about its history. Like other historic sites in Merida, the Roman Circus is part of the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Mirobriga was once a thriving Roman town, the ruins of which can now be seen in Portugal. The extensive remains include Portugal's only surviving Roman Circus - once the site of fierce chariot races.
Mirobriga was once a thriving Roman town, the ruins of which can now be seen in Portugal.
Believed to date back to the first century AD, the remains of Mirobriga are quite extensive, well preserved and include a forum and the country’s only surviving Hippodrome - once the site of fierce chariot races.
Just some of the things to see at Mirobriga are its sewerage system, impressive baths complexes and Roman bridge. There’s also a small visitor centre.
Perge is a Turkish archaeological site containing mostly Roman ruins, but has a history dating back to Ancient Greece. Among the Roman ruins found here, visitors can explore the remains of the sizeable 12,000-seater Roman stadium.
The ancient city of Perge near Antalya in Turkey is now an impressive archaeological site containing a wealth of ancient ruins, mostly dating back to the Roman period, though the city itself has a history dating back well into antiquity.
The current city is said to have been founded in circa 1000BC, though settlements may well have existed here earlier; in fact Perge was mentioned in a Hittite tablet discovered in 1986. Though the early history of Perge is more obscure, it is known that the site was captured by the Persians and then later by the armies of Alexander the Great in around 333BC. It then became part of the Seleucid Kingdom.
The Romans arrived in Perge in approximately 188BC and built most of the sites seen there now, including its once 15,000-seat theatre, the agora, gymnasium, baths and necropolis. During its time under Rome's control the city went on to become an important Roman city and later Byzantine centre. During this period Perge underwent what would probably be its golden age, with a wealth of new public and private buildings and monuments being constructed. Indeed, in the later Roman period Perge became an important Christian city and it is believed that Saint Paul spent time here. During and after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the city was subjected to a number of attacks and was abandoned during this time.
Today, though Perge may not be as well-known as many ancient Roman cities, there is plenty to see and it’s not far from the popular resort of Antalya. Among the ruins visitors can explore the wonderful colonnaded main streets, the ancient theatre and the 12,000 seat Roman stadium. Also found at the site are the remains of Roman baths, the city’s imposing gates and a number of other ruins, including the impressive 2nd century AD Nymphaeum.
In addition, many of the statues and other finds excavated at Perge can now be found in the Antalya Museum.
Plovdiv Roman Stadium was a large sports arena built in the 2nd century AD, although little remains of it today.
Plovdiv Roman Stadium was an ancient sports arena built in the 2nd century AD. At its peak, Plovdiv Roman Stadium had a capacity of some 30,000 spectators and, though little remains today, there is an ongoing renovation project in place.
The main surviving remnants are an area of seating and track as well as the northern entrance. Various sports would have been played there as well as gladiatorial matches.
Tarragona Roman Circus is a partly-preserved first century AD racetrack which boasts some astonishing subterranean Roman tunnels.
Tarragona Roman Circus (Circo Romano de Tarragona) is an ancient racing arena, probably built under the Emperor Domitian in the first century AD, which still contains some astonishing subterranean Roman tunnels.
When Tarragona Roman Circus was constructed it would have been able to accommodate up to 30,000 spectators and was just one of a series of impressive public buildings serving the Roman settlement of Tarraco. It was in use until the fifth century AD, when it was abandoned and slowly fell to ruin.
Today, though little of the original structure survives, visitors can still get an insight into the original scale and setting of this ancient chariot racetrack. Most of the circus is now buried under the more modern buildings which were built atop the ruins, largely in the 19th century, though the small exposed area is actually quite well preserved.
At one end of the Circus complex stands the Praetorium, a Roman tower which once formed the corner of the large Roman forum. This forum was connected to the circus complex below via a series of passageways and tunnels, which were also used to service the games held at the circus. Miraculously, some of these underground tunnels have actually survived and are now open to the public – making a visit to this site a genuinely impressive experience.
Tarragona Roman Circus is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco.