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The History of the Circus

The word “circus” has Latin roots in that circus itself is Latin. It likely evolved from a number of games staged in Ancient Rome and dedicated to the goddess Circe. Typically, in Roman times, the circus was a building where various games would take place. Chariot races, battle performances, animal shows, acrobat exhibitions and other types of entertainment were staged there. In Roman fashion, seats were set up to watch the displays with the closer seats reserved for important people and/or costing more.

Circus Maximus

The first circus in Rome was named the “Circus Maximus”. After undergoing many improvements and rebuilds, the Circus Maximus would eventually grow to hold approximately 250,000 people (that’s pretty amazing!). Orignally made of wood, it would eventually be converted to mostly stone. Eventually, other circuses would develop in and around Rome including Circus Neronis (named after, you guessed it, Nero), Circus Flaminius and Circus Maxentius.

Philip Astley, P.T. Barnum and the Circus of Today

Although there were certainly many performances of circuses and circus-like shows after the days of Rome, two notable personalities in the industry were Philip Astley in the 18th century and P.T. Barnum in the 19th century.

Philip Astley is said to have held his first circus performance in London in 1768. Over the years, he brought back horse riding and equestrian events. He would eventually add the tightrope, jugglers and clowns and is credited by many with the origin of the modern circus.

P.T. Barnum became famous a century later for adding human oddities to the circus and for his showmanship. P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus traveled the United States and became famous for its sideshows. It also created the concept of the circus train in its travels.

While traditional circuses still exist today, the more modern circuses focus on athletic ability and amazing physical performances. This is opposed to the animal acts and traditional other performances that circuses bring to mind. Cirque du Soleil and its many branches are more performing arts than circus and have revolutionized how we think of the circus today.