The Circus of Nero

The Circus of Nero was a circus in which St. Peter’s Basilica stands today; However, all that remains of the ancient arena is the ancient Egyptian obelisk. Construction began in 40AD by Emperor Caligula and completed by his successor Claudius. It was 90 metres wide and 161 metres long and used for horse racing with four-horse chariots by both Caligula and Nero. The circus was rectangular and had a racing track that was separated down the middle by a Spina or wall which stopped at both ends so that charioteers could turn. The Spina had intricate designs and statues and, in the centre, an ancient Egyptian obelisk. There were 6 circuses we know of in Ancient Rome and while they mostly used the track for chariot racing, other performances would take place there for an audience that would sit in an elevated area around the track. In the beginning, the circus was privately used but Emperor Nero made the circus public so he could show off his talents as a charioteer.

It’s also at this circus that 25 years after its construction in 65AD, persecutions of Christians began in this circus. The persecutions were brought on after the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, and looking for a scapegoat, Nero blamed Christians and arrested them, executing them in mass killings in the circus. It was also the site of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s martyrdom, executed under Nero’s ruling. The tomb of St. Peter now allegedly lies underneath the modern St. Peter’s Basilica in an unmarked cemetery.

The Ancient Egyptian Obelisk may look familiar to you, and that’s because you’ve probably seen it before! In the 16th century AD, architects moved the obelisk to St. Peter’s Square to recover artefacts from Ancient Rome.

What happened to the Circus of Nero?

The horrendous atrocities that occurred in the circus of Nero eventually led to its abandonment in the 2nd century AD and it’s on this spot that Emperor Constantine built the original St. Peter’s Basilica. Some ruins from the circus lasted until the 15th century when the basilica was torn down, and the obelisk is the only relic from the circus today.

Caligula

Emperor Caligula

Caligula was born in 12AD into a family that featured some notable figures like his great-great-grandfather Julius Caesar. Unlike his ancestors though, he is remembered as a cruel leader and enjoyed torturing and executing prisoners. In his youth, he joined his father on military campaigns where he earned the nickname ‘Little Boot’ from him wearing a military uniform and small boots. It was a name that stayed with him throughout his entire life, however much of his traumatised mind came from being adopted by the man who killed his father at a young age.

Later, when he became the Emperor, the people of Rome were pleased as they believed that he would be a good ruler like his father. Six months later, he fell sick and his personality changed after his recovery. He dressed like a woman and declared that he was a living God and had regular consultations with the deity Jupiter. Caligula was known as the ‘Mad Emperor’ and in 41AD guardsman murdered him at the Palatine Games who had administered a secret attack on behalf of the people of the city who grew to hate their leader.

Emperor Nero

Emperor Nero

The leadership of Nero Claudius Caesar lasted for 14 years, and during that time, his actions led him to forever being remembered as a tyrant. Much like Caligula before him, his reign began at 17 years old with him being a generous leader however it is believed that his mother Agrippina was calling the shots from behind the curtain. Eventually, he stepped out of his mother’s shadow, which prompted her to turn against him and promote the legitimate heir to the throne; Britannicus. Nero ultimately ended up having his mother killed in her villa after many attempts on her part to have him dethroned. He was a lover of arts, especially singing, dancing, playing instruments and a keen charioteer.

After the Great Fire of Rome which saw Rome burn for six days, rumours began to spread that Nero had caused it to build his new palace on Palatine Hill. It’s said that while three districts of the city burnt, Nero stood on the roof of his villa and sang. Recently, ancient writings found that Nero helped to rebuild the city of Rome, and he was well-liked by some for his charitable nature. Despite that, he lived a lavish lifestyle which saw him build a statue of himself and a palace, a feat that made the Praetorian Guard–the guards who protected Nero- declare him an enemy of the state. When Nero heard that he was to be executed he tried to flee however this attempt was unsuccessful. After this, he committed suicide with the aid of his assistant.

Old Basilica

The Old Basilica was originally constructed by 326BC by Emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity. The basilica took 30 years to build and stood for over 1200 years through many changes of power and leadership. In the 16th century, the basilica was in a state of disrepair and it was Pope Julius II who decided that it would need to be torn down so that the new church could be built.

Join our Private Tour of Vatican to explore the history of St. Peter’s Basilica!

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