Circus: Spectacle

The Eclectic Light Company

Each Spring, travelling circuses around the world break out of their winter quarters and migrate to cities to bring entertainment to their masses. Much-changed now from their form in their heyday in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were among the earliest forms of mass entertainment, long before movies.

geromecircusmaximus Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Circus Maximus (1876), oil on panel, 86.5 x 155 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. The Athenaeum.

It was the Romans who not only coined the name, but transformed older and purer athletic events into spectacle soaked with sweat and blood, as recreated by Jean-Léon Gérôme in his Circus Maximus of 1876. This shows four-horse chariot racing taking place in the largest of all the stadiums in Rome, capable of holding a crowd of over 150,000.

These lived on in fairs throughout the Middle Ages and later, but it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that…

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