Today mostly an oval-shaped field, the once-grand circus was pilfered by medieval and Renaissance builders in search of marble and stone—it’s a far cry from its Ben-Hur–esque heyday. What the Romans called a “circus” was a large arena ringed by tiers of seats and used for sports or spectacles. At one time, 300,000 Romans could assemble here, while the emperor observed the games from his box high on the Palatine Hill.
The last games were held in A.D. 549 on the orders of Totilla the Goth, who had seized Rome twice. Afterward, the Circus Maximus was never used again, and the demand for building materials reduced it, like so much of Rome, to a great dusty field, now used mostly for big-name rock concerts. An archaeological area at its eastern end (closest to the Metro station) offers insights into how the space once functioned. Tip: If you’re crunched for time, bypass the Circus Maximus and instead take in the emperor’s-eye-views of the arena from atop the Palatine Hill.