Today an almost formless ruin, the once-grand race track was pilfered repeatedly by medieval and Renaissance builders in search of marble and stone. But if you squint and take in its elongated oval proportions and missing tiers of benches, visions of “Ben-Hur” may dance before your eyes. At one time, 250,000 Romans could assemble on the marble seats while the emperor observed the games from his box high on the Palatine Hill. What the Romans called a “circus” was a large arena enclosed by tiers of seats on three or four sides, used especially for sports or spectacles.

The circus lies in a valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Next to the Colosseum, it was the most impressive structure in ancient Rome, in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods. For centuries, chariot races filled it with the cheers of thousands.

When the dark days of the 5th and 6th centuries fell, the Circus Maximus appeared as a symbol of the ruination of Rome. The last games were held in a.d. 549 on the orders of Totilla the Goth, who had seized Rome twice. After 549, the Circus Maximus was never used again, and the demand for building materials reduced it, like so much of Rome, to a great grassy field.