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Circus of Gaius and Nero

Circus of Gaius and Nero

This circus was built circa A.D. 40. Both Gaius (Caligula) and Nero participated in the races held here. Several of Christian martyrdoms are said to have occurred here, and it is the present location of St. Peter's Basilica. The obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula to adorn the circus now stands in the middle of St. Peter's Square.


From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 247.

An open space in Region XIV (Reg. Cat.; Hemerol. Filoc. ad V Kal. April., CIL I2 p314), south of the naumachia Vaticana and east of the via Triumphalis, where Caligula was fond of having horse races (Cass. Dio LIX.14). From inscriptions found in the vicinity (CIL VI.10052-4, 10057-8, 10067, 33937, 33953; BC 1902, 177-185) it appears to have been surrounded by statues of successful charioteers (HJ 662; DAP 2.viii.355-60; BC 1896, 248-9).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    66. The Fire of AD 64. Commentary.

    Although Nero's famous fire started in the Campus Martius and spread over most of downtown Rome, the Colosseum-basin is a fitting place to include ancient descriptions of it, not only because Nero's signature work in Rome, the famous Golden House (the Domus Aurea) was built around the basin, but because the fire gave Nero greater liberty in its creation.

    In addition to a famous passage about Crassus's profiteering that testifies to the frequency of fires in Rome [66.1], I have also included here a few sources that indicate the possible impact that Nero's fire may have had on the Christian topography of Rome. The first known persecution of Christians in Rome was a result of the fire. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on the Christians to deflect the suspicion that he started it, and he had many of them executed, some of them used as torches in mockery of the crime they were charged with, others by crucifixion. Tacitus further tells us that some of the executions took place in Nero's circus in the Vatican fields, a racetrack (apparently begun by Gaius Caligula; see 94.2) that stretched all along the left side of the present Basilica of St. Peter. Alongside this racetrack was a street lined by tombs, and it is possible that Simon Peter was not only one of the Christians killed in this persecution, but that he was killed in Nero's circus and buried in this cemetery. Early Christians, at any rate, believed his bones rested here [67.3] and built a shrine above them in the C2, followed, under Constantine, by the large basilica that was the forerunner of the current St. Peter's.

    The ruins of Nero's circus are no longer visible, but the obelisk located at its center still stands, transported by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 a short distance to the piazza in front of the new St. Peter's Basilica. The ancient cemetery, complete with street and mausoleums that are preserved deep underground among the massive foundations of the present basilica, is one of the more astounding sites in Rome and can be visited with advance reservations.

    67. The Circus of Gaius and Nero and Christian Persecutions. Sources.


    Nero had a space in the Vatican valley enclosed where he might practice his chariot-racing. At first he raced in private, but soon he was inviting the public in to cheer him on.

    Tacitus, Annals 14.14.4


    [After the fire, various rituals were performed to appease the gods.] But neither the emperor's expense and generosity nor the appeasement of the gods could avert the suspicion that Nero ordered the fire. To quell this rumor Nero falsely accused others—“Christians,” as they were commonly called, already hated for their scandalous conduct—and he subjected them to the most elaborate tortures. (Their founder was a man named Christ, who was executed in Tiberius's reign by the orders of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The deadly cult was thus suppressed for the moment, but then burst forth anew, not only in Judaea, the source of this evil, but throughout Rome as well, where all things shocking and disgraceful gravitate and thrive.)

    First some Christians were arrested who confessed to the crime, and by their evidence a host of others were convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for their hatred of humankind. Mockery attended their death: dressed in the hides of animals they were torn apart by dogs, nailed on crosses, or were themselves set on fire after dark and used as torches. Nero opened his gardens to this spectacle and made a show of their executions in his circus, dressed as a charioteer and mingling with the people, or riding on a chariot. As a result of his behavior, people felt pity for these Christians, not because they didn't think them guilty and deserving of novel punishments, but because it seemed that they were being slaughtered not for the public welfare but to satisfy the savagery of one man.

    Tacitus, Annals 15.44


    It is recorded that the Apostles Paul and Peter were killed under Nero in Rome itself, the former by decapitation and the latter by crucifixion. That this occurred in Rome is corroborated by the existence of cemeteries there in their names, and by no less an authority than Caius, a church historian who wrote when Zephyrinus was Bishop of Rome [c. AD 210].…

    Discussing the location of the relics of the apostles in question, Caius reports: “I am able to point out the burial monuments of these apostles: if you care to go out to the Vatican field or the road to Ostia, you will find the monuments of the founders of our Church.”

    Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5-7

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