What Is the Origin of the Circus?
The circus can be dated back to ancient Egypt and Rome. In Egypt it started with the exhibiting of exotic animals. As armies conquered distant lands, they would bring the animals back to entertain crowds. So the start of the circus went hand-in-glove with empire-building. The term is derived from the ring or circle in which rope-dancers, jugglers and acrobats performed. The displays were supplemented by fireworks, torches and colored ribbons.
In Ancient Rome, the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, gladiatorial combat and displays of (and fights with) trained animals. The circus of Rome were similar to the ancient Greek hippodromes, although circuses served varying purposes and differed in design and construction, and for events that involved re-enactments of naval battles, the circus was flooded with water.
The Roman circus buildings were, however, not circular but rectangular with semi circular ends. The lower seats were reserved for persons of rank; there were also various state boxes for the giver of the games and his friends. The circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated.
Some circus historians such as George Speaight have stated “these performances may have taken place in the great arenas that were called ‘circuses’ by the Romans, but it is a mistake to equate these places, or the entertainments presented there, with the modern circus.” Others have argued that the lineage of the circus does go back to the Roman ‘circuses’ and a chronology of circus related entertainment can be traced from Roman times through medieval and renaissance jesters, minstrels and troubadours to the late 18th century and the time of Astley.
The first circus in the city of Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. It was constructed during the monarchy and, at first, built completely from wood. After being rebuilt several times, the final version of the Circus Maximus could seat 250,000 people; it was built of stone and measured 400m in length and 90m in width.
Next in importance were the Circus Flaminius and the Circus Neronis, from the notoriety which it obtained through the Circensian pleasures of Nero. A fourth circus was constructed by Maxentius; its ruins have helped archaeologists reconstruct the Roman circus. For some time after the fall of Rome, large circus buildings fell out of use as centres of mass entertainment. Instead, itinerant performers, animal trainers and showmen travelled between towns throughout Europe, performing at local fairs.
The origin of the modern circus has been attributed to Philip Astley, a cavalry officer from England who set up the first modern amphitheatre for the display of horse riding tricks in Lambeth, London on 4 April 1768. Astley did not originate trick horse riding, nor was he first to introduce acts such as acrobats and clowns to the English public, but he was the first to create a space where all these acts were brought together to perform a show.
Astley performed stunts in a 42 ft diameter ring, which is the standard size used by circuses ever since. Astley referred to the performance arena as a Circle and the building as an amphitheatre but these were to later be known as a Circus. Astley was followed by Andrew Ducrow, whose feats of horsemanship had much to do with establishing the traditions of the circus, which were perpetuated by Henglers and Sangers celebrated shows in a later generation.
In England circuses were often held in purpose built buildings in large cities, such as the London Hippodrome, which was built as a combination of the circus, the menagerie and the variety theatre, where wild animals such as lions and elephants from time to time appeared in the ring, and where convulsions of nature such as floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been produced with an extraordinary wealth of realistic display.
Joseph Grimaldi, the first mainstream clown, had his first major role as Little Clown in the pantomime The Triumph of Mirth; or, Harlequin’s Wedding in 1781. The Royal Circus opened in London on 4 November 1782 by Charles Dibdin and his partner Charles Hughes. In 1782, Astley established the Amphithéâtre Anglais in Paris, the first purpose-built circus in France, followed by 18 other permanent circuses in cities throughout Europe. Astley leased his Parisian circus to the Italian Antonio Franconi in 1793. In 1826, the first circus took place under a canvas big top.
The Scotsman John Bill Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the United States. He began his theatrical career with Hughes Royal Circus in London in the 1780s, and travelled from England in 1792 to establish his first circus in Philadelphia. The first circus building in the US opened on April 3, 1793 in Philadelphia, where Ricketts gave America’s first complete circus performance. George Washington attended a performance there later that season.
In the Americas during the first two decades of the 19th century, the Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured from Montreal to Havana, building circus theatres in many of the cities it visited. Victor Pépin, a native New Yorker, was the first American to operate a major circus in the United States.
Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States. In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance. Circus pioneer Dan Rice was the most famous pre-Civil War circus clown, popularizing such expressions as “The One-Horse Show” and “Hey, Rube!”
The American circus was revolutionized by P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched the travelling P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus, and the first freak show. Coup also introduced the first multiple ringed circuses, and was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus between towns, a practice that continues today.