The ancestor to the hippodrome:
the circus in Roman Gaul

In the Gallo-Roman world, the horse was ubiquitous as a draft animal for passenger and goods transport. In addition to this day-to-day presence, the horse was a show animal which developed its own specific architecture, the circus.


The fame and high earnings of professional chariot drivers rivalled that of modern-day footballers.

Holding chariot races, this building should not be confused with the stadium, which was reserved for athletics, or the amphitheatre (the arenas), where gladiator fights and hunts took place. The circus owes its name to the closed curve drawn by one of its short sides. The monument is an image of the night sky and the races are imbued with a strong astral symbolism. Accordingly, 12 teams corresponding to the 12 constellations and grouped into four factions representing the seasons, and whose never-changing colours (green, blue, red, white) are each associated of the four elements, linked 12 starting gates (carceres) representing the 12 months of the year for seven laps around the track. It revolved around a low central strip (spina), arranged obliquely and decorated at the centre with a pyramid marking the centre of the world and at the ends with three conical posts (metae) evoking the sunrise and sunset. Chariots hitched to two, three or four horses abreast that ran counter-clockwise were driven by professional chariot drivers whose fame and high earnings rivalled that of modern-day footballers.

Only three circuses are documented with certainty in France at present: Arles, Lyon and Vienne.

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