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circus [Lat.,=ring, circle], historically, the arena associated with the horse and chariot races and athletic contests known in ancient Rome as the Circensian games. The Roman circus was a round or oval structure with tiers of seats for spectators, enclosing a space in which the races, games, and gladiatorial combats took place. Underneath were dressing rooms, dens for wild beasts, and rooms where properties were stored. The Circus Maximus, presumably built in the reign of Tarquin I (c.616–c.578 B.C.), and rebuilt by Julius Caesar, was reported by Pliny in his Natural History to have a capacity of 250,000, though this figure is suspiciously large. Other famous circi of Rome were the Circus Flaminius (221 B.C.); the Circus Neronis, of Caligula and Nero, at which many Christians perished; and the Circus Maxentius. The circus of Septimius Severus at Constantinople and many others were often scenes of riot and bloodshed between factions of charioteers. The games, aside from races, were brutal and bloody, and for this reason the Greeks, even under Roman domination, never really accepted the circus.

The modern circus, which originated in performances of equestrian feats in a horse ring strewn with sawdust, dates from the closing years of the 18th cent. The circus is traditionally a nomadic tent show, with trained animals, acrobats, and clowns. The main tent, known as the big top, is often surrounded by various concessions and sideshows with “freaks” and wild animals. Even before 1830, traveling circuses were common in the United States and in England. After 1873 two rings were used in the main tent and the three-ring circus, as we know it today, was initiated by James A. Bailey. The most celebrated circus in America was “The Greatest Show on Earth” of P. T. Barnum, which, in merging with Bailey's, became Barnum and Bailey's. On Bailey's death in 1907 the circus was purchased by Ringling Brothers, and in 1919 the two circuses were combined. From 1969 until it closed in 2017, Ringling Brothers had two large circuses on tour that played mostly indoors and visited almost every major U.S. city annually.

The traveling circus, in its heyday from 1880 to 1920, declined in the 1950s and 60s. By the 2010s some three dozen circuses were touring the United States and Canada. Outstanding among contemporary circuses are two small and sophisticated shows, the New York City–based Big Apple Circus and the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. The latter is the most elaborate and best known exponent of the form called cirque nouveau. A type of modern circus without animal acts, it is characterized by a mixture of traditional circus arts with poetic spectacle, music, and dance and is practiced by a number of European and Canadian troupes.


See studies by H. R. North and A. Hatch (1960); E. C. May (1932, repr. 1963); C. P. Fox and T. Parkinson (1970); M. Murray (1956, repr. 1973); G. Speight (1980); L. D. Hammarstrom, John Ringling North and the Circus (1992).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


In ancient Rome, a large oval arena surrounded by rising tiers of seats, for the performance of public spectacles.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a genus of predatory birds of the family Accipitridae. The body length measures 41-60 cm. The wings and tail are relatively long; the legs are long with short toes. The feathers on the sides of the neck and head are arranged into disks resembling those of the owl. The male’s plumage is bright; the females and young have brown or reddish feathers. There are nine species. The Circus are distributed on all continents except Antarctica; they are migratory birds.

There are five species in the USSR: the hen harrier (C. cyanens), Montagu’s harrier (C. ’pygargus), the pallid harrier (C. macrourus), the marsh harrier (C. aeruginosus), and the pied harrier (C melanoleucus). The birds live in open terrain, nesting on the ground and laying three to six pale eggs that may be of one color or speckled. The female incubates the eggs for about one month. The birds sight their prey (rodents, lizards, frogs, insects, eggs, and fledglings birds) while flying low and snatch it from the ground. The marsh harrier is harmful to the hunting economy in that it destroys the eggs and young of ducks, as well as young muskrats. Other species, however, are beneficial because they destroy rodents.


Ptitsy Sovetskogo Soiuza, vol. 1. Edited by G. P. Dement’ev and N. A. Gladkov. Moscow, 1951.



The development of the circus as an art form was influenced by games played for diversion from physical labor, as well as by national festivals and sports competitions, mainly equestrian contests; riding schools also played an important role in its growth.

Circus acts feature the performance of challenging feats and incorporate various humorous antics, which in most cases were borrowed from itinerant performers (skomorokhi) and comedians of the show booth, such as the Russian balagan. By its very nature, the circus is extravagant in style and effect. Its principal means of expression is the stunt, a feat that defies human logic. Stunts are combined with acting skills to make an act—an individual presentation by one or several performers.

As a rule, the acts that make up a circus show consist of outlandish stunts performed by human artists, as well as animals. The performers walk and dance on the tightrope, stand on each other’s heads, and enact mimed scenes on the backs of galloping horses. Trained seals do juggling acts, and horses waltz about the arena. Clowns play violins while holding the instruments behind their backs or play balalaikas with violin bows; they may even make music with brooms, saws, or pieces of firewood. In his own genre, the circus performer portrays a specific character. He is aided in his characterization by costume, music, lighting, special props, and effective stage direction. Stunts are also used in various pantomimes and pageants to develop the plot.

The origin of the circus dates from prehistoric times. When preparing for a hunt, our ancestors performed specific rituals, often of a magical nature, to help them overcome their prey. In these rituals, specifically in the movements of the hunters, one can easily discern the beginnings of many circus genres, for example, acrobatics. Later, fruit pickers would leap from tree to tree still standing on their ladders, and mountaineers would place trees across narrow ravines and cross over, balancing various objects. Georgian warriors, renowned for their mastery of horseback riding, would hang from their horses’ necks in battle using the animals’ bodies as protection from arrows and spears.

Gradually these and other feats were performed for entertainment and were demonstrated at festivals. Farcical scenes, often on topical themes, were also performed. The artists, utilizing devices of the grotesque and clowning, depicted stock characters, or “masks.” Such masks as the glutton, the knave, and the fool eventually became traditional figures in the circus, as well as in other performing arts, for example, the commedia dell’arte and the theater. Acrobats, jugglers, wild-animal trainers, and comedians were common in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. Theatrical and circus productions were staged in ancient Armenia, in the amphitheaters of the cities of Tigranakert and Artashat. Beginning in the early centuries of the Common Era, similar spectacles were presented in Georgia. Eleventh-century frescoes in the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev depict an amphitheater with boxers, musicians, equilibrists using perches, wild-animal trainers, and horseback riders.

In Europe, riding schools were founded in the 12th century. They trained horses for battle and tournaments and provided instruction to riders. Demonstration performances were held in these schools and eventually on city squares, where special circular maneges were constructed specifically for dressage. By the mid-18th century, fame had been won by many masters of dressage and equestrian sports, notably the Englishmen C. Price, Johnson, Wier, and Samson, who managed troupes that frequently included equilibrists, acrobats, and clowns.

In 1772 the English showman P. Astley founded a riding school in London, and in 1780 he build Astley’s Amphitheatre for presenting shows of equestrian skill and dressage. Clowns, dog trainers, and acrobats also performed, and equestrian dramas with cavalry scenes were staged. Astley’s Amphitheatre was the world’s first permanent circus in the modern sense of the term.

In the 1770’s, the Franconi family began working in France, for the most part as performers and promoters in equestrian circus and pantomime. In 1807 they opened a permanent circus, the Cirque Olympique in Paris. The managers C. de Bach, B. Carré, B. Fourro, F. Louasée, D. Price, V. Price, M. Truzzi, and A. Guerre took troupes on tour in various countries. They also called their enterprises circuses.

E. Renz opened a permanent circus in Düsseldorf in 1851 and one in Berlin in 1856. Without abandoning equestrian acts, he introduced other genres that had formerly been prevalent in fair show-booth farces. It was in Renz’ circus that the red clown originated; this clown enacted an original parody on the city-dweller, primarily the petit bourgeois.

Many other circus managers followed Renz’ example. They included the Germans A. Schumann and E. Wulf and the Italians G. Ciniselli and A. Salamonskii.

The circus continued to embrace new genres in the mid-19th century. In 1859 the French athlete J. Léotard performed the world’s first aerial act. This act became one of the most romanticized forms of circus artistry. It also required the further redesign of circus buildings, that is, the construction of a spherical dome from which hoisting equipment and other apparatus were hung.

In 1873 the American showman P. T. Barnum opened a large traveling circus, the Big Top, where acts were performed simultaneously in three rings. Barnum combined the circus with a waxworks exhibit and various other attractions. In 1886 the Nouveau-Cirque was built in Paris; within a few minutes its arena could be flooded with water. In 1887, C. Hagenbeck, a prominent trader in animals and the owner of a zoo in Hamburg, opened a circus menagerie, which featured animals, including predatory animals, in most of the acts. Trained-animal acts rapidly won popularity.

In the late 19th century the circus again broadened its range of genres by including new acts based on sports. It featured performances by strongmen, gymnasts on still rings and horizontal bars, jockeys, and jugglers, as well as trick cyclists and roller skaters. In 1904 the Ciniselli Circus in St. Petersburg held the first world wrestling championship. New, unusual acts and entire new genres were introduced to the circus by Japanese, Chinese, Persian, and Arab artists.

In the late 19th century the bourgeois circus suffered a crisis. Certain acts were marked by crudity and vulgarity and at times by out-and-out cruelty, especially wild-animal acts. Imperialist expansion was glorified in pseudopatriotic military pantomimes. Clown performances lost a good deal of their satirical content and consisted of crude jokes and stunts. The circus lost much of its former popularity and became oriented largely toward children. This process continued into the 20th century. Even today there are no permanent circuses in the USA. Nor are there any in Latin America, Africa, or Australia. Western Europe has five or six in operation; however, performers lack proper training, especially as there are no specialized educational institutions.

After World War II circus arts developed considerably in the socialist countries. Permanent circus buildings have been built in Hungary, Mongolia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, and large traveling circuses perform in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Yugoslavia. The GDR, Hungary, and Bulgaria also have schools and studios of circus arts.

Traveling circuses constantly toured Russia beginning in the 18th century. The English equestrian J. Bates built an amphitheater for the performances of his troupe in Moscow in 1764, and he appeared in St. Petersburg in 1765. In 1827 the French showman J. Tourniare erected a permanent circus building in St. Petersburg. It was soon acquired by the Directorate of Imperial Theaters, and in 1849 an imperial chamber circus was opened in the building. A circus class was taught at the St. Petersburg Theatrical School. During the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, circus performances continued to make extensive use of equestrian acts, and pantomimes were also staged.

Ciniselli opened a permanent circus in St. Petersburg in 1877, and Salamonskii opened one in Moscow in 1880. The brothers D. A. Nikitin, A. A. Nikitin, and P. A. Nikitin established permanent circuses in Moscow in 1886 and 1911. In 1903, P. S. Krutikov erected a circus building in Kiev.

Topical clown performances became popular in the Russian circuses, despite the harsh police regime. Outstanding masters of this genre included V. L. Durov and A. L. Durov, Bim-Bom (I. S. Radunskii and M. A. Stanevskii), and S. S. Al’perov and D. S. Al’perov. World fame was won by the equestrians P. I. Orlov, V. T. Sobolevskii, and N. L. Sychev; the tightrope walker F. F. Molodtsov; and the wrestlers and strongmen I. M. Zaikin, I. V. Lebedev (Uncle Vania), and I. M. Poddubnyi.

The Soviet multinational circus inherited all the best that was created in Russia prior to the October Revolution of 1917 and achieved great creative and organizational successes. It implemented Lenin’s decree concerning the unification of the theatrical arts and subsequent democratic orientation of the circus arts. The new Soviet circus stressed the display of human physical beauty, integrating strength of body and boldness of spirit.

A unified state administrative board was created to direct the circus. The Circus Arts Workshop (since 1961, the State School of Circus and Estrada Art) was opened in 1926 for the training of skilled artists in various genres. Since the mid-1930’s the largest circuses have been headed by artistic directors.

Well-known writers, artists, and composers have been affiliated with the Soviet circus. Pantomimes are frequently staged on historical and revolutionary topics and modern themes, for example, Moscow Is Burning (1930), Three of Ours (1942), and Carnival in Cuba (1962).

Numerous outstanding Soviet circus performers have won international renown, among them the Durov family of clowns and animal trainers and the clowns V. E. Lazarenko, V. V. Lazarenko, Karandash (M. N. Rumiantsev), Iu. V. Nikulin, O. K. Popov, and L. G. Engibarov. Famous animal trainers have included V. Zh. Trutstsi, E. M. Efimov, N. P. Gladil’shchikov, B. A. Eder, I. N. Bugrimova, A. N. Kornilov, A. A. Kornilov, V. I. Filatov, and V. M. Zapashnyi. Two notable illusionists were E. T. Kio and I. K. Simvolokov.

An important role in the development of the Soviet circus has been played by the directors V. Zh. Trutstsi, B. A. Shakhet, and G. S. Venetsianov. Major contributions have been made by the stage designers S. T. Konenkov, B. R. Erdman, V. A. Khodasevich, A. A. Sudakevich, T. G. Bruni, V. F. Ryndin, and L. A. Okun’ and by the composers I. O. Dunaevskii, M. I. Blanter, Z. L. Kompaneets, Iu. S. Meitus, and Iu. S. Miliutin.

The character of the Soviet circus has evolved under the influence of the directors M. S. Mestechkin, E. M. Ziskind, B. M. Zaets, A. I. Vol’nyi, E. B. Krasnianskii, A. N. Shirai, and A. A. Sonin. Significant contributions to the theory and history of circus arts have been made by E. M. Kuznetsov and Iu. A. Dmitriev. In 1928 the Leningrad Museum of Circus Art was organized. The museum possesses much documentary material on the circus.

As of 1976 the USSR had 61 permanent circuses, 14 national circus groups, and 15 traveling circuses. Other circuses include the Circus on Water, two circuses on ice, 55 circuses on the stage, and 13 trained-animal circuses. Groups of Soviet performers and entire ensembles perform throughout the world, and talented artists from abroad frequently appear as guests in Soviet circuses.

See also the sections on circus in articles on countries and Union republics.




a building for circus performances. In ancient Rome, the circus was an elliptic arena, with stands for spectators, in which chariot races were held. Acrobats, equilibrists, animal trainers, comedians, and other performers appeared during the intermissions between the races. The Circus Maximus in Rome held up to 50,000 spectators. In Spain, Mexico, and several other countries, similar arenas are used for bullfights.

The modern circus has a round arena usually measuring 13 or 14 m in diameter but sometimes as little as 9 m or as much as 17 m. The arena is enclosed by a sturdy barrier and covered with a spherical dome, which is necessary for the performance of aerialist acts. Seating is arranged around the arena.

Since the 1950’s, spacious permanent circus buildings with seating for as many as 3,500 have been erected in more than 50 cities of the USSR, including Moscow, Sochi, and Tashkent. These circuses have modern equipment, ample backstage areas for performers and circus hands, well-maintained stables, and rehearsal facilities. The buildings are air-conditioned and have comfortable lobbies and cloakrooms.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

circus, hippodrome

In ancient Rome, a roofless enclosure for chariot or horse racing and for gladiatorial shows; usually a long oblong with one rounded end and a barrier down the center; seats for the spectators usually on both sides and around one end.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. in ancient Rome
a. an open-air stadium, usually oval or oblong, for chariot races or public games
b. the games themselves
2. Brit
a. an open place, usually circular, in a town, where several streets converge
b. (capital when part of a name): Picadilly Circus
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005