History of the Circus

When it comes to the history of the circus, you should know that the start of this enterprising business did not begin with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. The traveling conglomeration of trained animals, acrobats, and clowns is a concept believed to originate during the times of Ancient Rome. Since the chariot races and battling wildlife of the past, many circus pioneers paved the way for the types of shows we are privileged to enjoy today.

Circus History

In the past, the typical circus was held within an oval or circular showground with tiered seating often flanking the edges. Other circuses performed under a large tent, but in Rome, an open-air stadium served as the arena where an array of public exhibitions took place. Horse races, staged battles, equestrian shows, and chariot competitions unfolded, as spectators cheered and embraced this exhilarating form of entertainment.

Trained exotic animals wowed the crowds, while jugglers and acrobats amused guests before the next battle or race commenced. The circus associated with Rome may have very well stemmed from the Egyptians' display of exotic animals to the Greeks' use of chariot racing as a popular form of entertainment.

Tiered seating ran parallel with the sides of the course, which created a crescent at the ends. People of rank were seating at the lower arrangements, while separate state boxes were offered to the host of the games and their friends. The circus in Ancient Rome also served as a significant event in history because it was the only public scene that allowed men and women to enjoy an event with one another.

The first circus established in Rome was called the Circus Maximus, which was situated in a valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Additional circuses in Rome flourished, including the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Neronis, and the Circus of Maxentius.

After the fall of Rome took place, Europe was at a loss when it came to possessing a defined circus. Wandering showmen traveled about the continent, but the allure of the original Roman circus was lost as animal trainers and performers peddled their talents between towns and at local festivals.

The Modern Embrace

The spread of circus history and tradition may have been kept alive for the modern world to enjoy by gypsies, who traveled about Europe during the 14th century and 15th century, bringing circus skills and trained animals along.

When exploring the modern concept of the circus, the exhibition of acrobatics, horses, and other performances became quite popular. As for the father of the modern circus, many credit a Briton named Philip Astley with the establishment of the first permanent and traveling circus that illuminated Britain and Europe throughout the late 18th century.

England embraced circus performances in London, where the first exhibition is believed to have taken place on January 9th, 1768. Astley is known for contributing trick horse riding to the circus scene.

The circus became so popular in England that large cities constructed buildings for the purpose of accommodating shows. An example of this is seen with the establishment of the London Hippodrome, which showcased a combination arena with circus, menagerie, and variety theater. Sometimes, wild animals, such as lions and elephants, decorated the ring.

In France, Antonio Franconi became known as the founder of the French circus, and may have very well earned a role in establishing the modern circus with Philip Astley.

During the early part of the 19th century, the Circus of Pepin and Brechard toured the likes of Montreal and Havana, constructing their circus theaters wherever they landed.

In the coming years, a wide range of circuses would establish many firsts in the business. In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown became the first circus owner to utilize a large canvas tent for circus performances.

Additional circus pioneers included the likes of Dan Rice, who became one of the most famous names in the circus and clown world, bringing to light a variety of attractive expressions, such as "The One-Horse Show." At the same time, American circuses were establishing a reputable name for themselves through the efforts of P.T. Barnum, who started in the business with a freakshow and sideshow approach.

American, William Cameron Coup also revolutionized the concept of the circus within the United States. Coup became the first circus entrepreneur to commission the use of circus trains, which transported shows from town to town. This common practice still continues. Coup also introduced the use of the first multiple ringed circus approach, which allowed more than one attraction to occur at one time.

As the equestrian, Thomas Cooke, returned to England from his travels throughout the United States in 1840, he brought back with him the idea of the circus tent. At the same time, additional circus pioneers, including Giuseppe Chiarini (Italian), Jacques Toruniaire (French), and Louis Soullier (French) transported the allure and excitement of the circus to the rest of the world. Early traveling circus pursuits visited China, India, Australia, Latin America, Russia, and South Africa.

Soullier would later become the first circus owner to present Chinese acrobatics to a European circus program. After returning from his travels in 1866, the imagery and feats of the performances began to shift. Tourniaire became the first to introduce the art of performing to Russia where the practice became intensely popular.

In 1919, the circus in Russia took a turn for excellence when a state university devoted to circus arts was established and performers started to receive training in specific gymnastics programs to utilize within the circus arena. The Russian circus started to tour throughout the 1950s with an impressive selection of performances, which significantly influenced the way contemporary circuses would progress.

The Contemporary Circus

The 1960’s and 1970’s brought harsh times for the circus, as animal rights became a hot topic of concern. Circuses started to merge with other productions in order to maintain their business. They also started to create a mix of acts that showcased both animals and human performers.

This can be seen in the efforts of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Moscow State Circus, and the Circus Royale in Australia. A shift from animal performers to complete human productions started to emerge in many countries.

An illustrious example of an animal-free circus show is the infamous [link] Cirque Du Soleil productions, which travels worldwide to present extraordinary displays of creativity and beauty.

Click to visit our page on Circus History including the start of P T Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James Bailey, and more.

Click to visit our page on Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Today

Click here to enjoy some circus pictures from our trip to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 2006.

And click here to go to our Circus starting page with links to all our Circus pages.