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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Circus Maximus

Triton XX, Lot: 800. Estimate $75000.
Sold for $140000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Caracalla. AD 198-217. AV Aureus (20mm, 6.90 g, 6h). Rome mint. Struck AD 213. ANTONINVS PIVS AVG BRIT, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right / P M TR P XVI, COS IIII P P in exergue, view of the Circus Maximus, with spina, metae, and obelisk in center. RIC IV 211B = BMCRE p. 439, † corr. (rev. legend); Calicó 2710 (same rev. die as illustration); Biaggi –. Near EF. Extremely rare and important architectural type.

While gladitorial combat is the sport that most people today would associate with ancient Rome, chariot races held at tracks, or circuses, were the real passion of the populace. The Circus Maximus (“largest” or “greatest circus”) lived up to its grand name, with modern scholars estimating that the building could hold some 150,000 spectators, or roughly three times the number of people that the Colosseum could accommodate (Pliny’s statement that the Circus could hold 250,000 appears to be an exaggeration). Caracalla renovated the Circus in AD 213, and rare aurei and sestertii were issued to celebrate the project.

This artistic aerial view depicts the Circus as it would be seen from the Palatine Hill. According to Pliny, the Circus was established during the reign of the Tarquinius Priscus, Etruscan king of Rome (circa 616-579 BC), although a permanent structure may not have existed until 329 BC, when the starting gates (carceres) were erected. By the early 2nd century AD, the structure was very close to the form that we see on our coin. In the center of the Circus we find the spina (“spine”), upon which is the obelisk of the Pharaoh Ramesses the Great that Augustus brought to Rome and erected in the Circus (it is located today in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo). At each end of the spina is a meta, or conical column situated where the charioteers would make their harrowing turns, while an equestrian statue of Trajan and a shrine of Cybele can be found immediately to the left and right of the obelisk, respectively.

In the foreground and to right are arcades and a prominent arched gate, while on the left we find the semicircular end of the structure, with the attic statuary of a triumphal arch of Titus visible. The temple of Sol and Luna, built into the seating, is visible on the far end of the structure, to the left of the obelisk’s peak.

The coin cited in RIC and BMCRE was in Baldwin’s stock in 1927. The example plated in Calicó, with which our coin shares the same reverse die, was sold by Freeman & Sear in 2005 (FPL 10, no. 111), while another specimen was recently sold by Künker (Auction 270, lot 8855). Our coin may be only the third or fourth known, depending on whether or not the 1927 Baldwin’s piece is distinct from the other known examples.