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As styles of performance have changed since the time of Astley, so too have the types of venues where these circuses have performed. The earliest modern circuses were performed in open air structures with limited covered seating. From the late 18th to late 19th century bespoke circus buildings (often wooden) were built with various types of seating, a centre ring and sometimes a stage. The 'traditional' large tents, commonly known as 'Big Tops' were introduced in the mid 19th century as touring circuses superseded static venues. These tents eventually became the most common venue and remain so to the present day. Contemporary circuses perform in a variety of venues including tents, theatres and casinos. Many circus performances are still held in a ring usually 13 m (42 ft) in diameter. This dimension was adopted by Philip Astley in the late 18th century as the minimum diameter that enabled an acrobatic horse rider to stand upright on a cantering horse to perform their tricks.
Contemporary circus has been credited with reviving the circus tradition since the 1980s when a number of groups introduced circus based almost solely on human skills and which drew from other performing art skills and styles.
First attested in English 14th century, the word circus derives from Latin circus, which is the romanization of the Greek κίρκος (kirkos), itself a metathesis of the Homeric Greek κρίκος (krikos), meaning ,,circle" or ,,ring". In the book De Spectaculis early Christian writer Tertullian claimed that the first circus games were staged by the goddess Circe in honor of her father Helios, the Sun God.
The modern and commonly held idea of a 'circus' is of a Big Top with various acts providing entertainment therein. However, the history of circuses is more complex, with historians disagreeing on its origin, as well as revisions being done about the history due to the changing nature of historical research, and the ongoing 'circus' phenomenon. For many, circus history begins with Englishman Philip Astley, while for others its origins go back much further - to Roman times.
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.
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 probably the most famous circus and clown pre-Civil War, 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 P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, a travelling combination of animal and human oddities, the exhibition of humans as a freak show or sideshow was thus an American invention. Coup was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus from town to town; a practice that continues today and introduced the first multiple ringed circuses.