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Circuses are companie s of entertainers who perform as acrobats, clowns, and animal tamers in a circular arena. Circuses may travel or be based in permanent facilities of entertainment. Some of the early modern circuses in London and other European cities were built for this purpose. Circus Circus, a gambling casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, also exhibits the world’s largest permanently housed circus; performances are given free of charge daily. Often, traveling circuses perform in a large tent designed to accommodate the circus performers and the audience.
Greatest Shows on Earth
In the late 19th century and in much of the 20th century, the arrival of the circus was a great event. In many small towns and cities, the “advance men” would arrive days before the circus and publicize the coming spectacle. The circus performers and their circus animals would parade down a main street to generate public interest. The excitement would help to draw a fee-paying crowd to the performances in the afternoon, and for the larger show in the evening. In many rural areas, the only opportunity most people had to view lions, tigers, leopards, camels, giraffes, elephants, performing horses, and exotic snakes was when the circus came to town.
Smaller circuses would often arrive in a caravan of trucks decorated with circus images of animals, clowns, and other performers. Larger circus companies, such as the Barnum and Bailey Circus, often arrived on a train designed to carry the performers, with special cars for the animals.
The ancient Roman circuses were famous long before the end of the Roman Empire. Chariot races and the exhibition of exotic animals entertained the masses. Animal exhibitions are thought to have originated in shows of animals used by Egyptians or in the ancient Middle East. The most important circuses in ancient Rome were the Circus Maxentius, the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Nenonis, and the Circus Maximus, which was located between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. Archeologists have been able to develop detailed interpretations of the Roman circus world from these ruins. Schools for training circus performers were established and operated in Roman times.
In the Middle Ages, troubadours and other wandering entertainers kept alive a sense of the ancient circus. Training animals for exhibition as trick performers was common. In modern times, the circus began to revive in the 1700s when Briton Philip Astley began to operate both traveling and permenant circuses in Britain and Europe.
Some circuses have used animals and others have not. Chinese circuses usually featured amazing acrobatic performances. In others, the clowns have drawn keen attention. In most American circuses, lion tamers (both male and female) have entered cages with performing lions, tigers, and leopards. The lion tamer’s only defense is a bullwhip. Over the decades, a small number of tamers have been attacked by the cats and on some occasions killed.
Russian circuses have often featured the Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos). In Russian mythology, bears have played a special role, which has encouraged Russians to train them to dance, box, or do other tricks. Many European circuses continue to thrive despite animal rights opposition. The European Union has adopted legislation accepting the classical circus with animals. Many animal rights activists have been able to gain adoption of local ordinances that hinder the exhibition of animals in circuses. The most common allegation is the charge of cruelty to animals. For many animal rights activists, the domestication and exhibition of animals is inherently cruel and a form of speciesism. Circuses are engaged in both legal and political campaigns to defend this ancient institution.
- Roland Auguet, Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (Barnes & Noble, 1998);
- Tony Babinski, Cirque Du Soleil: 20 Years Under the Sun, an Authorized History (HNA Books, 2004);
- Robert Manser, Circus: The Development and Significance of the Circus, Past, Present, and Future (Blackburn, 1987).