History of Circus: From Ancient Roots to Controversial Sensation

Imagine this scenario: in a tiny town in the 19th century of America, A train arrives at the station, spouting smoke, accompanied by a rumbling steam engine. On the train, passengers are escorted by a group of acrobats, knife throwers, elephants, and lions, all in bright costumes. The circus is here! For a brief period, the town will play host to the spectacle, and the performers will delight the young and old before relocating and heading out across the nation. The town is then left as if nothing has ever occurred.

The spectacle was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly throughout the United States. They have flourished from their beginnings in the ancient city of Rome to the present. The origins of this strange institution began with brutality, and the path was lengthy to reach the moral performances we see in the present.

Before the History of the Circus: The Circus Maximus of Ancient Rome

In the past, in Rome, the term “circus” had a very different meaning than it has nowadays. Circus Maximus was a place of entertainment. Circus Maximus used to be one of the “oldest and largest public spaces in Rome,” when it reached the most significant size in its first decade of CE, it could hold two hundred thousand to enjoy its stands. While it was best known for its racetracks used for horses-drawn race chariots, it also hosted a military procession to mark the Roman Games every September for a period of fifteen weeks, “wild animal hunts, public executions and gladiator fights.” One particular fight was an army of gladiators who fought twenty elephants simultaneously.

It is easy to understand where the idea for the modern-day circus comes from. Circus Maximus Circus Maximus was a place where humans and animals were matched against one another to show off the spectacle of it all and entertain crowds at festivals. These are not just the one thing common between the circus from old Rome and the modern-day circus, as you will discover.

Phillip Astley: The Father of the Modern Circus

Philip Astley is the father of the modern circus. Born in 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England, Astley was the son of a cabinetmaker but did not follow his path. At 26, Astley founded the Astley’s Riding School in London with his wife, Patty, and Patty, who taught students and provided horse shows. The show featured musicians who performed in live performances during these performances. The show also went to Paris in France, where the Astleys included other performers “such as acrobats, a clown, and a band.”

What was it that made these shows of horses endure? They could delight not just children and adults but people of all classes. Philip Astley’s show drew high-class people and those from the lower classes. These shows on horses were the forerunners to the modern circus and outlined the events that could make the contemporary circus so famous. It was entertainment for all in a time of substantial social divisions.

The Royal Amphitheatre, lit with burning candles, was burned three times when Astley was the show’s director. It was eventually purchased from Andrew Ducrow, known as the “father of British circus equestrianism’.”

Charles Dibdin: The Man Who Coined the Term “Circus”

Although Philip Astley is the father of the modern circus, he was not the one to invent the term. The honor belongs to his contemporaries, Charles Dibdin. He was born in 1745 and grew up in Southampton, England; Charles Dibdin was introduced to the music world very young. Dibdin sang in a chorus in the Winchester Cathedral for three years before 1759. He then went on to become a music composer. He was known as a “composer, musician, dramatist, novelist and actor.”

In 1782 and over the next two years, Charles Dibdin became the manager of the Royal Circus. It was the first modern use of the term “circus.” Located not far from Philip Astley’s Riding School, Charles Dibdin’s show also featured horses similar to those used in Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre. One was modeled after the other. However, only one man can be considered who invented the term “circus.”

The 19th Century: How a Changing Culture Allowed the Circus to Thrive

In the 18th century and 18th century, all shows that would later be related to the circus, such as traveling menageries, circus acts, and horse shows, were already in existence. Menageries circulated across the country, and horse shows and circus acts enthralled spectators in arenas. Only when these shows came together under one building did the circus of today emerge.

The 19th century marked a period of social turmoil not just in circuses but also in technology. The Industrial Revolution was the main element needed to bring about traveling circuses in their most renowned form. The steam engine’s invention, which powered trains of today, transformed everything. Technological advances helped improve transport and communication. The Industrial Revolution allowed the circus to move from one city to another. The employees packed their Big Tent and all the performers into boxes and crates, only for them to begin the process again in the next city.

From owner to performer might have been behind the spectacles. However, with the technological advances in the 19th century, the 19th-century circus in the form we see today would have had a different popularity than it was in its glory days.

Barnum & Bailey: The Most Famous Circus in History

The most renowned show in 19th-century America is the Barnum and Bailey show. While one of its founding members, Phineas Taylor Barnum, born in 1810, is the most famous of both, the show would only have existed with his business partner James Anthony Bailey, born in 1847.

Before Bailey’s birth, Barnum was already an established figure in the entertainment world when he purchased the American Museum. It was the “Greatest Show on Earth” as we know it today that would not be able to establish its foundation until 1871 when the various elements that created classic circus shows, including animals and freak shows, were combined. Bailey was raised in circuses as a kid and joined the circus when he combined the circus he co-owned with James E. Cooper, the Cooper, Bailey & Company Circus, and Barnum’s at the time 1881. The Barnum and Bailey Circus was created.

In the years following, Barnum passed away in 1891, and Bailey passed away in 1906. The Greatest Show on Earth thrived through the next decade. In 1906, the Ringling Brothers bought it for the staggering amount that was four million dollars shortly after Baily’s passing, and it continued to be a highly famous show of the time and into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Freak Shows & A History of Ethics

Freak shows were integral to the circus’s life in the early 19th century. The circus was a big hit before the circus, particularly in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum; they traveled with him across the country along with his traveling Barnum and Bailey Circus. Freak shows were a method to entertain the audience by ridiculing the physical characteristics of people and exploiting and threatening performers within a swarm filled with a sense of jollity and fun. The most well-known “freaks” were, among other things, twins who were conjoined, disabled people, and bearded women.

The freak shows at P.T. Barnum’s circus performed with animals, circus acrobats, and horse performers. The circus was part of the long Western history of how to profit from exhibits like the human-animal zoos at Universal Expositions. However, confident “freak” performers earned fame and fortune from these exhibitions. One example is Charles Stratton, popularly called “General Tom Thumb,” a performer with dwarfism and was part of P.T. Barnum’s circus.

Freak shows were popular in America until 1940, when the exploitation nature of these shows was exposed. Then, they were banned entirely.

The 20th Century: Continuity & Decline

When the 19th century ended, the circus was famous throughout the 21st century. Although new entertainment forms popped into the 1920s, mainly cinemas, the circuses were able to change their ways, shedding their distorted depictions of other cultures to focus on aerial shows and other entertainment. The Great Depression brought the chaos that was the 20s to a standstill. The time was when many went to circuses in search of satisfaction and pleasure in their everyday lives. However, even during the Second World War, circuses were an uplifting presence in people’s lives “when railroad shows traveled under the auspices of the Office of the Defense Transportation,” and circus owners urged their patrons to participate in the war effort.

As the 1950s rolled through, circuses began their decline. Televisions were a common feature in American households and eventually overtook it as the world’s most viewed type of entertainment. Then, there were only 13 circuses that existed, and as the number of audiences dwindled, and performers joined unions, the showpeople reduced their operation in terms of size, too. This continued until the end of The Big Tents when indoor venues took over in 1956.

The Death of the Traditional Circus (& Birth of the 21st-Century Circus)

While the Cold War split across the globe, The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in America. The racialized performances were increasingly scrutinized. The circus was perceived as its purpose entertainment that pounced on the suffering of others in an era when it was accepted as usual. When the movement for animal rights was established during the 70s, the contemporary circus had lost much of its appeal. The early 1980s saw the end of sideshows, and ableist freak shows were also canceled.

As the modern circus experienced its steady decline throughout the second decade of the 20th century would do what it does best to change.

At Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, in the early 1980s, a group of performers entertained their patrons “by juggling, dancing, breathing fire and playing music.” One of those performers was an individual who was named Guy Laliberte. When he was a kid, Laliberte was taken to visit performances by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (See further Reading, Ian Halperin page. 15.) and became a fan of the history of circuses as he delves into a biography of P.T. Barnum himself. He was a part of the 1982 show. Laliberte was one of the performers at the annual holiday festival, the Baie Saint-Paul Fete Foraine. This was the beginning of his goal: to build his own Cirque du Soleil, a circus located on Quebec territory.

In the present, Cirque du Soleil has grown to be one of the more famous Quebec businesses in the world and has thrilled over 15 million people until today; under the Big Tents, which can accommodate hundreds of people to be inside at once, Acrobats, performers, and acrobats wear extravagant costumes and captivate audiences with their extravagant shows. Cirque du Soleil travels all around the globe and also is a permanent fixture within Las Vegas.

Although the Cirque du Soleil is not described as an actual circus strictly speaking, since it has gotten rid of the circus gimmicks of the 19th century that included animal shows, sideshows, and freak shows, it has maintained the core purpose of modern-day circuses in that it entertains audiences of all classes and ages, old and young alike.

A Look Back at the History of the Circus

The circus has an extensive journey from its beginnings in the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome to the Cirque du Soleil of today. Although it has overcome the ethical questions dragging it down since the 19th century, the circus is still a place for delight, excitement, and delight. Several men have paved the path for the circus, including Philip Astley, Charles Dibdin, P. T. Barnum, and Guy Laliberte. Horses, elephants, and lions can no longer be part of circuses. However, those that remain are performers who have found fulfillment in their work and made it available to the global public.

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