The Myth of Circus Origins

Most of the literature repeats again and again that the ‘modern circus’ originates in 1768 with Philip Astley’s trick horse riding circus in London (Hippisley Coxe 1956, Saxon 1975), but digging a bit deeper, this is clearly untrue. The only aspect of circus that Astley originated was a standardized ring size as the main performance space. Neither the name ‘circus’ itself’ nor the circus of antiquity or the contemporary circus limit themselves to this ‘ring’. The true history of the circus is a much more complex proposition.

All sources however agree that one unambiguous meaning of the word circus is an “entertainment or spectacle usually consisting of trained animal acts and exhibitions of human skill and daring.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) Circus in this sense has been around for at least 4000 years! The images below show circus arts dating from around 2686 BC in Egypt and 2000 BC in China.

The whole story of the circus turns out to be quite complex, everyone thinks they know what a circus is but they don’t agree on what it is that really defines it.  READ MORE

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