Circus of Antiquity

Circus arts were alive and well in the ancient world.

Ancient Chinese Circus Arts

The earliest evidenced  acrobatic acts were recorded about 4000 years ago in China during the Xian Dynasty (2000 BC).  Chinese farmers and village craftsmen were said to be bored duting the long winter seasons and so decided to pass their time by becoming acrobats and jugglers.

They practiced their art with whatever came to hand  in their homes, farm yards or workshops.  The things they used varied from tables and chairs to plates, bowls, cups and saucers,  to tools like ladders, pitchforks, hammers and even their bodies.  Every year in the fall the villagers would gather and show off their skills.  The better you were the higher your status in the community.  ( Shanghai Circus-History n.d, Meacham K. 2010)

Ancient Egyptian Dancing and Acrobatics


In Ancient Egypt the destinction between Dancing and Acrobatics wasn’t clear.  The oldest most certain records of dancing were found in tombs or engravings dating from the Old Kingdom (2686-2181).  Signs of Toss Juggling were found in tombs or engravings dating from (1994-1781 BC).  Dancing was performed by both men and women – though never together.  Dancing  was a skill that all social classes practiced.  The lower classes would dance in public and on the streets. The middle and upper class would dance in more private places.  Rich families or royalty either owned or hired dance troupes as entertainment at events and banquets.  In Egypt women were much freer than women elswhere.   A talented woman could choose an honorable career as a dancer.  There were about 11 types of dance and most of them were performed for ceremonial reasons.  (Parsons M. n.d., Dunn J. n.d., Seawright C. 2001)

The Minoan civilisation, which dated from 1800-1400 BC, celebrated life and joy.  There were entire walls and frescos depicting animals of both sea and land in their environment and they also created paintings which depicted men and woman going about their daily routines such as fishing or herb gathering.  For a culture which was so interested in life and the beauty of nature they had an unusual acrobatic spectacle that was strongly associated with the Minoan Palace of Knossos. This event was Bull-Leaping.  Bull leaping could be said to have started with bull hunting or capturing.  Bull capturing in particular would be usually depicted in paintings or frescos showing  outdoor scenes- in the wild.

Bull leaping most likely had a religious meaning  as bulls played a significant role in the Minoan religion.  Bull leaping could have started as a presentation of the process of domesticating a bull and showing the skill required to separate the bull from the herd.  Eventualy bull leaping evolved into more of an entertaning performance event that was performed by trained men and woman alike.  (Mahalingam S. 2010)

Bull Leaping

Ancient Greece, Rome & Byzantium

In ancient Greece acrobatics, juggling and feats of strength or skill were performed in town squares, palace courtyards or indoors.  In ancient Rome and Byzantium the circular shaped stadiums/hippodromes are often accredited as the source of the word circus (krikos=ring) Some people such as Hippisley Coxe state that the Roman circus was only used for chariot and horse races , a claim which many other authors contest. Others mention that tight rope walking, juggling and acrobatics were also performed in the most famous Roman stadium the Circus Maximus.  (New World Encyclopedia 2009, n.d., n.d., Kazhdan A. et al 1982)