History of Circus: From Ancient Roots to Controversial Sensation

Throughout history, the word “circus” has meant many things. Yet, from violent spectacles to ethical abuse, it was all in the name of entertainment.

Apr 23, 2023By Marianne Plasse, BA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art History
history of circus
Performers with Buff Bill’s Circus, 1910-1911, via Rare Historical Photos


Picture this: in a small town in 19th century America, a train stops at the station, whistling smoke with a rumbling steam engine. Out disembark a troupe of acrobats, knife throwers, lions, and elephants, all clad in colorful costumes. The circus has arrived! For a short time, the town will host the circus, and its performers will delight young and old before packing up and continuing on their way throughout the country. The town is left behind as if nothing had ever happened.


This scene was well-known throughout the 19th century, especially in the United States. From their origins in ancient Rome to our modern times, circuses have thrived. The history of this strange institution was born from violence, and the journey was long to get to the ethical performances we know today.


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

Illustration of the Circus Maximus in Rome, as it might have appeared in Antiquity by Rocío Espin, via World History Encyclopedia


In ancient Rome, the word “circus” had a very different meaning than it does today. The Circus Maximus was the “oldest and largest public space in Rome” and, when it reached its largest dimensions during the 1st century CE, could allow two hundred and fifty thousand people to sit in its stands. Though it was most well-known as a racetrack for horse-drawn chariot racing, it also held the military processions for the Roman Games every September for fifteen days, “wild animal hunts, public executions and gladiator fights.” One such fight involved a small army of gladiators fighting twenty elephants at the same time.


Thus, it isn’t difficult to see where the inspiration for the modern circus comes from. The Circus Maximus was a place where animals and humans were pitted against one another for the spectacle of it all and to entertain audiences during festivals. However, these are the only similarities between the circus of ancient Rome and the modern circus, as we will see.


Phillip Astley: The Father of the Modern Circus

Interior view of Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre, 19th century, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Philip Astley is the father of the modern circus. Born in 1742 in Newcastle-under Lyme, England, Astley was the son of a cabinetmaker who did not follow in his footsteps. At twenty-six years old, Astley founded the Astley’s Riding School in London with his wife, Patty, where they both taught students and offered horse show performances. Musicians performed live music during those shows. The show also traveled to Paris, where the Astleys incorporated other acts “such as acrobats, a clown, and a band.”


What made these horse shows endure? It was their ability to entertain everyone, not only adults and children but also people from all social classes. Philip Astley’s show welcomed people from high society as well as lower-class people. These horse shows were the precursor to the modern circus and foretold what would make the modern circus so popular. It was entertainment for the masses at a time of great social divides.


The Royal Amphitheatre, lit with flaming candles at the time, burned down three times when Astley ran the shows. It was eventually bought by Andrew Ducrow, known as the “father of British circus equestrianism’.”


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

Charles Dibdin by Thomas Phillips, 1799, via Wikimedia Commons


While Philip Astley is the father of the modern circus, he wasn’t the one who coined the term. That honor goes to his contemporary, Charles Dibdin. Born in 1745 in Southampton, England, Charles Dibdin was dipped into the world of music at a young age. Dibdin sang in a choir at Winchester Cathedral for three years until 1759 and eventually became a music composer. He became a “composer, musician, dramatist, novelist and actor.”


From 1782 and for the next two years, Charles Dibdin became the manager of the Royal Circus. This was the first modern use of the word “circus.” Located not far from Philip Astley’s Riding School, Charles Dibdin’s show also used horses, like the ones in Philip Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre. One was modeled after the other, but only one man can be called the one who coined the word “circus.”


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

G.T.R. Freight Train, 1899, via Our Ontario


During the 18th century, all performances that would eventually be associated with the circus, from traveling menageries to horse shows to acrobat acts, already existed. Menageries traveled across the country, and horse shows and acrobat acts delighted audiences in arenas. But it was only when these performances were brought together under the same roof that the modern circus was born.


The 19th century was a time of social upheaval, not only in performances but also in technology. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution was the last ingredient needed to create the traveling circus in its most popular form. The invention of the steam engine, which powered modern trains, changed everything. Technological advancements facilitated communication and transportation. The Industrial Revolution allowed the circus to hop from one city to another. Employees packed up the Big Tent and all the performers in boxes and crates, only to start all over again in the next town.


People, from owners to performers, may have created those spectacles. But without the technological advancements of the nineteenth century, the 19th-century circus as we know it would have never been as popular as it was during its heyday.


Barnum & Bailey: The Most Famous Circus in History

The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, P.T. Barnum and J.A. Bailey, 1899, via the Library of Congress


The most famous circus in all of 19th-century America was the Barnum and Bailey show. While one of its founders, Phineas Taylor Barnum, born in 1810, is the more well-known of the two, the circus could never have seen the light of day without his business partner, James Anthony Bailey, born in 1847.


Even before Bailey’s birth, Barnum was already a figure in the entertainment industry when he bought his American Museum. The “Greatest Show on Earth” as we know it wouldn’t find its footing until 1871 when all the ingredients that had made classic circus acts with freak shows and animal menageries were brought into one. Bailey, who grew up on circuses as a child, became part of the operations when he merged the circus he co-owned with James E. Cooper, the Cooper, Bailey & Company Circus, with that of Barnum’s in 1881. Thus, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was born.


Long after Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey died in 1906, the Greatest Show on Earth thrived for the following decades. The Ringling Brothers bought it for the hefty sum of four hundred thousand dollars after Baily’s death, and it remained one of the most prominent circuses of its time, even well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Freak Shows & A History of Ethics

Princess Lena Living Doll Show, 1900, via Sheffield University


Freak shows were a large part of circus life during the 19th century. Brought on the scene even before the circus, especially in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, they followed him across the country with his traveling Barnum and Bailey Circus. Freak shows were a way to entertain by mocking physical differences and exploiting and harassing performers within an environment of cheer and merry. Well-known “freaks” were, among others, conjoined twins, people with disabilities, and bearded women.


The freak shows in P.T. Barnum’s circus went in tandem with the animal tricks, the acrobats, and the horse show performers. They were part of a long Western tradition of exploiting exhibitions, such as the human zoos in Universal Expositions. Still, some of these “freak” performers earned fame and fortune through these exhibits. An example would be Charles Stratton, also known as “General Tom Thumb,” who was a performer with dwarfism part of P.T. Barnum’s circus.


Freak shows would remain popular in America until the 1940s, when the exploitative nature of these exhibitions came to light. They were then completely outlawed.


The 20th Century: Continuity & Decline

Bertram Mills’ Circus, 1949 – 50 season, Olympia, London, 1949, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


As the 19th century came to a close, the circus remained popular well into the new century. Though new forms of entertainment popped up during the 1920s, especially cinemas, circuses only had to reinvent themselves, abandoning their misinformed representations of foreign cultures in favor of aerial shows and other performances. The Great Depression brought the frenzy of the 1920s to a halt. At the time, many turned to circuses to find joy and happiness in their daily lives. Still, during the Second World War, circuses remained a comforting presence in people’s lives “when railroad shows traveled under the auspices of the Office of the Defense Transportation,” and circus owners advised their audiences to join in the war efforts.


But as the 1950s rolled around, the circus saw its decline. Televisions became the norm in American households and soon dethroned the circus as the most popular form of entertainment. Soon, only thirteen circuses remained, and as audiences shrank and performers unionized, showmen shrank their operations in sizes too, until the last few days of the Big Tents, when indoor venues replaced them in 1956.


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


As the Cold War split the world, the Civil Rights movement gained traction in America. Racist performances became increasingly criticized. The circus was seen for what it was: entertainment that exploited the suffering of others at a time when it was normalized. By the time animal rights activism was born in the 1970s, the modern circus had lost most of its appeal. By the early 1980s, ableist freak shows and sideshows were dismantled as well.


But as the modern circus saw its steadfast decline during the second half of the 20th century, it would eventually do what it did best: adapt.


Cirque du Soleil performers at the “Cl’s Totem” Dress Rehearsal at Citi Field on March 13, 2013 in New York City, 2013, via Time Magazine


In Baie-Saint-Paul, Québec during the 1980s, a group of performers delighted their audiences “by juggling, dancing, breathing fire and playing music.” Among those performers was a man named Guy Laliberté. As a child, Laliberté was taken to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (See Further Reading, Ian Halperin, p. 15) and grew avid of circus history as he dove into a biography on P.T. Barnum himself. In 1982, Laliberté participated with other performers in the holiday fair known as the Baie-Saint-Paul Fête Foraine, and this would be the start of his dream: to create the Cirque du Soleil, a circus on Québec soil.


Today, Cirque du Soleil has become one of the most well-known Québec companies worldwide and has delighted more than fifteen million spectacles to this day. Under Big Tents that can allow hundreds of people inside at a time, acrobats and performers wear elaborate costumes and delight audiences with their lavish shows. Cirque du Soleil travels all over the world and has a permanent residency in Las Vegas.


While the Cirque du Soleil can’t be called a circus in the traditional sense, as it has shed the trappings of 19th-century circuses, from animal shows to freak shows and sideshows, it has retained the primary goal of the modern circus: to entertain audiences of all social classes and all ages, young and old alike.


A Look Back at the History of the Circus

Poster advertising Billy Smart’s New World Circus, 1971, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The circus had a long journey from the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome to the Cirque du Soleil today. While the modern circus has shed the ethical issues dragging it down since the 19th century, it is still a place of entertainment, awe, and joy. Many men have paved the way for the circus, from Philip Astley to Charles Dibdin to P. T. Barnum and Guy Laliberté. Elephants, horses, and lions may no longer entertain in circuses, but those who remain are the performers who have found joy in their life’s work and have brought it to the public, far and wide.


Further Reading:


Halpering, Ian. Guy Laliberté: the fabulous life of the creator of Cirque du Soleil: a biography. Internet Archive, Montreal: Transit, 2009. Accessible online:

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By Marianne PlasseBA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art HistoryMarianne completed her bachelor's degree in History as well as an undergraduate certificate in Art History at the University of Montreal along with an undergraduate certificate in Proofreading at Laval University. Her areas of interest are the Mediterranean world during ancient times, European History from the fifteenth through to the twentieth centuries, and North American History from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. I have a soft spot for Greek mythology, Impressionist painting, Charlie Chaplin comedies, and comic book movies.